On ‘POV,’ a Swiss Approach to Educating Immigrant Students

By Mark Walsh — August 16, 2015 2 min read
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In the United States, school districts have relied on a variety of approaches to educating and counseling immigrant students. Still, there are potential lessons to be learned from how a country much less vast and diverse than our own deals with the issue.

In “Neuland,” an 87-minute documentary debuting Monday night on the “POV” series on PBS (check local listings), filmmaker Anna Thommen examines a program that helps young migrants in Switzerland learn one of the nation’s four official languages (German), as well as mathematics and job and life skills.

Switzerland seeks to preserve its national identity by instilling shared values and a common language among these high school age students, who are asylum seekers from world trouble spots such as Afghanistan, Cameroon, Serbia, and Venezuela.

These students in Basel encounter teacher Christian Zingg, a middle-age man who comes off at first like he’s seen it all before and that life will go on regardless of whether his students succeed or not. But Mr. Zingg soon enough reveals himself to care deeply about whether the students make it.

He tells them he could be making more money and have an easier job teaching at a traditional Swiss high school, but the two-year integration program is much more motivating for him.

The film pays extra attention to Ehsanullah, whose family borrowed $20,000 to get him to Switzerland, where he lives in an immigrant camp of some sort and must appeal an initial denial of asylum. What’s more, he must send money back to Afghanistan so his family can repay his benefactors, or else they could lose their land.

Ehsanullah displays evidence of cutting himself out of anxiety, and keeping him in the school program isn’t easy when he finds restaurant work that is allowing him to save money to send to his family.

Meanwhile, Ismail and Nazlije, a brother and sister who left Serbia for Switzerland, seem to pick up German faster than other students but have different levels of motivation for finding jobs. Nazlije is a good student and would like to be a primary school teacher, but Mr. Zingg has to gently recalibrate her expectations of getting such a job in her new country. Ismail seems disappointed to learn that even a house painting job requires math skills.

One fascinating tradition that appears to be in widespread use in the country is something called “Taster Week,” in which students seek short-term apprenticeships with potential employers. Mr. Zingg helps his charges role-play the steps just to contact employers, not to mention job expectations.

When the students seem discouraged about their prospects, Mr. Zingg invokes a soccer analogy. Basel Football Club of the European Champions League had evidently just defeated the mighty Manchester United team, a David-beats-Goliath story.

“Of course, your chances are poor,” he tells them. “Of course, you are Basel FC. But take that chance. The you’ll have achieved something that no one else thought possible.”

“Neuland,” or New Territory, is focused fully on Mr. Zingg’s class, and we don’t get much in the way of context for Switzerland’s immigration policies or challenges. But that’s OK. Some ideas are world class.

[UPDATE: At Education Week‘s Global Learning blog, Heather Singmaster looks at the “Neuland” documentary in a broader context of Switzerland’s system of guidance counseling and what lessons that system may provide.)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.