What makes teachers’ stress so special

It’s been 4.5 months since I published my last blog post and the reason is quite simple. I’m a schoolteacher and we – as in the profession – are considered to be one of the most stressful jobs out there. Let’s look at some stats:

  • The Teacher Workload Survey 2016 by the Department for Education (released: February 2017) states that teachers in England work on average 54.4 hours (Source). Across all professions, the European average lies at 37.4 hours and the British average at 36.3 hours (SOURCE), which means teachers in England work approximately 18 hours more per week (that’s 3.6 hours more per day) than the average British worker.

But it’s not just the hours. It is the nature of the job as well that has teachers switch professions at an impressive rate:

  • Nearly half of England’s teachers are planning to leave the profession in the next five years (Source) and a third of newly qualified teachers actually quit within five years after qualifying (Source).

Here is why I think teachers’ stress is very different from many other professions:


  1. It’s emotionally draining

Teachers are actors. They need to be able to express any type of emotion and direct them towards specific students. That in itself is very tiring. Within just 10 second you could find yourself expressing impatience at Abdul for not taken off his backpack, calming down Jared who is upset about having lost his favorite pen and express disappointment at Joel for sticking glue sticks onto the table. Now, let’s start with the lesson…

That lesson you thought was brilliantly planned the night before is very likely going to be torn to shreds. Much of the work a teacher puts into his/her work is not rewarded. On the contrary, students may refuse to do the activities you have meticulously planned and tell you straight in your face that your lessons are boring. As a teacher you are not supposed to condemn your students, but rather ask how you could help them succeed in your class. They may have just launched a successful attack on your self-confidence and shown you nothing but disrespect, but that’s what education is all about: helping young individuals better themselves.

Kids deserve a teacher who exudes passion about their subject at all times. A terrible lesson with your year 9 class doesn’t give you the right to be all cranky with your incoming year 8 class. They are not responsible for your bad mood and deserve an engaging teacher. So, put on your acting show and express emotions that are completely the opposite of what you are actually feeling 😀


  1. It’s cognitively exhausting

“A teacher makes 1500 education related decisions a day” (Source). Just getting 30 kids settled within the first 5 minutes of class requires insane multitasking, completely overwhelming your mental capacities. You need to be in the DEFENSE: “Sir, I don’t have a pen”, “can I quickly run to the toilet”, “I can’t find my book”, “MJ hit me”, “Abdul is sitting in my spot”, “Frances made fun of my mom” – as well as in the OFFENSE: “Get a pen from your partner”. “Have you checked for your book on every table?” “MJ, stop hitting him!”, “Abdul, go sit at your seat”, “Frances, one more insult and you’re out of here!”

While your main task should be to get the whole class settled: “All right everyone, take a seat”, “Jared, take off your backpack”, “stop running around and sit down”, “pick that up please”, “get going with the starter”. Great, so let’s start with the lesson…


  1. It has an insane learning curve

Starting as a newly qualified teacher feels like learning to juggle. Your brain cannot keep up with the relentless torrent of the classroom. I often found myself running around like a headless chicken frantically trying to put out fires as they occur. Many weeks passed before I had a moment of success and even then, I usually never found out why it worked. That makes repeating these moments very difficult and deprives you of that wonderful feeling of progress.

Teaching is not a list of procedural steps that will lead to success. Instead, teaching is an intuitive feeling about what will work and what won’t work. That feeling needs to be developed over many years. A juggler doesn’t say: “Now I need to move my hand to the left and catch the falling ball.” Instead, the juggler will intuitively know how to move to keep the balls in their air. They say that it takes about 3-5 years to become a good teacher. That time is need to develop that intuitive feeling – that ability to see the bigger picture and effectively work towards it rather than trying to dodge incoming bullets.


