As you scan your classroom or the halls of your school today, you may see some faces and hear some accented voices that stand out. A snatch of German or a few quick sentences of Chinese might pass between students in between classes. And these faces will look back at you from the desks of your classroom very intently but often quizzically as their minds work double-time to keep up with your teaching. You may be considering even at this moment how you can better support the international students who sit under your instruction.

About twelve years ago, we began opening our home to host international students. We have since hosted six students over the years, our most recent Chinese “daughter” having lived with us now for nearly five years (since she was twelve years old). Being Christian school educators and having five children of our own, we knew that our limited financial resources would make opportunities for international travel unlikely. It was our desire to broaden our family’s international experience by welcoming other cultures into our home. We thought, We may not be able to go, but why not bring the mission field to our home? Over the years, our kids have grown accustomed to the presence of the different cultures that all the students have brought with them. What a bundle of amazing experiences we’ve had, getting to know and seeking to understand the personalities and needs of each one!

But I’ll admit, as a host mom, English tutor, and homework helper for these international kids over the years, I have often wondered if our family and our school are supporting them well. What is it they are hoping to gain from an American education? What are their parents’ expectations and goals for their children? Why do they come here, specifically to our Christian school? Does our Christian school have the resources they need for what they hope to achieve? Perhaps you’re wondering these things as you glance up to see your students’ heads bent over their assignment. Am I truly reaching that student?

Painting with a very broad brush, here are a few things I’ve learned about these questions:

  • High quality education matters to these families. In many cases, these students have worked hard and studied much more intensely in their home countries than the students do in our own schools. They are often considered high-achieving students in a class of high achievers.
  • Parents want the best possible education for their children, and they feel strongly that exposure to America will strengthen their children’s chances of success at university as well as in their career.
  • Most international students know that the level of schoolwork is not as strenuous here in the states as it is in their home country. Many times they are well ahead of their grade level when it comes to content knowledge and skill. Their greatest challenge is mastering the content in English.
  • Many times, the students’ years of English study have been directed by a non-native English speaker, which can slightly skew their grasp of the language.

All this brings me to my point: How can we best support these international students in our classrooms? Let’s think about this in terms of the four statements I’ve just made.

First, we recognize our international families’ desire for high-quality education. As educators, that’s a given. We are constantly seeking to make our school’s instruction better and stronger and deeper – always looking for the highest quality. For us, that boils down to a key word: excellence. And that’s what the international families are seeking when they consider your school among the many options in the states. Ultimately, seeking excellence from our big-picture planning all the way down to the nitty-gritty of daily plans and routines will result in strong education and solidly founded students. International families want nothing less. But here’s a bit of good news: as faith-based schools, the motivating factor behind our excellence (all glory to God!) offers these international students more than they even know to look for. Students come to us seeing the stats about our success rate, and soon learn the Truth that drives us, and that’s a game-changer. As educators, our focus must be on our students’ need for strong academic instruction; but as faith-based educators, our focus must be infused with the constant desire to make Christ known.

Parents of our international students want the best possible education for their children. In most cases with the students we’ve hosted over the years, we’ve never met their parents (mostly because they themselves are not English-speakers), and as parents ourselves, we have often wondered about their decision to send their child to school so far out of their reach. We could hardly imagine doing the same with our own children! When we finally did get to meet an English-speaking mom of one of our students, it became clear to us that this is these parents’ way of loving their child in the best way they can think of: to ensure their child’s success by giving them a great education in America. We know that getting thrown into the midst of a class of our middle school or high school students is not easy, even for American kids. How much more challenging for international students! Yet, this is a major reason they’ve come, to be able to mingle with and become a part of American culture, while maintaining their own national and cultural identity. We can facilitate this by guiding our other students in how to care for them, encouraging discussion and non-offensive conversation. This is not easy, I know. Even in our own household, we’ve had to caution our children against saying things that may not seem offensive to us but can be easily misunderstood. As educators, it’s our job to draw these students out in our classrooms, encourage their questions, and affirm their efforts, helping them make the most of this opportunity.

While international students may be well ahead of other students their age when it comes to understanding content and skills in our classrooms, they may struggle to keep up with your teaching and their interactions with the content in the English language. Their brains are having to process at a much faster pace because they’re focusing on the content as well as translation. It’s admirable, really, what they have determined to do. But when they are in the midst of all the work, they can certainly become discouraged and weary. It is not uncommon to see international students’ grades suffer quite a lot at the beginning of their education in our schools because they’ve jumped in at the deep end and are barely keeping afloat. The reality is that generally speaking, our international students are striving to live up to some very high expectations, both from their parents and from themselves, and they will tend to be very hard on themselves when they see low grades. Being aware of their struggle is an important part of our role. In a classroom full of needy students, it’s not feasible to provide the focused help that a non-native speaker most likely needs. But if we can acknowledge their efforts and affirm their successes, however small, we go a long way toward boosting their confidence. And whenever it’s possible, let them be the experts in explaining their own culture; why not broaden the cultural understanding of the rest of the class?

International students come to the states from a varied background of English instruction. It immediately becomes obvious to us when we interact with them how confident they are with the language. And many times, their ability to speak and understand can be completely different from their lower ability to communicate in writing. Dealing with the language gap is perhaps too big of a topic to settle in this short space, but there are a couple things that we as educators must acknowledge: first, we will not be able to entirely pull down that mountain of language barrier in the brief time we’ve got these students in our classrooms. But second, we also cannot ignore the language issues we see. If these students will ever overcome the barrier, they must see how they need to grow. It’s important to acknowledge the weakness, point out the errors we see, and (when possible) give space for the student to practice correctly. Because grading their work can be overwhelming (both for you to do and for them to receive), you might consider using a different approach with their school work from your approach to the rest of your students’ work. This could mean focusing attention on one particular aspect of their speech and writing (such as correct verb tense usage) for a time, or it might mean reducing the grade deduction for writing errors.

As educators who seek to pursue excellence, when you consider the immensity of your calling, it may just seem easier to overlook the needs of the international students in your room. It is a heavy responsibility to teach and nurture these students who may not be able (or even willing) to express their real needs. But remember that they’re kids, under pressures we may not be fully aware of, and our role is to steadily and faithfully teach them, even if we must stumble through unusual strategies to reach them. How worthwhile it is, not only for the student, but also for ourselves, as we each are stretched beyond our present understanding!

Becki Goniea: As a Curriculum Trak support specialist, I enjoy guiding and helping school administrators and teachers as they work closely with their curriculum in an effort to further their school’s vision for education. I love using my own experience as an educator in a way that can encourage so many other educators.

Photo by Katerina Holmes