The Benefits and Joys of Learning a New Language as a Teacher

There is always so much new learning we are encouraged to engage with as teachers – much of it with the specific aim of enhancing our pedagogical practice. And yes, it is critical that we expand our teaching repertoire – but it is also essential for us to pursue our own interests for our own mental health and well-being. Finding time to balance both personal and professional learning can be tough!

If you have been considering learning a new language for personal reasons but have struggled to make time because of a busy teaching schedule, you might want to consider the benefits learning a new language can have on your teaching practice. As an English language teacher with a passion for learning languages (or me, it has been Spanish, Tagalog, Portuguese, and Serbian), I can wholeheartedly say that the experiences have informed my teaching practice in so many ways.

Here is a list of some of the best reasons teachers should learn a new language, for both work and fun!

You’ll Better Understand the Multilingual English Language Learners in the Classroom

If you have ever wondered what you English language learners are experiencing as they learn in the classrooms you teach, there is nothing quite like actually being a language student. You will get a sense of what it feels like to decode a text or consume media with limited vocabulary, and which resources are comprehensible at different phases of language acquisition. Learning a new language can be an exercise in empathy, and will inform the way you approach instructing newcomer multilingual students.

You may even be surprised to find learn what resources work, and which do not. For example I am always amazed at how much new vocabulary and confidence I gain just by talking and listening to people who are communicating in the language I am trying to learn. Much information goes way over my head, and other times, if the conversation is going slow enough, I can hear the different verb tenses and familiar words. The takeaway for me as a teacher is that opportunities to talk are so important for multilingual students!

It’s Great to be Taught

As teachers, we often spend so much time planning and facilitating learning that we forget how great it is to be a student. Sitting back and letting someone else teach you feels shockingly luxurious! Imagine someone else planning learning experiences and doing all the photocopying while you get to sit in class and chat with classmates. It’s pretty amazing!

Being a student can also an incredible source of insight about different pedagogical strategies. One thing that surprised me in Spanish class, for example, was how hard it was to read a novel even though I was in the “Intermediate Advanced” class. The experience really made me see how important it is to offer a range of texts to students. I also realized how fun group work actually is, and how stressful it is to write a pen and paper exam. Entering a classroom as a student and being on the receiving end of learning activities, group work, and assessments just feels different as an educator.

Make Cultural Connections while Travelling

One of the best parts about being an educator are the summer months where we can not only prepare for the new school year ahead, but rest and make time to travel and explore. This is where having another language under your belt comes in handy: being able to communicate with locals in the countries you are visiting enriches your experience while also making exploration much easier. It is wonderful to be able to order exactly what you want in a restaurant, to understand directions, and to be more aware of your surroundings.

Travel is also a great way to immerse yourself in the language you are learning and truly accelerate your acquisition. You’ll get a sense of how quickly you can learn with spontaneous social interactions and having to use your language skills in practical, real-life situations.

Reconnect with Your Cultural Heritage

Like many second generation kids in Canada, I grew up in a multilingual home but developed a very limited ability to communicate in the language my parents and elders spoke. Taking online Tagalog classes with my kids has helped me to understand my relatives better and feel much more connected to my heritage. If you have a home language you want to learn more about, you may love how identity affirming and relevant it is to make the time to study it.

Develop a New Teaching Skillset

While it may sound farfetched in the beginning, it is certainly possible to develop a whole new set of teaching skills by learning another language. I was obsessed with learning Spanish as an additional language from a young age, and while I would never describe myself as fluent, I loved being able to teach the basics of Spanish to younger learners in weekend and after school international language programs. Making some extra income not only helped to fund my language learning hobby, but gave me some new teaching experiences I would not have had otherwise.

Set Your Personal Learning Goals

Your personal growth matters, and making the time to pursue your interests is truly a radical act of self-care when you are in a career that seems to constantly demand more of your time and mental energy. Whether it is learning a new language or learning any new skill, you can enrich yourself both personally and professionally. So don’t hold back on following your interests!