  1. Accountability

“OFSTED” – just an utterance of this word strikes fear into the hearts of most teachers and especially school heads. It is the name of the English school inspection body that rates schools on a scale from “Requires improvement” up to “Outstanding”. This label has a big impact on whether parents choose a school or not. Ofsted is the top of a long chain of accountability that empties into the teacher. To be prepared for an Ofsted inspection at any point in time (Ofsted may inform a school of an upcoming inspection only 24 hours in advance), line managers need to make sure that the teachers working under them do their job effectively. Hence, he/she may pop-in unannounced during a “learning walk”. Since it’s unannounced, teachers live with a constant worry that someone might catch them in a bad moment. Having your work judged by someone is always very stressful. Not knowing when that might happen even more so.

The other issue regarding accountability has to do with ticking all the check boxes that Ofsted would be looking at in order to derive their final ratings. Have you given written feedback to every child? Have they improved on their feedback? Did you call the parent upon issuing a detention? Did you enter all the marks for the term onto the system? Do you have evidence of how you support students with learning disabilities? What are you doing to push the students that are not making any progress?

Don’t get me wrong. An accountability system is a great quality assurer, but it also causes tremendous stress. Ticking all those boxes under such time constrains is difficult. Teachers WILL take shortcuts and the measures will not have the intended outcomes.


  1. It’s relentless

There is very little flexibility. 30 students will be expecting you at 8:30 AM. You can’t come a bit later to work or push the lesson to the afternoon. With 20-25 lessons per week there are an equal number of unmovable deadlines you have to meet. It doesn’t matter how much you feel like taking a break. How often have I sat at desk at midnight, trying to come up with creative lessons while battling the overwhelming feeling of being tired? It is relentless because this cycle won’t stop for 5-7 weeks. It’s like being strapped into a roller coaster. You can’t get out until reaching the end point

Teachers do get a LOT of holidays. In fact, English secondary teachers get XXX. But let me tell you – these holidays are absolutely essential. It is sadly quite difficult to communicate to non-teachers how essential these holidays are. I seriously doubt that I could stay in the profession without harming my physical and mental health if I didn’t have my holidays. All that drainage and damage need to be replenished and repaired.


What’s the solution?

 Although I haven’t reached that point yet, I do think it’s possible to reduce the teaching stress to an acceptable level under the current working conditions.

However, much of the stress reduction only happens after a long time. A teacher needs time to develop that intuitive feeling for what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom. The daily routines need to be handled without thinking about them much. The thick emotional armour needs to be developed and the learning curve will eventually level out. The most important skills a teacher needs to have are discipline and patience. That will get you over the hill – eventually.

An alternative would be to reduce the number of lessons a teacher has to teach per week. If I had to prepare only 15 lessons per week instead of 20, I could probably reduce my working hours from 50-60 to 40 hours per week.


But reducing teachers’ work load is just crazy talk.


Who would do such a thing…



How Intrinsic Motivation in Education is Undermined by Extrinsic Motivation

I have heard many people talk about intrinsic motivation and how we need to get more of it – especially in schools. But what exactly is intrinsic motivation and why should we nurture it? This is a 2-part blog post. In part 1 (this one) I explore what intrinsic motivation is and why it matters. In part two (follow the blog to get informed when it’s online)  I will explore how intrinsic motivation can be implemented in the classroom.


Psychologists usually distinguish between two types of motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when you engage in an activity in order to reach a certain goal. For example, practicing for a recital or working hard for a promotion or studying for good grades. Compare that to intrinsic motivation where you engage in an activity for the sake of the activity. For example, dancing, singing, playing an instrument or a computer game.


Wait, why am I doing this?

As a teacher I wonder about how external motivators such as grades or behaviour points affect the intrinsic motivation of my students to learn. I want my students to develop a positive attitude towards learning and continue to learn even after having left school. However, many of my students engage with learning because of such external motivators. It is only logical to conclude that at least some of these students may stop pursuing knowledge once these external motivators are no longer present. I often hear sentences like “Sir, is this enough for a ‘good work’ point?” or “Sir, can you call my parents and let them know that I did well today?”How can I inspire children if their attention is not directed towards the content of the lesson, but rather on the reward that comes with it?

We want our children to find things in life such as a career or a hobby that they will enjoy. But by linking a joyful activity to an extrinsic motivator they may miss the joy that lies within the activity. They may one day find themselves – like so many of us – wondering why they are doing what they are doing and having trouble identifying their true passions.

