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Intercultural assistant: I am a bridge

Intercultural assistant: I am a bridge

There is a group of intercultural assistants working at Warsaw's schools. Initially, they were only employed by NGOs (the first male and female assistants were employed in 2010 by the Association for Legal Intervention, later also by the Foundation for the Development of Social Diversity and the Vox Humana Foundation). Nowadays, such assistants are sometimes employed by schools (e.g. Primary School No. 58 in Warsaw's Targówek or the school in Mroków, located near Wólka Kosowska, not far from Warsaw, where a large group of immigrants work, mainly from Vietnam and China). 

Since September 2018, three assistants have been working for the Polish Migration Forum Foundation. Their primary role is to “build bridges” – to improve communication between foreign pupils and parents, and school staff. In school year 2018/2019, three PMF assistants supported nine schools: eight in Warsaw and one in Michałowice.

Each PMF assistant works in a slightly different way, focuses on a different role and has their own individual “style of providing assistance”. Some of them focus on working with parents, others primarily support pupils. Sometimes their work is individualised and sometimes it involves group work.

Depending on the needs, assistants can spend their time at one or more schools. The PMF’s preferred working method is for assistants to hold a regular on-duty position at one or two schools (2 days a week each), as well as an off-duty day when the assistant is at the disposal of other schools which have reported such a need.

On the one hand, it ensures that the assistant's working time is stable and organised most of the time in the week and, on the other hand, it creates space for more schools to be supported.

Of course, the proposed practice is a recommendation and can be considered a “good practice” in the realities of working in Polish schools where:

- the schools do not employ such assistants themselves,

- foreign or multicultural staff is rarely found at the school,

- there is no systemic support for foreign pupils starting school.

 

What do you do here? The tasks of an assistant

- My main task is to help children with their homework, – says Larysa Vychivska, who mainly supports Ukrainian students. - Ukrainian parents work a lot, they have neither time nor opportunity to help their children. Sometimes they don’t understand tasks or instructions themselves. 

- First, we go over the lesson contents again with the children, especially the vocabulary. I explain what “plains” and “mountains” are, I show them on the map. Then I read the instructions at least twice. Then we translate the individual words of the instruction. Only then can the children do their homework.

- I mainly talk to parents and explain how to behave in different school situations – says another assistant, Cao Hong Vinh. – Vietnamese parents today are very different from those who came to Poland a few years ago. Nowadays, parents are young people who work a lot and are very busy. They think that once they send the child to school, the school will take care of everything. That's not true. So it is necessary to explain to them slowly how education in Poland works. Meanwhile, children don’t do as well at school and need help.

In conclusion, the role of assistants is to improve communication and understanding between the school, migrant parents and pupils. Assistants help the school communicate with parents: to provide information about the school's rules, the child's progress and their functioning in the school community. They support pupils by helping them understand the school’s expectations and requirements, as well as the Polish culture. They also help with homework sometimes. Assistants also work with teachers and school staff, explaining cultural differences and helping them communicate with foreign students.

 

Science and emotions

The main area of an assistant's work is linguistic problems and cultural difficulties.

- Teachers often think: if a child talks with others during breaks, plays with Polish children and talks, and then during the lesson they don’t answer and say that they don’t not understand, it means that they are pretending – Larysa says. – Meanwhile, the language of communication during a break is one thing, and the language of the lesson is quite another. 

Ukrainian children are often too shy to answer questions during lessons because their peers laugh at them, at their accent or linguistic mistakes – describes Larysa. They prefer to remain silent and fail. The language of school instructions, the specialised vocabulary of each lesson – this is a completely new reality for such children. Assistants stress that many people are not aware that learning in a foreign language creates real barriers and hindrance for pupils. 

- Contrary to what one may think, even English is difficult for foreigners – says Vinh. After all, they are learning a foreign language in another foreign language which they are just getting to know.

The second important area of work is emotions.

- The children I look after, for example, don’t want to go to the common room, where there is a crowd and bustle. They feel lost there. They prefer to stay in a smaller group, where we can feel at ease and talk in Ukrainian, go out in the yard or go for a walk. We also often talk about how children are treated by their peers and the difficulties they face. 

It is difficult to be a foreign child in Poland. The atmosphere around migrants in the public forum is unfavourable – and this translates directly into how people talk about foreigners in Polish homes, how they treat their migrant peers. As a result, learning school subjects is one challenge. Another challenge is the school experience.

