Developing belonging in refugee students—REACH at the Harvard Graduate School of Education


In our recorded conversation, Sue Marr (all student names are pseudonyms) shared her understanding of belonging in that she does not need to explain herself because teachers have already done the work to understand the cultural and religious backgrounds of their students and do not require students to do all the the work of training their teachers. Amora stressed the importance of being accepted and feeling safe. Fahim called the connection between students and teachers important for him. He believes that teachers should try to understand the daily life and difficulties of their students and be an active participant in helping students solve problems. I share some of the ways I have worked with my students to implement their suggestions.

Taking action in classrooms

An important step we take as educators is to educate ourselves. By learning about the history, culture, religion and traditions of our students, we reduce misunderstandings and improve communication. After some understanding gained from our own reading and research, we can seek a more concrete understanding of our students’ experiences by building authentic relationships with them and learning from them. We don’t want to interrogate or be questioned in unhealthy ways. Often students from a refugee background have experienced trauma and we don’t want to focus on their trauma. Rather than building relationships and establishing trust, I found it possible and productive to start asking open-ended questions. Some of the questions I have found particularly helpful include:

  • What surprised you when you moved to the US? (This gives students a chance to safely discuss the differences.)

  • What is one memory you have of growing up in ______? (A question like this is appropriate because it allows the student to determine what memory to share with you.)

  • What are some things you think I don’t know about your country/culture that you wish I knew? (By asking this question, you value your students, their experience, and their knowledge.)

  • What can I do to be a better teacher for you? (Your actions that follow this question are more important than the question itself.)

  • Do you need help outside of the classroom? (This gives us an opportunity to be a resource for students—perhaps they need help understanding a document they received in the mail, or they want to know how to access certain services.)

Together, as educators, we can transform the experience of refugee students in US public schools. This shift will occur as we develop a sense of community by developing belonging in our classrooms.

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of REACH or the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Developing belonging in refugee students—REACH at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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