Education Talks: Newly arrived migrant students in the classroom

How can schools adjust for the arrival of migrant students? What support do teachers need to make migrant students feel welcome? Barry van Driel, Secretary General of the International Association for Intercultural Education, gives answers to these questions and calls schools to develop the ethos of human rights.

I think the first thing that needs to be said about teachers is that they tend to be creative, they tend to care about their students, and I think those are the main assets of teachers, that they do care. They care about their teaching, they care about whether their teaching is having an impact on the students. So I think that it is something that we have to build on. They face tremendous challenges in the classroom. 

What support do teachers need most? 

I think one of the things that we see across Europe is that teachers too often feel like they are isolated. They feel like they are there, in front of the classroom, they are working with these students,  they encounter some problems and the minute they bring up issues such as religion, such as culture, they are on slippery ice at that point in time because they have not necessarily been trained in this. So that can be overwhelming.

There are also severe challenges with how to do this kind of work. Work that means working with students around their issues of identity, working with controversial issues.

How do you do that in 45 minutes?

So the only way really for teachers to deal with these kinds of issues is to work with other teachers, to have the full support of the school director and the school leadership and also to have the full support of any other stakeholders that are in the community when they want to address these kinds of issues.

How can schools adjust for the arrival of migrant students?

Schools are adjusting whether they like it or not. Schools that prefer to continue with the kind of education they have done in the past which is monocultural, which is using standard practice where teachers are lecturing the students, which are getting them to try to read through the national curriculum, are going to have a situation  where students with a migrant background whether it is first, second, or third generation, don't feel they belong. They don't recognise their history, they don't recognise their family's history. They don't recognise their own culture, their own language, their own religion.

Only about one-third of schools have an ethos of respect, an ethos of human rights. That is the starting point, meaning that the schools that have directors that really believe in this ethos of human rights, of respect for each other. It is much easier to implement change in those kinds of situations than if that ethos is not there.

How can teachers make migrant students feel welcome in their classrooms?

Create those conditions that the students feel safe, that they are willing to talk about who they are, their identity, their background and also to find ways... and that is also not easy to involve parents whether that is after school activities, whether that is in the assignments that the children get in the school, that they can go back into their homes, talk to the parents, talk to the grandparents and interview them and bring back that information into the schools.

Many teachers don't have a lot of experience in multicultural environments when they were growing up, so it is not natural for them. So this means that for many teachers, it is the willingness to open up and to try to have new experiences and those new experiences can be engaging a conversation with the students about who they are and their backgrounds and their identities, realising that they might not understand it completely and that is okay. For them to talk with the students, for them to interact and talk with the community, also realising, yes they might not understand everything they are hearing but the willingness at least to open up and to try to understand what is going on with these students, what their backgrounds are, what their needs are, and what the needs of the community are.

So it is more this act of listening that is so critical among teachers, and many teachers already have these skills and they already care so those are the things that are really critical.