A joyful activity may become a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

But is all of this actually true? Can extrinsic motivators decrease intrinsic motivation?

This question was first addressed in 1973 (Source). Researchers gave 3-5 year olds a set of brand new magic markers. After having drawn with them for some time they split the children into three groups. The reward group was promised a gold star if they drew with the magic markers for 6 minutes. The surprise reward group received the gold star after 6 minutes completely unexpected. Finally, the no reward group received no reward.

A few weeks after the experiment the researchers went back to check how much children were using the markers. Surprisingly, children from the reward group were using the markers half as much as children from the surprise reward and the no reward group. The gold star had significantly affected how much these children enjoy drawing – in the long run. It is as if they had forgotten why they were drawing in the first place.

solving_the_puzzle_why_do_kids_love_puzzles.jpgA more powerful illustration of how rewards can have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation came in 1976. Students were presented with 7 puzzles, which were ranked in order of difficulty. Some of the students were told that they would get a reward upon solving a puzzle (reward group) and some weren’t promised anything (no reward group). The results showed that students from the reward group chose significantly less difficult puzzles compared to the students from the no reward group (Source). If we take puzzle-solving as an analogy for all the challenges we encounter in our lives it becomes blatantly obvious how easy external motivators can hijack intrinsic motivation. We stop seeing puzzles as what they are – a fun activity – and gaze over to see the reward. Solving the puzzle has stopped being the source of joy. Instead, the new source of joy is now the reward. The puzzle is now only a means to an end. Finally, think about the quality of a child’s work if they are seeing the activity only as an intermediate step? How much better would their work be if they would pour their hearts into it?

Countless studies over the decades have linked intrinsic motivation to a range of positive outcomes such as more creative work (Source), more pro-social behaviour (Source), better long-term retention of information (Source) and better problem-solving skills (Source). But even more importantly, people report higher levels of psychological well-being when engaging in intrinsically rewarding activities (Source). If children are supposed to become the passion-driven leaders we want them to be we might want to think about how we can foster their intrinsic motivation.


That is all good and well, but how exactly can I as a teacher foster intrinsic motivation in my students?

Part 2 of this blog with take a look at concrete ways of how intrinsic motivation can be implemented in the classroom. These findings can also be applied to one’s personal life. Follow this blog to get an update as soon as part 2 is out.

Integrating 325,000 Refugee Children Into the German Education System

In a post from September 2015 I had written about how Germany plans to get 250,000 refugee children into school. Much has happened in the last six months and I’d like to give you a short update:

A Syrian refugee flashes a victory sign at Reyhanli refugee camp in Hatay province on the Turkish-Syrian border March 31, 2012. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

A Syrian refugee flashes a victory sign at Reyhanli refugee camp in Hatay province on the Turkish-Syrian border March 31, 2012. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

The German education system welcomed 325,000 refugee children in the years 2014 and 2015 (Source). With about 11 million students (Source), the additional 325,000 children make up about 3% of the overall student body. The Ministers of Education (Kultusministerkonferenz) has already recruited 12,000 new teachers over the last 2 years, but that is hardly sufficient. At the moment, Germany is looking for 20,000 additional teachers (Source). However, the President of the Deutsche Lehrerverband Josef Kraus stated that 400,000 to 500,000 children can be expected in the long run, which would imply 50,000 additional teachers would be needed. Retired teachers have received letters in their mail from the state asking them to consider returning to school (Source). The additional costs are estimated at €2.3 billion a year (Source).

bundespraesident-joachim-gauckThe German President Joachim Gauck already stated last year that the integration of migrants into German society is a bigger challenge than the German reunification process that began in 1990 and continues to this day. Paraphrasing Gauck, while German reunification was about merging two parts that belonged together, today’s integration is about merging two parts that didn’t belong together before (Source). Especially the cultural differences will pose a major challenge for both sides – Germans as well as Syrians/Iraqis/Afghans/…

The numbers are not necessarily the biggest challenge. The UK for example is expecting 615,000 additional students until 2020 (Source), which is significantly more than what Germany expects. However, the additional 5 years of planning time that the UK has to its disposal is only one aspect that makes this comparison rather problematic. Nearly all of the children arriving in Germany do not speak German, while most of the additional students in the UK are expected to have some or even advanced English skills. Since January 2016, the German education system has already been offering 8,200 introductory classes to 194,000 refugee children across the (Source). The idea is to teach children basic German skills before transitioning them into the regular classroom.

