Lessons in Wilkommenskultur

More than 12,000 children in Berlin, most refugees, are attending Willkommensklassen. These classes could be a key investment in integration, say teachers hired for the task – instead, they consider themselves exploited for a short-term solution.

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Silvan Cipolla says that the discrepency among his students’ educational backgrounds is a major challenge.

More than 12,000 children in Berlin, most of them refugees, are attending Willkommensklassen: separate school classes where they learn German to prepare for their further education. This could be a key investment in integration, say teachers hired for the task – instead, they consider themselves exploited for a short-term solution. 

One morning, most kids were an hour late for class. Nathalie Kiser,* their teacher at a primary school in the south of Neukölln, had been waiting for them since 8am. She was about to tell them off when she learned that there had been trouble at night in the refugee shelter in the local gym, where most of her Syrian and Iraqi pupils were still staying. A group had loudly and violently protested their housing conditions in the shelter, knocking over their bunk beds. Eventually, the police arrived with tear gas. The children had hardly slept. So Kiser decided to listen to their stories before starting that morning’s lesson.

“One of many incidents where listening has been a priority,” understates Kiser. Since  February 2016, the energetic 40-year-old has been teaching a Willkommensklasse: a daily course for pupils without prior knowledge of German. The refugee influx of the past two years has created a vast demand for these classes that could not be filled with state-employed teachers alone: over 12,000 children in the German capital, most of them migrants with pending asylum applications, were attending a Willkommensklasse as of the start of the 2016 school year, almost twice as many as in 2015. So more than 1000 teachers have been specifically contracted for the job, including Kiser and 30-year-old Juliane Peterson.

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Juliane Peterson is lobbying for Willkommenslehrer to receive the same pay and benefits as regular public school teachers.

“We often take on the role of social workers,” explains the outspoken Peterson, who has been in charge of a Willkommensklasse at a primary school in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg since last May. “It’s not unusual that I spend two hours on the phone after class, talking to workers at the shelters where the children live or trying to find translators for parent meetings…” Most of the kids in Peterson’s class, like Kiser’s, are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. (Refugees from these countries make up 65 percent of Willkommensklasse attendees, with a smaller share coming from eastern Europe and a handful from within the EU.)

Teachers are often left to figure out their backgrounds and stories for themselves: “I get to know them better as their German gets better, and it’s hard when they start telling me about attending class outside in Syria because the school building was destroyed, or about school in a bunker in Afghanistan.” And there’s also the frustration of never knowing how long some kids might stay, depending on the outcome of their family’s asylum application. “Some of the kids adapt after a few months, but it is sad to see that pupils from countries like Afghanistan are under the risk of being sent back.” At this point, with just 44.5 percent of Afghan applicants approved in Berlin, only Syrians are assured to stay.

“We’re treated as third-rate teachers.”

Peterson, who holds a master’s degree in teaching German as a foreign language, previously taught at an international school and now finds it rewarding to use her expertise to help refugee children. Yet she is far from satisfied with her job. A number of Willkommenslehrer (Willkommensklasse teachers) are given temporary contracts, often for a few months at first, then extended to two years. The teachers, most of whom work in primary schools, are also subject to starting salaries of up to €1000/month less than regular public school teachers. “We’re responsible for laying the groundwork for young refugees’ integration, yet we are being treated as third-rate teachers,” says Peterson. In her opinion, a second class was created more than 10 years ago, when Berlin abolished the better-paid Beamter public servant status for teachers. “With even lower pay and temporary contracts, you create a ‘precariat’ to do a job many others don’t want to do. A short-term solution – then a ‘danke und tschüss!’”

An explanation offered by Berlin’s department of education is that many Willkommenslehrer lack the extensive training required to become a public school teacher in Germany, including state exams and mastery of two general curriculum subjects. Peterson counters that most of them, like herself, have a qualification to teach German as a foreign language and a master’s degree or higher. “We’re idealists with a tendency towards self-exploitation.”

At a conference in Kreuzberg in September co-organised by an anti-racism initiative and the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung, several participants called the less favourable working conditions for Willkommenslehrer a result of “structural discrimination” – pointing out that the majority of these teachers were women, and that a higher percentage had a so-called “migration background”. An education department spokesperson estimates that around 20 percent of Willkommenslehrer have foreign degrees.

No plan, no standard, no training

Of course, the whole idea of Willkommensklassen is for them to be temporary, so for the time being, there is no educational master plan. Children are to learn German as quickly as possible, “in order to facilitate their swift transition to a regular class,” state Berlin’s social integration guidelines. To make this transfer, students have to reach language level B1, if possible within six to 12 months. How best to get there? According to the guidelines, it is each school’s responsibility to “devise appropriate measures.” “Those are very vague terms,” says Guido Siegel, a teacher at a secondary school in Pankow and a member of a committee on migration in the teachers’ union GEW. The 36-year-old has a permanent contract, but has also been teaching a Willkommensklasse since 2014. “There are no standard teaching materials, no Berlin-wide learning standards,” he says.

