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Gaining a Foothold at German Schools – Refugee Teachers Program Wants to Bring More Refugee Teachers to Brandenburg’s Schools

Migrant teachers at Refugee Teachers Program. The photo is from Andres Friese.
Photo : Andres Friese
The Refugee Teachers Program qualifies migrant teachers for the teaching profession.

Our society is diverse – and schools need to reflect that, Dr. Anna Aleksandra Wojciechowicz and Diana Gonzalez Olivo agree. Since 2016, they have been preparing refugee teachers for the teaching profession in Brandenburg as part of the Refugee Teachers Program. In this interview, the project's director and coordinator explain why it is so difficult for qualified teachers from abroad to actually gain a foothold at Brandenburg schools.

From your perspective, what does diversity in teacher training mean?

Wojciechowicz: Diversity, to me, is all about an open learning and working community – and that quickly brings us to the issues of barriers with regard to access and discrimination. In my view, diversity is often misunderstood. Because it is not just about diversity being really great, it is about looking at teacher training with a critical eye on the issue of discrimination. We have to ask ourselves this: At what point do we exclude which groups? For example, teachers who have completed a teacher training program outside of Germany and have several years of professional experience. And: How can we change this? Which of our routines and structures do we need to rethink?

We currently see that teacher training is gradually opening up to migration. Ultimately, our project draws attention to a structural shortcoming and shows affected teachers that they are not only included in our considerations, but that they are also wanted and taken seriously. I don't know if this is relatable for people who live with the privilege of practicing the profession they learned as a matter of course, but for our target group it is very meaningful that they are allowed to play a role at a German school.

How do teachers, as well as students, benefit from diversity?

Olivo: This question is problematic. It is not an issue of who benefits; it should be a given that schools at all levels employ teachers who represent regional diversity. Therefore, I would rather ask: How can teachers in the Refugee Teachers Program benefit from their colleagues as they begin their careers in Brandenburg schools? What framework conditions do we need to ensure that school administrators and teachers are able to include these new teachers in such a way that they get a good start at their new workplace and can fully develop their competencies? At the beginning in particular, they need to be given extra support, as they require more intensive on-boarding. School administrations and teaching staff must take responsibility in this regard in order to create good framework conditions at the start of the career. However, migrant teachers cannot only be given the task of integrating refugee children and adolescents into schools. They must also be assigned all the duties of a teacher.  

School students will, in turn, benefit from a diverse teaching staff. And especially those who have a history of migration or flight themselves – as long as they get a positive image of an equally multi-ethnic, multi-lingual teaching staff. Representation is key here: Schools must open up their curricula, staffing, and structures to the realities of the migration society in which we live today.

We can learn from other countries in this regard: In Germany, what we call “Willkommensklassen” (welcome classes for refugee school students) only focus on learning German at first, while abroad some multilingual teachers teach their subject in the language of origin, thereby helping to ensure that refugees do not fall further behind in their learning.

The numbers are sobering: According to a survey of graduates in the summer of 2021, about half of the teachers who reported back were employed in schools. Often, however, they work as temporary substitutes or as pedagogical teaching assistants. Why is it so difficult for migrant teachers to find their way into the teaching profession?

Wojciechowicz: It is really very difficult for teachers from abroad to gain a foothold at German schools. While teachers teach only one subject almost everywhere else in the world, in Germany, they are responsible for two school subjects. A recent study by the GEW (German Education and Science Workers' Union) cites figures that clearly illustrate the problem in more detail: Only 11 percent of teachers have their qualifications recognized in full. What does that tell us about the system?

With our new concept, we have been tackling this problem since April 2020. Teachers can now add a second subject to their qualifications. They can choose between the subjects Mathematics, Physics, Sports, and Economics-Work-Technology. We are grateful that the four departments are participating in the qualification program. It remains to be seen whether the new concept will work out. I believe that it should also be possible to enable those teachers who are unable to study a second subject to enter the profession. After all, there has been an increase for years now in the number of people from outside the profession working at schools who have chosen to change careers and are also allowed to only teach one subject.

Gonzalez Olivo: The high requirements for subsequent qualification are not limited to the second subject. Depending on the recognition of their work experience, teachers may also have to complete a school-based adjustment program comparable to the student teacher traineeship. In order to be able to even register for it, a C2 language level is required, which is comparable to native academic language proficiency. It makes sense to have high language requirements for teachers. But in that case, language courses must be systematically offered at the highest level so that teachers in the Prignitz or Uckermark regions can also attend them. So far, however, there is only one offer in Potsdam for a limited number of teachers. German language training in our qualification program only brings teachers up to C1 level, so they must then improve their language skills on their own. We need further measures adapted to this target group, such as language courses offered alongside work. As you can see, the path from the review of the acquired degree to full professional recognition is a lengthy and costly process that cannot always be reconciled with the family and financial situation of the participants. Our qualification program is a very important milestone for teachers with foreign professional qualifications. But we need further measures adapted to this target group so that they can, for example, improve their German language skills while working and also complete a subsequent qualification program – and thus ultimately enter the teaching profession more quickly.

This article was originally published in the University Magazine Portal - Eins 2022 „Diversity“ (PDF).