Teaching new arrivals, the right way

In Quebec’s pluralistic society, future educators need to be sensitive to student diversity and schools must try to get all learners to succeed, says UdeM’s Rola Koubeissy.

More than 30 per cent of Quebec primary and secondary school students are foreign-born, and the proportion is steadily growing, in urban centres and rural areas alike.

How should teaching methods be adjusted, adapted or improved to meet this diverse population’s wide range of needs?

"There’s no set recipe for effectively teaching in multicultural environments - it just doesn’t work that way," said Rola Koubeissy, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Adult Education of Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Education. "A one-size-fits-all solution could result in the folklorization of teaching practices. Above all, it’s a matter of being aware, being open and having the right attitude."

Koubeissy researches teaching and learning processes in environments with diverse student populations, with a focus on immigrant and refugee learners. In her view, creating culturally inclusive schools starts with helping teachers understand that having students with diverse backgrounds is valuable and enriching.

’Important to be sensitive’

"Above all’else, you have to be open to other cultures, be willing to consider their realities and recognize that their social codes, norms and customs may be different from your own," she said. "It’s also important to be sensitive to students’ migratory journey and understand that students are adapting to a whole new culture."

The process ultimately involves decentralization, she added: teachers need to put themselves in their students’ shoes and become aware of their own cultural filters. In short, teachers need to be flexible, respectful and have strong interpersonal skills. "Ethnocultural inclusion is a process of co-construction that develops through interactions with students, as well as their parents, other professionals within the school and key community organizations."

Pedagogical differentiation-that is, adjusting instruction to individual needs-is therefore essential in intercultural education, where diverse backgrounds are taken into account, Koubeissy noted. One example of where this approach is necessary is how the teacher perceives student language acquisition.

"Just because a student is struggling with French doesn’t mean they have trouble learning," Koubeissy said. "We need to support them with language acquisition, recognizing that it’s not just a technical skill, but also a cultural one. It’s what will allow them to effectively integrate into their new society."

At the same time, each student’s first language and culture of origin should be framed as equally valuable as those in their new community, she added.

Refugees need added support

Koubeissy believes that receiving social and emotional support from teachers is doubly important for refugees. "These people are involuntary immigrants," she noted. "Some may have been forced to leave. In addition to culture shock, they may have experienced trauma and loss."

As part of her efforts to develop training on refugee inclusion, Koubeissy is working with colleagues at Université du Québec à Montréal on developing a handbook for teaching students in times of crisis. Her recommendations are based on a recent study carried out among Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

"Once again, the key message is that teachers need to be made aware of the reality that these students face, be flexible in the practices that they use, and create healthy connections with parents," she said. "Schools must be safe environments. They should be places where students feel confident that they can get social and emotional support, and learn from instructors who care."