A conversation with a Katrin (head-teacher) and Alexandra (teacher) in a Berlin Primary School
The following is drawn from a conversation with a school principal and teacher in one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods of Berlin, Neukölln. The head-teacher has worked in the school since the 1990’s, when 10% of the children in the school were from foreign countries. Today 84% of the school’s children are from immigrant families, including refugee families who have arrived since 2013. The discussion below addresses the resources available to schools during this time, the dynamics of the ‘welcome classes’ and the dynamics between ‘old’ and ‘new’ migrants, and gender relations.
(K) The ‘welcome classes’, the classes for refugee children, started about 4 years ago (2013) and there was nothing, no structure, how to educate them, what to do, and we were very unprepared. There were no teachers for the kids, and so the department for education decided to get new teachers who were trained in linguistics, or German as a foreign language. And then we started to talk about this in school, here, with all the teachers, to discuss how could we manage it? Because of course we didn’t know what to do except teaching them German. We needed more training. Ok, our inter-cultural understanding was not enough. We knew where Syria was on the map, but nobody from our colleagues were from there or had been to Syria. Of course today we do have teachers who have been to Syria or are from Syria, but a few years ago we didn’t.
At first we had one group of kids that were refugees, 6 children, but that increased quickly. Last year, we had up to 60 children that were refugees, of different ages, and different qualities of education. Some had never learned to write. So at first we tried to send each child into the age appropriate class, to integrate them into the other classes. But that was not a good idea, we realized, and we decided to make separate classes so that we could first teach them German, and it worked better.
(A) One crucial point is that there was no curriculum for them. So we had no materials, and even today still we don’t really have materials composed for these special group of students. We had some guidelines but the guidelines are not adapted to their needs. I mean, welcome classes are not new in Germany. We have a long tradition of migrants coming to Germany. But now we have young refugee children who have survived war and have had other traumatic experiences, so it’s different from the previous groups of migrants coming to Germany. And there is no guideline for this. There are a lot of people dealing with the issues of refugees of course, but it’s difficult because it’s all fragmented, and in schools we don’t get that much support.
(K) Since 2015/2016, there has been a regional conference, where all the teachers from the Welcome Classes meet at they talk about the challenges and best practices in their schools.
(A) Every district has its own association. We are in the one in Neuköln. Obviously the districts are different, so the policies are different, and the challenges are different. But even in one district like Neuköln, there is no common agreement about how to teach refugee students. The coordination is quite good at the moment, but we still miss some clear guidelines and materials and one the biggest problems is that we need to differentiate not only the ages but also the knowledge and education levels. And of course students come at different times. So for example my last student came a few weeks ago, a new one also came a few weeks before then, so you have to constantly adapt to having incoming students arrive at different times, so it makes it a bit chaotic.
(T) What about socially? Even if some of the welcome classes are happening separately, do the children find themselves mixing with other students at recreation for example?
(K) It’s very complicated. They are together in the recreation, and what we realized was that the violence increased here. We have social workers here and regular meetings with them to discuss the violence in our school, and she agrees that the violence, the insults and rudeness, comes from both sides, and nobody knows who started it.
(A) It’s also a question of resources. When I’m teaching in a class, I always hear, ‘oh because of these refugees we do not have places in the sports hall or we do not this and that, my parents can’t find an apartment because of the refugees..’ and so this is a problem that starts outside the classroom and it comes into the classroom and the school grounds. They apply their own stereotypes.
(K) My perception about the girl refugees from Syria especially, is that they are all covered. But in our school, the girls are usually not covered, only a few single girls wear the head scarf in the school. But most girls in the welcome classes do wear the head scarf. So of course this also creates a division.
(A) It’s not easy because it also has to do with different values and perceptions. I am teaching for example political education, and we talk about gender questions, and discuss issues like sexuality and family and alternative forms of being together, diversity and so on. And my experience in the class is that I can accept their perceptions and values, and they also can accept mine, but when it comes to sexuality for example, it becomes difficult because some children cannot accept that there is something like homosexuality.
(K) and I have to tell them, do you know that our mayor in Berlin is homosexual? And some of the children say ‘eeeeeek’. So it is difficult to discuss certain topics when children come from different religious upbringings, and also the different ways that their faith dictates their attitude towards certain topics.
