Haiti: Understanding your students from Haiti and their cultural backgrounds

Haitian refugee students: Cultural background profiles

Photo by UNHCR
Photo by UNHCR

Haitian MapMany educators teaching diverse students report that they do not receive enough cultural background information on their students. If you are teaching refugee students, it is important to be aware of newcomers’ backgrounds.  The information below is meant to provide an overview of key highlights, so you develop culturally responsive teaching strategies that are in tune with your students’ unique learning styles.

Haitian Creole and French

Teaching in the Classroom
Educational opportunities in Haiti are among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere, with the literacy rate being just over 60%. Although the Haitian constitution mandates that children attend school from the ages of 6 to 12, lack of funding for education makes this impossible. About 60% of children drop out of school before receiving their primary education certificate. 90% of schools in Haiti are church or private schools.

The 2010 earthquake displaced at least 50% of the student population. After five years, many families still live in camps. The camps in Haiti have virtually no educational opportunities and are plagued by violent crime, malnutrition, and lack of basic necessities. The earthquake destroyed about a quarter of schools and many children were left with physical disabilities, which schools are unable to accommodate.

Both in and out of camps, parents are sometimes forced to act as educators, as some schools only admit children who can already read and write. When parents are unable to afford to send all children to school, they either focus on one child who is interested in academics or alternate which years the children get to attend school.

Informality in US classrooms may feel odd to Haitian students, who may treat elders very formally in their homes or communities. It is likely that Haitian children in the United States will have limited experience with the school system and that their level of education may be behind that of their peers. Supplemental classes and ESL courses will help them immensely.

Family/School Engagement
Teachers can greet Haitian parents by shaking hands, which is the standard greeting for all genders. Haitian parents will be very happy to have their children in school and will probably be receptive to suggestions and advice. Children are extremely valued, and parents do all they can to make sure they grow up in the best of circumstances.

Because poverty is omnipresent in Haiti, education is seen as a means to gain prosperity, but the parents of children in your classroom may not have had the chance to attend school themselves. Fewer than 20% of Haitian immigrants to the US have college degrees. They may be confused about how to interact with teachers and about how school days are structured. It would be advisable to take extra time to meet with them and explain the logistics of their children’s schooling as well as to immediately establish amicable relationships. It is important to keep in mind that many refugees do not know how to drive or lack access to a car, so transportation to school events will be a challenge even if parents want to be involved.

Since the Haitian concept of time is event-based, rather than based on punctuality, teachers would be advised to emphasize the importance of being on time to appointments and explain how tardiness may affect other families.

Culture, Gender and Family
Most Haitians live in multigenerational households. Manners are very important to Haitians and children are taught to respect their elders and greet visitors formally. Haitians may have several common law marriages throughout their lifetime and children born in separate unions regard each other as siblings. Although both the men and women contribute to childcare, it is typically the mother who brings children to school and does most of the childrearing. Haitian culture is patriarchal, but women are most commonly the ones running day-to-day operations in the home. Major family and financial decisions are made by men.

More than half of the Haitian population is malnourished and students may be surprised by the abundance of food in the US and may struggle with healthy eating.

Many Haitians practice Vodou, believing in the Supreme Creator, Bondye, typically making offerings to the spirit Loa, and participating in ceremonies of music and dance. Teachers should know that mainstream media depictions of Vodou are inaccurate and offensive. The spelling “Vodou” refers to to the distinct Haitian religion, which is distinct from the negative connotations and misconceptions of “voodoo.” It may be a good idea to teach a unit about Vodou. You can include Vodou in a broader unit on culture rather than asking students to share their beliefs, which may embarrass them. If students are comfortable, they can choose to share.

Additional Resources




IRC REFUGEE TEACHER PACKET http://www.rescue.org/sites/default/files/migrated/where/united_states_salt_lake_city_ut/refugee-backgrounders.pdf



Share your ideas

If you have comments or additional information or ideas to share on teaching Haitian students, please email: info@usahello.org.

Take our course for educators

If you would like more training on how to educate refugee and immigrant students, please consider enrolling in our course, Educating Refugee and Immigrant Students: An Online Course for Teachers.

Print this information as a PDF

You can download and print this Haitian learner profile as a PDF and keep it as a resource in your classroom.

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