January Thoughts: On Practicing Self Care

As educators, I have always thought we have been rather blessed to have at least 2 New Year’s celebrations a year: the one that comes every September, and the one that comes every January 1st. For me, both of these days brings about a slew of self-care goals: to exercise more, eat better, cook more, be more social, or even look more “put together”. More often than not, I start strong, and regress just in time to reset for the next new year.

After years of cycling through all of my “new years” – and never really ever making any permanent lifestyle changes – it occurred to me that I wasn’t putting enough effort into my own self-care. In fact, I mistakenly believed that self care was something that would be instinctive, or simply happen without any expenditure of energy. What I have realized is that real self care comes with work.

This year has been exceptionally busy and Meg, the gym manager invited me to the dreaded new year fitness and nutrition challenge. The gym manager, a very young, fit and enthusiastic woman probably about half my age texted me with a flurry of fire and muscle arm emojis.

“Book the challenge! Commit! Are you in? Yassssss 🔥🔥🔥💪💪💪”

I honestly couldn’t picture myself cooking a whole other menu of food on top of what I was regularly preparing for my own family, all while regularly attending early morning workouts and of course, doing a full time job.

“You can do this. 🔥🔥💪💪Train insane or never change ayeeeee ☠️”

In that moment, I realized that there would never be an “ideal” time to embark on a lifestyle challenge. I had always wanted to clean up my diet and increase my fitness, but always made sure I was way too busy to ever do it in earnest. I had bought into a narrative in which I was the busy teacher-mom that was way too overburdened to do anything for myself. This narrative, I decided, needed to end.

I relented, said yes, and promptly scheduled my body scan so I could get the cold hard facts on what I specifically needed to improve.

Sure, I can book a vacation, a spa visit or an evening at a favourite restaurant and be practicing a version of self care where I feel I have carved out some “me time”. But these moments are fleeting, and end as soon as the bill is paid. These one-off events are fantastic, but do not bring any transformation. The kind of self care that brings lasting change means being consistent, and rethinking the way I approach my work as an educator.

As teachers, it is all too easy to throw ourselves into an endless workflow. In schools and school boards, there are always more things to do than people to do them. The key is knowing when to stop so you can have the energy to funnel to attempt manifesting your own personal goals.

You may be wondering, did I succeed? Did I indeed manifest?

To be honest, it is too early to tell. What I do know was that it was indeed liberating to simply stop answering emails, planning lessons, and reading yet another book on assessment to get to bed early enough to make a 5:45 am workout and make a protein smoothie. And if learning how to interrupt my endless workflow is the only thing that comes out of this whole experience, I will have achieved something truly transformational.

Enhancing Teacher Collaboration: a Guide for New Teachers (Part 2)

Strong teacher collaboration is intentional, organized, and grounded in norms of mutual respect, trust and professional relationships. And while collaboration can be fun and engaging, it can also require planning and at times, difficult conversations. Having a plan for collaboration is essential for ensuring that the time you and your team spend together is productive and efficient. 

Start by establishing why and when you will collaborate. In some cases, collaboration will take place during time allocated by your administrators during staff meetings or professional learning days. In other cases, you may want to carve out some time with your colleagues during a planning time or when the team is voluntarily available before or after school to focus on more practical matters, such as cross-curricular unit planning or planning for a specific group of students.

Make the most of your collaboration plan by establishing a clear outcome for the meeting – you or one of your colleagues may feel comfortable taking the lead on creating objectives, or as a team you can determine the objective through email or a casual conversation. Establish a timeframe and honour that time – don’t be afraid to refocus the group if the conversation goes off-topic, or remind the group when time is winding down. You might even mutually agree to assign these roles to each other if the group is big enough, just as you would with your students!

