Potsdam , Germany

Teacher Training, With and For Refugee Teachers

Refugee Teachers Program, University of Potsdam

March 14, 2019

Teacher training program fast-tracks the certification of qualified refugees with a teaching background.


Refugees bring skills and experience with them when they arrive in their new homes. However, getting back into the labour market can be a challenge. In 2015, Germany saw a record influx of migrants. Many agreed that there was an opportunity the refugees “could help alleviate a labour shortage caused partly by the ageing of the population,” but “many newcomers lack the training and language skills that Europe’s largest economy needs.” The University of Potsdam, near Berlin, decided them could so something to ease the transition for new refugees with a teaching background.

The University launched a pilot program in 2016 to help refugees with teacher training or experience enter the Brandenburg school system and resume their careers as teachers. Miriam Vock, the Professor of Empirical Teaching and Intervention Research at the University of Potsdam who developed the program said: “These are people who have had a good university education. We want to give them the chance to be able to work again here.”

Similarly to Skovde, Sweden, the program could meet employment needs but also help in local schools. According to Andreas Musil, vice president for teaching at the University of Potsdam, “a lot of the refugees had a background in teaching and refugee children have to go to German schools, so we saw this as a chance to use their cultural similarities and offer refugee children someone they can speak to.”

Shortening the integration timeline

Internationally trained teachers can become re-certified in Germany. However, Germany teachers typically take seven years to become certified and are competent to teach in two subjects. A combination of German language competency, and the fact that most of the refugee teachers were Syrian (where teachers are expected to have competency in one subject) meant most newcomers would spend years upgrading and studying before ever setting foot inside a classroom.

The Refugee Teachers Program set out to shorten that timeline. Selected refugee teachers participate in a fast-tracked 1.5 year program. Initially, students spend up to six hours a day learning German. Intensive German courses continue throughout the program, complemented by specialized instructional, pedagogical and school education seminars. The program is rounded off by an in-class internship and regular exchanges with local teachers to get to know the school system and culture.

The program was immediately popular with the skilled refugees who were looking to get back into their teaching careers. More than 700 applied for 25 initial spots. Given this demand, as well as the reality of over 4000 refugee students in the state of Brandenburg who could benefit from teachers with a similar background, the number increased to 75 refugee teachers for the first cohort.

While they will still have to complete more training to become fully qualified, the impact on refugee teachers has already been significant. “Teaching English gives me most pleasure in life,” says English teacher Alaa Kassab, 25, who works as an assistant English Teacher in a local primary school. “I’m proud when I see my students are speaking or understanding English because of me. I know the language one day will affect their lives like it affected mine.”

Jumpstarting integration

The students are eager to work and agree that the program has jump-started their integration. Fellow student Motaz Jarkas, 34, another English teacher from Aleppo: “I’ve already studied, now I want to work. Working means security for us at this stage. We’ve done our best, we’ve learned a lot, but it hasn’t been easy. We need stability and a future. That’s why this programme is so important for us.”

Success means meeting everyone’s needs

The new graduates are filling a labour shortage of qualified teachers in the region, while also contributing to the ongoing integration of refugee children. Kassab’s Principal Monika Nebel believes hiring Kassab contributes to the long-term integration of Syrian refugee children in the school and community. The school also benefits: “Alaa has invested a lot personally to make this happen. And we too invest a lot to make it work. But it’s worth it for our region and it’s worth it for her. We gain a teacher and she gains a job. It’s win-win.”

The program has worked with four groups of refugee teachers so far. Forty participants from the first 2 groups are currently working as assistant teachers or helping personnel in local schools. The last two groups are continuing their qualification training until the end of this year. Almost 100 refugee teachers have have been part of the program so far. With their success, the program has been refunded and will continue to offer opportunity to refugee teachers. Always evaluating and innovating, Potsdam University’s Maya Nyagolova says that they are currently working on re-conceptualizing the program for the next three years.

Vock hopes other universities will follow suit: “It is important to give a chance to the many highly qualified teachers among the refugees.” The demand is enormous and not just locally. Already, Bielefeld University in North Rhine-Westphalia has launched a similar Lehrkräfte Plus initiative with the support of the Bertelsmann Foundation. At Potsdam, over 100 refugee teachers from across Germany are on the current waitlist and the application process has not yet re-opened.

According to UNHCR’s Céline Schmitt, the program addresses a number of refugee needs and UNHCR recommendations for effective refugee integration: “Invest more in integration of refugees. Invest more in teaching language because it’s very important from the start for asylum seekers and refugees. It’s they key to integration. It also addresses another challenge and recommendation, to create links between the host communities and refugees. Together they can improve things, even improve local programs.”

The program has shown what is possible when there is strong local will combined with the intense desire of refugees to settle. Without a strong local advocate and cooperation of champions within different departments at the University, and the enthusiastic participation of schools and the education sector, an initiative like Refugee Teachers Program could not happen. Potsdam has shown what cooperation, built on the enthusiasm of refugees to integrate and utilize their skills, can mean for them, and for the local community.



Maya Nyagolova & Dr.in Anna Aleksandra Wojciechowicz
Scientific project coordination
Tel: 0331/977 203140

Campus Golm
Karl-Liebknecht-Straße 24
14476 Potsdam
House 35, room 0.09

Making it Work for You:

  • Strong leadership supports innovation. With a teacher labour shortage in German schools and the sudden influx of refugee children, new and innovative approaches were needed. With strong leadership at the University, a new idea and program to help meet the diverse needs of both German and refugee groups was created.
  • Support for both the refugees and the host community is essential. By building in these overt supports, refugees know they can find help for any challenges that arise. At the same time, this support should include working with the employer to integrate the refugee into daily workflows and processes, even if the focus is short-term.
  • Identify refugee strengths, support them where needed. Refugees bring skills and enthusiasm to get their lives back on track, both personally and professionally. A program that builds the supports needed for success is essential.
  • Language competency is key for labour market and social integration success. Intensive language support can make the difference for integration to happen quickly, or lead to delayed settlement and additional issues for refugees eager to more forward.

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For this Good Idea contact:

Maya Nyagolova, University of Potsdam
Campus Golm
Karl-Liebknecht-Straße 24
14476 Potsdam , Germany,

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