A couple of years ago a student approached me after history class. Avoiding eye contact, he trembled a bit before speaking. His voice was shaking.
“I am sorry, teacher,” Armando began. “I could not finish my project. My parents were killed a couple days ago.”
I didn’t have to ask for details because those of us living on the U.S./ Mexican border already know. I have heard countless stories about family, friends and loved ones kidnapped or killed. They are victims of the drug cartel violence of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The city averages about eight killings per day. As a result, almost 180,000 people have taken refuge in El Paso, Texas.
Teaching in El Paso, I’ve met many students who have come to the United States and have experienced a trauma. Many have been in my class. I had to learn more about how to help my students. I read a lot to prepare myself for the complexity of this challenge.
Students like Armando bring fear, anger, terror and loneliness across the U.S. border. They are forced into a type of displacement or exile. The classroom can be a place for them to explore identity, rebuild trust and develop a new concept of home and belonging. But it will take a teacher willing to journey alongside the terrified child.
During my reading, I learned a lot from psychologist Carl Rogers. I think he provides teachers with the foundation to engage students with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Rogers outlined three strategies for working with students from diverse backgrounds: accepting them as individuals, creating a space to have honest conversations, and showing empathy. While Rogers didn’t address displacement specifically, these strategies go a long way in helping me create an environment in which I can support my students. In that safe space, we can work out many issues together.
The journey to this safe space begins with a conversation to assess the immediate needs. For Armando, it meant accommodating an alternate assignment and due date. It’s different for each student. Everyone has unique needs. Some students will never return to class or and say they need to drop the course.
But longer-term, teachers can help students like Armando trust themselves by offering opportunities to practice making choices. Start small, like giving a presentation assignment and letting students choose the medium. I give an assignment about careers. Each student researches a profession and what unique contributions they offer. They can present this as a PowerPoint, but here is where students have options. One girl made a movie of herself as a police officer. A boy wanted to be a pianist, so he played us a concert. Another girl wanted to be an artist and did drawings and paintings for the class. Other students have written poems, free-style raps or songs. Students build confidence, trust their instincts and acknowledge that they have control over some things in life by making these creative choices.
To continue building rapport, ask questions like, “What do you feel your options are?” This particular question can help students find sense when their world is in chaos.
Teachers must realize that any trauma may lead to other feelings of displacement and anxiety. Be ready to provide school or community resources that can assist in the healing process. A school psychologist may be a likely option, but also include the librarian who has books that can connect with students. Keep a list of movies, newspaper articles and songs that can connect with students and enhance their learning.
The challenges of engaging students with a degree of trauma or displacement prove a delicate and enigmatic process. It’s a partnership worth developing. Human beings are complex. We can create a relationship that is transformative. And transformation is what is needed to help students find some type of grounding.
Kazanjian is an adjunct professor in El Paso, Texas and a former high school history teacher.