Finally, ensure there is time at the end of the meeting to plan next steps and possible follow-up meetings or emails. Keep everyone in the loop that should know what is happening: support teachers, DECEs, administrators, or even students and families.

Attributes of Strong Teacher Collaborators

To collaborate effectively with others, we also need to intentionally be good collaborators ourselves. Over the years, I’ve had opportunities to work with so many effective collaborators – and those who were not so effective – which made me realize how much I still had to improve myself.

In my current role, I have the unique privilege of seeing teams work together. What strikes me about the teams that work best are their ability to talk openly with one another, even when disagreements arise. They understand the importance of each other’s time, make an effort to ask questions about each other’s lives outside of school, and maintain a professional dialogue that is authentic and respectful. They prioritize their own well-being and that of their students, and understand that everyone plays a role in reaching successful outcomes for the school community.

Let’s explore some attributes of strong teacher collaborators.

Relationship Building

Good collaborators understand the importance of relationship building: establishing trust, getting to know your colleagues, and valuing the strengths they bring to the table. You are probably already building strong relationships with your colleagues without even realizing it – hallway conversations about your families, weekends, commutes, or shared interests are some small ways we build vital connections with others. When these personal connections are in place, it can be much easier engage in deeper professional discussions about teaching and assessment.

Growth Mindset

“Growth mindset” is a familiar term for many teachers, particularly in the context of math. It is important to bring the same growth mindset when we collaborate with other teachers. It is all too easy to get accustomed to our own way of doing things, especially when we see success. But there is also so much to learn, try, and explore, and many of your colleagues may have ways of managing their classroom or developing a learning activity that will enable you to enhance your practice.

Active Listening

It’s no secret that teachers like to talk, and as a teacher you may have been in situations with teachers where the talking never stops or people even start talking over each other! When collaborating, the act of listening actively and attentively is critical. Honour the ideas of your colleagues, ask follow up questions, and listen more. You might be surprised at how much you can discover about others and learn by being an engaged listener.


Don’t hesitate to be generous when you are collaborating. Be generous in your praise and encouragement where it is due, share your own knowledge, resources and ideas, and offer help when you have the time and resources. You will not only receive generosity in kind, but bring positive energy into your collaboration for strong professional relationships.

Ready for Hard Conversations

There will be times where discussions will lead to hard conversations. Sometimes you may be faced with someone that wants to confront, to question your statements, or simply is not interested in changing the way they work. It can feel challenging if not impossible to collaborate in a situation like this.

When you do find yourself in these conversations, stay focused on the work and utilize protocols for collaboration established by your school or board. If there is an agenda in place to guide the planning you are engaged in, use it keep the conversation moving. Keep in mind what matters most: that you are working together to optimize the learning environments of the students you teach.

Enhancing Teacher Collaboration: a Guide for New Teachers (Part 1)

Collaboration is a word used frequently by teachers: we expect our students to develop collaborative skills, and we are often placed in positions where it is essential to our work with colleagues. Building collaborative relationships, however, can be tough for teachers who are new to the profession or new to a school. It can be stressful to find your place with a new team and in an unfamiliar working environment. You may feel that it is better to simply observe, stay quiet, or ‘go with the flow.’ And while you should certainly take your time to get oriented in your surroundings, you may actually find that your work life will be much easier over the long run if you start collaborating as soon as possible.

Who you collaborate with will largely depend on the teaching role you have been assigned. For example, if you are a homeroom or classroom teacher, you will likely work most with other teachers that  also teach the same grade level, that support your class in areas like special education, ESL/ELD, or planning time subjects. Do you teach a subject like core French? You may find that you need to collaborate most with homeroom teachers and other French teachers in the building. By collaborating with teachers who work with the same students or in the same subjects, you can gather valuable insights on students or share content and strategies that you can use in your practice.

