By Fernando M. Reimers, Professor of the Practice of International Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

I write these notes on the flight back from Stockholm to Boston, having just participated in the Education International Refugee Education Conference (21-22 November 2016). 

A hands on conference, designed to provide shared knowledge, to engage in dialogue and to construct together actionable steps to advance the education of refugees, this gathering modeled the potential within reach of creating collective intelligence, by making explicit and visible what teachers, union leaders and other practitioners lready know, and together designing solutions based on that knowledge. 

This format led to valuable products, some of which I will summarize below, but also modeled for participants the ways in which unions and their partners can engage their membership in active and participatory processes of design thinking that help develop actionable plans and implementation strategies, moving the profession from understanding the challenge, to hope and clear action that can direct what to do on Monday morning.

Given the global nature of the Unions federated in Education International, the group that convened at the conference has the potential to become an improvement network, committing to the simultaneous implementation of the actions identified at the conference, with appropriate processes to evaluate their results so that these actions lead to rapid improvement cycles that expand the evidence base of which of these practices work best, in what context, for which children and at what cost.

The teaching profession sees with great moral clarity the need to step up and lead in advancing the education rights of refugees. Ideally in collaboration and with the support of governments, but ready to nudge and defy governments when this becomes necessary. 

Teachers and those leading their unions have the means to mobilize and make visible abundant professional knowledge about what are the relevant questions that need to be addressed in educating refugees, and to propose ways forward in addressing them. We can’t excuse inaction in lack of knowledge about what to do. 

Specific actionable steps to educate refugees effectively

In six workshops, the participants in the conference addressed some of the core questions and dilemmas in educating refugees. Those led to specific actionable steps which can now inform the development of specific national strategies and action plans. I summarize here the actions generated by two of those workshops, which I had the pleasure to facilitate.

The workshop supporting teachers addressed four interrelated topics:

a) How to address teacher shortages

The solutions proposed by this working group include short term measures to provide immediate relief to the unexpected demand for teachers, and long term measures that can help stabilize a system with adequate supply of teachers. These options consider essentially the situation of refugees who have already transitioned to host countries, and for whom the purpose of education is to support their integration into that society. The needs in settings which are transitional are likely to differ, and they were addressed by the next group in this workshop.

In the short term, the following options are proposed:

  • Develop multiple pathways into teaching, including opportunities for career switchers, with appropriate support so those entering the profession are adequately prepared.
  • Provide additional compensation to those teachers working with refugee students.
  • Provide extra support for students in high levels of need, which may require lower student teacher loads.

b) How to support teaching in refugee centers

This group focused on teaching in refugee centers and identified two key challenges, inadequate teaching facilities and shortages of adequately qualified teachers. This group developed the following recommendations:

  • Develop a supportive policy framework to accommodate voluntary teachers, contract teachers and casual teachers to accommodate the large demand for teachers in these settings and that allow the recruitment of more teachers and the integration of qualified refugee teachers.
  • Develop participatory processes in the camps with the involvement of key stakeholders, including refugee students, parents, teachers and support staff to identify needs and develop a contextually relevant strategy which mobilizes existing assets in the camp.
  • Map existing resources in the camp which can support education of refugee children, including space, personnel, opportunities for community partnerships and that recognize and build the agency of refugees themselves and empowers them. Adopt an appreciative inquiry mindset, loot for things that are positive and good in the setting.
  • Develop multidisciplinary approaches to teaching that enable teachers to teach out of field and across the curriculum.
  • Review the curriculum so that it is contextually relevant, helps students develop skills that empower them in that setting and build the resiliency for their continued journey until resettlement. Develop competency based curriculum that builds competencies for conflict resolution and peace building, vocational and technical skills, music and sports, life skills, including those that allow students to heal from the trauma experienced in their journey. 
  • Ensure availability of facilities, bathrooms, teaching materials, that can support effective deployment of the pedagogies mentioned above.
  • Give serious consideration to integrating refugee children into mainstream schools, rather than segregating them into schools for refugees in camps or otherwise.

c) How to provide effective professional development and support to teachers working with refugees

This group identified the following core competencies which teachers educating refugee students should attain:

  • Confidence and ability to teach in a multilingual and culturally diverse classroom.
  • Empathy with and high expectations for culturally and racially diverse students.
  • Capacity to foster the socio-emotional development of students who have been traumatized by conflict or by the experience of migration.
  • Versatility in the notions of inclusion and integration and the capacity to negotiate those goals with other key stakeholders and to translate those into effective curriculum and pedagogical practices.

