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Newcomers in the Classroom

Alberta teachers know it as a fact of life: Every year, more and more of their students are newcomers. This excellent article from Illuminate Magazine points out that one in five Canadians are new to Canada. It also quotes government stats that show many immigrant families are choosing to settle in Alberta and the other prairie provinces rather than major centres.

Teaching newcomer students presents a number of unique challenges. Newcomers may be struggling with English, depending on their age, which makes even the most basic instruction difficult. Fear and uncertainty about their new country may create alienation issues, resulting in poor participation and high dropout rates.

What’s more, sometimes the support teachers need to help these students is difficult or impossible to obtain. For example, the demand for ESL instruction in the classroom far outstrips the supply in some districts.

In its guide for teachers, the Society for Safe and Caring Schools and Communities lists a number of important factors teachers need to consider regarding their newcomer students. A few of them are:

  •  The country of origin’s history/political situation
  • Exposure to prior formal schooling
  • Parents’ educational background
  • Parents’ knowledge of English (or French)
  • The impact of leaving home

So how can teachers help newcomer students thrive, not only in their education but in their lives in general? As it turns out, schools may be the best portal to ease the passage of newcomer students and their families into their new Canadian lives. This article from Alberta Health has tips and resources for teachers, including links to other sites such as Alberta Settlement Services. (EDIT 2016-04-12: Site and link no longer available.)

In general, from the advice available, it appears that one of the most important things teachers can do for newcomer students is to foster an “atmosphere of acceptance”. This article on everythingESL.net talks about specific actions teachers can take in this direction.

For teachers interested in bringing the topic to their students, the John Howard Society of Alberta has some useful materials available for teachers on the topic of newcomers, including suggested classroom activities and some questions and answers intended to start classroom discussions.

There are certainly many challenges facing newcomers and their teachers, but with help and support, it is possible for teachers to help ease the transition into Canadian society, in part by schools and teachers acting as one of the key gateways for that transition, both for newcomer students and their families.