While the UK can largely focus on simply teaching their newcomers, the German education system will have to do much more. The Social Pediatrics Department of the Technical University Munich estimates that 22.3% of refugee children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Source). With an estimated 325,000 refugees in school, this would imply 36,000 cases of PTSD. Michael Deckert who manages daycare centers in Würzburg recalls: “All kids are happily playing in the garden when suddenly a rescue helicopter flies over the compound towards the university hospital. The German kids look up, laugh and wave – the Syrian kids hide and run screaming into the house filled with fear” (Source). There is a dire need for social workers and special training for teachers to help these children (Source).

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 18.36.20Does the German population support the integration of so many newcomers? Looking at a popularity poll for the major German political parties shows that the CDU (grey line) led by Chancellor Angela Merkel lost considerably over the last year. In contrast, the AfD (blue line), a right-wing populist party, has gained massively. In February 2016, 47% of Germans thought that Merkel was doing a rather good job, while 50% were dissatisfied with it (Source). That is still a considerable amount of support given the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, which could have easily led to a more widespread anti-refugee populist right-wing movement. Around September 2015 Germany welcomed on some days more than 10,000 refugees per day. That figure has dropped to 200 (Source) due to fences along the Balkan countries as well as an agreement with Turkey that obliges the country to take back any refugee who reaches EU soil without an entry permit. This makes the situation less acute and is expected to weaken populist right-wing groups such as the AfD.

Although the outcome of the refugee crisis is as unclear today as it was two years ago, the country has committed itself already on all levels (political, economical, social) to the challenge. The question is not whether refugees should be admitted, but rather how they can be integrated successfully. Although nationalist right-wing movements are still strong, there is still a solid base within society, which supports the current course of action. I want to leave you with a video that the German comedian Jan Böhmermann made as a protest against right-wing groups.

How to Apply to a PGCE Program

Teachers wantedWhat if I told you that there is a way to become a qualified teacher within a year with little upfront costs? The only requirement you have to bring to the table is a Bachelors’ Degree as well as some basic Math and English proficiency. Your nationality and the subject you studied in your Bachelor don’t matter. Still interested? Then read on and learn about the Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) and how to apply for it!


The reason I am writing this is twofold. First, not many people outside the UK know about the PGCE, which is a shame because everyone can apply for it. Second, applying for the PGCE can be tricky if you don’t know anybody who has gone through the process. It was an uphill battle for me, but I managed and now want to pass on that knowledge to you.

Teaching is a fascinating line of work. Many of the usual factors that people from other careers complain about – things like monotonous work, little personal development and no societal contributions – don’t exist when working with kids. You carry tremendous responsibility, every day is like no other and you never stop learning.

I was always interested in education, but never considered becoming a teacher. In Germany – where I’m from – teacher training takes seven years! First you have to attend lectures for five years and pass the state examination. If you pass you can start your two-year traineeship at a school. If you pass all of these hurdles you are finally a fully accredited teacher. After having spent 5 years studying already I wouldn’t have considered spending another 5 years without a salary, even though if studying in Germany is for free. Just when I thought that teaching would not be an option for me anymore I heard of the PGCE.

12063292_10153643776951823_2402302449390641618_nI started my application in April 2015, sent it to universities in July and got my first successful application in September – a six month process. I am now training at Brunel University London to become a secondary science teacher. I have been teaching my first classes since last week at an outstanding school in the heart of London (20 observations I made at a London inner-city school). I’m always exhausted, but having a lot of fun. I am very confident that this is the right thing for me.

Let’s make yours a reality. Also, SHARE this with friends who might want to work as teachers!