The group proposed the following as actions that could help teachers gain those competencies:

  • A whole school approach to learning and teaching that includes children and parents.
  • Time for professional development and to share good practices
  • Effective parental involvement
  • Effective involvement of teacher unions with a focus on the development of effective pedagogies and effective teacher support.
  • Creating communities of learning, including using technology to document good pedagogical practices and to facilitate exchanges with teachers in schools bridging geographic distance.
  • Effective professional development for instruction in multilingual classrooms.
  • Continued professional development.

d) How to provide refugees who are teachers work opportunities.

The working group sees this option as a valuable asset based approach to address the shortage of teachers. Two barriers, however, need to be overcome: refugee teachers need to obtain the necessary qualifications to be accredited to teach in the host country, and they need to develop the language proficiency to be able to teach in that country. The goal of engaging refugee teachers should be to support them in a developmental trajectory that leads them to meet these two conditions. The following six actions can be deployed along that trajectory:

  • Having them teach in teams with host country teachers. They can in this way serve as cultural resources to communicate with refugees, while gaining valuable experience and support that allows them to professionalize.
  • Providing mentorship and support.
  • Hire them as teacher assistants, who work under the supervision of a fully accredited teacher. It is important to protect them from potential exploitation in relationships that stall their progress towards full qualification.
  • Create bespoke programs, competency based, that allow multiple pathways to gaining and demonstrating the necessary competencies to receive accreditation.
  • Involve teacher unions in the mobilization and development of this new teacher force.
  • Assist them in finding documents which accredit the education completed in the home country, so they can receive equivalencies when appropriate.


The workshop confronting the professional challenge addressed four interrelated topics. The first two pertain specifically to supporting refugee students, while the last two refer to the education of all students, refugees and non-refugees alike:

a) Supporting the development of host country language and values

In what way language development will be supported will depend on the policy framework and goals of the country. At a minimum, refugee children will be supported to gain the language of instruction of the host country. It would be desirable if they could also be supported to gain and maintain proficiency in their mother tongue, as this would expand the linguistic assets of the host country. Supportive actions for effective language development would include using teaching assistants with mother tongue for provisional support or maintenance.

Teachers need also to engage in frequent and effective dialogue with parents that can help them appreciate and communicate respect of the home culture and values, while helping the family navigate and access the codes of participation and power in the host country.

b) Personalization of instruction, using adaptive technologies

Personalization is a cornerstone of good education for all children, the most effective way to recognize that learners are individuals with unique interest, backgrounds and strengths. Given the heterogenous experiences and backgrounds of refugee children, personalization is especially needed to teach them. 

The group proposed three recommendations to achieve this:

  • Develop teacher capacities and appropriate assessment instruments that enable the development of an individualized learning plan for each refugee student;
  • Teacher autonomy and competency to support the language development of students in the mother tongue as well as language of the host country, the capacity to communicate through the common languages of music, sports.
  • A social and institutional context that provides teachers a community for learning, support and continuous improvement, with colleagues and members of the community, adequate support personnel, (such as social workers, psychologists and others) who can provide  holistic attention to the needs of refugees and make appropriate linkages with other agencies that can support the needs of their families.

c) Educating the whole child

In a world of increasing complexity and rapid change, education systems must help students develop a wide range of capabilities, not only cognitive, but also social and emotional. To achieve this, the curriculum needs to first explicitly name the competencies in these various domains that it aims to develop, and then map backwards the pedagogical sequences and instructional activities that will provide effective opportunities to develop those competencies. The following four activities were proposed to help students develop such curriculum and effective pedagogies:

  • Teach teaching. Restructure the work of teaching so it is collaborative, across subjects, project based, and deploying innovative pedagogies.
  • Teacher coaching. Use multiple modalities of professional development, not just short courses, which are common, but also coaching and mentoring, school based professional development, self studies, shadowing other teachers and team teaching.
  • Develop appropriate linkages for frequent interaction across teachers in various classrooms in various schools, and also between school staff and communities and other organizations of civil society, such as agencies that provide support services to students and their families.
  • Involve students actively in their own education, including in identifying learning needs and devising learning activities to meet those needs.

d) Advancing global citizenship Education

How refugee children integrate into host societies is contingent not only in what skills and competencies they themselves gain, but in how other members of the society think of them. Helping all students understand the common humanity they have with students from varied cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds, including refugees, is a goal of a cosmopolitan education in the 21st century. The group working on this topic formulated three recommendations:

  • Develop global citizenship curriculum across disciplines and at all grade levels which can support effective global citizenship. Different systems may follow diverse pathways to do this, some may adopt a national global citizenship curriculum, others may adopt national standards, others may create processes that invite the creation of multiple global citizenship curricula. 
  • Create a global citizenship portal with resources that can support initiatives across countries, and that enable and support cross-country exchange of experience and collaboration.
  • Develop appropriate linkages with academia, international development institutions, and other organizations that can support high quality global citizenship curriculum and professional development.