Getting Started with Collaboration

Strong teacher collaboration is intentional, organized, and grounded in norms of mutual respect, trust and professional relationships. Of course, friendships often emerge in the process, but it is certainly not a condition or an expectation. Though it may seem like introducing yourself and sharing details about your day is just ‘small talk’, these interactions form the basic foundations of a professional relationship that can evolve into productive collaborations as the school year unfolds. 

In most cases, opportunities to collaborate will be orchestrated and structured by your administrator or team lead. It is completely normal to start out feeling overwhelmed, shy, or unsure of what you want to say in these meetings, especially if you are a new teacher! Keep in mind that collaboration skills will not always come to us naturally. We become better collaborators by thinking critically about the way we interact and communicate with others in a professional context. 

When teachers plan for productive collaboration, and think critically about how to work more efficiently together, they can benefit from the expertise, resources, experiences, and strengths that they collectively bring to the workplace. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of collaboration, and how it can enhance the learning experiences of students. In the second part of this blog, we will explore some of the the attributes of strong teacher collaborators.

The Benefits of Teacher Collaboration

While it can be tempting as a new teacher to focus solely on your own planning and classroom, remember that collaboration is incredibly rewarding and can actually make your workflow much easier. Here are some of the best reasons to collaborate with your team.

1. Gather Important Information and Insights About Students

The students in your classroom are diverse with unique cultural, linguistic, and family backgrounds that you will want to know about so you can plan lessons that are relevant and responsive to their identities. Your colleagues will be able to share so many insights about the learners you teach, either because they taught them in previous years, work with them in activities like clubs or sports, or have access to information in their student profile or portrait. When you build collaborative relationships with your colleagues, you will find it much easier to get to know the students in your classroom.

2. Save Time on Planning Your Programs

There are so many demands on the day-to-day practice of a teacher, from assessment to classroom management to communicating with families. When you make time to collaborate with other teachers in your team, you can share lesson plans, resources, assessments, and other activities that you might otherwise have to research and plan. Thinking of planning a literature circle but cringe at the idea of reading through a stack of young adult novels? Divide and conquer the work with your team. Looking for a summative social studies assessment that will work for an emergent speaker of English? Your colleague may have something they have already used with success. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when you have so much experience and expertise at your fingertips.

3. Start a Co-Teaching and Co-Assessment Practice

Co-teaching and co-assessment are often overlooked when we collaborate, and can be the perfect way to take some of the the stress out of teaching while also having fun. Why not use your collaboration time to co-plan lessons and instructional cycles where you team teach a single group of students? There are many ways to do this: for example, you can try mixing classes into a large group, teaching a single part of a lesson while your colleague teaches the other, or having one colleague lead while the other circulates and assesses. 

4. Collaboration Makes Work more Fun

Teaching has its tough moments, and having the support and input of a colleague or team of colleagues can make the journey much more fun and rewarding. Collaboration is a great avenue to connect with your colleagues and simply enjoy the process of teamwork, sharing experiences, or just being with another group of adults!

Moving Forward

This is just a handful of the reasons you should make an effort to collaborate more with the teachers you work with. In the next article we will go into more detail about what it takes to be a strong teacher collaborators.

Strategies for Squeezing Professional Learning into your Day

It’s no secret that teachers are incredibly busy. From planning, assessing, managing classes, and volunteering to support sports teams and other school initiatives, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. And yet, with so many new and exciting approaches to teaching nearly every subject, you may also feel like you are missing out on ways to be more responsive to your students or more efficient in your work.

I remember the excitement of my first 5 years of teaching and wanting to sign up for every professional learning initiative possible, from social justice to anti-bullying and eco-friendly schools. By the end of it all, I was working way later than I wanted to and exhausted from the job. My marking piled up, my to-do list grew exponentially, and Sundays became a ‘prep’ day.  What I was doing was not sustainable.

