Diversity, School Community

New in School

In February of 2014, Esther Izarnotegui and her family stepped off an airplane from Lima, Peru, and into the teeth of the worst Ontario winter in years. “We came from our summer, and we had never seen snow or such extreme cold,” says Esther. “It was such a shock!”

I ask her two girls, Paula (13) and Elisa (nine) what that was like. “OHHHH!” they exclaim in unison. (The youngest child, seven-year-old Nicolas, was not at the interview.) “I was only ten,” says Paula. “I didn’t know what snow felt like so I just put my hands right in and picked up a big handful — with no gloves!”

“It felt like a slushy!” Elisa chimes in.

Esther’s English is good, with just a bit of hesitation over some words, and the girls chatter confidently. But that first winter, only Esther’s husband, Fernando, spoke more than a tiny bit of English.

As she tells their story, it becomes apparent that this family’s immigration experience was about as good as it gets. Unlike the Syrian refugee families we are welcoming now, Fernando had a job waiting for him and some work contacts who helped the family make arrangements. They had one family member who could communicate in English, and their kids had had a good start in school. Perhaps more important is the kindness Esther says she and her children have been met with, and the support of the local settlement agency, the New Canadians Centre (NCC).

And even so, it was hard. This, perhaps, is what we have to understand more deeply, with our imagination and empathy, not just our intellect, if we want to provide the best possible support for newcomer families. Learning how to live in a new country is very challenging. Sending your children into the hands of a school system you know nothing about and can barely communicate with is actually frightening.

Newcomer parents need more than just information – they need to feel assured of our care for their children in order to trust us to look after them when they are so vulnerable.

Starting school

The family arrived in the middle of our school year, so there was no time to lose in getting the children registered for school.

“People from my husband’s work had been helping us, and the next day after we arrived we went to the New Canadians Centre (NCC). They were waiting for us – that was awesome!” says Esther. “To have an institution like the NCC waiting for us and ready to help, it was such a relief.” Esther thinks for a moment, remembering.

“You feel, like, safe. The first thing that you think is, you are safe. So they helped us with starting school. There was a lady at the NCC who told us where to find the school. We went to the school and she was there, waiting for us! That was incredible. She introduced us to the people we were meeting there.”

With her husband pressed into service as translator, Esther was able to understand most of what was explained to the family. And then, another nice surprise: “That first day, it was only to meet the school and the teachers, but they took us to see each of the children’s classrooms – and in each class, they were waiting for my kids with signs and letters with their names on them. I came back feeling so much better!”

I ask the girls what their first weeks at school were like. “It was good,” says Paula. “I liked it a lot. Everyone was so nice.” Elisa nods in agreement. “Better than Peru, because there’s no homework until Grade 3.” When I ask if there’s anything in particular people at the school did that made it easier for them, Paula says, “They didn’t treat me like a baby, but they didn’t treat me like I knew everything already. They would explain things, and then they would ask if I understood.”

What worried her the most, she says, was making friends. “I was scared I was going to mess up my English and embarrass myself, so that made me feel shy.” But the teacher had some kids show Paula around the school and hang out with her at recess, and that was enough to get things rolling.

Esther says she didn’t realize it at the time, but there were some teachers at the school who knew some Spanish and were helping her kids. “At the end of the year I received a package with all my kids’ work, and there were notes in Spanish to my girls. That touched my heart!”

New school nerves

Esther says that having “people in the school waiting for us like that, that was the best” and went a long way toward making her feel more comfortable about sending her kids off the next day. “But even with that,” she confesses, “that first day of school I was here, and I was waiting, watching the clock. I was – you know, I was really nervous. The weather and the bus and them going by themselves, and you think, what if they need something or have a problem and they can’t say what’s wrong?”

Her biggest worry was her youngest child, Nicolas, who was just starting Kindergarten. Nico has autism, and up until two months before the move he had been nonverbal. “He had just started to speak some Spanish, and then we came here where it’s not the right language!” Esther shakes her head, remembering. “I knew my girls could tell me if there was something wrong at school, but the little one, who didn’t speak – that was hard.”

