A female teacher stands arms crossed but smiling in front of children sitting in a classroom.

Three key take-aways from interviews with teachers

February 8, 2021

By Dunja Battouy and Josef Neubauer

Where does the migration topic appear in European classrooms? What are teachers’ experiences with teaching migration? And what can TIES do to assist teachers in creating exciting learning experiences about migration?

Over the past months, we have conducted many interviews with high-school teachers from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK to find answers to these questions and gain insights into the diverse experiences and contexts of secondary school teachers across Europe. These interviews are essential for us to develop the teaching modules: we want to make sure the TIES material will be easy to use, integrates exciting and well-tested methods and is tailored both to the different curricula and interests of teachers. In this blogpost, we want to share with you three important insights from these interviews.

Migration in the classroom: diverse experiences

Confirming our background research so far, most teachers reported that migration as a topic appears only sparsely – if at all – in their curricula. Where it does, it is often addressed as a side topic or an optional field that teachers can choose to focus on. This is despite the fact that all teachers interviewed perceive it as a highly relevant topic, and one which students are generally very interested in and excited about. Interestingly, teachers also described very different experiences with teaching migration: the way the class discusses the topic seems to be highly dependent on how many of the students have experiences with or familial links to international migration themselves.

Teachers from less diverse schools told us that their students often engaged in vivid discussions about the “pros and cons” of migration. While many students take a moral stance and say that their countries should “help those in need,” teachers are also often confronted with students voicing negative stereotypes or political slogans. Rather than based on facts or knowledge learnt in school, teachers say these are often thoughts and literal sentences picked up within families or in the media. While some teachers directly address such stereotypes when voiced in class, others said they felt uncomfortable with the situation, partially because they lacked experience or guidance with dealing with this situation. This is what two geography teachers from England and Germany shared with us:

Within our teaching we had to challenge a lot of stereotypes, particularly from the British media. “They’re coming to steal our jobs” is a common misconception we have to challenge in our classroom. So, we say “Actually, they’re not coming to steal our jobs, they’re filling the gaps in our labour market that you guys don’t wanna do”.

– Geography teacher from England

With this topic, you quickly notice what the family’s sentiments are. At this age of 14 to 15, opinions of students are commonly very much influenced by their parents. (…) Often, when negative stereotypes are voiced, other students also counter them or I might address them in class. But if students said something really harsh, I would also reach out for help, as I don’t know if I would feel so comfortable dealing with this by myself.

Geography teacher from Germany

Those teaching in more ethnically diverse schools shared very different experiences. Students were often very excited to discuss migration, and particularly to share their own or their families’ stories. Migration is a normal part of students’ lives, whether this is because they have a migratory background themselves or because many people in their social circles do. Teachers often harness this experience by designing project work that asks students to research their own background, and later present it to the class. One Austrian teacher highlighted that this also has a high potential to empower students with migratory backgrounds within a curriculum that is biased towards national culture and history and can make the student feel that his/her story, background or identity is somewhat less relevant.

In my experience, some students, for example with a Turkish background, often feel like their experiences are ‘second class’ and less valuable than that of other students.

– Teacher from Austria

Classes on migration can change this, by allowing these students to explore and share their diverse backgrounds, but also by providing room for questions that simply aren’t asked at home:

I remember a Moroccan-Dutch student, who was born in the Netherlands, asking me if he was a guestworker. He had just read in the text-book that former guestworkers came from Morocco and Turkey.

– Geography teacher from the Netherlands

However, teachers also expressed the importance of sensitivity when planning such lessons, to make sure students are comfortable with talking about their background, particularly if some students have had recent and/or traumatic experiences related to migration.

Teaching material on migration: Often scattered, outdated, too abstract

When preparing for discussions on migration, many teachers expressed that they struggled with finding suitable teaching material. Textbooks and other material are often outdated due to the fast pace of migration dynamics, so that teachers often have to create their own material from scratch to work with accurate numbers and case studies that are matching the migration experiences students can relate to. Furthermore, the interviewed teachers sometimes mentioned that textbooks – particularly older ones – often featured problematic and stereotypical representations of migrants and migrant journeys, making teachers reluctant to use the material in class.

Some teachers also lamented that textbooks focussed too much on the abstract, structural level of migration. While this was seen as an important part of classes on migration, these teachers were missing material that presented migration in a more tangible, relatable and experienceable way, for instance by breaking down the topic to the individual level and looking at individual stories, to learn about the complexities of migration and the diversity of migration experiences.

