Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Teaching Abroad

After one term (12 weeks) into the school year I think that it’s safe enough to summarize my observations to give you an idea of the differences between school here and public school in the States.  A couple of caveats before we proceed….first, this is only my fourth year of teaching and my previous experience is limited to one public high school in the metro-Atlanta area (so that is about the only thing I have to compare with and thus, I cannot speak on behalf of the whole of U.S. education).  Second, the school that I teach at is a private, international school, run by an organization that has schools around the world and so, the school is not anything like a true “German” school.  Therefore, one shouldn’t think that my experience here reflects the German school system either.  Third, for obvious reasons I will refrain from mentioning the name of my school.  I will try to be as objective as possible, but also include some of my personal thoughts as well.
                  The school that I teach at is a K-12 international school with somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200 total students.  We have modern facilities and a staff of around 150 teachers.  The school year runs from August through the end of June with many breaks in-between as follows: Fall Break – 1 week in October; Winter Break – 2 weeks in December/January; Ski Break – 1 week in February; Spring Break – 2 weeks in April; Summer Break – 7 weeks in July/August.  The holidays are different from the U.S., reflecting the national holidays in Germany.  That basically means no Thanksgiving, but a bunch of extra days off in May for religious holidays I think. 
                  Rather than a principal, we have a school director and administrators who head up different grade levels (i.e. upper secondary, lower secondary, upper primary, lower primary, etc).  A typical school day consists of 9 periods that fluctuate between 45 minutes to 60 minutes of instruction.  The official school day runs from 8:20 – 4:10.  Since the school is K-12 and the schedules are different throughout the day, there isn’t really a bell system to indicate classes ending and beginning.  There are also no “morning announcements” to signal the start of the day.  Students report to their homeroom by grade level at the beginning of the day for attendance and announcements from the HR teacher, then report to their first class. 
                  Instead of students having a schedule resembling some pattern throughout the week, a student will typically meet 3-4 times week per subject and a particular class could meet in any combination of days and periods throughout the week.  For example, math can be on Monday 2nd period, Tuesday 5th period, and Friday 1st period.  Also, at this school instead of teachers having their own room, nearly all teachers simply have a desk in a large teacher workroom.  This works out well for collaboration with other teachers sharing the same courses, but it’s slightly crazy running around the building to your next class.  It seems that students tend to stay in more of a central location while the teachers come to them throughout the day.
                  The organization that operates my school also produces the curriculum, books, tests, and pacing charts for teaching these courses (with the exception of language courses, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate courses).  As a teacher I have more courses to prepare than I am used to (five now compared with two before), but I also teach fewer lessons in any given day (3-5 now compared to 5 every day before).  That means I have more time to prepare for each class while at school and so, I don’t bring much home to work on at night or on weekends.  So far I have found that teaching these courses and keeping up with the pacing charts/testing schedules (students are tested EVERY week with standardized tests from the organization) has forced me into the habit of teaching a textbook and preparing students for tests that I don’t write.  This approach makes it difficult to be as creative as I want to be, but on the other hand I do have free reign in my I.B. Physics course so at least that course is more of what I’m used to. 
                  Unlike American schools, there is not much of an emphasis on sports here.  The focus is clearly on academics, but there are sport teams that do compete with other schools.  The sports offered include swimming, basketball, soccer, volleyball, tennis, cross-country, and track-and-field.  No football, no baseball, and thus, no rednecks either.  Also, much to my disappointment, there is no mascot and no school colors.  I’ve heard that new Americans to the school always make comments about this minor detail.  School sports in Germany aren’t really that big anyways.  Most students participate in club sports outside of school or really competitive athletes attend “Sportschule” which is like a magnet school for athletes.  One thing that I find neat about sports here, is that instead of driving in a school bus 20 minutes across town to play another school as in the States, our teams will take a charter bus or train across the country to play another international school in Munich or Berlin, etc. 

Personal Thoughts – The thing I like the most about this experience so far is that I am teaching students literally from around the world and teaching with colleagues also from all over (U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Canada, Pakistan, Spain, India, Korea, etc).  Much can be learned on a daily basis from my students and co-workers and I’m trying to soak it all up.  One of the things that I didn’t think much about before was the fact that nearly all of my students are being taught in their second or third language.  I was worried that I wouldn’t be funny to my students at first, but then I realized that I’ve got to be more worried about slowing down and choosing simpler language in order to get points across.  By that I don’t mean that these students’ English is poor, because that is definitely not the case – just that even good English speakers won’t understand any slang that is used or be able to process the language as quickly when they’re also trying to process new information in the subject.  I haven’t had much experience in the past with teaching English Language Learners (ELLs), but I think this will help me tremendously. 
                  So far I have noticed that students seem to be the same everywhere.  Although the background of my students is much different from my previous school, kids are kids and teenagers are teenagers.  They act about the same here as they would in the U.S. 
                  One surprising thing is that, although the building and facilities are very nice and the science labs are modern, the classrooms don’t have computers or LCD projectors.  I actually use overhead transparencies and chalk in some classrooms.  Computers are limited to teacher workrooms and computer labs. 
                  So, that’s my overview/impression of things so far.  There is much to be learned and plenty of adjusting to go through.
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