Neither is there any preparatory training for teachers in Willkommensklassen, although they can attend monthly “networking meetings” with others in their district. “The meetings can be helpful for those with less experience,” Juliane Peterson says. “As for the more skilled, like myself, we’re expected to provide advice. I’ve had to take on the role of an unofficial lecturer. It’s like crowdsourcing: the authorities use the expertise of people they exploit.”

In many schools, there is only one Willkommenslehrer; if that teacher has to take sick leave, there is often no replacement. “Unlike at regular schools, refugee parents don’t complain if class is cancelled – for lack of language skills, or because they are busy enough with their asylum procedure,” Siegel says. “Refugee kids don’t have a lobby.” Being a school’s sole Willkommenslehrer can also mean “little exchange with your colleagues,” Peterson says. “Given the temporary nature of my job and the situation I am facing, there is simply not much common ground.”

The picture can look different for regular teachers charged with leading a Willkommensklasse. Silvan Cipolla, who has been working at Tiergarten’s Französisches Gymnasium for more than 10 years, agreed to teach his school’s new refugee class at the start of September. Now, in addition to his other classes, he gives 10 German lessons per week to students from the Middle East, Romania and Bulgaria. In contrast to Peterson, he says he’s received extensive support from his colleagues, who have even made donations so that his class could attend field trips. Cipolla’s Willkommensklasse is a bit of a special case as the rest of the school follows the French curriculum; it also adheres to France’s law on secularity, which bans pupils from wearing headscarves on school premises. “That was an issue with one student, for exactly three minutes,” says Cipolla. “But the girl took it off when I explained that this is not the practice at our school, and has not worn it since.” He adds that she “seems to be fine with the decision, and now takes a liking to wearing very visible earrings.”

The challenge of diversity

Aside from the issue of underpaid teachers, Siegel says there has been a controversy in the union “over whether separate schooling is at all helpful in promoting integration.” At some schools, refugee kids attend physical education, art or music classes along with everyone else, but this is by no means standard practice. While Siegel was angry about the concept at first, he has developed a pragmatic attitude. “Apart from the fact that some children are traumatised by war and the experience of fleeing, there is a huge diversity in pupils’ previous education. There are quite a few who have yet to learn the Latin alphabet.”

Under the guideline on integration, children with no knowledge of German are to attend Willkommensklassen from third grade on, while first- and second-grade students are to be schooled in normal classes. In practice, due to lack of class space and the extra effort of teaching refugee kids, Willkommensklassen often span ages seven to 14, and a vast range of social and educational backgrounds. “Syrian children from better-off families, who arrive here by plane and enter school shortly after, learn more easily than those who have gone through long complicated journeys and have not gone to school for years,” points out Kiser.

Teaching refugee kids is a very rewarding experience. You open the door for them to have a future here… this is not inferior work, definitely not.

Cipolla shares the view that the varying skill levels present a major challenge. “The alphabet in particular is difficult, and then you have some who could learn much faster in a different group.” Apart from that, he says that he sees teaching refugee kids as a “very rewarding experience. You open the door for them to have a future here… this is not inferior work, definitely not.” On this last point, Peterson couldn’t agree more.

Time to invest in the long term?

Peterson thinks that teachers like her could play a more significant role in the future of refugee integration, if given permanent employment prospects. This is one of the demands of the initiative she founded last May to defend the interests of Willkommenslehrer, which now has 60 members and is loosely associated with the GEW union.

As children gradually transfer to regular classes, they will continue to need support. The education department has provided for so-called “bridge courses”, also taught by Willkommenslehrer, to ease the process. Petersen’s initiative argues that a more long-term concept is needed. “A good approach would be to allow teachers of German as a foreign language to make a career transition into public school teaching – which is already open to people with training in other in-demand subjects.” After all, even before the current refugee situation, “teachers have been struggling to cope with the challenge of migrant students’ insufficient command of German.”

Berlin’s new coalition agreement gives some cause for hope that integration of refugee kids is deemed worth investing in, even as the migrant influx slows and the number of necessary Willkommensklassen decreases. In the agreement, the coalition parties state their intention to use the resources earmarked for Willkommensklassen for additional language lessons in regular classes, and also to offer Willkommenslehrer training for a general teaching qualification. Peterson and others will surely remind the government of those good intentions. After all, “The effort for each and every child is worth it,” Chancellor Merkel said as she visited a Willkommensklasse. “We want to give them a good future.”