What would it take to support all students and be a part of their academic and social success? How can we advocate for our students? Isn’t education a tool for social justice? Around the world, students in the same classroom are not necessarily receiving the same learning opportunities. Teaching practices, assessment processes, curriculum delivery, as well as exclusive practices and racism, may in some measure deprive students of the support they need to develop their skills and competencies. How can teachers promote equity among their students? In a multi-ethnic context, teachers are called on to support immigrant and refugee students in their cultural, linguistic, and academic integration. Thus, teachers have to adjust their practices and adapt their actions to develop a supportive environment for all students, regardless of their culture. Considering this challenging context, our project, which takes place in Québec, the French-speaking province in Canada, aims to analyze stories of practice in which teachers were asked to narrate a situation they faced in class with an immigrant or refugee student. Two stories were chosen for analysis because of their potential to illustrate – through the teachers’ “conversation with the situation” process (Schön, 1987) – how they adapted their practices to improve learning opportunities for their students. The actions listed below could be used as tools for teachers’ professional development.
Stéphanie: Diversifying intervention strategies to support students
Stéphanie, a classroom teacher, has years of teaching experience in many schools in Québec. The story she narrated took place in a multi-ethnic, public French primary school located in Montréal. Stéphanie told the story of Mohamed, a newly arrived immigrant Grade 6 student who had not yet mastered French, the language of instruction. According to her, the student was experiencing a trauma. She said that he was “very closed and isolated, and going through emotional issues.” Academically, Stéphanie declared that “though Mohamed had difficulty in reading and writing, he didn’t have a specific learning disability.” Stéphanie stressed the importance of diversifying her intervention strategies to support her students in general, and for Mohamed specifically. To do this, she took four actions.
Understanding the students’ experiences
Stéphanie considered it important to understand the reality of her students and to bond with them in order to accompany them in their learning process. She said, “We have to do everything to understand where the difficulties of our students come from. I frequently ask them to tell me about themselves, their migratory journey and their mother tongue.” For her, this “may guide the intervention process.” In Mohamed’s case, she tried to get to know more about him and how he was doing in school. She believed that “he certainly has got emotional wounds.” She added that she understood that Mohamed was “a strong and able student in his native language and then, all of a sudden, had found himself failing in school here.” This awareness can help the teacher adjust her practices to address the student’s academic and emotional needs.
Taking actions that are rooted in the students’ cultures
Stéphanie valued her students’ backgrounds; she used tools that were anchored in their culture and language to support them. She asked Mohamed to write his texts in his original language: “I tried to value him in his native language, even if I was not sure of his competence. My goal was to reduce his cognitive load and give him the chance to demonstrate his writing skills.” She was also concerned about motivating him: “I told myself that by doing this, he would find this feeling of personal efficacy that is so important for motivation.” She also changed her practices to address his needs: “I realized that certain collaborative practices did not work for Mohamed, so I decided to work individually with him, and that worked,” she explained. “In reading practices, I used to break down the task for him and allowed him to work on his own and not in a team.” In this way, recognizing the student’s culture and language as an asset facilitates their integration process.
Stéphanie continued to work with Mohamed, believing that with the right support he would succeed: “I was sure that this student had everything he needed to succeed, even if his results at the start of the year were very weak,” she noted. Although his other teachers didn’t agree with her, she stuck to her decision to support him. She mentioned that “other teachers at the school believed that Mohammed had a behaviour and attitude problem.” She reported in her story that she believed, rather, that there was something that made him unhappy, and that he needed time. She talked to her colleagues in an effort to convince them: “I informed my colleagues about what he had experienced, and I asked them, by the same token, to be patient with him.”
Stéphanie acted to engage other stakeholders in supporting Mohamed. Not only did she collaborate with the school’s speech therapist in an attempt to facilitate the student’s learning process, but she also changed the usual practice: “Mohamed did not want to work individually with her. I think it was difficult for him to accept the fact that he needed individual help. So, we decided not to force him to work with her outside the classroom. When she came to the class, she offered help, but indirectly, which he accepted.” By respecting his feelings, Stéphanie created a safe emotional environment for Mohamed.