In the PMF’s practice, we see classes in which foreign pupils from different countries are treated naturally and kindly by other students. Working in such a classroom, we see the joy brought about by the diversity among children and mutual curiosity.

However, we also see classes in which no one talks to pupils from other countries. No one will sit or pair up with them – not even for a two-minute task in class.

 

Teachers

“There's a lady hanging around here” – as one assistant was described by teachers. Nobody introduced her to anyone.

- At schools they didn't know who I was or what to expect from me – says another assistant. - So I introduced myself to the teachers, asked them what their needs and expectations were.

Quite often, when starting cooperation with a school part of the working time is spent explaining who you are, what your tasks are at the school – say the assistants. Then comes the stage of determining the character of the relationship: what tasks are assigned to whom, what tasks an assistant can do, what they cannot do and why.

Some teachers treat them as inferior. Some people say that they can handle foreign children on their own and don’t need help. Others try to assign them additional responsibilities. Many teachers at schools are not at all aware of the existence of assistants – no one officially introduces them to the teaching staff or defines the nature of their cooperation. Healthy relationships are built when teachers arrive at a conclusion that an assistant can actually be useful at school. 

 

Suggestions for working with assistants

A) Assistants’ support

- The work of an assistant requires many different competencies. It's a difficult, exhausting job that involves working with people, always being in relationships and always between cultures – says Zuza Rejmer, an intercultural psychologist who supervises PMF assistants. 

Assistants meet regularly as a group and have an opportunity to consult with the supervisor on an individual basis. They discuss specific cases of pupils they work with, their working methods, ways of building relationships with teachers, parents, children, but also the need to set boundaries and to take care of oneself.

- Assistants' accounts show that it is often expected that if they are there, they should comprehensively solve the child's problems and respond to their needs – says Zuza Rejmer. - However, an assistant does not have the competences of a teacher, a psychologist nor a school pedagogue. All these people should cooperate with the assistant, make their competences available and work together. 

It is the assistant's job to ensure that communication between the child, the school and the parents solves cultural differences and misunderstandings. Not to individually replace that communication.

 

B) Contact with parents – from the start

A good practice indicated by all the assistants is to keep in contact with the parents of foreign pupils. Ideally from the very beginning of the year, or immediately after the child is enrolled in school.

- A big issue among Vietnamese students is the matter of collecting children from school by people other than their parents – says Cao Hong Vinh. – Parents often go away, usually for a short time, but then other people come to collect the child and there is a problem. Parents are not aware that the school expects them to pick up their children in person. 

At the beginning of the year, it is also useful to use the support of an intercultural assistant to discuss other issues: organisation of the school year, working arrangements of the common room (daycare centre), support available to children and parents at school, expectations with regard to matters such as school supplies, slippers and excursions.

At one of the schools it was not possible to hold a meeting with one child’s parents, because... there was no English-speaking person at the school. In a situation when English education is compulsory, it is difficult to take this explanation seriously. Even with the help of an English-speaking assistant, the meeting could not be organized.

 

C) Introduction of the assistant to the teaching staff

A school assistant is more likely to be effective if they are properly introduced to the teaching staff. It is important that the assistant knows who teaches what, who is the head teacher of a given class, who is the school pedagogue and the psychologist.

On the other hand, it lets teachers know that there is an assistant at the school. Who they are, what their responsibilities are and what can be expected of them.

It is also important to ensure that good relations are established at school when there are several intercultural assistants. It is important to remember that assistants, although they know Polish and function within the Polish culture, come from different culture circles. It is therefore important that they have a good understanding of their tasks at school and of how they should interact with each other.

The issue of relationships is important because assistants are often faced with expectations that go beyond their competence.

- It is worth remembering that every assistant works on the basis of some kind of a contract – it is a good idea to regularly go back to the provisions of that contract, also in a conversations with the school – emphasizes Zuza Rejmer, also suggesting that, when inviting an assistant into a school, it is worth organizing at least a small training session for the school staff on cultural differences and on working with foreign children.

 

D) Volunteering

- Do they pay you? – asks a Chechen pupil his volunteer teacher, Larysa.

- No.

- They're stupid. I'd give a million dollars for your work.

In the last school year, the PMF was supported six volunteers – both adults professionals and students, only slightly older than the children they support. Volunteers who can dedicate time regularly to one or two children once or twice a week provide invaluable help for such children, for the school and for assistants. If an assistant is present at a school twice a week, the extra help of a volunteer makes the child’s support more systematic. The child also starts to see that there is not just one person by their side, but a kind of a support network. It makes all the difference.

 

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