Teaching with empathy

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Imagine waking up every day to the sound of gunshots. Now imagine losing multiple family members in one day.

An English language teacher writes about how teaching with empathy can create trusting relationships.

These things are the reality for many immigrants and refugee children who flee their home country, accompanied or unaccompanied, seeking a life without fear. Many look for asylum in the USA, where they end up attending American schools. They may speak very little to no English, presenting a challenge to their teachers who are often unprepared to handle the lack of  formal education and immense trauma these students carry with them. 

As an English as a New Language (ENL) teacher, I have had in my classroom many students who are eager to learn, but whose educational disadvantage and lack of family support make learning an arduous and long process. Therefore, it is critical that the teacher becomes an ally by offering the emotional support that immigrant students might not have outside of the classroom. As teachers, we can encourage them to become successful individuals in and outside the school. Teaching with emapthy is one of our most valuable tools.

Refugee and immigrant students are resilient by necessity, but they can also be vulnerable. No matter how hard we try, we will never understand the hardships that some of our immigrant students have faced.

As teachers, we should help our children achieve their goals through the gift of education.

Establishing an honest and strong bond with children who come from an unstable environment, and who may not have an adult figure to trust, is key to starting the journey toward academic success.

A few years ago, I had a student from Honduras who had been in the United States for about a year when he transferred to our district. He would be late or absent quite often, and we were not able to reach the family.

On most days, he would come to school with a smile on his face, but there were times when the uncertainty of the future would catch up with him. Even if I tried, I could not teach him any English those days.

Finally, I realized that I had to understand his fears in order to explain why coming to school was relevant when in reality he did not know if he would even be with us the next day.

The more we talked, the more I found out about his past … the lack of father figure, the loss of a sibling, the drug and alcohol abuse since he was five. Not to mention the practical obstacles – after he lost his first pair of glasses, they were never replaced.

All my efforts to teach him would have gone to waste had I not paid attention to his story, to the past who made him who he is today. That is the basis of teaching with empathy.

Some days I knew I had 100 percent of him, so learning was a success. Other days, the pain was greater than my words, so we took it easy, and he would work at his own pace. In one of our last conversations, right after an immigration appointment, he said he did not know whether or not he would remain in the USA, but even if he had to go back to Honduras, he would still succeed there, because not only he had learned English but he had learned what work ethic was from his teachers – something he will bring with him wherever he goes. He ended up transferring to another district over the summer, so I do not know exactly what happened to him afterward, but I know for sure that I have contributed, as best as I could, to him becoming a more educated citizen, wherever it may be.

Refugee and immigrant students learn best from the teachers they like. When working with immigrants and refugees, teaching with empathy is critical. 

Students must feel respected as human beings before they allow anyone to get closer. I am a strong believer that great things happen if we allow ourselves to rethink the bias and preconceived ideas that are ingrained in our lives. The classroom is the perfect stage for this transformation to happen.

You may find USAHello’s cultural background resources helpful for teaching with empathy.

Maeve Sanchez is an immigrant from Brazil and an ESL teacher in Montrose, New York.

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Resources for teachers and supporters

Sign up for our online professional development class or find cultural background information about refugees and asylum seekers – useful for professional educators and anyone who wants to support newcomer families.

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Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.