Care and Feeding

Our School Is About to Get an Influx of Refugees

What’s the best way to show my support?

A mother talks to her elementary school-aged daughter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by SirVectorr/iStock/Getty Images Plus and kokoroyuki/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I live in a location that is about to receive a number of refugee kids. I wonder if you can give me some tips on how to talk to my kids about it? And is there a way for me to advocate on their behalf for things in addition to the money that’s being collected to ensure they have access to clothes, materials, meals, etc.?

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My dad was the son of a refugee who fled famine and war at age seven and lost his entire family, and we actually never discussed it. We just glossed over the concept, and my memories of my grandfather do not suggest that this was the best tactic, but maybe at the time, it was the only tactic? My grandfather never wanted for stuff—the refugee community to which my grandfather belonged took care of that—but there was never any emotional or structural approach to the community trauma. Orphans like my grandfather were just sort of mainstreamed with their peers who were already “Americans” and sort of pushed to assimilate as quickly as possible into middle-class suburban life, at least externally. There was the sort of fake it ‘til you make it approach, I guess.

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That said, I get it’s not my place to call out someone else’s trauma either, especially if they don’t want to go there. Internally, I think it’s awful that these kids have lost out on a sense of security and that they may never get it back, but I also know that they will wake up and go through school each day and sustain some sort of normalcy because that’s how life works (if we’re lucky). So maybe faking it ‘til you make it is just the best way to survive until you hope the next generation does better?

Can you offer me any tips on how best to support these kids in our schools and be a good community member?

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—Helping Hands

Dear HH,

Thank you for thinking about this issue.

I definitely encourage you to talk about the refugees’ trauma… but to your kid, not to the refugees (unless they bring it up). Discuss what a privilege it is to feel safe in your own home or your own country. Let them know that many people have not felt and do not feel safe in this country. Encourage them to imagine what it’s like to leave your home with nothing but the clothes on your back. Ask them what they think it would take to make them do that. What I’m saying is, teach them empathy.

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As for the refugee kids, they are going to feel othered—probably for a long time. Do whatever you can do to include them in normal kid things. Have them over to play. Meet at the park. Take them to movies. Invite them to birthday parties.

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And, yes, ask about their culture. What food do they miss most? What is school like in their country? What holidays do they celebrate?

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If they offer up sad memories, tell them, “That sounds so hard.” Don’t offer platitudes; don’t even tell them it will get better. They probably won’t believe you. Just say, “We’re so glad to have you here,” and hope they feel it.

One more note: You mentioned in the beginning of your letter that you plan to collect money for the families’ material needs. Know that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Ask the local public schools what they’re doing and what support they need. In addition, there are established organizations in this realm with whom you might join forces. Search online or ask on your neighborhood listservs about local outfits, but two larger organizations are International Rescue Committee and Homes Not Borders.

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Whatever you do, it’s more than most. Thanks!

—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

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My husband found a great deal for a late winter vacation we’d love to be able to take. But it would cause my kindergartener to miss 7 or 8 days of school right at the beginning of the second semester. I don’t yet know what the school policy is about whether we can excuse these absences, but I’m on the fence regardless of the answer. I tend to be a rule follower. That said, we wouldn’t be able to afford the trip at a more conventional time. What should we do?

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—Fun to Be Had

Dear Fun to Be Had,

You should 100 percent take the vacation. Your child will in no way fall significantly behind their peers by missing 7-8 days of school. I understand your concern, but the memories and experiences your family will create and have together will be far more valuable to your child than anything they would learn during the week or two of school they would miss.

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One solution to ease your tension may be planning early. You could chat with your child’s teacher and ask to have any assignments or work ahead of time. This way you could work on them whenever you have down time on your vacation or while traveling. I sincerely hope your family takes the vacation; your child’s future self will almost certainly thank you for the memories.

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—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

I’m writing in about my partner, who has been teaching for about 15 years in a variety of alternative ed positions without a teaching certification. We are in New England. He joined a certification program last year (great benefits and pay, pension, union position—a strong sell) and has been teaching math in an underserved city in the region (Springfield, MA). He is absolutely miserable. The school is a hot mess in a variety of ways, the system is awful, his general Ed classes are 85 percent IEP and support is nonexistent. I’ve watched him become deeply depressed over the past year, and pretty hopeless, as I think many teachers are these days. He says he never wants to be in front of a classroom again, but he can’t think of any other options for a career. He would hopefully be able to find a position in a better funded district next fall, but no guarantees, and even the thought of that brings him no joy. Any ideas on how to channel decades of teaching experience into anything but teaching?

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—Disillusionment Aplenty

Dear Disillusionment,

This school year has been very difficult for teachers–I’m sorry your partner is feeling so disillusioned. While I’m sure it’s daunting to switch careers after teaching for so long, this is apparently an opportune time to switch careers. Many businesses are short-staffed and struggling to hire.

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He may consider education-adjacent industries, like ed tech, professional development, or curriculum writing. Test prep companies, tutoring services, and even nonprofits are also relevant. Or, he could look for a corporate gig doing training or talent development. And if he wants to leave education behind entirely, there are businesses eager to hire him right now. In fact, he may have an advantage by just showing up to the interview.

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His first job after leaving teaching doesn’t have to be a permanent switch. Anecdotally, I’ve known friends and colleagues who left teaching and spent the next year or two in a job that pays the bills, figuring out what they want their next career to be. If each day at school presents abject misery, right now he may just need a job that isn’t so hard on his heart, even if that job isn’t what he wants to spend the next 15 years doing.

I wish your partner good luck,

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

This is not a classroom question, but I figured you might have some resources: I have an 8-year-old who gets terribly motion sick on the school bus. Have you ever had (or heard of) a student who’s successfully dealt with this? We’ve tried moving seats, food before and after (and no food), sea bands, and various distraction techniques. We have not tried Dramamine—would it last all day?

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We have about 50 days left in the school year and my 8-year-old has to ride the bus before and after school (her three siblings also ride the bus but haven’t had the same issues). Next year the bell schedule will change so we can consider driving, but do you have any other suggestions for us to try besides “suck it up” for the rest of this year?

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—Sick of the Bus

Dear Sick,

Not suffering from motion sickness myself, I can only offer solution that I’ve watched students who experience motion sickness use in the past. During long bus rides on field trips to Boston and beyond, I’ve watched students don headphones and even a sleep mask to reduce the likeliness of motion sickness, explaining to me that a reduction in auditory and visual stimuli can help quite a bit. I’ve also had kids tell me that an open window helps them, and I’ve even had students take medication prior to long rides. Finally, have you discussed this with your pediatrician? It’s worth asking them about it, to rule out anything more serious than run-of-the-mill motion sickness.

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It’s also worth consulting your doctor about medication before you decide to use it. You’d need a doctor’s note anyway, if the school nurse were to give it to your child before they head home from school for the day. I hope this helps. I hate to think of a student starting every day off feeling sick from their ride to school.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?

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