A Call to All Teachers: Start the Dialogue on Refugees Now

A child sits under a tent with Syrian refugee women attending a class on family plannin
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SARA HUSSEIN A child sits under a tent with Syrian refugee women attending a class on family planning organised by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) at a makeshift camp by Taybeh village, in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, on November 15, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

In the middle of my first year as a teacher, I received a new student from Mexico. Her English wasn't perfect, but her work ethic, intelligence, and enthusiasm for learning more than made up for it. She quickly became a wonderful addition to my classroom.

But within a few months, I noticed a change. Her concentration diminished. The optimism disappeared. She consistently landed in detention for breaking class rules. Then one day, a razor blade fell out of her coat pocket during class. I immediately contacted the counselor, and later that day the decision was made to move her to a different school.

Afterwards, I discovered that her peers bullied her for being from Mexico. They would call her names and told her that she didn't deserve to be in the United States. Naturally, this sort of cruel treatment eroded her self-esteem.

Teachers know better than anyone that controversial political messages can and will make their way into the classroom. This is because students are like sponges; they absorb the messages pouring from their parents and the media. Of course, all sponges eventually release what they absorb, and school is usually the place for just that.

Unfortunately, many of these messages tend to be unkind and hateful, which was the case for my student from Mexico. The national conversation on undocumented immigrants often uses negative terms that describe them as illegal, a burden, or criminal. But when kids use these terms, they don't understand how harmful they actually are. As a result, some children must suffer through this hatred.

Now I could just blame this suffering on parents or the media, but it would be more productive to highlight the remarkable role that teachers can play on issues of discrimination.

You see, good teachers teach more than just their content; they teach civility as well. They teach the next generation how to interact with one another, even if they disagree politically. And as globalization continues, civility will become more crucial to teach since students will be confronted with a world outside of their own.

Recently, yet another dangerous message has entered the national discourse: that Syrian refugees are a threat to society.

The political messages on refugees border on many 'isms': racism, xenophobism, islamophobism, you name it. But another concern of mine is for the Syrian refugees who are already here. Since 2012, the United States has accepted thousands. Now, our country has become quite a scary place for Syrian refugees. It is likely that our schools are even scarier.

I can only imagine the negativity on refugees that has been absorbed by children already. This negativity will soon facilitate a climate suited for bullying--precisely what so many educators have worked so hard to combat. Teachers: it falls on you to redirect this unfounded fear.

I call on all teachers to start the dialogue on Syrian refugees in their classrooms. Ensure that this dialogue includes important themes of stigma, identity, and the effects of bullying. Allow this dialogue to occur in all grades, kinder through 12, and in every subject, from social studies to math. You can find lesson ideas all over the web. Here is a place for you to start.

Some teachers have probably had this conversation already, and that's fantastic. Just remember that students often need multiple classes for a lesson to truly sink in.

If you're a new teacher, this conversation will most likely feel awkward. But please don't let that stop you from starting this dialogue. Remember that you will make a difference if just one student leaves with a better sense of civility. And if that doesn't happen, just go back to the drawing board and try again.

And parents, I invite you to have this conversation as well. Teachers can always use the extra help at home.

Finally, don't make the mistake that I made. I regret that I never even attempted to facilitate a conversation like this during my first year. A thirty minute lesson could have been enough to alter the education experience for my student from Mexico.

So please, start the dialogue now before it's too late. Remember that a refugee could arrive in your classroom tomorrow without prior notice. If this happens, let's make sure that s/he gets the safe and welcoming learning environment that every child deserves.