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Tuesday, 01. February 2022

The teacher gap What can be done about the shortage of specialists in schools

Germany’s schools are short of teachers. Consequences: Lesson cancellations, reduced supply, and a heavy workload for existing educators. The problem has been known for a long time – and is likely to get worse. Counteracting is difficult.

By Armin Himmelrath | 01.02.2022

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Behind this, Beckmann says, is years of misjudgment by the responsible education policymakers. "So, what the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs is presenting in terms of figures is nothing more than a huge deceptive package for me."

Naturally, those responsible see things differently. The shortage of teachers is – beyond the short-term problems – an important ongoing issue, says Yvonne Gebauer, FDP school minister in North Rhine-Westphalia. "I’ve promised that we’ll do everything we can here at the ministry on the road to the best education, that we’ll leave no stone unturned to close the teacher gap."

KMK: Gap of 14.000 teachers by 2030

In their state, the staffing situation at schools is already sometimes quite tight, with the threat of cancelled classes looming at the latest in unforeseen situations. In addition, not all subjects can be taught to the extent intended. And the workload for existing teachers is huge, not least because of the consequences of the Corona pandemic. What can be done about it? Stefanie Hubig:

"When someone gets sick, we have given the schools a budget, on the one hand, with which substitute teachers can be deployed, and the schools do that very well and very independently. And we have a substitution pool, which we have increased in recent years."

Criticism of non-specialist substitute teaching

Still, many parents criticize that too much teaching is done outside the subject area. So, for example, if English is on the timetable, a sports or physics teacher might come in – English will then be cancelled. Stefanie Hubig knows the problem.

"I prefer it when classes are on schedule. But there is a difference if I say: Classes do not take place, the children sit alone at home. Or whether I say: Either they have a substitute teacher who does lessons with them, and then, if the math teacher is sick, a German teacher can come and do a German lesson. Why should this not be teaching? This is teaching!"

VBE: Teacher gap much larger than stated by KMK

VBE: There are not 14 missing.000, but 80.000 teachers by 2030

More on the subject

Above all, because the number of future teaching graduates is estimated by the KMK to be far too high, according to Klaus Klemm. The KMK has not yet officially reacted to the new figures. KMK President Karin Prien merely referred to the efforts that the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Lander in the Federal Republic of Germany has been making for years to address the issue of teacher shortages. Udo Beckmann speaks of an alarming situation.

"I think the results presented by Professor Klemm show in a depressing way that the figures published by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs are, to put it mildly: rather unserious. You are simply obscuring the actual shortage of teachers. The situation is therefore much more dramatic than communicated by the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs."

High birth rates due to family policy – at the expense of school policy

But what is the reason for the shortage of specialists in the classroom?? Klaus Klemm: "If you look at the current situation now, there is a clear causation: In the years from 2012/13 to 2016, we had an increase in the number of births by 110 per year.000 nationwide. And this increase, it must be said in all fairness, was not foreseen by anyone, not even me. We have the problem that the family policy, which was aimed at more parents having children, through all-day schools, through crèches, through U3 care, through many other measures, more children were born. And when that happened, the politicians said, "Hey, we didn’t think that way. That’s basically what happened here."

The success of family policy in the past decade has apparently become a problem for school policy in the current decade. And that leads to an urgent need for action. Only: What should the federal states do concretely?? "One could recommend to the policy to train basically over demand. That would be a way. But then you have a problem with the finance ministers. Because the people who are then trained above demand and who are then ready, they then all want to go to the schools."

Building up personnel reserves – but how?

Such attempts to offer more study places and thus form a personnel reserve in the medium term, there were also in the past, says education researcher Klemm. They were not successful.

"Increasing the number of teachers to be trained does not ensure that any will be added. We were able to see this two or three years ago in one federal state. Because of the shortage of teachers at the lower secondary levels – that is, at that time, the lower secondary and intermediate school teachers in Bavaria – more study places were created. But they remain empty because no young people want to study these subjects."

Career changers as a solution?

And so the federal states are often quite helpless in the face of the shortage of educational specialists, says Klemm. Career changers are seen as a solution to the shortage of skilled workers. Like Vanessa Dahn. She is 38 years old and lives near Cologne. The hopes of many education ministers are pinned on people like her who decide to enter the teaching profession late in life.

"I studied German language and literature, psychology and social sciences, and in 2006 I graduated with a master’s degree at the time. Then I started working as a freelance writer, for radio in particular. And that was a great time, actually a dream job – until my son was born and my parental leave was over at some point."

After that, Dahn says, freelancing didn’t really feel free anymore. But often as a pressure to get jobs in any case to feed her family. And what would happen if she or her son got sick and she couldn’t earn any money?? The young mother decided to make a career change to become a teacher. Because at vocational schools in particular, he says, the need for teachers is enormous, even with more common subjects like German or pedagogy. That was her good fortune, Dahn says, when she made contact with a vocational college in the Bergisches Land region.

"I then contacted the school directly, or rather the school management, and got an appointment for an interview at short notice, which was very nice. A few days later I got the call: You can start as a substitute teacher for now. And then I was at the school from one moment to the next, with twelve hours of teaching a week, and of course I was incredibly excited, because I had never stood in front of a class like that before. But fortunately I also got great support from my colleagues."

After six months, the substitute teacher was accepted into a program in which she completed her teacher training in parallel to her normal work at the school. Today, Vanessa Dahn is a fully trained teacher.

