Do you have refugees in your class? Do you work as a teacher trainer for refugee contexts? Or are you just interested in this major issue in the troubled world we live in?

Clare Furneaux

Whatever your reason for reading this article, I hope the following ideas are useful for you. They are the tip of an iceberg – see the end for some links/suggestions of reading to allow you to explore further.

Let’s begin by thinking about the needs of refugee learners in class. Our teaching methodology should do three things here:

  1. Make sure classrooms are safe spaces for refugee students (even if the wider community is not). Find out from your students, for example, what topics they are comfortable talking about.
  2. Promote mixing/social interaction in class, as some learners might be isolated outside it. Encourage group work, for instance - and across language groups, if relevant.
  3. Develop an inclusive pedagogy, where everyone is valued and helped to access the education on offer. This is particularly important when national students and refugee students are in the same classroom. Allow informal translation of instructions into mother tongue, for example, to make sure everyone understands what is going on.

Thinking about the profile of teachers of refugees, they should:

  • ideally be recruited from the same background as the refugees to allow shared identities;
  • be inducted into the background and rights of refugees if they are host country nationals;
  • comprise a gender balance, to give both boys and girls positive role models.

Now let’s turn to what teachers of refugees need to know about. If you are a teacher from a different background to your refugee students you should:

1. Find out about:

  • the educational experiences in your students’ countries of origin and of first asylum
  • the extent to which their schooling has been limited, disrupted or if they have had no schooling

2. Be aware that:

  • language is a barrier to schooling
  • your refugee students may have previously been taught in a range of languages without proficiency in any of them
  • the quality of education they may have received is probably low and uneven
  • they have faced forms of discrimination (i.e. bullying, hostility).

3. Recognise:

  • the importance of building a classroom community to support learning;
  • the implications of working with learners and families who have experienced trauma.

Let’s consider teacher education for refugee contexts – both initial and in-service.

Courses for teacher training and teacher professional development should be developed within the national context and should include:

  • Promotion of the move away from traditional teacher-fronted classes towards student-centred learning;
  • Encouragement of an evidence-based, positive view of multilingualism and literacy;
  • basic information about the effects of trauma on children’s emotional, social and cognitive development, and how this is likely to interact with learning and behaviour in school;
  • practical, uncomplicated advice for teachers on how best to support children who have experienced trauma, how to adapt standard teaching methods, and what they can do to help vulnerable children learn and develop their full potential.

Pre-service teacher education needs new curricula which:

  • include basic knowledge of the teaching profession: what we know about teaching and learning
  • include the capacity for applying knowledge in practice: how to teach
  • followed by knowledge of the subject area: what to teach
  • and develop understanding of multilingualism in refugee contexts: the role of language in learning.

All teachers also need training in appropriate psycho-social support for refugee pupils and their families.

This development of theoretical knowledge and practical skills then needs to be supplemented through on-going supervision and support to teachers. This could be provided in a range of ways, to individuals or groups of teachers, using skype, email or video conferences. Peer supervision may be viable in some schools.

For existing teachers:

  • Any change in expectations of teachers must be introduced carefully to ensure that teachers are not over-burdened.
  • They can also be supported to improve/develop traditional methods of language teaching, rather than being expected to adopt new pedagogies.

Let’s think about the role of existing training colleges and universities in developing teachers of refugees:

  1. Universities in countries with large numbers of refugees should get involved with teacher training for teachers in refugee contexts.
  2. Continuing professional development should be offered to teachers of refugees in contexts that are both formal (eg in local schools) and informal (eg volunteer-run classes in camps).
  3. New in-service teacher education provision can best be achieved through partnerships with institutions which:
  • have trainers who understand issues in working with refugees;
  • support teachers in implementing new curricula, in using new teaching methods and in enhancing the practical competencies of dealing with displaced learners, including lesson planning for diverse groups of learners and materials design.

Finally, we need to recognize the important of getting wider stakeholder approval.

Changes in teaching practices need buy-in from governments, NGOs, policymakers, principals and parents:

  • Outreach and the development of a shared educational vision with all educational stakeholders are crucial for success.
  • In addition, teachers and students alike should be involved in the co-construction of the curriculum.

Want to read more on this?

Kuchah, K. (ed.) & Shamim, F. (ed.) 2018. International Perspectives on Teaching English in Difficult Circumstances: Contexts, Challenges and possibilities. Basingstoke, U. K.: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mendenhall, M., Dryden-Peterson, S., Bartlett, L., Ndirangu, C., Imonje, R., Gakunga, D., Gichuhi, L., Nyagah, G., Okoth, U. and Tangelder, M., 2015. Quality education for refugees in Kenya: Pedagogy in urban Nairobi and Kakuma refugee camp settings.

Roxas, K. 2011. Creating communities working with refugee students in classrooms. Democracy & Education 19(2):1-8.

Szente, J., Hoot, J., Taylor, D. 2006. Responding to the special needs of refugee children: practical ideas for teachers. Early Childhood Education Journal 34(1):15-20.

UNICEF (2016). Language education and social cohesion (LESC) Initiative. UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office: Malaysia.


Multi Aid Programs (a Syrian-led NGO working in informal settlements in Lebanon) 

British Council. Innovations in English language teaching for migrants and refugees

Tes (formerly known as Times Educational Supplement) resources

UK National Union of Teachers includes the ‘Welcoming Refugee Children to your School’ guide  

UK Schools of Sanctuary project resources

Background to the 5 Language for Resilience blog pieces

In 2016, as part of the response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the British Council commissioned research on the role of language in enhancing the resilience of Syrian refugees and host communities. You can read that research here. The report identified 5 interconnected ways in which language is an essential component in enhancing the resilience of individuals, communities and institutions.

This year, those 5 interconnected principles have been investigated further by a team of researchers, academics and practitioners. As an insight into their research each has written a blog piece. Read these pieces by clicking on the links below:

Seven reasons for teachers to welcome home languages in education | Kerryn Dixon, Associate Professor, School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa (published on British Council Voices)

How language affects refugees’ abilities to access education, training and employment | Chris Sowton, University of Bath, UK 

How to address the effects of trauma in the English language classroom | Professor Shirley Reynolds, Director Charlie Waller Institute, School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, UK and Beverley Costa, CEO & Clinical Director of Mothertongue and founder of the Pasalo Project 

Language learning and social cohesion in a multicultural classroom with vulnerable learners | Mohammed Ateek, Research Associate, Birkbeck College University of London, UK

Developing teachers of refugees | Clare Furneaux, Teaching & Learning Dean/Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Reading, UK

If you are interested in finding out more about Language for Resilience you can:

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