Running away – teaching refugee children

I keep thinking about my day at the Language School this week, and about young Sarah in particular. She is a Sudanese girl in the Upper Primary class, and she keeps running away from the music class.

Generally she runs away at the midpoint of the lesson, when the students get a short break to get a drink of water or use the toilet. She usually tells people – the teacher, or the other students – that she is ‘not coming back’.

Before that time, she is usually taking part in the lesson. Sometimes with a certain amount of light, friendly, unpressured persuasion from me and the teacher, at different times. This week, for example, when we were doing our instrumental work, I set her drum at her feet, and told her she could start playing whenever she wanted, or she could just listen. She listened attentively. I was playing a similar drum at the front of the group, and after a while, while I was speaking to the whole class, I went back to her, took her hand and brought her and her drum up the front to sit with me. “We’ll play together,” I suggested, and she joined in from that point. I felt like this was a good solution on my part, as it would have been hard for her (being proud and a bit stubborn) to join in of her own accord. I think she felt happy to be invited by me in a friendly and gentle way. She had been listening very well up to that point, and came with me very willingly.

But she still ran away at break – usually staying outside near the water taps, or standing in the corridor just outside the music room.

The class teacher went after her to bring her back. (This teacher is not in fact the regular class teacher, she takes the Upper Primary class for a lesson every second week. Sarah doesn’t run away when her regular teacher is there – at least, not in my experience. The children tend to be more settled with their regular teacher, in all of the classes. It makes it tough for teachers who only take them for a lesson once a week or so).

Sarah came back, but wouldn’t join in the music again. She sat on a chair and watched, absent-mindedly squeaking the chair beside her as she watched.

It started to drive me to distraction, the noise of the squeaking chair. I’m not very happy about how I dealt with this situation, though I know I was feeling a certain amount of pressure. This was our last music lesson before the class must perform their composition in a concert in a fortnight’s time, so I was very keen that they get through the piece in as focused a way as possible.

“Sarah,” I said more sharply. “We need you in the music. Come back to the drum.”

But she didn’t. The teacher and I exchanged a look.

I said, “If Sarah doesn’t want to do music, that is okay, but maybe she needs to go to another classroom while we finish working.”

“I think so,” agreed her teacher.

“Maybe she needs to go to Lower Primary,” I added.

“That sounds like a good idea,” said the teacher. Sarah didn’t say anything (as far as I can recall) and she and the teacher left the room.

It was a frustrating moment for both the teacher and I, but also I guess for Sarah. She would have felt ashamed to be sent to the class of younger children.

Teaching strategies

At lunchtime, I spoke with her regular class teacher about it. We were talking more generally, initially, about the expectations even this specialised school can have of the refugee children.

“When you see the pictures of where they been, those terrible camps, these children are traumatised. They are probably still traumatised,” said Alison, their regular class teacher. “It is too much for us to impose the cultural values of this country on them – it is too much for them to cope with sometimes.”

That week, Alison had been to a training day that specifically dealt with strategies for working with refugee children, and she was bursting with new ideas.

“We need to have a corner of one of the rooms, with bean bags and soft toys, where the children can go for…”

“Time out space,” I joined in, getting her train of thought.

“Yes, time-out. That’s what Sarah needed today. She didn’t need to be in trouble. I went to find her and she was crying. But it just escalated when really, something else was troubling her that she couldn’t express. It takes a lot more time than we allow for these kids to process their experiences.”

I told her about a tactic a wonderful teacher/principal at another school I had worked at, had developed. She had bought a beautiful big plush teddy bear, the size of a child. Children could have the bear to hold in the classroom whenever they wanted to cuddle something. She told me it had been wonderful – it was a comfort to the children who sought it out, but it also encouraged the children to be gentle. Through stroking and cuddling the bear, and projecting human qualities and needs onto it, they learned empathy and how to be gentle with other living things.

“That’s a great idea!” enthused Alison. “I’m going to buy a bear. A big one, as big as the children. I’ll do it this weekend.”

Poor Sarah. I felt bad, thinking about her crying while she sat in the Lower Primary classroom, feeling frustrated and unable to explain. I was disappointed in myself, that I had been cross with her, after having my small success with her and the drum earlier in the lesson. This job requires patience, no question. I didn’t hold onto my patience that day. I still feel bad. I want music to be enjoyable for all of the students, for it to be something they look forward to, and find relief in. I want to try to work out what Sarah finds so uncomfortable about the way we are doing music in her class.


4 comments so far

  1. simmone on

    i am sending you a big cuddly bear for right now 🙂 – don’t kill yrself – at least you worked out a way for if it happens again – that’s more than a lot of people would do (seems to me that all classrooms everywhere need that chill corner …)

  2. musicwork on

    Oh, I’m okay… not too much beating up going on. When I first started in this school I used to get impatient with things all the time. When I taught secondaries last year I found them frustrating sometimes too. But I am happy, and they are happier, when it all stays light and peaceful. It’s just better for all of us.

    But thanks for the bear! I don’t know why they are considered to be only for children! xx

  3. Bronwen McClelland on

    hey G
    it was a surprise to see this lesson written up and reflected on so soon after it happened. I had also wondered about whether if I’d reacted differently things might have been different?

    Would it have been helpful, for instance, if I’d tried harder to engage S in some aspect of the task, – or if I’d stayed outside with her the first time she ran away and tried to help her relax/calm down more before coming back in – or if I’d been able to just sit quietly with her in some part of the room?

    One of the things I find hardest about coming in once a week to teach on base is that, when kids are finding things tricky, what makes the biggest difference is the relationship they have with the teacher – and I’ve found it hard to build up a strong enough relationship in just an hour or 2 per week.

    I’m also aware when I’m in your class with you that I don’t want to interrupt or disrupt your rhythm by engaging in too much dialogue with S (or anyone who’s a bit off task) – especially since I come in half way and don’t know what’s been happening.

    When I’ve had kids like this in my own class, I’ve also been pretty frustrated at myself for times when I’ve reached my snapping point, (often for good reasons!) – but I have also found, that all the energy and good will that I’ve poured in at other times when the pressure’s not so great means that there’s something to fall back upon, and start working with the next time I see them.

    thanks, it’s good to explicitly think/reflect on this stuff – I should do it more often!

  4. Heatherpr on

    omg.. good work, bro

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