Esther and Fernando were able to meet with the teacher and tell her a lot about Nicolas and his needs. But I picture the parents I know with autistic children, and the anxiety they experience when their child starts school – a situation that is full of stressors for people with the sensitivities autism often entails: so many children, so much noise, unfamiliar surroundings and expectations. How much more difficult must it be when your child won’t understand the language around him?

Settling in

Of course, school is only part of settling in to a new country. In those early months when her English was very limited, Esther remembers feeling unsure of her welcome: “I was scared to go out on my own, even to rake leaves or shovel snow. You feel like you are not from here, and you feel that all the time inside you.” And the effort to understand and make yourself understood is exhausting: “I had migraines every day for one month, because it was so difficult. I would go out, and when I came back home, I had to go to bed for a while, and just – breathe.”

When I ask the family if there was anything more the school could have done to support them, or if they ran into any difficulties, they hesitate, and I wonder if they are reluctant to say anything against their new country. The girls talk about school subjects they had trouble with (“subtraction was so hard!”). Esther considers, and offers two valuable observations.“

For me, it was hard to keep in touch with the teachers, because of the language. I am the kind of mom who wants to know what they are doing in school so I can help at home. In Peru they had an agenda that said all what they were doing, but here their agenda was blank. So I couldn’t speak English and the agenda was blank and I really didn’t know anything about their school day. It’s hard to have a good connection with teachers when you can’t talk to them directly.”

Her other point is that new families continue to need help even after those intense few months. “Don’t forget that for us, everything is new for the whole [school] year. Even in June, it’s still our first June. They were really kind with us, but by the middle of the year, they figured we were OK.”

But the family still needed guidance around how the system works. Case in point: snow days. Nobody thought to tell this family from a country without snow how to check if the buses were running, so one day they struggled through knee-high snow to the bus stop, where they waited, and waited, and waited. Finally they concluded that they must have missed the bus, and walked all the way to the school – only to find it practically deserted. The family laughs about it now (“Oh, man – Peruvians in Canada!”) but I can picture myself pretty close to tears at the end of that long snowy walk, tired, sweaty, trailing three kids and completely confused.

The following year, they didn’t know what the procedure was for going back to school in September. “In Peru, you have to go and register your kids for school every year, fill out lots of forms, buy uniforms,” Esther explains. “Here, we didn’t know what we should be doing. We had to call the school to ask.”

And asking becomes difficult. “You start to feel, ‘I can’t ask for everything.’ You feel like you shouldn’t ask for help too often, like you should be doing things by yourself now. It’s always a little bit embarrassing.”

What can we learn from this family’s experience? I’m glad they had such a warm welcome, but we know that newcomer students may also encounter hostility, bullying, and racial slurs. As I write this, soon after the U.S. presidential election, there has been a worrying increase in these incidents. Fostering a welcoming and safe school climate for all students needs to be an ongoing priority.

The importance of staying in contact is another important lesson. Newcomer parents will not necessarily feel free to ask for information, or find it easy to express their concerns. Teachers and school leaders can take the initiative in finding ways to communicate regularly and ensure parents understand what’s going on at school.

And finally, the personal touches that Esther and her children so appreciated – being accompanied to the school by a settlement worker, the welcome prepared in the classrooms for each child – can be difficult to scale up when a school welcomes a hundred newcomers a year rather than a handful. Yet these are the gestures that reassure parents that their children will be cared for, not just taught.

As Esther puts it, “That kind of thing gave us hope that we can be part of this community, because they were trying to make us feel part of it. These good people around us, smiling to us, they made us feel confident in this place, and now, we can call this place home… our home.”


En Bref : Comment se vit l’arrivée à l’école de ses enfants dans un pays étranger dont ils ne connaissent même pas la langue? Dans cet article, une nouvelle Canadienne, Esther Izarnotegui, présente l’entrée à l’école de sa famille au Canada.

Photo: Wayne Eardley

First published in Education Canada, March 2017

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Holly Bennett

Holly Bennett

English Editor of Education Canada.

Holly Bennett is the English Editor of Education Canada.

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