What I have learned to do since those overwhelming and hectic years is to make my professional learning much more efficient and targeted. I prioritize what I know is important: an area of teaching I don’t feel 100% comfortable in, a goal that my board or school has, or an additional qualification that I need to take my career a step further. It may be a single thing that I focus my learning on, and I scale up or scale back depending on what is happening in my life at the moment. There will be times where all you can focus on is getting through the week or month, and that new book on assessment or pedagogy will have to wait. Educator-selected professional learning is always best – you know what you need, and what aligns with your interests and schedule.

It’s also healthy to remind yourself to honour the time it takes to learn and grow. A new practice or pedagogical skill I learn this year, for example, will make it into my teaching in the following year. Professional learning is a long game, and it takes time to incorporate a new strategy or new way of thinking meaningfully into practice.

Here are a few strategies that I have found very useful for squeezing new professional learning, even in a busy school year.

Watch a Presentation at Your Local or Board

There is something special about attending a live presentation from a guest speaker or expert. Good guest speakers are well versed in the art of communicating complex ideas clearly, know how to get their listeners engaged, and may even bring new perspectives from outside your local context. They will focus on the most important ideas in their area of expertise, and tailor it to the audience. Speaker sessions condense a whole lot of insight into a short period of time, and can be inspiring or even transformative.

Live, in-person workshops can also be high-impact, as you are learning with peers and sharing ideas in addition to receiving new ones. I recall attending a workshop on assessment and Growing Success at my local years ago, and using the knowledge and insights I gained from that one event long after it ended. The opportunity to network is also important: you can make long-lasting professional connections with colleagues from other schools you would not have met otherwise.

When these sessions take place after school, they usually finish by dinner time, and if they are virtual you can tune in while you do other things. The best format for professional learning, however, is always during the school day: it is important to honour the work that you are doing and the valuable time you have after school to prepare, fulfill personal commitments, or simply unwind.

Take Advantage of Audio

Is there a new education-related book you would love to read but simply don’t have the time for? A new practice you want to hear more about? There are so many great podcasts being released by educators that you can tune into using apps you likely already have on your phone. Audiobooks are also a great way to ‘read’ a book while taking a walk or commuting. Check to see if your board subscribes to an app like Destiny Discover: you may already have a professional audio library at your fingertips.

Start a Book Club

Book clubs are an amazing way to ‘divide and conquer’ a larger text. Bring a group of colleagues together, choose a text that relates to an area everyone is interested in, and assign each reader or pair of readers a chapter to ‘present’ at meetings. This way, if reading a whole book is too daunting you can get a sense of which parts are worthwhile. Of course, you can read the whole book if you prefer but when you are only responsible for one chapter the task is much more realistic. Book clubs are a really fun way to connect with colleagues and brainstorm ideas to improve teaching and learning in your school.

Join a Professional Learning Network

While social media certainly has its downsides, one of the great things is that you can follow authors, educators and administrators that share lesson ideas that you may find useful for your own practice. There are dozens of Facebook groups, Twitter threads, Instagram and Tiktok pages where you can see educators being creative and even sharing pedagogical strategies. Not sure where to start? Try searching a hashtag like #etfoeducators or #ontarioteachers that may lead you to some great accounts.

Attend a Conference or Workshop

While it can take a bit of paperwork to organize going to a conference, attending one can be a wonderful break from your regular routine. Conferences usually have influential keynote speakers, interactive breakout rooms, and are an easy way to network with professionals outside of your board. ETFO hosts amazing conferences and workshops for members throughout the year, and you can find great options in the fields of Edtech and literacy such as Reading for the Love of it. Who knows, maybe you will be inspired to share your own practices as a presenter one year!

Conference funding can typically be accessed through your local and possibly even through your board. Check with the treasurer at your local to find out what is available to members.

What is Translanguaging?

