Father Tobias Zimmermann, long grey hair, an earring in his left ear, is head teacher of the Canisius Kolleg in Berlin, one of three Jesuit schools in Germany. The school describes itself as a secondary school “with Christian-Humanist character”. Young people should not only receive a good education here, but also mature to become responsible people. Zimmermann’s decision to hire a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman as a teacher caused something of a furore in Berlin. Newspapers such as Die Welt, the Tagesspiegel and the Berliner Zeitung reported on the story, as well as the regional public broadcaster RBB. As Zimmermann is keen to stress at the outset, he was rather surprised at the media storm. After all, he’d only appointed a teacher, hadn’t he?
Father Zimmermann, at a time when the AfD is represented in the Bundestag, you appointed a Muslim teacher at a Catholic school. Did you intend to make some kind of statement?
Pater Tobias Zimmermann: No. The key factor was that this woman was very well qualified for the post. And it wasn’t because we had too few applicants either. But how to deal with such an eventuality was something we had already discussed in advance. We’ve had a very diverse staff for a long time now: many of the teachers are Catholic of course, while a few grew up in East Germany and never had the chance to get to know Christianity from the inside. Others are Protestant. As far as the Muslims are concerned, today’s situation reminds of the 1970s. Back then, we made the decision to begin accepting Protestant students. And then at some point, we appointed Protestant teachers too.
Over the past two years, you’ve started up two classes at the school for refugee children. Did the decision have something to do with that?
Zimmermann: Of course. We’ve got around 30 Muslim students at the school today, which gives Islam a different visibility. And it also gives rise to new questions: do we now need different spaces for prayer? Not necessarily Islamic, but at least ones where followers of different religions can pray together. We’re also thinking about whether we should be offering Islamic religious studies.
So do children need to be taught by teachers who share their cultural background?
Zimmermann: Not exclusively, of course. But for me, school also offers the possibility for experimentation. Here we have the opportunity to enter into a dialogue with one another. And if society, such as it is here in Berlin, is characterised by a variety of world views, then this should be reflected in our teaching staff. As a Christian school we’re experimenting here with something I believe constitutes a good school.