British Columbia

Retired B.C. teacher back in classroom helping refugee teens

A retired teacher is volunteering her time in Burnaby to help teach English to refugee teenagers.

Patti Duggan volunteers to teach high school students English in Burnaby after school program

Patti Duggan volunteers her time to teach refugee high school students English. (CBC News)

A retired teacher in Burnaby is giving back to her community by volunteering to teach English to refugee high school students.

Patti Duggan has 37 years of experience — 25 years teaching ESL, and now, once a week, she teaches refugee teenagers in an after school program in the Burnaby School District. 

"I'm already seeing what they're getting out of it," said Duggan.

"Because I only see them one week at a time, I can see if we were counting words, how many more words they have this week than last week — they're just absorbing English at a phenomenal rate."

Many refugee teens experience large gaps in their formal education resulting in poor literacy skills. (CBC News)

For refugee children, language is often one of the biggest barriers to integration in the school system. 

And while there are regular ESL classes for newcomers during school hours, the urgency to learn English becomes more acute for teenagers, who only have a limited number of years in the school system. 

"With high school students it's different because when they start it's based on the year they're born and it doesn't matter what level they are in English or other subjects, it's strictly based on the year they're born," said settlement coordinator Natalya Khan.

"So when they come to school they're placed in grade 11 so at this moment you want to give them as much support as possible so that by the end of grade 12 they are able to accomplish as much as possible."

On Mondays after school, Duggan spends one hour teaching students English phrases and words.

Patti Duggan is a retired teacher with 37 years of experience. She is now volunteering to help refugee teens learn english after school in Burnaby. (CBC News)

 'I just love it. I love the kids'

"I'm having fun, I'm the one who's getting [something out of it]. I go home thinking about what I can do next week," said Duggan. 

"I just love it. I love the kids, I love the laughter, and these guys are great laughers."

The dozen or so students in her weekly class are from Syria and many have only been in the school system for a few months. 

Natalya Khan is the settlement coordinator at the Burnaby School District. She helped organize an after school English tutor program for refugee teens. (CBC News)

"Most of them come with educational gaps, they come from refugee camps, especially those who will start their school life in high schools, they will need as much support as possible so that they can graduate if possible from the high school and then continue their journey," said Natalya Khan. 

There are no tests, no marks and the teens say they feel relaxed in this environment.

"We spoke to the students and they love it. They think that this is very helpful and it helps them to feel more comfortable, when they go back to school tomorrow, they already feel more comfortable than the day before. and we think that this way we accomplished a lot."

The program will continue until the end of the school year. 

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Retired B.C. teacher back in classroom helping refugee teens


Bal Brach


Bal Brach is an award-winning reporter at CBC News Vancouver. She has worked in television, radio and online news across Canada for more than 15 years. Bal's storytelling skills have earned her two Jack Webster Awards. She is also the recipient of regional and national Radio Television Digital News Association awards. Bal can be reached at or on social media @BalBrach