A few years ago I had the pleasure of welcoming Maryam (student’s actual name has been changed), a grade 8 newcomer student from Afghanistan. She had multiple years of interrupted schooling due to the political situation in her home country, and arrived in middle school speaking a very emergent level of English while being fluent and literate in Pashto and Urdu. At the time, I was working as an ESL/ELD teacher in the school, supporting all classes in the school with programming for English Language Learners. Her homeroom teacher raised the inevitable question: how do I program and assess a student with such unique needs?

One of the best ways to accommodate newcomer students with literacy and oral communication skills is to use translanguaging strategies. So what exactly is translanguaging?

Translanguaging, as academic and educator Ofelia Garcia states in EAL Journal, is “the act performed by bilinguals of accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize communicative potential.” Translanguaging is all about students using all of their linguistic resources to explore new learning, making connections with prior knowledge, and communicating their knowledge and lived experiences. It is asset-based and honours the rich linguistic resources multilingual learners bring to the classroom.

Sure – there are moments during instruction where accuracy, concision and proficiency in English will be the focus. But translanguaging practices should be encouraged in areas where the work is content-based. Language acquisition is a journey, and learning should always be accessible no matter what part of that journey a student is on.

How Can I use Translanguaging in the Classroom?

Start by creating a translanguaging-friendly learning space by encouraging students’ use of home languages at the start of the year. Take a language survey to find out what students are speaking at home and with friends and relatives, who has literacy skills in a different language, or who is taking heritage language classes. Once you know the linguistic and cultural assets students are bringing to the classroom, you will also be better equipped to be more culturally responsive. Keep multilingual dictionaries in students’ languages in the classroom, or teach a lesson on how to use digital translation tools like Microsoft Translate, Google Translate, or SayHi. Show students how to set multilingual captions on sites like Youtube. While students may find that digital translations are not always accurate, they can help students who are in the earlier steps of English language acquisition to understand new content.

Use multilingual word walls, media, signs, and posters in your school’s or class’s top languages. If you are multilingual, model translanguaging by communicating with students that also speak the same language. Pair same language speaking students strategically in seating plans or group work. Once multilingualism is seen as an asset and a norm in the learning environment, you can start to see translanguaging occur organically in academic and social contexts.

Translanguaging from Instruction to Assessment

Embed translanguaging throughout your teaching cycle, from instruction to assessment. Encourage multilingual language learners (MLs) to take notes in their home language and/or English during class: it is common for newcomer students think that they are only allowed to use English in class, which should never be the case. Offer multilingual content whenever possible, encouraging the use of subtitles when video content is being shared. When labeling diagrams or visuals, MLs can have the option of using multiple languages, which helps to build critical academic vocabulary for content based subjects.

Text sets are another great way to scaffold and differentiate learning in content-based areas like Science, History, or Geography. To create a text set, gather a set of materials related to one area of learning that enable students to engage with the content in different ways. For example, text set might include similarly themed articles at different reading levels, content in languages used by students in the classroom, related diagrams and photos, photos, and links to different sites and videos. Creating text sets can take time – team up with other teachers to create different sets you can use throughout the year or a teaching cycle.

Finally, offer students opportunities to complete summative learning tasks or assignments in the language or languages they feel most confident using in addition to English. When students with more confident in their first language have the opportunity to use it in school, it can be empowering and create an opportunity for families to engage with their child’s learning. If you do not speak the same language as the student, you can ask a colleague who does to help with assessment, or ask the student to complete a secondary task to translate their work using dictionaries and translators. Make sure your rubric and success criteria are adapted to reflect the curriculum expectations and the student’s STEP: keep in mind that their learning goals may be different from that of their non-ELL peers.

Interested in taking a more detailed look at using multiple languages in your teaching? Check out Classroom Assessment in Multiple Languages (2021, Corwin Press)  by Margo Gottlieb for a comprehensive guide. There are so many ways for multilingual students to share their knowledge beyond writing and speaking in English. Once you identify the best strategies for enabling MLs to express their ideas and learning, you will see their growth and confidence flourish.

