Founder of ESL Reads   EAL Teacher (Secondary)

10 Things you May Not Realise About Survivor Guilt and EAL/D Students

September 18, 2022 by Lauren Piovesan

I only started to understand survivor guilt in my fourth year working with young adult students from refugee backgrounds. These students would constantly ask me how they could get a job and how they could do these high level certificate courses (as they believed the courses would help them get an “easy” job!)

Annoyed at having to repeating myself, I began explaining the education system to them again. I stepped out their current learner levels and the length of time likely to reach these goals. Without fail, these conversations caused students confusion, disappointment and exacerbation as they tried to wrap their heads around it. “Just enjoy being at school and learning,” I would tell them.

What I didn’t realise at the time was the desperation behind these requests. For my students, getting a job and earning money was a NEED fuelled by the people and circumstances in their lives, as well as that pesky feeling of guilt. 

Why do our students feel this way?

Students and families that arrive in a new country ahead of their relatives can feel guilt for the safety, educational and material opportunities they have been afforded. Although my students were relieved and grateful to be safe and have new opportunities, this was often overshadowed by feeling guilty about their new lives. 

Students sent money back to relatives, friends or community members in their home countries, sometimes to the detriment of their own needs. 

Reasons for this varied but included:

  • Health issues.
  • Changing political or safety situations. 
  • Access to education. 
  • Bringing family members to their country. 

How does it impact your students & classroom?

I saw this play out in the following ways for my students: 

  • Disengagement from education as they prioritised employment.
  • Unethical and/or unlawful treatment in the workplace (cash jobs, not paying the minimum wage, working over the number of set hours, no reparation for overtime hours etc.)
  • Taking unsurmountable loans from loan sharks.
  • Participation in scams.
  • Going without clothes, food, items of comfort etc to save up money.
  • Applying for courses at RTOs that were notoriously “lenient” on their admission requirements.
  • Persistent anxiety resulting in continuous and often repetitive conversations about future pathways and educational progress.
  • An unrealistic understanding of their learner level, the time it takes to learn a language or to get a certain job.
  • Family/community pressure to move into high paying, gendered or jobs that were perceived to be “easy” (nurses, doctors, engineers, aged care etc).
  • Giving up hobbies or social events to further education, training or employment. 

As I begun to realise that there were much bigger issues at play for my students than just wanting to earn a bit of extra money, I started to take these requests more seriously.

How on Earth do you respond to this...?

My colleagues and I began to:

  • Refer students to career counsellors.
  • Look to engage them with services which helped students to find legitimate entry level jobs and coached them through the application process.
  • Look for opportunities within the school to help them become job ready and built this into our “Work Skills” and literacy programs (volunteering, shadowing school staff and assisting, having small leadership roles within group work).
  • Empower students with units around personal finance, job seeking and worker rights (which included teaching about loan sharks and scams).
  •  Show and expose students to the industries and workplaces they commonly mentioned through visits, research and interviews with workers.
  • Use an external tool (in our case this was BKSB) to measure their literacy and numeracy levels and explain learner levels. Data and numbers seems to make this clearer and more digestible for students. 
  • Build these goals into their Independent Learning Plans with clearly stated actions and steps to reaching employment.
  • Encourage help-seeking behaviours.

As an EAL/D teacher trained in English, learning about industry, rights, workplaces and services was a confusing and arduous process. However, I soon realised that no matter what we said to our students, this need was much greater than our words. Ultimately, the resourcefulness of our students meant that they would most likely secure the funds in one way or another. So I decided it was much better to work with them than against them on this one, which in turn, provided valuable learning for all.

I would love to know if you have had similar experiences with your students and how you have responded. Feel free to post a comment below to kick off this conversation! 

In the next blog, I will focus the topic of “Identity.” Look out for it on LinkedIn and Facebook.

*Please note: I am a teacher and am not in social services or mental health. What I write about in this post comes only from my observations and my students’ experiences across the 5 years that I have worked with them, which I communicate broadly here. 

Cover image courtesy of: https://www.flickr.com/photos/worldbank/25897513471/in/photostream/

2 thoughts on “10 Things You May Not Realise About Survivor Guilt and EAL/D Students”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, and providing such an excellent list of practical ways to help. I’m still sorry to see useless task sheets being used to ‘teach English’, when there are so many practical and authentic texts that can be used to educate in areas that both teach useful knowledge and skills, as well as English language

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