    • What will it cost me? Tuition fees and bursaries.
    • What will I earn as a teacher?
    • Teaching routes other than PGCE
    • Translate documents
    • Prepare a UK visit
    • Get 2 Letters of Recommendation
    • Apply through UCAS



What will it cost me? Tuition fees and bursaries.

The PGCE tuition fees are in total £9,000 and you’ll be spending at least £400 for rent each month. In total, you’ll have about £15,000-20,000 costs in a year. If you can pay it, that’s wonderful! For the rest of you, here is what you can do:

If you are a foreign student you will have a hard time getting a loan – you are only eligible if you have lived in the UK for 3 or more years (Source). However, don’t forget to look at the bursary you are eligible for (Source). Your bursary depends on (a) your previous grades and (b) the subject you want to teach. These “1st”, “2:1” and “2:2” notations can be a bit confusing. Go ahead and check in which column you would fall by checking the “Overseas degree equivalency” (here).

Suppose you want to teach Biology with a 2:2 degree. That means you will be guaranteed a bursary of £15,000. Your tuition fees are £9,000, which leaves you with £6,000. If your living expenses are ~£800 per month you will have additional costs of about £8,000 (from September to May). You’ll be £2,000 short. That’s still a sweat deal I must say.

What will I earn as a teacher?

“On average, a teacher earns £37,400 a year” (Source). However, based on a blog by a fellow PGCE student (Source) you will probably start with about £1,300 per month in your pocket each month. Living expenses will probably be around £800. That leaves you with about £500 savings per month. You clearly don’t become a teacher for the money, but your wage will increase over the years. Your chances of landing a job are utopian. “9 out of 10 newly qualified teachers were employed within six months of completing training” (Source).


Teaching routes other than PGCE

I will be explaining how to apply for the PGCE, but you should be aware of these alternative routes:

  1. PGCE Primary Education: kids between the ages six and 14.
  2. School-centered initial teacher training (SCITT): While PGCE programs are offered by universities, SCITT programs are offered by schools. SCITT’s give you even more exposure to the school environment. Also, you can start earning a salary during your training. The downsides are that (a) you get less theoretical training, (b) you cannot continue with a Master of Education (MEd) and (c) you don’t get the PGCE, which can become important if you want to work internationally.
  3. Early years teacher: Teach kids between the ages zero and five.
  4. Further education: Teach 14 year olds to adults. You can teach vocational courses (e.g. apprenticeships), languages and many other training programs.
  5. Teach First: Teach First is an NGO that places you in schools in low-income areas. You get paid from day one, but you have to bring good grades and be quite resilient as your students will often times be very challenging. This is their YouTube channel.



You can already officially apply for the academic year 2016/2017. It’s a rolling application, which means, the earlier you apply the better your chances. You can still get into a program in July (like I did), but your chances will diminish the longer you wait. I consider myself to be extremely lucky to have gotten a spot for this year. Hence, start now!

Orient yourself along the flowchart I made.Infographic PGCE Apply




DO THIS NOW – Translate Documents

If you went to school and/or university abroad you will have to get your degrees checked by NARIC (here). Select the “Statement of Comparability” service (here), upload all your documents from secondary school to PhD (certificate + transcript). The service costs £55,20 and takes about 10-15 working days. If your documents are NOT in English, then you’ll have to go for a “Statement of Comparability with Translation Waiver Service” (here), which can be done for these languages: Arabic, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Danish, Farsi, French, German, Italian, Macedonian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish. If your language is not among these then you have to get them translated and certified by a notary in your country before sending them in English to NARIC. The translation takes 10-15 working days.


As soon as you have your documents translated, you can (AND SHOULD) apply for the “Premier Plus” service on the “Get into Teaching” website. You will get an actual teacher to guide you through the application process. This is a free service and you must absolutely take advantage of this. However, the service is only available for students with a 2:2 degree or better.