Why Representation Matters in Your Teaching Practice

Growing in Ontario as a second generation Filipino largely involved learning someone else’s histories and stories – voyageurs, cowboys, settlers, fur traders, and a whole slew of white protagonists. I didn’t know that I was missing any perspectives, and happily read my way through Shakespeare, Salinger and Austen, dreaming of studying English literature in university.

When I started teaching, I dutifully used whatever resources were provided, excitedly poring over the details of England’s glorious wars and conquests. I genuinely believed I was sharing alternative perspectives through ‘multicultural’ or ‘social justice’ texts written by white authors. I firmly subscribed to the idea that creative works of fiction could be viewed separately from an author’s lived experience, and that a text did not need to be questioned if it contained all the elements of ‘good’ storytelling.

Despite my best efforts to serve my diverse group of students, I was ultimately serving up the same perspective and worldview I had been raised with: Euro-centric, Western, and woefully one-sided.

Like many other educators over the last 5-10 years, I felt the need to decolonize my work and critically reflect on my own perspective. And while I am still largely on a journey to understand my own complex relationship with Canada and my family’s cultural ancestry, I am certain that we have the capacity and resources to ensure that the students we teach don’t have to be instilled with a worldview that undermines their own sense of identity by ignoring and devaluing their cultural assets.

Use Culturally Responsive Resources

Representation matters. When you don’t see yourself represented in the media you consume or what you learn in school, you can feel alienated from your own community or surroundings. Seeing yourself and your culture in what you learn is engaging, empowering and exciting.

Teachers today likely have access to the most diverse range of authors and stories in the history of publishing. Black, Indigenous, East Asian, South Asian, Latinx, Southeast Asian and 2SLGBTQ+ authors are writing some incredible books for kids and young adults. And no, you don’t have to read every young adult novel or picture book that hits the shelves of your local bookstore: ask the library resource, support staff or consultant in your school or board to suggest some titles, and divide the reading up with your teaching team. Build literature circles or reading units with the titles that reflect the range of identities of the students in your classroom, co-planning and co-teaching as much as possible to save time and energy.

Beyond language arts, there are so many ways to make your programming more culturally responsive and representative of the students you teach. Incorporate the voices and histories of different communities in your social studies, history, or geography teaching. Make independent research and inquiry a regular practice, scaffolding learning by providing prompts or ideas that encourage learners to discover different perspectives and to consume historical and social discourses critically.

If the class or classes you teach is monocultural, students will still benefit from learning diverse perspectives and narratives. Such texts can dispel stereotypes, enable students to develop a more balanced perspective of society, or spark interest and engagement.

Change Isn’t Easy

Doing the work of disrupting the way you teach is not easy and will certainly not happen overnight. It is easy to get triggered by ideas and perspectives that don’t align with the worldview you have held for much of your life. And it can feel onerous to invest time and energy into changing your program. So start with small changes: a new text or approach to assessment, tweaking your discussion questions to provoke a more critical discussion, or connect with other teachers that are intentionally changing their programming to be anti-racist and anti-oppressive.

The effort you place into making today’s learning environment a more inclusive place will pay off when you see students feeling seen, engaged and connected to the place they learn.

4 Ways to Welcome Students from Refugee Situations

Students that come from refugee situations are a unique group that differ from other newcomer students. Some may have fled their homes due to persecution and war. Others have endured long journeys through different countries, often without a clear destination. Some may have witnessed acts of violence against families and loved ones, or have been victims of abuse and torture. Many have experienced significant lapses in formal education.

Like other newcomer students, students from refugee situations will be experiencing the stressors of adjusting to a new country,  a new school, and learning a new language. Their families may also face systemic barriers like discrimination, Islamophobia and anti-Black racism.

It’s important for teachers to keep in mind that they already possess many teaching skills and strategies that will help these students feel safe and thrive in a new environment.

Let’s explore some ways teachers and staff can welcome and support students from refugee situations.

