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Supporting Newcomers and Overcoming Trauma with Dr. José Luis Zelaya

The unfortunate reality facing many newcomers in our classrooms is that they have experienced some form of trauma. Whether it is a result of violence or unrest in their home countries, dangerous journeys to reach the US, and/or emotional distress that migrant families often experience after reaching their destination, this trauma is likely to show up in the classroom.

Educators can help support their students by seeking out resources that provide insight into what migrant children may have experienced and what they need to thrive at school. Dr. José Luis Zelaya is well-versed in all of these issues - both personally and professionally. He fled Honduras at age 13 as an unaccompanied minor and ultimately excelled in academia and urban education studies in the United States. We had a chance to interview him on a recent episode of the Highest Aspirations podcast.

During our conversation, Dr. Zelaya shared his personal experiences growing up in San Pedro Sula, Honduras (known for being one of the most violent cities in the world), his difficulties adjusting to the US classroom environment, his identity as an English learner and a Dreamer and how those labels impacted his academic and professional journey, and more. 

We encourage you to listen to the full interview here or wherever you get your podcasts. In the meantime, here are a few key takeaways from our conversation.

Trauma often limits childrens’ ability to communicate and express themselves.

Dr. Zelaya explains the difficult transition many migrant students face: when children have internalized that they don’t deserve to be educated and experience violence regularly at school, it can be difficult to accept adults who are willing to help them and keep them safe. This is why it is so important for educators to get to know their students and learn about their lived experiences. 

Author and educational consultant Dr. Edith Treviño provides some great strategies that teachers can use for meeting newcomers where they are in this recent interview

Educators can empower newcomers to share their stories and experiences.

It is important that educators acknowledge that there is often a disconnect between themselves and their newcomers. As such, they may not be capable of fully understanding the experiences of a migrant child if they have not lived this first-hand. Educators should hold space for these students to use their voices when they feel comfortable. Rather than put unfair expectations on how students should be or act, they should allow them to share their own identities and experiences whenever possible.

Donna Neary, an ESL teacher and project-based learning expert, has accomplished this with newcomers in danger of not graduating on time through community partnerships and engaging curriculum that encourage students to bring their experiences into the classroom

Finding a community with those who share key parts of your identity can be an enormous source of support.

As Dr. Zelaya moved through the levels of academia, he struggled to feel that he belonged when so few people looked like him or had similar backgrounds. It was through building community with other English learners who had shared experiences that he found that voices from those systems of support could speak louder than his imposter syndrome. While these colleagues had much in common, they came from different backgrounds and in many cases spoke different languages.  

For actionable ideas on how to create communities with diverse newcomers and their families, check out our interview with Julie Allen, CEO of International Community School in Clarkston, GA.

During our conversation we mentioned the following books and resources:

Dr. Zelaya is a Dreamer born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University Department of Education and the CEO of Dr. Zelaya Educational Consulting LLC. At Texas A&M, Dr. Zelaya pursued a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies, a master’s in education in Curriculum and Instructions, and a Doctorate in Urban Education. 


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