DO THIS NOW – Prepare your UK visit

There are three things you need to take care of in the UK:

  1. The Literacy Skills Test: If you didn’t do the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) during your education, then you have to take the tests. It doesn’t matter how good your English is. The test is free of charge and can be taken up to three times. It checks for your spelling, punctuation, grammar and comprehension. You can access past test to practice before taking the test (Past Tests) and you can sign up at a local test center (Skills Test). I really can’t say how difficult it will be for you. It may be a walk in the park or for you or require a few days of preparation.
  2. The Numeracy Professional Skills Test: Same story. Take it if you didn’t do the GCSE. You can take the test at the same test center and even on the same day if you like. Past exams are here and you can sign up here. I highly recommend the past tests. Take a day or two to prepare for this. It’s not difficult, just many things that you probably have forgotten by now.
  3. At least 5 School Experience Days: You need to have been observing lessons at a UK school for at least 5 days (some universities only require 3, some more than 5). Your experience will form a central part of your Letter of Motivation. Universities will not consider you if you don’t have the required experience days. You can (1) write schools directly and ask if they would have you and (2) access a booking system by the Department for Education (Source). You can only get access if your foreign degrees have been translated by NARIC to be 2:2 or better.


DO THIS NOW – Get Two Letters of Recommendation

Your first letter of recommendation should come from a university or college, preferably somebody who knows you well. Your second letter of recommendation should be someone who can comment on your character and suitability for teaching. Read the details here.



Apply Through UCAS

First, find the universities you want to apply to. I would first choose a city where you want to do your PGCE. This can be England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland uses a different system and they don’t offer the PGCE (they have a very similar program called the PGDE. It’s definitely worth checking out if you want to study in e.g. Edinburgh, Glasgow or St. Andrews). It makes a lot of sense to apply to London based universities because (a) there are so many of them and (b) you won’t have to travel across the country for the interviews.

If you want to find out about the quality of the program, the best thing you can do is check out the latest Ofsted inspection (Source). Ofsted is a very respected governmental body that assures quality at universities and in schools. You want to find university programs that have been rated ‘outstanding’.

You can start your application via the UCAS Teacher Training site (Source). You can apply to three universities. The application fee is £23.

These are the components you need to submit with your application.

  1. Letter of Motivation: You can get some help on how to write it (Source). In short, you need to talk about (1) why you want to become a teacher, (2) your observations during the school experience days, (3) why you think you’ll be a great teacher, (4) what you’d like to do after the PGCE.
  2. 2 Letters of Recommendation: Here are the basic guidelines (Source).



If all your applications failed you enter the Apply 2 track. You can basically continue applying to one university at a time until September/October when the courses start. You don’t have to pay an extra fee.



If the university is interested in you they will invite you for an interview. That means, you have to book a second flight and come over to the UK. Alternatively, you may ask them to schedule an interview over Skype. You should also have a reason why you applied to that specific university! Your host university will tell you what to bring, but in short you can expect to bring along the following:

  • ID with photo
  • Evidence of GCSE equivalent degree (NARIC translated)
  • Certificates (e.g. Bachelors’ Degree) à May need to be original
  • Transcripts showing the grades of all individual subjects à May need to be original
  • Evidence that you passed the Literacy and Numeracy Professional Skills Test

You may be asked to:

  • Give a presentation (prepared in advance)
  • Simulated classroom with a bad behaving student
  • Personal interview with the recruiter
  • Write further tests: The universities sometimes have in-house test in order to ensure that you fulfill their standards.



If you are given an unconditional offer you are all set. Start looking for a place to live because you are starting your teacher training in September!

If you are given a conditional offer you will probably have to take a Subject Knowledge Enhancement (SKE) course in the subject you want to teach. The courses can sometimes take until July/August – depending on the course you want to teach. But don’t worry! These courses don’t cost anything and you can even get a bursary of up to £7,200 for that (Source)! They may start as early as in April and their duration varies depending on the subject you need to freshen up. Find out more about SKE courses (Source).



Once you’ve successfully applied to a PGCE program you can look forward to one heck of a year. It is going to be very demanding. You’ll be training in the classroom from October to December and then again from February to May. The successful completion of the PGCE will allow you to work in any school in the United Kingdom (excluding Scotland) as a so called “Newly Qualified Teacher” or NQT. In your first year you will still be observed in your classroom from time to time. If the observers (other teachers) are confident that you do your job well you will be awarded the “Qualified Teacher Status” or QTS. Congratulations, you can now work as a teacher without supervision!
Finally, you can also work as a teacher abroad since the PGCE is recognised by many countries and schools around the world. However, your QTS can only be done at a British school. Keep that in mind!