Learn the Background of the Student

When teachers know the backgrounds of newcomer students in their classes, they can determine appropriate program adaptations, understand their student’s unique circumstances,  and be better prepared to provide trauma-informed pedagogy if required.

What is the best way to get to know a newcomer student? If your board has an intake and initial assessment process, read through the report to get a sense of their background and a snapshot of their language, literacy and numeracy skills.

During class, ask the student to show you the places they have been on a map, or to show photos of their home country or city, using a translation tool if needed.

Invite students’ families to the schools and, if needed, enlist an interpreter to facilitate the meeting. Use the meeting as an opportunity to answer questions the family has about the school and education system in Ontario, and ask questions about their child’s educational background, interests, goals, and what language(s) they speak at home.

Support Learning Across Languages

Newcomer students with refugee backgrounds are often multilingual, arriving in Canada with oral communication and literacy skills in one or more languages. In many cases, these students will have emergent literacy skills due to interruptions in formal schooling.

Multilingual learners (MLs) will need program adaptations that will enable them to learn English, the language of instruction in their classroom, while also maintaining proficiency in the languages they already communicate with.

Providing opportunities for MLs to use the full range of their linguistic skills honours the cultural assets students bring to the school community, enables students to share their prior knowledge and experiences with their peers, and supports literacy development. Teachers can encourage students to ‘translanguage’ or use the full range of their linguistic repertoires by:

  • Informing the class/school community about the importance of home languages.
  • Making students’ languages visible in the classroom.
  • Making room for  home languages as part of the learning process.
  • Embracing languages, dialects and accents.
  • Providing access to multilingual resources.

Tools like Google Translate and Microsoft Translate support translanguaging and can be a lifeline for students who want to work alongside their peers.

Be Trauma Informed

Many students from refugee situations have experienced traumatic events, and that trauma may continue long after they arrive in Canada. Some students show many signs of trauma, some will show few signs, and some will show no signs of trauma at all. It’s important to keep in mind that as a teacher, you are not a therapist or a mental health professional that will treat the trauma symptoms of students.

You can be trauma-informed by becoming aware of the prevalence of trauma among students, what symptoms of trauma might look like, and how trauma can affect them. Creating a safe, supportive and regulated learning environment will be critical to supporting the transition of students with refugee backgrounds into the classroom.

To learn more about the signs that a student may be struggling with adjustment and trauma, and strategies for creating trauma-informed learning environments, please visit this page or check out this resource from the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Use the Steps to English Proficiency (STEP) Continua to Provide Appropriate Program Adaptations

Setting appropriate learning expectations for newcomer students who are emergent speakers of English is essential to supporting their success in school, and is mandated by ministry policy. The ESL or ELD Steps to English Proficiency (STEP) Continua is a Ministry developed resource that is very helpful for assessment and planning purposes.  STEP along with the Ontario Curriculum can be used alongside an initial assessment report (if available) and ongoing observations you have of the student.  Find out in your school and in your board what supports or staff or professional learning there is to guide and support programming for ELLs. Start by:

  • Determine whether the student will be placed on the ESL or ELD STEP Continua using recommendations from the initial assessment report and any other observations you have gathered about the student in class or communicating with the family. When a student in grades 3 or higher has had significant gaps or  interrupted learning, they should be placed on the ELD Continua.
  • Modify grade level curriculum expectations, when needed, using the appropriate STEP Continua. You may modify the depth and breadth of the learning expectation to provide the student with an entry point into the Ontario curriculum.
  • Support the student’s learning further by creating a culturally responsive learning environment and providing accommodations that facilitate English or French language acquisition. For example: use of visuals, translation tools, pairing with a peer that speaks the same language, multilingual instructions.

Your Work as a Teacher Matters

When you create a welcoming, safe and supportive environment for newcomer students, you are not just enhancing the learning environment, but playing a direct role in facilitating the success of some of the most vulnerable learners in the school community.