Teaching and learning from refugee students

Teaching to and learning from refugee students

Teaching and learning from refugee students in the USA showed me how much I had, and still have, to learn.

I’m a data person. I love charts. I love p-values (when they’re less than .05). I love taking a table of numbers and reorganizing it to tell a story, to change a mind, to inform.

High school math teacher felt like a good fit for me. I could play with numbers and trigonometric functions all day! I could share my excitement for patterns!

Instead, I came out from two years of teaching having learned more than I taught.

I learned that students are not just numbers. I could apply numbers to them:

  • I have three from Burma.
    I have four who were born in refugee camps.
    I have seven who can understand more than three languages (and that’s not even counting the language of mathematics).
    Their average age is 16.

The numbers didn’t help me understand, teach, or know the students. They’re not the students’ identities. Burmese refugees could be from many ethnic minority groups. Many students had a day they “thought” was their birth day or year, but it was more like an estimate. The students needed to be defined by their individual identities, their dreams, their style, their likes.

Teaching and learning from refugee students taught me to really look at the students. I can look in-depth at data and tests, but I needed to look at the people around me, too.

In my first year, I was determined to show no weakness or soft spots. I had a tough evening personally and came to school the next day, ready to stick to the lesson plan. One of my refugee students, a senior hoping to graduate, came over to me.

Him: “Are you having a bad day?”
Me: [Hesitating] “Yes, actually.” Inside, I was wondering if my eyes still looked red from crying.
Him: “Yeah, it’s because you have so many fly-aways.”

My hair? He knew I was having a bad day because my hair was frizzy? I could (and maybe should) acknowledge that moment as a lesson in hairstyling.

However, the more important lesson was the sensitivity and closeness with which the students watched their friends and me. Could I tell when a student was having a bad day? Could I sense when a panic attack was going to come? Not if I was turned to the chalkboard, my back to the students, my focus on the lesson plan.

I learned to slow down. I could coach the track team for sprint events and distance events, pretending that I could do the hurdles I was describing “if I wanted to.” At one of our first meets, one junior ran the 400-meter race for the first time. If you’re not familiar with the race, it is one full lap around the track. It is intended to be the longest of the sprint events, but it must be run at a slower pace than the 200 or 100. The student went out fast – too fast. He looked great for the first 100. He looked strong for the second. He looked tired for the third 100. He looked … like he might not make it through the fourth. He remembers me sitting next to him after the race, trying to share the concept of pacing. The 400 can be run faster if you don’t run your absolute max at the very beginning: pacing yourself is very important.

I spent time in class planning lessons and working through the materials and examples exactly as planned, to finish the content we needed, to get ready for the next test, to get ready for the next course. Was this the most important part of my refugee students’ lives? In all honesty, not really.

I learned so much more about culture, my values and upbringing, relationships, hardships, and individual students, when I slowed down.

When I set a pace that was appropriate to growing minds, bodies, and souls. When I slowed down, I saw the fly-aways and bad days. I saw the bonds between siblings. I saw the wisdom and inner strength that I never had to build as a high school student in Ohio. I saw the norms, and the exceptions to the norm.

I saw my students as individuals.

Teaching and learning from refugee students in the USA showed me how much I had, and still have, to learn.

In honor of World Refugee Day, USAHello collects stories of how refugees make our lives better.

USAHello believes newcomers make our country a better place. Refugee resettlement and immgration benefits us and our communities as well. These stories from individuals around the country show how knowing, teaching, working with, and perhaps most importantly, being friends with, refugees have improved the lives of Americans.

Refugees shaking hands

World Refugee Day June 20, 2017

Find events in your community and learn how you can celebrate World Refugee Day 2017.

About Julie Baker
Julie is a former high school math teacher. She manages the Education programs at USAHello. She has a Masters in Human Development & Family Science and has been trained in content area literacy, SIOP, and Capturing Kids' Hearts.