Motivation problems among trained teachers

Many teachers, says Sigrid Wagner, are poorly trained, poorly motivated or overtaxed. "This victim role that is always behind it: ‘Oh, we only get uneducated children’ – yes, my goodness, society has changed, we have to find other structures there!"

And the school also has to keep changing and adapting to new challenges, that is absolutely clear to Sigrid Wagner. But with that conviction, she says, she was alone in many of the schools where she worked.

"In general, I have a fear that the teaching force, for the most part, has not yet understood where it’s supposed to go. You go to school every day because you have to go there. Students make this clear to teachers, teachers make it clear to students. Or even say it: We all have to go here. I have to work here, it’s my job. I don’t feel like it either, but we have to work through the curriculum. Whether one can speak then of motivation, I dare to doubt."

Fresh wind from lateral entrants

No wonder, says Sigrid Wagner, that teachers have such a bad image and that there are therefore recruitment problems in this profession. Nevertheless, Wagner believes there is a chance for the school system. With people like Vanessa Dahn, the lateral entrant.

"We will have one million more students by 2025. I’m basically counting on the lateral hires to come in with some common sense and say, "What’s going on here?? You cluck together there, you withdraw, you have your personal sensitivities – I would have been kicked out of my job now if I did that."

Government shares responsibility for shortage of teachers

Even politicians in the field of education, such as Yvonne Gebauer, FDP Minister of Education in North Rhine-Westphalia, do not deny that something has to change. "I promised that we would give our all here in the ministry on the way to the best education."

"After all, we were able to fill 96 percent of all positions – all positions for teachers, but also other staff – at the beginning of the school year, and we are working on the other positions, on filling other vacancies. We turn over every stone here at the ministry. We are leaving no stone unturned to close this gap in the number of teachers, which was caused by the fact that the previous government did not make enough places available, as quickly as possible," Gebauer told the Phoenix television station.

The reference to the mistakes of the respective predecessor government – it is often heard in education policy. And often even justified: Teacher training, including studies and traineeship, lasts around seven years – longer than any legislative period. So if there is a shortage of teachers, the old government is usually partly responsible. The consequences of her own work, on the other hand, will occupy the next government. Couldn’t we speed things up a bit more??

"Well, it’s not that easy to train them more quickly. There are now study times that have to be met, because: Of course, we also want a quality teacher, a quality teacher in our schools."

GEW: "Not a single teacher is created from the substitute budget"

Slimming down and speeding up studies – for Yvonne Gebauer that’s not a solution. Especially since almost all positions are filled, as the minister emphasizes. Maike Finnern is annoyed by this. Finnern is the chairwoman of the GEW, the German Education and Science Union.

"This frustrates me because it denies the realities. Because we have schools that are just 75, 80 percent staffed and far away from the 96. And they also have to teach somehow. And when it is then said that there is a substitution budget and that the schools can take responsibility for this, that is also okay. But that doesn’t mean that a single teacher will be created. It is no longer on the market. And that means: I know from reality which people are then hired. I don’t want to do anything bad to the people, but they are not at all qualified in part."

Lateral entrants can hardly compensate for the shortage of teachers

For the trade unionist, lateral entry is an ambivalent story: on the one hand, there is a danger of quality losses, but on the other hand, the new colleagues help out where the bottlenecks are particularly great. Vanessa Dahn, a career changer, realized right from the start that she was urgently needed. And: that it had to make up for it quite a bit. That was sometimes really hard.

"So, 18 hours of lessons a week that have to be prepared, exams that come in regularly, that have to be corrected – at the beginning, you’re really not quick at it. Then the teaching visits that have to be planned, when the subject leaders come to assess you. This must also be planned very extensively in writing. And then there is the learning time, which is also needed somehow. And reconciling family life with a small child – that was a real challenge."

Vanessa Dahn still has no regrets about the career change to school. But whether enough colleagues will follow her lead to cushion the teaching shortage by 2030 remains to be seen. Dealing with highly fluctuating numbers on the labor market for teachers is actually not a new challenge for policymakers, says Maike Finnern, the GEW’s leader.

"If you look back many years, we’ve always had what’s been called the ‘pig cycle’. That means that in the 1990s we had phases where we trained far too many teachers, who then didn’t even enter the teaching profession. And now we are in a phase where we have far too few teachers. That means, I think, the control of the training is certainly a question. And finally, the other question is: How attractive is it to go into the schools?? I think that’s a big point: How attractive are working conditions?? And what competition is there??"

Unions: Making teaching more attractive

From the point of view of the trade unionist, this is about questions of payment, the equipment of schools and the material and immaterial recognition of the teaching profession. After all, he said, salary adjustments are already being discussed in the states, especially for elementary school teachers, who have been comparatively poorly paid up to now. In addition, however, it was also a matter of not discouraging anyone from studying, adds education researcher Klaus Klemm, also looking back a few years.

"We had a situation in Munster a few years ago where you only had an admission to study for an elementary school teacher with an average grade of 1.9. Anyone who had a school-leaving certificate worse than 1.9 stood in front of the University of Munster and could not get in and could not study elementary education. And this has not only been Munster, this is everywhere in the republic: We have had a high numerus clausus in elementary school teaching with the consequence that hundreds, thousands of young women – elementary school teachers are mostly women – have been prevented from studying elementary school teaching qua politics, which we are missing now."

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