29 Mar 2018

Islam in Austrian schools -- challenges and opportunities

A growing number of children in Austrian schools come from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, opening the door to both cultural enrichment and conflict. Teachers advocate dialogue and patience.

Julia Sahlender
Julia Sahlender Der Standard, Austria
Source: Der Standard
Islam in Austrian schools -- challenges and opportunities - NewsMavens
Kids. Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

Like many European countries, Austria has a growing Muslim population, and the change is especially visible in Vienna's elementary and middle schools.

In the facilities where the proportion of migrant children is especially high, school communities face new challenges. According to teacher Susanne Wiesinger and leader of the teacher's union, Paul Kimberger, teachers often encounter incidents involving Muslim children.

Sometimes there are classroom fights motivated by religious differences. Sometimes Muslim girls are not allowed to participate in certain activities. At times, deeply religious boys and their fathers show signs of disrespect towards female teachers or principals.

The problems usually stem from the family background and not so much from what the children themselves believe.

-- Erika Tiefenbacher, principal at a Viennese middle School

In Tiefenbacher's school, there are children from 24 countires. When an issue arises, she looks for a pragmatic solution, and she finds that it is possible to resolve the problem in most cases.

However, most politicians have not dared tackle the matter yet. Liberals and leftists often shy away from the issue for fear of fueling discrimination, while the right is more interested in banning headscarves or the children's native language than providing actual means of integration.

immigration, education, family

Details from the story:

  • During the 2016/17 academic term, 40,000 pupils in Austrian schools didn't speak or understand German well enough to fully participate in regular classes. The proportion was the highest in Viennese elementary schools -- 20%.
  • One planned project entails recruiting teachers with a migration background, like Syrian refugees who used to be teachers back home.
  • A recurring problem in relation to Muslim children seems to be the participation of girls in sports classes, for example in swimming lessons, especially with boys present. Erika Tiefenbacher recalled a girl who did not want to do Zumba because she wasn't allowed to swing her hips.
  • Heinrich Himmer, president of the Viennese School Board, is aware of the problems but is wary of generalizations. He promised to provide more support for the affected schools and a collection of existing "sanction and intervention options" for all schools.
  • Himmer also announced there will be a round table on the subject with parents, teachers, students and experts, as well as the Islamic Religious Community. 
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