Reflections On Teaching Refugees And Migrants

For the last four months I have been teaching refugees in the Education Centre founded by Giving For A Better Future, based at Khora, a non-hierarchical community center for refugees in Athens. Whilst I believe there is little you can do to really prepare yourself for the experience, I want to share with you my top tips on how to be a better educator. I will also explore what are the most effective teaching techniques based on the student's’ learning processes and psychological needs and discuss the challenges and benefits of working in a non-hierarchical environment.

 Tip 1) Create a student-centered lesson.

It soon became clear that students were, perhaps not surprisingly, more concerned about finding a place to stay or finding food for their children than about learning a new language. Yet they were also aware that learning English was the first step they needed to find employment and to give themselves a chance of a better future. With that in mind, I would say that the first tip is to become aware of your students situations, their past experiences and current living situation. That way you can create lessons driven by their needs and priorities. 

Tip 2) Use authentic materials. 

 It is vital that refugee students learn to communicate to be able to go about their everyday life and to be able to consider finding employment. Therefore, it is crucial to make use of authentic materials inside the classroom. These are reading texts that were written by native speakers and published in contexts designed specifically for native-speaker consumption, with no thought given to non-native accessibility. The topics, language, syntax, structure, etc., are all pitched at a target audience of native speakers and offered through media intended primarily for native speakers. Some teachers widened the definition to include videos, television programs, and any other sources of language – or anything that might stimulate language use.

Authentic materials stimulate conversation and develop students’ oral skills. Moreover, as many researchers have asserted authentic materials have a positive effect on learners’ motivation. During my time as a teacher for refugees  I have noticed that authentic materials offer students the opportunity to produce spoken as well as written discourse that are used in real world events. Additionally and most importantly, as Singleton (1989) stated, authentic materials have the ability to bring students one step closer to the culture of the target language, which is extremely useful especially to immigrant students not to become excluded from their new society.

Tip 3) Follow the Communication Language Teaching (CLT) Approach

The CLT Approach focuses on how to communicate correctly while using an appropriate selection of authentic material as part of the lesson practice. Even though the groups of students I teach are quite diverse in terms of their nationality, alphabet and literacy background, they all share the common need for employment as well as for practising communication in English, which is a lingua franca in order to discover their personal authentic voice within their new social environment (Roberts & Cooke, 2009). In that sense, I always give students time to have natural interaction in the classroom using role play about topics that they are interested in and issues they need to talk about, such as job interviews.

Tip 4) Think before introducing a new topic

Most of my students have often experienced traumatic experiences of war, torture or loss of family members. And so when choosing teaching materials or introducing new topics it is important to do so with care and sensitivity. If not you risk disrupting their capacity to concentrate or connect when discussing issues associated with such topics (Pitt, 2005).  However, educators can address issues such as religion, integration and culture by providing authentic texts that will stimulate in-depth discussion in which students and teachers are engaged. Those discussions can result in a powerful and productive oral activity in order for students to develop student critical thinking and understanding of alternative perspectives (Simpson and Whiteside, 2015).

Tip 5) Give time to your students

The priority in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classroom with migrants and refugees is student communication and language interaction. There are several ways to stimulate students’ talking, such as group discussion, pair work and role-playing. However I found that the more formal or structured teaching strategies, including dictation, learning rules by heart, teacher –focused lesson with limited communication time between students, were less effective, as they seem to cause anxiety or stress to students. Putting pressure on a learner to speak without feeling ready or safe creates discomfort that can affect confidence both within and outside the classroom. Giving students time to feel comfortable and to express their opinion is vital to the progress.

Tip 6) Promote a non-hierarchical environment in your classroom

The Education Centre founded by Giving For A Better Future that is based at Khora, a non-hierarchical community center for refugees in Athens. Decisions are shared and everyone has an equal say. It encourages students to be active members of the building by translating, assisting teachers, creating leaflets and providing feedback on the curricula. Students coming to the Education Centre not only aim to learn a new language but also to integrate in a new society. Where responsibilities and decisions are not only shared among the people working at the centre but also among the students, that is where miracles happen. 

To promote a non-hierarchical structure in my classroom I advise that desks are put in a π shape so the teacher in part of the classroom, sitting in the middle instead of sitting against the students. Also allow and encourage students input into every lesson and create lessons based on their needs instead of a standard curriculum. Finally of my students who have a greatknowledge of the English language are  “teacher assistants”, and they sometimes help to translate instructions or reflect questions that other students have shared with them.

And remember…

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”
Warsan Shire

Nikoleta Vernadaki, Teacher  



·      Guariento, W. and J. Morley. (2001). “Text and task authenticity in the EFL classroom”. ELT Journal 55/4: pp. 347-353

·      Hogan-Brun, G., Mar-Molinero, C. and Stevenson, P. (eds.) (2009) Discourses on language and integration: Critical perspectives on language testing regimes in Europe. Philadelphia: Benjamins, John Publishing Company.

·      Pitt, K. (2005) Debates in ESOL teaching and learning: Cultures, communities and classrooms. London, United Kingdom: Routledge Flamer.

·      Roberts, C. and M. Cooke (2009). “Authenticity in the adult ESOL classroom and beyond”. TESOL Quarterly 43/4: pp. 620-642

·      Simpson, J. and Whiteside, A. (eds.) (2015) Adult Language Education and Migration: Challenging Agendas in Policy and Practice. London: Routledge

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Arnaud Alain Rognon

Arnaud has several years experience working in senior sales and marketing roles across Europe. Working with international blue chip brands he specialises in developing excellent client relationships and business pipeline. Arnaud has been helping refugees in Europe for over a year and has previously worked with children who fled the Balkans war some years ago. His experience and expertise in logistics and planning will be used to oversee the operations of the organisation.