from toxic vat to melting pot

When I was eight years old, my middle-class Indian family and I migrated to the United States because my parents wanted their children to have the best education possible. Like the approximately one million immigrants who enter the U.S. every year, we came in search for something – and left many other things behind. As countries around the world grow increasingly xenophobic, education has an increasingly important role to play in not only dispelling these toxic sentiments but also fostering a culture that thrives in a world with blurring borders. Schools are where the mindset of the next generation are molded; when children find themselves in a classroom as culturally and linguistically diverse as the world, forming friendships that transcend these barriers, we uncover the truths of humanity. But if not navigated well, these same havens of truth and togetherness can turn into horrifying years of bullying and being an outsider to your own childhood – feelings that leave scars inside, turning laughter into fear and innocence into skepticism.


So the question arises: how should school systems handle the influx of immigrants, tapping the potential of each unique child with distinct needs, such that they foster success for not only the individual, but also the culture?


Of course, there is no “one” answer to this – the question is layered, nuanced, and complex, so the answer must be such as well. I don’t pretend to have the expertise to provide such an answer, but I can share my own experiences.


One of the key differentiators between migrants and locals is the language of comfort. Sometimes intelligence is masked beneath linguistic struggles, leading teachers to form damning opinions of otherwise capable students. According to John Hattie’s research, teacher-student relationships are one of the key determinants of student outcomes in a classroom. If true understanding of a migrant’s potential is hindered by their ability to communicate that potential, it can have a significant impact on their learning. For example, in the new OECD report, Immigrant Students at School: Easing the Journey towards Integration, authors Francesca Borgonovi and Mario Piacentini find that even after controlling for PISA scores, migrants were more likely to be held back a year in school.


There are a number of ways to bridge this gap. Awareness is a key aspect. When I started teaching in my second year in an under-resourced school in Mumbai, we had a new student named Aditya. He had gone to a school in his local village for the past couple of years and had many gaps in his educational background. Additionally, because his teachers themselves had not been fluent in English, he was far behind our class in his understanding of the instructional language. Initially, Aditya’s inability to comprehend my questions during class led me to believe he would require additional attention to learn.


Luckily, my students were much more perceptive than me. They translated questions for him, and he started raising his hand to answer. Every time, he would ask, “Can I say the answer in Hindi?” and when I nodded my assent, he would go on to perfectly describe the concepts I had only explicated in a different language. Both the other students and I quickly realized that despite linguistic barriers, Aditya could easily keep up with class material. As this belief cemented in my mind, I enthusiastically discussed his progress with my co-teachers. We built on each other’s perceptions and excitement, until every teacher and student who interacted with Aditya had a fair belief of his abilities, unmarred by the shadows of circumstance.


A number of practices can help avoid unfounded beliefs. If the teacher understands the student’s native language, students should be given a chance to learn in that language initially. Students should be encouraged to help each other (cooperative learning was also ranked to have a significant positive impact in Hattie’s research). Furthermore, I relied deeply on actions and visuals to communicate the concepts I was teaching as English was not the first language for any of my students. For example, when I taught them that lower altitudes tend to be warmer, we all bent down and pretended to feel hot. Then we climbed on top of the benches, wrapped our arms around ourselves, and shivered. While such explanations may seem simplistic, especially for a middle school classroom, action-driven learning helps the material stick in students’ minds – even for those who don’t face linguistic barriers.


That being said, this was a simple example of an inexperienced teacher stumbling into a startling realization. There were a couple of things that helped me: a cooperative classroom culture, a co-teaching team who focused on learning from each other, and an infrastructure within Teach for India (TFI) that encouraged us to identify and share actions that helped learning outcomes. The focus on continuous learning and the various structures available to facilitate it – program managers, city conferences, learning circles – was a key part of why an inexperienced teacher such as myself could achieve high outcomes while teaching in a second language for all the students. Despite making mistakes, I constantly learned from them and encouraged my students to do the same.


Borgonovi and Piacentini reached a similar conclusion in their research. They said, “Teachers and schools need to be provided with additional training and resources to be able to specifically tackle the challenges their students face.” A mind-set of continuous learning – for all the students and teachers – is a necessity to accommodate our new, in-flux environment. Systems would of course need to augment these mind-sets through training, resources, and collaborative learning spaces.


There is so much beauty in the potential of seamless integration and so much menace in the lack of it. There is no simple, elegant solution. But there is one thing that school systems, families, and countries cannot afford to do – and that is to ignore the issue entirely. It’s dangerous to calmly continue the practices that were created in the eighteenth century for largely homogenous, single-ethnicity schools. The task is by no means an easy one, and my experiences are not a perfect parallel.


And yet, to create the world for our children where the “content of their characters” is foremost, educational institutions must pave the path. Systems must change. Mind-sets must readjust. Children will learn.


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