Do let me know if you have any further questions. I’d be more than happy to help you out!
And don’t forget to subscribe to my blog. It would be great to see you around!

20 Observations I made at a London inner-city school 

Over the past 3 months I have been working at a London inner-city school. Having been educated in the German system I was able to experience a British school with a contrasting perspective. Let me know in the comments how this British school differs from your school or national education system. I’d love to hear how things are done where you are!

  1. Students line up outside the classroom and before the lesson and inside the classroom after the lesson, waiting for the teacher to invite them in or release them, respectively. They also line up after lunch break to enter the building in an orderly fashion
  2. Yellow separating lines in the corridors and on stairs make sure that two-way traffic is possible within the school building.
  3. Between lessons the teaching staff stand in the corridors to make sure that students get to their next class in a quiet and orderly fashion.
  4. Students wear school uniforms. Students in casual attire may not enter the school building. Teachers are asked to dress formally and address each other with ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’. Addressing a teacher by their first name is not allowed.
  5. Nike and Adidas backpacks are terribly fashionable. I estimate that 90% of all students have one. Similarly, sports shoes are a source of pride, especially for the boys.
  6. Mobile phones are strictly prohibited on school grounds. Any spotted device will be immediately confiscated for at least a number of days.
  7. In class, each student has a work book for every subject, which they are not allowed to take home. The teachers keep them, grade the quality of the work and provide written feedback. Worksheets are glued in.
  8. Teachers try to minimise passive learning (classical teaching) and try to engage students through activities – from crossword puzzles to tinkering with circuit boards.
  9. Teachers need to be able to prove that learning occurs in every single lesson. Therefore, teachers present the ‘learning objectives’ at the beginning of the class. At the end of the lesson the students have to write into their workbooks what they learned in that lesson. 
  10. Teachers have access to a database, which details previous, current and expected grades as well as any identified special needs (e.g. learning difficulties, emotional or psychological instabilities) and financial standing (free school meals) for every student. This information is used to provide extra support for disadvantaged students.
  11. The date is also used to set the difficulty of the tasks during the lesson as well as the difficulty of the homework. Teachers are held accountable for providing each student with the appropriate difficulty. It may be that the teacher has to prepare the same worksheet in three variants in order to cover all the levels of ability of the students in a class. On top of that come special needs students.
  12. A number of staff members deal exclusively with the special needs students. They offer one-on-one tutoring and lots of psychological coaching (anger management, self-confidence building).
  13. Teachers can ask lab technicians to organise an experiment in advance and have the materials delivered to the classroom. Sometimes the lab technicians will even perform demonstrations (e.g. alkali metals in water).
  14. Students of a year group (year 7, year 8 etc,) are organised into classes (7A, 7B etc.) based on their levels of ability. The most able students are in the A-set (7A, 8A etc.). A year 8 student may be in 8A for English, but in 8C for Science and in 8D for History.
  15. Every six weeks the students are reevaluated and can move up or down in the classes. In rare cases, students can skip a year. Repeating a year practically never happens.
  16. When a student disrupts the class the teacher writes the names on the board. Two further disruptions lead to a ‘demerit’ (a negative point that is recorded school-internally). A third disruption can lead to same-day detention. Students may also be sent outside the classroom for a few minutes or their parents might get a ‘bad news slip’, which details their disruptive behaviour.
  17. Every week a few kids get excluded from school for a few days due to improper behaviour. A kid tried to trip me, which led to a two-day exclusion.
  18. The so called ‘pastoral managers’ are equipped with walkie-talkies and assist teachers upon request by paying classrooms a visit and restoring behaviour that is conducive for learning. They have the power to keep, exclude and expel students. They are highly respected by the students.
  19. Good behaviour is rewarded with ‘merits’, which are – just like demerits –accumulated over the year. Merits can lead to great prizes such as a Samsung tablet or a bicycle, while demerits may result in the student not being allowed to go on school trips. Students can be expelled on the basis of bad behavior.
  20. Every classroom is equipped with a surveillance camera, which is often times used as evidence when one statement stands against another statement. One kid was caught frequently disconnecting the power cable from the computer to stall the class.