Maggie: Adjusting practices to adapt to a multi-ethnic context
Maggie, a music teacher, had been teaching music for seven years in mono-ethnic schools before moving to a multi-ethnic school context. When we interviewed her, she told us about a challenge she faced when she had just been transferred to a largely multi-ethnic public French primary school located in Montréal. This is the story of her mixed group of Grade 5/6 students, who were “very resistant to what I taught them.” She reported: “Whenever I entered this class, I encountered a kind of rebellion.” Maggie mentioned that of the class of 27 children, 25 were immigrant students. She admitted that she was “shocked” when she first saw this very large concentration of immigrant students. Music class, she found, didn’t “interest the students at all.” She added that she “felt some pressure as I was losing control.” Thus she decided to adjust her practices to adapt to the new situation. She also reported that this “was a big evolution” for her in her career, and described it as “making a great journey.” Our analysis of Maggie’s story revealed the actions she took and the changes she made in her own practice in response to students’ needs and interests:
Enlarging the “margin of manoeuvre”
As she was at the beginning of her career, Maggie disclosed that she “relied a lot on the school program.” She explained that she had “to teach the students to sing, create, and perform musical works.” Because of the students’ resistance, she decided to widen the scope of her lessons to include American music: “I told myself that young people liked it, but it didn’t really work with them,” she said. So she resolved to act differently to motivate them: “I decided to change my approach. I asked the students about the music they liked and what it meant to them.” She then went even further, by asking them to teach her the music. She stated that after many inducements, “they finally started to mobilize; they introduced me to their music, and the girls taught me how to dance. They were excited to do so.” She related this change in their attitude to her actions: “I realized that because I had chosen to open up to them, they started to be less defensive with me.” By the end of the year, Maggie was able to assess them: “This change didn’t stop me from evaluating them. I had covered my program, but in a different way. I remained the teacher and they, the students, while having a lot of fun,” she said. As noted, this adjustment didn’t prevent her from fulfilling her initial aim to meet the requirements of the program.
Maintaining a participative class environment
Maggie was concerned about engaging her students to create a positive class environment. She said: “It is important to maintain positive class management. We had to find what pleased them. For them, it was the pleasure of learning, and for me, the pleasure of teaching them in a participative class atmosphere.” This conviction led her to take action: “I really had to take a big step toward them to try to bring them toward me,” she recalled. Maggie noticed that the class environment became: “more pleasant and positive when she was more open.” As Anderson (2016) stated, students need to feel connected to the class to improve their learning. This is what Maggie did by giving them the choice and the voice to learn about the music they liked.
Developing a dialogue with the students
Maggie mentioned that it was really important for her to build the teacher-student relationship. She reported the necessity of “taking time to sit with the students for a chat.” She advised teachers to “ask your students to tell you about themselves and open up to them to get to know them better, be curious about what they like, ask them questions and tell them about you, too. This is how the bond is created. ” She insisted that the basis of everything is for the students to “feel that you are interested in them and that you are there for them. You must take the time to get to know each other, to share good times. I also think that you have to love your students. They feel it when we love them and then they don’t want to disappoint us. ” Developing such a dialogue helps teachers to understand students’ existing knowledge, situation, and problems (Kincheloe et al., 2011), so they can act effectively.
Meeting the others
Establishing a culture of equity necessitates a real adjustment, not only in practices but also in positions and beliefs. Maggie mentioned this in her story about herself and her students: “You had to go beyond their music, our music, or our values, their values. We managed to meet, but for that, I was the one who made the first move. It really changed the classroom environment.” She admitted that this shift in her practices and beliefs wasn’t a simple formula: “I knew I had to go through their culture, but I was afraid. I didn’t know their music. I was not sure how to do it. Then, I realized that I am not losing my identity, I am teaching.” She added that she “had to keep this attitude of openness.” She stressed the importance of integrating cultural elements from her students’ background. By doing so, Maggie reconstructed her professional and personal identity and her comfort with diversity grew.
Questioning yourself all the time
Teachers need to reflect on their practices and modify them according to the class context. As Maggie said, “I believe that as a teacher, I have to be able to analyze my actions.” She added, “This experience has changed the way I think about immigration and diversity. It allowed me to ask myself a lot of questions. I will never see diversity the same way again.” This subsequently has influenced her teaching: “It has changed the way I teach. I had to have a new approach by beginning to get to know the students, before introducing the program. When I [later] worked in another multi-ethnic school, I had a positive experience.” By the same token, Anderson (2016) stated that reflection is key to growing as a professional. This allows teachers to bridge the gap between their practice and their students’ needs.
THE NINE ACTIONS that emerged from the teachers’ stories of practice were the result of a lengthy process of inner negotiation and decisions teachers made in light of many contextual factors. Teaching for equity is a long journey. To make changes to their practices, teachers and educators must engage in a process of self-awareness. In this way, a school culture can be reconstructed that gives all students an equal opportunity to pursue their way.
1 Intervenir en contexte de diversité ethnoculturelle : se raconter. Un projet de reconstruction et de théorisation de récits de pratique d’enseignants, by G. Audet, G. Lafortune and M. Potvin (2018–2021), was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
Anderson, M. (2016). Learning to choose. Choosing to learn. ASCD.
Kincheloe, J., McLaren, P., & Steinberg, S. (2011). Critical pedagogy and qualitative approach. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (pp. 163–178). Sage Publications.
Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. Jossey Bass.