Know Your Immigrant Students to Maximize Learning for All
Srinivas Khedam, Ed.D
Assistant Director, Racial and Educational Justice Department, Northshore SD
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture, Managing Resources, Engaging Families & Communities
United States schools have become highly diverse in the last two to three decades. Students from diverse backgrounds bring many different aspects of their lives to their classroom, many of which are unknown to the schools. When educators know the many aspects immigrant students bring, they will be able serve them better. Building trust is critical as it creates a safe, inclusive, and welcoming learning environment. Knowing immigrant students and what they bring along with them is essential to building trust. Not knowing students and what they bring is a systemic and institutional issue that needs to be disrupted and dismantled. Migrating to a new country is a huge leap for adults and children. They often feel the pressure to adjust to a new way of life, surroundings, language, accent, food, cultural practices, norms, etiquettes, religion, environment, and many others. For some people the transition is easy, for others it is challenging, and for some others it is highly stressful and traumatic. Immigrant families face many challenges when they migrate to the United States and various places, from their home countries. Educational institutions should recognize these challenges that immigrant families face, work collaboratively with them to remove systemic barriers and support them with the transition.
Often, we think that students come to school only to learn, and they should just focus on that. The reality is that students have many other things to navigate when they come to school.
When moving from one place to another, people adjust to the new place differently based on their prior knowledge and experience. For example, some immigrants coming from cities may adjust differently than those coming from towns and villages because the experiences they bring with them are different. Immigrant students who are multilingual bring different perspectives to the new environments they are a part of and may need extra tiered support.
When immigrant students move to different countries from their countries of origin, they bring additional experiences with them. Some of them are listed below in Figure 1. We could certainly add many others to the list as we learn more about our students. Here are just some aspects that immigrant students bring along with them when they enter the classrooms. The list is created from the informal data that I gathered through my conversations with the immigrant families over two decades.
For example, people have misconceptions about each other’s culture, lifestyle, traditions, etc. Some individuals have a misconception that people of one race or ethnicity are biased, racist, unintelligent, and inferior. Others individuals have a misconception that certain practices used by people of some cultures are discriminatory. Some other individuals have a misconception about the religious practices of various communities. Such misconceptions are developed because of individuals’ lack of knowledge about other races and ethnicities. Often, we think that students come to school only to learn, and they should just focus on that. The reality is that students have many other things to navigate when they come to school. The experiences that students bring with them influence their learning. Students bring accents, traditions, food, biases, etc. along with them. Every minute of their time in the school, students try hard to adjust to all these things. We see multilingual students trying to catch up on the accent used by the teachers and peers during the class and outside the classroom. In the cafeteria, we see students forced to adjust to eat different types of food than what they eat in their home. We see students practicing new mannerisms which may be different than what they use in their culture. To build better relationships, mutual trust is important. Mutual trust is possible when individuals learn as much as possible about each other. Especially, knowledge about the above listed areas and others that educators might identify is very important to build relationships with students and their families. Once individuals trust each other, it creates space for learning, acceptance, respect, forgiveness, and many other aspects. Mutual trust between a teacher and student leads to effective teaching and learning. Undoubtedly, knowing student experiences in all the above areas is tough. However, educators and all those who work closely with students, must invest their time and energy to learn as much as possible about their students. When every educator knows who their students are and what they bring to the classroom, it creates an opportunity to support students better. Students should not be burdened to adjust to the new environment in schools by themselves. School districts should work collaboratively with educators and families to develop a transition plan for immigrant students, so that the many aspects they bring along with them will not be seen as barriers, but rather assets, to their learning. Furthermore, a transition plan should identify ways to maximize learning of all students and adults with the many aspects immigrant students bring along with them to the classroom. Such an effort by the school districts, in addition to reflecting on the systems change that needs to happen, will not only address the systemic issue of addressing the challenges that immigrant students face with their transition, but also create an inclusive environment in schools which transform their classrooms into racial and educationally just learning places.
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Washington Principal | Volume 2– 2021-22