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I Spent Three Months Teaching Young Refugees. Here's What I Learned

ICE Graveyard 25/04/2016 Jonas Regen
REFUGEES SCHOOL BERLIN © Michael Gottschalk via Getty Images REFUGEES SCHOOL BERLIN

We were supposed to set up a school garden today. I bought flower seeds and soil at the market, and for the past four days, the class has been dealing with various games and vocabulary exercises related to gardening and plant cultivation.
All 12 children joyfully shrieked when, instead of the usual daily timetable, I drew a garden on the blackboard. I doubt that the students' enthusiasm had anything to do with my drawing abilities. My scrawly chalk-flowers looked more like a Martian suffering from tuberculosis than a colorful summer meadow.
They were, however, genuinely excited about the garden, and everything was on track to work out perfectly. We even had a trial-run the day before: We attempted to plant sunflower seeds in small pots, before four of the kids ate all the seeds.
For the past three months, I have been teaching 6-8 year-olds from Syria, Iraq, Libya and Romania. I give them classes in German language, math, general knowledge, sports, art and music. The children can now successfully write eight letters, know the numbers up to 10, and start chatting excitedly when I ask them what they did after school the day before. You wouldn't normally hear them speak about an actual recreational activity -- 10 out of the 12 children I teach live in an emergency shelter around the corner. They usually spend their afternoons there.
During the past few months, the school has become the center of these families' lives. The kids spend four hours a day with me, and then some of them attend special remedial classes, which their parents also attend. Usually, however, I let the children play during this time, while I practice alphabet exercises with the parents, who happily participate. After school, the kids spend another four hours at the shelter, where they play table tennis and Lego with the other kids, or ride tricycles around the yard.

They are normal kids, who want to play and write, who fight and cry when a pen is taken away from them.

The school is, for almost all of the families, the only opportunity to come in contact with the outside world in Berlin. This is not only important for the children's education and their parents' language acquisition; it also helps German-speaking kids and colleagues get rid of their fear of contact with refugees.
After three months, I could communicate with the kids so well, that I decided to raise the bar just a bit. A muddy mess might just be the right thing for them, I thought.
And so, I walked around the desks and said the word "soil" in a mantric manner, which the kids excitedly repeated. Someone came to knock at the door then; it was the local tooth fairy. A couple of weeks ago, I received a memo from the school informing me that she was coming, which I read and immediately forgot about.

I reflected for a second on how to combine oral hygiene and landscape architecture, but quickly admitted defeat. The garden would have to wait. The battle against tooth decay was more important.
The kids forgot all about the garden plans as soon as Ms. Zingst pulled out a huge stuffed-crocodile out of her bag anyway, and started chatting about teeth-brushing.
For thirty minutes, we sang about falling teeth, spoke to the kids about the importance of daily teeth-brushing and even collectively brushed our teeth at the sink.
Many of the kids are experiencing tooth decay. The school nurse inspected their teeth a couple of months ago, and strongly advised that they visit a dentist. I have spoken to their parents at great lengths about the importance of teeth brushing.
By 'spoken' I mean a mélange of pantomime and charades, supported by a few words here and there. However, we do understand each other. Contact with the refugees has shown me that there are many different methods of communication. After a couple of initial embarrassing moments on both sides, we have found it quite normal, and often very enjoyable, to perform theatre improvisations to, for instance, speak about an upcoming visit to the zoo.
The kids proudly held the colorful toothbrushes in their hands, and looked at us in absolute joy, before the skillful tooth fairy packed up her crocodile and said goodbye to the class.
During the past three months, I have learned a lot about those kids and about myself.

It was now too late for the garden, so we went straight to the gymnasium, where we spent the remaining 30 minutes of the day playing soccer.
During the past three months, I have learned a lot about these kids and about myself. When I discovered that I was to take over a welcome class, I immediately went and picked up every book I could on dealing with post-traumatic disorders and war-related experiences. I expected to teach frightened and disturbed children, who would look at me with sad, lost eyes. But my expectations were clearly off-base.
They are normal kids, who want to play and write, who fight and cry when a pen is taken away from them. They can be unbearable, incredibly funny or unbelievably lovable. Just kids.
My colleagues had warned me earlier: Tough times are ahead. They said that these kids were coming from uneducated communities, and had never seen a school from the inside. They said I had to be tough on them. But even that was nonsense.
Of course, none of the children had ever seen a school from the inside -- I teach first grade. And even if many of the children's parents had basic education, the instinct to learn is strong for all humans, especially six years-olds. After I disproved my colleagues' fundamental premise, I also dropped the tip to be tough on the kids.
It's not always easy to juggle 12 children, who are stressed even by conversation. It is a foreign language for them, after all. In any case, some moments make my job extremely worthwhile, such as that moment at the end of the day when the students stood proudly before me, toothbrushes-in-hand and chests in the air, to assure me in a mixture of German and gibberish that they would brush their teeth every single day from now on.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Germany. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.

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