Image source:
Image source:

I attended my first PTA (Parent Teacher Association) meeting at my son’s school last week. The Chair had asked if I’d be interested in joining them to help execute a healthy food initiative for the students. I happily obliged because I’m a tad obsessed with food — the wholesome and tasty kind that’s kid approved. Anyway, I digress.

What struck me at this meeting was a new project directed at helping refugees, (particularly those who have fled from war torn countries), acclimate to their new community. The school is planning on raising a significant amount of funds to help them out, whether it be through financial or psychological support.

This got me thinking about the work we do as ESL instructors. During my ESL teacher training, a big part of the program focused on recognizing the students’ cultural backgrounds so that we could understand our students’ perspectives better and adjust our lessons accordingly.

Professional Boundaries

Now I’m wondering how we can best equip ourselves as educators with those who have experienced trauma and loss. They are no doubt dealing with so much, both emotionally and mentally. On top of it all, they have to learn a new language and integrate into society. Where do we draw the line between ESL teacher and social worker? How can we extend a hand without getting too involved in their personal lives?

The Power of  Now

Recently, a group of students I taught were affected by a terrible earthquake that had destroyed their village back home. It was all over the news here in Canada and simply couldn’t be avoided. I had no idea how to handle it. But luckily for me, my lead helped me understand how to deal with it. She told me that I wasn’t to mention the event unless the students brought it up, and to expect fewer if any students in class.

That advice helped me get through the day. I was still nervous because I didn’t know what emotional state to expect from my students, but being armed with my lead’s instructions definitely helped me get on with the lesson. In fact, I found that it helped the students forget about everything for those couple of hours.

Million Dollar Questions

What are we supposed to do when faced with such situations? My class had a horrific event affect them from a distance.  What about those who have lived it, having seen things and having had to deal with unimaginable suffering and traumatic circumstances? What do we do? With the increasing number of refugees around the world, including Canada, how do we prepare ourselves mentally when faced with these issues? Should we get special training or address this  at the next AGM? Are there resources already available to us that I may not be aware of? 

What experience or advice do you have on this issue?

Happy reading!



  1. It is very difficult to prepare yourself with dealing with these situations because they are all very different and touch each of our students in different ways. You brought up advice that you received from your lead which was ‘don’t bring up a sensitive situation unless the students discuss it first.’ This is a good motto to live by because often many students will not want to speak of their experiences or express emotions publicly in front of their classmates.
    The situation that you brought up about the earthquake is something that may have been on the news, and highly publicized, but it was also an event that was extremely isolated to one specific area in the world. When there are larger, more geographically extensive issues such as refugee crisis’, our jobs as educators is to educate. This can occur through fundraisers, an education campaign throughout the school or in our individual classes. If this is going to occur in your individual class, it is always best to consult with any ELLs who may be from those war-torn regions. There might be some sensitive issues that they do not want to discuss or be present for. Once permission is received, it is often best to use your students to educate the others on what is occurring in the country that they have fled from. These students are better at presenting an unbiased representation of the situation and they often reflect more on their positive experiences within the country which are often missing from the media.

  2. Such sound advice Manuela. Thank you for your input on this sensitive subject. What you said makes sense; depending on the situation, sometimes it’s best not to say anything and other times educating the students of what has happened/is happening is a great way to reach out to those affected and to show support through fundraisers and awareness etc. Thanks again for taking the time to comment, Manuela. Have a great day.

  3. I agree that you’re never really ready for this. As for me, I just try to stay in the moment and be authentic. I’m open, honest, and not afraid to show students my tears. I often find that it’s good to give space for emotions to surface in the classroom setting, but a good facilitator also knows how to gently steer things back on track after an appropriate amount of time. Then I seek out supports for the student dealing with aftereffects of trauma. We’re lucky enough to have a professional who can come into classes here in Windsor.

    1. That’s amazing, Kelly. It takes someone with true confidence to be able to share their feelings with their students and also know when to steer the conversation/topic back to the lesson. I applaud you for that and what you’re doing for your class. It must be nice to have a professional guiding the teachers in this sensitive matter; It takes the guess work right out. Thanks so much for your comment and hope your week is going well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *