By Dr. Marguerite Lukes, Director of Research and Innovation at Internationals Network for Public Schools and part-time faculty at New York University.

I arrived in Bremen on a flight from New York City on a gloomy late September day in 2018, not quite sure what to expect.   Having been awarded a Fulbright Scholar Research and Teaching grant, I was to spend 8 weeks away from my familiar New York City streets to learn how Bremer schools, teachers and teacher educators are educating the growing numbers of new immigrant school-age students. I knew where I was staying, what day my class started, but little else, other than I was to say “moin moin” and not simply “moin,” if I wanted to fit in.

One of my initial surprises is how I am constantly corrected -- I have learned that in Germany there is one right way and many wrong ways. In that vein, when I talk about Germany’s history of taking in immigrants, laypeople who are not involved in the daily workings of schools remind me “No, this is the first time that we have immigrants in our schools.”  That assertion is perplexing, especially as I wander the city streets in the Northern German towns that I have visited and see a vast heterogeneity of faces and languages and skin colours.  The man who runs the Döner shop that I frequent is a multilingual Bremer old-timer who wears his green-white scarf unapologetically both on game days and off. Perhaps the corrections are meant in comparison? The US, despite growing xenophobia and anti-immigrant hate crimes, has always defined itself as “a nation of immigrants,” although headlines make clear that, despite its heterogeneity, the US has not been entirely successful in addressing diversity or in developing a national embrace of pluralism. Still, it has been important for me to highlight also that in many schools and districts in the US, there are growing numbers of multilingual immigrant students who are new to the English language -- in some regions a growth of 200%-300%. This is relevant because in both Germany and in the US, teachers are grappling equally with ways to address the needs of students who are adjusting to a new school system, a new language, and a new environment -- and at that, sometimes a hostile one.

Colleagues from the GEW have been extremely gracious, and I have had the opportunity to visit schools in Bremen, Bremerhaven, and Dresden, and to talk with teachers, school administrators, and students. I’ve seen a range of approaches, differences in resources, differing expectations and school cultures.  

Some examples I have seen that have stood out include teachers working together collaboratively to plan and problem-solve to design engaging materials for their recently arrived students. I have seen differentiated texts and activities designed to meet the needs of students at different levels. Teachers have stopped and shifted direction in a lesson to take advantage of ‘teachable moments,’ like an impromptu geography lesson. I’ve seen “peer mentoring” programs where German-born students are paired with new immigrant students and plans for school outings that include trips to the theater, the museum, the carnival, picnics, family nights.

Overall, what has been clarifying and heartening is the importance of coalition work -- through the GEW I have met countless creative and tireless colleagues who are working across institutions and regions to develop creative solutions for transnational, multilingual students in these shifting and troubled times.  I’ve attended meetings, been invited to open forums, participated in honest dialogue.  Notable have been the vibrant collaborative partnerships of colleagues from social work, teaching, community-based organizations working together into well past quitting time to explore what works and how to improve situations for students and teachers.   Some key elements have emerged for me among the exchange, and these include the following:

  • Leadership is key to success in schools.  School-wide commitment to new immigrant multilingual students with emerging German skills is foundational for the important collaborative work of educating a new generation of citizens.  This leadership does not always need to come from “the top” in the form of a state policy or a principal’s directive but often comes from GEW members in the workplaces. The best examples of pedagogy I have observed have been rooted in schools where the entire school community exhibits a desire for success for all students who attend, and all students, regardless of their backgrounds, feel part of the work of co-creating learning.
  • The path to success is paved with trial, error and collegial exchange:  the GEW’s Arbeitskreis model I observed in Bremen and Saxony of colleagues working together holds great promise, as it is a safe, non-evaluative space for learning, problem-solving, exchanging best practices.  These working groups exhibit pragmatic professional commitment to sharing what works extends beyond the schoolhouse doors and across regions.
  • Resources matter:  Teachers want parity and security in order to go about their daily work with ease.  They need books, tools and effective strategies that have been vetted by colleagues, classroom-based examples of what works. They want opportunities to meet together, learn from each other, take students on trips, and time to meet with families. Scarcity threatens quality, student success, and professional well-being.
  • Commitment to equity for all students requires trust, flexibility and the ability to examine who is successful and why.

Bremen gets dark and gloomy in November, but people do not retreat inside, instead donning hats, gloves, those impossibly bulky German handknit scarves and cycling to their duties. And thus the collaborative creative work of educators continues, and it reflects great promise. The collaborative work of professionals who are undaunted by the challenges they face and manage to identify and learn from success are forging a path toward equity.