Learning from Teachers in Crisis Zones

In the last years, in addition to adults, many children have also come to Germany from crisis-stricken countries. Lisa Küchenhoff, an alumna of the Mercator Fellowship on International Affairs, works with International Rescue Committee (IRC) programmes that support refugee children at school. ‘Teachers in Germany have a lot to learn from their colleagues in crisis areas,’ notes Lisa Küchenhoff on the occasion of World Humanitarian Day.

16. August 2018

The very first time that Lisa Küchenhoff showed a video about teachers in Africa to teachers in Brandenburg, she was quite nervous. ‘I was unsure how the German teachers would react,’ she says. ‘The notion that people here can learn something from teachers in crisis zones is quite unusual.’

In the film, a teacher is wearing a colourful dress and a blue and yellow headscarf. She shakes hands with the children entering the classroom. Teachers in Tanzania are shown doing their best to help pupils scarred by traumatic experiences to feel secure. With more and more refugee children attending schools in Germany, this has become necessary here, too. ‘I could see that the teachers were having “Eureka!” moments as they watched the film,’ Küchenhoff recalls. ‘They responded very positively to it.’

The 30-year-old directs the educational programme of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an NGO whose mission is helping people impacted by wars and crises to rebuild their lives. Küchenhoff joined the IRC in 2017 as it was opening an office in Germany. ‘Actually, we exist to provide help in crisis regions,’ she says. ‘Here, the idea is to put to use what we’ve learned there.’

The IRC educational programme targets refugees attending all types of schools, from primary through professional. Thus far they have mainly been taught the German language. ‘But,’ says Küchenhoff, ‘Language competency isn’t everything. Our international work has taught us that socio-emotional skills are also important.’ Schoolchildren who have been forced to flee have been subjected to enormous stress – often, over many years. ‘They need to experience stability,’ explains Küchenhoff, ‘For example, by teachers establishing routines. That’s why the Tanzanian teacher greets each and every pupil individually, every single day.’ Classes also sing together.

‘Teachers in Germany can learn a lot from colleagues in crisis-ridden countries who have long been working with refugee children.’ The IRC programme is called ‘Healing Classrooms’, which perfectly describes its aim. Dependability is key: ‘The teachers communicate that school functions normally: The pupils are not constantly threatened by something unanticipated.’ This regularity also helps in teaching specific subjects: ‘Using class time to learn emotional skills improves overall academic achievement.’

Lisa Küchenhoff has long been concerned about education. As a teenager, she learned about the field by volunteering at Youth For Understanding, an organization that promotes international youth exchange. ‘I’m interested in how society deals with diversity,’ says Küchenhoff. In her North America studies in Constance, Boston and Berlin, she focussed on political science and cultural studies, and worked in education for the first time.

At Mercator, she dealt with a very similar subject: Education for underage refugees as a human rights issue – and how that presents both an opportunity and a responsibility for the educational systems in European host countries. ‘I was especially interested in international views of education,’ recalls Küchenhoff, ‘Which are often lacking in German educational policy. It was very enriching.’

This education expert is deeply concerned about how the current social climate in Germany is affecting everyday school life. The deportation of classmates is a permanent topic of discussion in some places. ‘Many refugees are terrified – even if they have no immediate reason to be.’ More and more refugees are being denied asylum in Germany. ‘This looming threat is present in schools because children echo what’s in the media or what they overhear their parents saying,’ says Küchenhoff. She finds the developments disturbing. ‘I worry – thinking about the children,’ she says. ‘At the same time, however, I see teachers who keep working in an increasingly difficult social climate, and I admire their great commitment in spite of all the challenges.’