That is an ongoing thing for us, to look at individual migrants’ stories and trying to give them a more personal level, so they can actually appreciate that these are actual, real people, it’s not this abstract concept.

– Geography teacher from England

Some teachers go one step further and invite migrant storytellers in the classroom, or plan excursions to experience and thereby learn about migration first-hand.

I always let my students work on a practical assignment on migration, instead of reading something about this subject. I tried to arrange some kind of exchange with students from a nearby asylum reception center (…). [I didn’t want] my students [to] ‘learn’ about a group of people but instead simply spend a day together and unconsciously get to know more about concepts such as migration, culture and integration.

– Civics teacher from the Netherlands

While there is a lot of new teaching material on migration published in the last five years, particularly produced by German charities or NGOs, many teachers said they were looking for more interactive, exciting ways to teach about migration. This could include different audio-visual methods, like using videos, online platforms or video games. Some teachers also asked us to integrate creative projects into our teaching material, where students produce their own podcasts, videos or posters that are then presented to the class.

Throughout the interviews, teachers also emphasised the great potential of role plays and educational scenario games. Examples mentioned were a step-by-step simulation of migration journeys or the Albatross game (link in German) that challenges stereotypes and encourages intercultural engagement. Such activities offer students a great opportunity to explore a different lens on migration, as they adopt different roles and thereby reflect on their own perspective and position.

Yet, teachers often have to come up themselves with such games and produce the material needed, and frequently the time to prepare such interactive teaching is simply lacking. Even where material is available, this is often not editable to adapt to the specific context, curricula and learning goals of their class. For us as TIES team, this is an important insight: Teaching material not only needs to integrate varied interactive methods, but also needs to be flexible and open for editing by the teacher as well as well-tailored content-wise to different curricula for teachers to make use of them.

Dedication of teachers

Overall, what stood out from the interviews was the extent to which teachers’ dedication and creativity is key for teaching socially critical issues in the classroom. In each and every interview, we were able to experience first-hand how innovative and engaged teachers across Europe are. The first person we interviewed was Kerstin, who is both a TIES team member and a middle and high school Geography and Economics teacher from Austria. With the aim to prepare her students for a prosperous future, Kerstin strives to provide them with as much knowledge on relevant (social) topics as possible. Her teaching often goes beyond the material covered in schoolbooks, in order to facilitate a learning experience that truly relates to the world of her students.

Like this first interview with Kerstin, the conversations with the many enthusiastic teachers across Europe were a great source of inspiration and information for the TIES project. While there were many differences in countries, (pedagogic) school backgrounds, and course curricula, all teachers shared a similar passion in educating youth. These teachers took it upon themselves to continuously develop and adapt their teaching to the fast-changing world outside of the classroom.

They create innovative exercises, brainstorm with colleagues on teaching methods, and self-educate on the experiences and needs of students to develop their teaching practices. A History teacher from the Netherlands explained how she tries to challenge herself by developing new and interactive exercises, every schoolyear. This schoolyear, her Junior students create a children’s book on the economic crisis, through which they get to develop their ability to transfer text-book information into a creative format that should be comprehendible for all ages.

Some teachers also expressed their interest in partnering up with other European schools that might use TIES in the future, as a way to bridge educational and cultural gaps between different countries and their students. The extensive knowledge of these teachers, along with their passion for teaching and willingness to share their expertise, both inspired and motivated us to bring the TIES teaching modules to another level.

The way forward

The interviews showed us the many ways in which teachers across Europe go above and beyond to educate the youth on crucial topics which will help them develop into (young) adults actively participating in society. Teachers consider migration to be both a highly relevant and exciting topic for students, something that many say is not well reflected in curricula, where migration is often only a side topic.

While there is plenty of teaching material on migration out there, teachers often experience this as outdated or inefficient in its use. Teachers are also actively looking to integrate engaging, interactive methods to teach migration, but often struggle to find the time to plan and prepare for these. Teaching modules on migration should be adapted to the globalized world we live in today, both in content and practicalities.

As the TIES team, our goal is to assist these teachers by providing interactive, easy to use, and up to date teaching modules that present the multifaceted dynamics of migration in a more nuanced way. For this, we are grateful to be able to cooperate with and draw upon the ideas and expertise of the many dedicated teachers from across Europe.