Kurt-Wilhelm Beckmann teaches English and French at Elise-Averdieck-Gymnasium, a high school in Hamburg, West Germany. He also helps train new teachers as a faculty member of the city’s Studienseminar, or teacher-training college.
Mr. Beckmann and several colleagues were in Washington recently to begin a six-week study of American culture and political institutions under the sponsorship of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, an organization that seeks to promote understanding between the United States and Western Europe.
While in Washington, Mr. Beckmann spoke with Associate Editor Thomas Toch about the teaching profession in Germany and how it compares with the profession in the United States.
Q Would you outline briefly what the training of a secondary-school teacher entails in your country?
A Everyone teaches two subjects, which you study at a university for a minimum of four years. A lot of people do five years. Then you are examined by a board made up of a professor, a senior teacher, and a representative of the school board in the state [usually a city or a region], who is the chairman of the board. This is called the first state examination.
If you pass the exam, you can apply for a place in a teacher-training college, or Studienseminar.
Q So pedagogical training is done at the graduate level?
Q Does one spend any time studying the techniques of teaching at the undergraduate level?
A Yes, but it is a recent development. Now, students have to spend some time in schools, as student teachers, and they have to pass an exam, too, in what we call didactics. So this is part of the university studies.
Then you go on to the teacher-training college. Teacher training comprises three semesters, one year and a half.
You spend the first semester at a gymnasium [a high school for academically talented students], where you teach your two subjects. You are given a mentor there who works with you on your teaching. At the same time, you study the theory of teaching at the Studienseminar. Once a week, on a day when you are not teaching, you attend seminars, under the guidance of a supervisor, on teaching techniques and theory and about psychology, child development, and so forth. And once a fortnight, you attend a seminar in your subject areas. For example, if you teach English and French, you attend a seminar with your French supervisor. The next week, you meet with your English supervisor.
After the first semester, you change schools, so that you can have a look at another school, where the situation might be a bit different. Then, after three semesters you are examined a second time. It is called the second state exam. There is an oral section and you have to teach two periods with an examination board at the back of the classroom. You get a grade there. Then you have to write a thesis on some aspect of teaching. In most cases, it refers to your subjects. An English teacher, for example, might write about how you read a particular play with grade 10 and what problems arose. You are supposed to reflect on these problems. The essential part of the thesis is that they see what problems exist and know how to cope with them. Here, you get another mark.
Then you get a third mark, on your overall performance during the three semesters. From time to time, your supervisor from the teacher-training college comes and inspects you.
Q How often?
A In each subject, two to three times a semester. As a teacher-training supervisor, I would inspect my students six times during the year-and-a-half period. A colleague in the student’s other subject would inspect him or her another six times, and the person in charge of general pedagogy [at the Studienseminar] would inspect them another four, five, or six times. There is often continuous supervision of beginning teachers in other regions, but we do not do this in Hamburg. Mentors also write reports on the teachers.
Q How do the roles of the mentors and supervisors differ?
A I could be both at the same time. A mentor is a senior teacher at a school, who is asked if he wants to train younger colleagues.
Q:Are mentors paid for this work?
A Not at all.
Q Is it a prestigious thing to do?
A Not really. Lots of people don’t really want it because it entails more work. After the observation sessions, you have to talk with your trainee and tell him or her what was wrong and what was good. And if you want to do it thoroughly, it takes quite a long time, including after-school discussions.
Q And what about the supervisors? Are you paid in that capacity?
A Yes, I am on a higher pay scale.
Q And is there some prestige attached to the position?
A Yes there is.
Q Who pays your salary?
A Teachers in Germany are state officials; we are paid by the state. In my case, it is the City of Hamburg, which is a city-state. There are about 11 teacher-trainers for English in Hamburg. In all, there are 130 such trainers in the city and there are over 2,000 teachers in the city’s gymnasiums. [The city also has schools for less academically talented students.]
Q Are you and other teacher-training supervisors affiliated with just the Studienseminar?
A There are very loose ties between the Studienseminar and the universities. I have two superiors, the director of the Studienseminar and the principal of our school. I am on the faculties of both. I teach 11 periods a week at my school and also work with the new teachers at the Studienseminar.
Q Are beginning teachers paid during the year-and-a-half period?
A Yes, they get regular pay.
Q What happens once teachers finish the three-semester training program?
A They get a rating on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 one being the best. Nowadays, with our problem of unemployment, this is very important, because the schools only take those who are the best. If you achieve only a four on the final exam, you have a very slim chance of being hired.
Q So in Germany, the first year and a half of teaching is considered part of the education of teachers?
A We call it the second stage of training. It seems to be very similar to the idea of internships that are being talked about in your country now.
Q You mentioned a high rate of unemployment in Germany. What is the supply of and demand for teachers there today?
A There is almost no chance of being admitted into the teaching profession now in Germany, because of a decline in the birthrate. Also, teachers cannot be dismissed. They are regarded as state officials, our phrase is Beamter, and thus they have a lifelong job.
Q What happens to those teachers who, because of declining enrollments or some other reason, are no longer needed?
A The state has to look after them. In Germany, the state pledges to look after state officials. In return, they do not have the right to strike, for example. And the state tells them how much of an increase in wages they will get. There is no wage bargaining between unions and school boards. Wages are set by an act of parliament in Germany.
Q It’s the federal government that sets the pay scale for teachers?
A In theory, it is the local government. But it’s done on a federal basis; that is, all local governments follow the standard set by the federal government. It is the Minister of the Interior who does the negotiation with the representatives of the public sector.
Q Are you, as a teacher, paid the same as professionals in other parts of the public sector?
A That’s right. A lawyer, for example, who works in the public sector and has as much experience as I do earns the same salary as I do. Every other year there is a pay increase--an increment that is automatic. There is a pay scale based on years of experience.
But there is discussion in Germany, as there is here, about whether this system should be changed, on the grounds that some teachers merit higher salaries than others. Payment according to merit is very much in the discussion now. Let’s face it, some teachers just take it easy. And they say, ‘Well, I’m in a very secure job, nobody can chuck me out, why should I work too hard?’
Q Is this shortage of positions discouraging bright people from going into teaching?
A It should, but we haven’t seen it yet.
Q How would you describe the status of teachers in the German society? And does a distinction have to be made between elementary- and secondary-level teachers?
A Yes, elementary-school teachers didn’t always enjoy a very high standing in Germany, whereas high-school teachers always have. In some parts of the country high-school teachers are even called ‘professor.’
Q How well are teachers paid in Germany?
A On the whole, they are rather well off; we shouldn’t complain. But you can’t compare our salaries with those in the private sector.
Q Why are the secondary-school teachers so well respected while their elementary-school colleagues are not?
A Because of their training. In the old days, elementary-school teachers went to training seminar without having to go to study their subjects at a university, as high-school teachers always have had to. High-school teachers were academics in the true sense of the word; primary-school teachers were not.
But this has changed. In the last 20 years or so, primary-school teachers have also been affiliated with the universities. They also have reached equal pay with high-school teachers.
Now, however, there is talk of scaling down the salaries of the primary teachers because the finance ministers, looking for ways to save money, are saying, ‘wasn’t this rash to scale them up?’
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1984 edition of Education Week as Teacher Education in Germany: Scholarly Training, Higher Pay, And Greater Status in Society