(A) But you know there can also be some very positive dialogue. The other day in my welcome class we were discussing issues related to diversity and sexuality, and one boy said, ‘ok so you are saying it is ok if I kiss a girl or kiss a boy? It doesn’t matter?’ So I said, ‘yes of course it’s ok, if it’s your choice and of course it depends very much on the age of both people.’ But then he said, this was a 12 year-old boy, ‘but in my country it is also ok for a 13 year old girl to marry a very old man. This should not be ok.’ So you get these very interesting discussions, where children start to think about different values and make their own opinions, they question what they have been taught and start thinking for themselves. This is very positive, and that discussion was a good step. It’s not about rejecting your culture or the values your parents taught you, but it means young people are making their own judgements. Of course, when they are smaller, younger, they can’t really reflect in that way. They are too young. They start to reflect when they are a little older.
(K) It is also difficult for us because in terms of emancipation, most of us working here in the school are women, I mean we have a lot of men, but the majority are women. So when children come from certain cultures that see women as inferior to men, this is really difficult. I’m a woman, and I’m the principle here, and that seems to be ok for them, but I know through the gossip that for some of the Arabic community, women are not as good as men, especially when it comes to being in a position of authority, being able to say, ‘no you can’t do that’. So it’s ok, but we have to be careful that we can challenge these ideas, especially because in this school 84% of the pupils are from foreign countries, and the majority is Muslim. Of course, there is a huge diversity of Muslim faiths, from more liberal to conservative.
(A) We also sometimes see that the mothers are not regarded as the authority figure. Sometimes the kids, especially sons are very rude with their mothers, and they don’t respect their mother. Of course, if they see their father not respecting their mother, they will imitate that.
(K) And we have to understand that in their communities, women and men often socialize in separate spaces. And it’s not very easy to image that the mothers will have some support or activities that they can do outside the home to exchange ideas and advice with other people, because they often have several children and are really busy at home. They have no spare time, so it’s hard for them.
(A) Yeah but to be honest, there are a lot of exceptions to this. Some of the most engaged women here in this school are grandmothers from Turkey or Arabic mothers – they do a lot of things, like they are on parent committees. But from my perspective, so majority of women are often too busy to get engaged with matters outside the home. They have to cope with a lot of other problems.
(K) It’s also about consciousness, I think. For example, we have a female teacher here who is from Syria, and I think she is on her way to emancipation, but it’s really hard. In her community, she cannot move, or socialize or do something for herself. It was her first time in the theatre for example. She came with me to the theatre.
(A) There are some mothers who are separated from their families because they emancipate themselves. But that is really hard, because in their culture family means much more for them. We also have to understand that in Germany we have a huge Muslim community, for many years now, but we have not enough support systems for them. So they have had to build their own parallel universes, and in discussions with parents, with mothers, my experience is that Arabic mothers always tell their sons to be tough, you’re cool, you’re a hero, you’re the best. But of course they come to school and the boys realise they are not necessarily the best, the girls are sometimes better…
(K) Yeah well sometimes these boys are lazy bones to be honest…
(A) Well yes, sometimes that’s true, and so now the gap is growing. The girls are getting better, and this is difficult for the boys who always get told at home by their mothers that they are a hero. So it makes them a bit aggressive somehow, this is just my view, based on my experience, in observing young Arabic or Turkish boys, and how they handle their conflicts, and how they handle being a boy.
(T) What are you both proud of?
(K) You have to understand that first of all, some schools have chosen not to take welcome classes. So I am proud that we have tried. It’s our school decision, and I can tell you that we don’t have a good image and reputation, but for me it’s a question of solidarity. I have been working in this school since 1991, and there were 10% immigrant families here at that time. But there has been a huge demographic shift between Northern and Southern Neukolln, plus all the gentrification of recent years. But I am proud of many things. You know being a principle is like being a manager. Let’s not forget that education is always under-funded, and you must be clever and smart and then you can find a way of getting things done and getting people to listen to you.
(A) For me, I don’t like the easy way! I started as a social worker in 2013, and I became a teacher in 2016. As teachers, you can address social work and learn with kids and from kids. I think we are creating a new society, and we have a chance to help the future leaders. So we must keep trying.