German for refugee children
“Teachers Need to be Trained in German as a Second Language”

Pupils from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds;
Pupils from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds; | Photo (detail): © jovannig -

Refugees who spend three months or more in Germany are required by law to send their children to school. First, however, they need to learn German. This poses major challenges for schools and teachers, says Josef Kraus, president of the German Teachers’ Association.

Mr Kraus, how many refugee children will need to be integrated into the German school system this year?

Since there are no reliable figures, one can only estimate: assuming that a total of 800,000 refugees will come to Germany in 2015, I would presume that there would be at least 100,000 to 120,000 school-age children among them.

What arrangements are currently in place at schools to teach these children German?

Basically we do not have any proper nationwide regulations. The biggest problem is that there is a shortage of teachers of German as a second language, which means that very few schools are able to offer special remedial tuition in German. That said, some schools – generally those with a multi-ethnic pupil population – have long been offering remedial German classes. Bavaria has what are known as “transitional classes” at its primary and middle schools, taught by teachers who have studied German as a second language. Children there follow an intensive programme of German instruction so that they can switch to a normal class at the end of one school year. Given that only 375 such classes exist at present, however, by no means every school can offer this.

The situation at vocational schools across Germany is better. More language classes are provided there because many young refugees are 17 or 18 years old and come to Germany without their parents. Something needs to be done quickly for them. In Bavaria they spend one year learning German intensively and can then attend vocational preparation classes. However, the problem is that no additional teachers are currently available for the language classes there either.

How do these schools arrange German tuition then?

To provide the additional classes, other classes have to be merged or normal lesson times shortened. This is the only way to free up teachers, at vocational schools for example. In many cases the classes are even taught by retired teachers, sometimes on a voluntary basis, who have gained an additional qualification in the teaching of German as a second language. Many primary and middle schools rely on the intensive remedial classes for children provided by certain local “support schools” or adult education centres. Spending a few months learning German intensively outside school has proven useful – after all, it is ultimately a waste of time for eight- or nine-year-olds to join a class in a primary school where no additional remedial German teaching is on offer. And even when such tuition is available, it is often provided for only three to five hours per week, which is far too little.

Teachers’ associations have been calling for more teaching posts for nearly a year. What has been done so far?

Not much. It is also not possible to instantly create thousands of new teaching posts out of thin air. It is a question of budgets, after all, and the budgetary plans at state-level often cover two years, or at best just one year. Germany’s federal states could respond if they so wished by implementing amended budgets and for example making funds available for fixed-term contracts for teachers. I can well understand that states are not keen to establish new positions immediately that will burden their budgets for the next four decades or more. Using fixed-term contracts, however, it would be possible for example to put some of the many unemployed German teachers to good use.

What can politicians do to help here?

I would demand from politicians that these teachers be trained in German as a second language and then obliged to spend at least two years teaching in refugee classes. Afterwards they should be offered the opportunity to reapply for a permanent post. At the moment, however, schools and the state and federal governments are merely arguing about who pays what. Local authorities are completely overstrained, and the federal government needs to make more funding available for remedial German tuition. I have yet to see any initiative at federal level, however.

New teachers were recruited for remedial German classes in the school year 2015/2016 in some states, however. There are 300 new posts in North Rhine-Westphalia, nearly 100 in Saxony-Anhalt and 365 in Baden-Württemberg.

Yes, that may be the case, but it is not nearly enough. Assuming we have 120,000 school-age refugee children, we would require at least 6,000 additional classes, which in turn means that 10,000 teachers are needed Germany-wide. Politicians do not seem to realize yet what orders of magnitude we are talking about.

What support is currently provided to schools?

There are various forms of cooperation in place, with immigration and youth offices, the Arbeiterwohlfahrt workers’ welfare association, unions, church education centres and Rotary and Lions Clubs joining forces and fund-raising in a non-bureaucratic manner. Amongst other things, they also offer German classes. In addition, retired teachers provide German lessons on short-term contracts or indeed entirely free of charge. But this is not enough to resolve the problem.

What challenges do teachers of remedial language courses face?

Apart from the professional challenge of teaching German as a second language, such classes are attended by pupils from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. This can lead to conflicts in which teachers have to mediate. To do this successfully, however, they must be familiar with the ethnicities, customs and religions of the pupils. Furthermore, the children will be at different educational levels: some are illiterate, while others are highly educated. It is also often the case that classes are overcrowded, and some children are traumatized after fleeing from their home countries. This does not make for an easy situation.

How can teachers be helped and supported?

As I said, they first need to be given training in German as a second language. In addition, they have to receive multi-ethnic training. I would also recommend regular roundtable discussions so that teachers, representatives of the official authorities and staff of aid organizations can sit down together and talk about their experiences of the courses, about problems, possible improvements and financial and personnel constraints. I further believe that interpreters should be made available to support teachers – not always, but wherever necessary, and at least in the first few months.

Born in 1949, Josef Kraus was the head teacher at a grammar school in Bavaria until July 2015. He has been president of the German Teachers’ Association since 1987, an umbrella organization that represents roughly 160,000 teachers and educators.