Redefining success for refugee students

refugee students

Our second cohort for the Educating Refugee & Immigrant Students online teacher-training graduate course brings together educators from all across the United States.

We’ve got educators participating from Alaska to Maryland and everywhere in between. Our participants bring with them a variety of life experience, some of them have lived for years in places such as Palestine and El Salvador, while others have lived their whole lives in the rural US. All of them have a deep respect for their immigrant and refugee students and want to be the best teachers possible.

Throughout the six-week course, our participants have been learning about the refugee experience from a variety of student viewpoints as well as exploring their own cultural assumptions and biases in the classroom.

Our “Refugee Resettlement” unit outlines the relocation process, diplomatic and legal hurdles, and resettlement supports and challenges that refugees face upon arrival in the US. It has been eye-opening for many of our participants.  

Teachers don’t always have a clear view of where their immigrant and refugee students are coming from, and yet they are expected to help them succeed in the US school system.  

One teacher, Tracey from Silverspring, Maryland, writes: “After reading about the process of resettlement, my view of ‘success’ for newcomer students in the classroom changed in that ‘success’ really can be seen as small victories in a variety of life areas, not just academics. For example, for a newcomer, navigating a city’s streets and transportation system and arriving to school daily and on time, is a success. For those of us who are not newcomers, this is an expectation that we take for granted.”

She continues, “Bringing back signed forms and permission slips that have not been translated into their home languages is a success because the student and parent had to work together to understand the contents of the form, and how to complete the form. This is something non-newcomers take for granted, and many teachers do not view as a challenge. In fact, not having forms returned is sometimes seen as ‘evidence’ of disinterested or uninvolved parents when language barriers and/or work schedules are the real reasons documents do not return to school.”

Teachers’ definition of success in the classroom greatly impacts the lifetime trajectory of refugee students’ education. A compassionate approach to education calls on us to redefine success in our classrooms.

The recent article from Peter Gray on his Psychology Today blog explores child-centered learning for a student-informed pedagogy, as we seek to rethink how children can best succeed in our classrooms. Even if that is only to celebrate the small successes. As Tracey continues: “When a newcomer makes friends, this is a success. So much had to be overcome in order for the friendship to form (e.g. possible cultural differences, language barriers, etc.) that it truly is an achievement.

In RCO’s 2016 survey, refugee students report that their teachers are great at helping them with their schoolwork but not as good at introducing them to other students or getting to know their families. This indicates that refugee students perceive their own success in a much more holistic fashion than the education system currently supports. Rather than imposing solely our educational standards for success, classroom teachers should help manifest the other essential life successes that allow our refugee students to transcend these standards, as well as their current limitations.

To conclude, as Tracey summarizes, “Learning about what newcomers have already faced getting to the U.S. and continue to face once in the U.S. has broadened yet also focused my definition of ‘success.’ I now see the successes that newcomer students have in all aspects of their lives, not just in academics. I also see how the ‘little’ things that non-newcomers take for granted are actually great accomplishments for newcomers. All of these successes are worthy of praise in the classroom, even if not directly related to academics because all of these challenges and successes affect the student’s learning when he/she is in school.”

In addition to the ERIS program, the RCO also offers free citizenship and GED courses for newcomers.

Refugees shaking hands

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