Teaching Mixed Race Classes


by Katherine Reilly

Last night at the Refugee School of Athens, I was interviewed by a postgraduate student who asked me, how do we handle so many ‘different’ students of various ethnic backgrounds and cultures.

“Are your teaching methods effective? Is there any prejudice in class? Do students understand what you’re teaching them?” were some of the questions asked.

You’re probably thinking that my answer would be, “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” or maybe “love brings down all cultural barriers.” I admit both are true, however, there are also rules and guidelines we must follow in order to achieve harmony in class and help our students reach their full potential.

Learn about their Culture

I have mentioned this before in previous articles, and I’ll state it again. At the Sunday Immigrant/Refugee School of Athens, I myself have become a learner. Just as they are students and are trying to adapt to another lifestyle on a daily basis, it’s our obligation to learn a few things about them. Aspects of their religion, everyday habits, their traditional dishes and even some vocabulary.

Many of my students suffer from fatigue on a few occasions and can’t cope with the lesson as they are sometimes fasting during specific times of the year. They don’t even drink water which makes their progress sluggish. Teachers must be aware of this and not pressure them during lesson, nor should they think their students don’t understand them. Keep your teacher’s notes and plan a revision lesson. Trust me, all students will benefit from this in the upcoming lesson.

Teachers must also ask their students about customs, dishes and of course celebrations they have. Both the students and the teacher will develop a bond of understanding and mutual respect, as the teacher in turn will share his own cultural background with them.

Getting to know the language is not only mandatory, but a huge asset as well. Simple expressions such as ‘good job’, ‘thank you’ or salutations varying from ‘good morning’ and ‘goodnight’ to plain and simple ‘hi!’ will improve the mood of the classroom and inspire trust amongst both parties.

Teaching students who can’t even speak the language taught in class

This is a difficult one I admit, but of course manageable. Students who have just arrived need more attention than the rest. Teaching them separately is NOT RECOMMENDED. This will give the other students the impression that they are not part of the group and will instill prejudice.

The best way to help these students catch up, is to use a lot of visual material such as flash cards, posters, videos and adapt the lesson accordingly. If you say ‘egg’ in the classroom, students of different ethnic background might be confused. If you are holding a picture of one though, (or you can try to draw it on the board), the student will of course understand what you’re talking about and will try even harder to learn.


Asking your students for feedback also helps

Students of the Sunday Immigrant/Refugee School of Athens, have approached me and my fellow colleagues thanking us for devoting our energies to these teaching methods. We ask them in turn, if they understand what we’re teaching them. Some I admit are confused and we give them extra work in the form of photocopies or try a different approach. As teachers, we ourselves are also students and life-long learners. Getting feedback from our students not only helps us become better, but also allows our students to view us as peers, which in turn develops mutual respect for one another.

Explaining a few things during break or after lesson, won’t hurt anybody. It strengthens the bond of trust and respect between one another leading to a more harmonious environment in class.

Prejudice in class among students

Most of you might know that even if we gain all students’ trust, that doesn’t mean there might not be problems between students themselves. In the Sunday Immigrant/Refugee School of Athens, fortunately that’s not an issue. Students come here voluntarily to learn and improve themselves. People who have a thirst for knowledge also understand that we are all equal in class and that the first lesson a student must learn upon setting foot in a classroom is that EDUCATION=RESPECT.

If there is actually prejudice in class, a teacher has to set the rules from DAY ONE.

  • Everyone is a student in here. There is no hate towards one another.
  • We assist our fellow classmates who need it.
  • No taunting of each other and we never make fun of the weaker students.

Sounds simple? Of course not!

A teacher must make great efforts to be a leader, an inspiration and a living example of love. Inclusiveness must be achieved by assigning pair work, mutual activities, games, and the promotion of ALL CULTURES in class.

‘Hiding’ or avoiding to speak about a student’s cultural background is like hiding a secret. Secrets are considered bad.  That in turn will lead to prejudice. No, we’re not talking about personal secrets. However, being afraid of referring to general aspects of a student’s daily life, or why a classmate is wearing a ‘shayla’ is a mistake. Students must learn to respect each other’s beliefs, gender, ethnic and cultural background. Education which in turn leads to knowledge, is the key to achieving a balanced class of respect.

I hope my advice and experience helps you with your students. Just remember that the first rule of teaching is the promotion of love, respect and inclusiveness. If you follow this rule, you are already a successful teacher in my book.

Once again, I wish you all a harmonious and prosperous school year.

Happy teaching!

Katherine Reilly




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