Let me know in the comments how this British school differs from your school or national education system. I’d love to hear how things are done where you are!

Merry Christmas!

School in Prison – An Experience Report

Disclaimer: The name of the prison is not mentioned and the names of the inmates have been altered for privacy protection purposes. 

7092845355_bc0bdb1453_k (1)9 AM. Security guards line up along the corridor at a young offenders prison in the UK. They escort one inmate at a time to their respective classroom. I only carry my notepad and a pen – anything else including phones is strictly prohibited. The inmates are between 15 and 18 years old and wear grey sweatshirts and sweatpants. As they walk down the corridor they turn and shout, asking for my name – clearly not shy. The large majority of them committed thefts or robberies, but a handful are in for murder or rape. I don’t know who is in for what and some of my colleagues have chosen not to inquire. They say it changes your perception of the inmate in a negative way. Together with Maggie, an art teacher, I wait in the corridor until all inmates have entered. She unlocks the classroom door using one of the keys on her heavy keychain that she carries in a special pocket fixed around her belt. She locks the door behind us.

12528604_83f1f5e748_oI meet Andrei, a 16 year old who moved with his family from Rumania to the UK. Andrei is a Romani (‘Gypsy’). He was caught by the police robbing a corner store and was sentenced to half a year in prison. I am told that he could hardly speak English when he arrived three months ago, but he has come a long way since then. I find him arguing with his British inmates about whether the Volga is an actual river. In March he will be deported back to Rumania, where his father as well as his girlfriend are waiting for him. He is supposed to get married and expects to have children very soon. He wants to live in Germany some day. His mom took off along with his three sisters after she found out that he had smoked weed. I can see how is cheerful character recedes as he tells me that he may never see them again. It truly pains him. He promised himself never to smoke weed again and hopes to make things right with his mom in the future. Like most of the inmates Andrei regrets what he did. When I was asked about what the inmates were like I found myself saying over and over again: “They’re just kids who did something stupid.”

On a Friday we admitted a 16 year old boy named Mark who had robbed a woman with two of his buddies on the street. Mark was clearly frightened as he was only incarcerated yesterday. He seemed quite shaken, but accepting of his new reality. I can only imagine how tough it must be for a 16 year old to lie in his bed at night, inside a locked room, listening to the other inmates shouting through the walls, trying to have a conversation. No soothing words of your parents across the phone line, no internet to distract your mind. The full realisation of your situation sinks in.

Mark tried to commit suicide over the weekend. He is now being monitored very closely.

5997920696_ecb224068e_bThe plexiglas windows have steel bar reinforcements and the doors are locked by the teacher from the inside. In case of an emergency, the teacher can press a green button on the wall, which will summon security guards within 10-20 seconds. A lot can happen in 20 seconds, given you reach the green button. There have been cases of violence against teachers – it’s a very real job hazard. However, most of the violence occurs between the inmates. I saw security guards rushing past my classroom because a boy had thrown chairs at another boy. He had to get stitches. In one of my classes, one of my boys threw another over the table – supposedly play fighting. It’s understandable why teachers refrain from pushing the kids too much.

school education prisonIn theory, the boys have excellent conditions to pursue their school work. They get 30 hours of education per week, classes have no more than 2-7 students and teachers can often times tutor them on a one-on-one basis. The lessons can be tailored to individual goals and needs. Every inmate gets a cell with a desk and a chair to work in peace. The classrooms are just 3 minutes away by foot. Ideal conditions – in theory.

In practice, most of the kids hardly make any progress. Most of them were never good at school and never learned how to work with discipline and persistence. Most of them don’t have academic goals such as passing their GCSE or A-Levels. An achievement mindset has to be taught – primarily by the parents who set an example. Many of the inmates have poor socio-economic backgrounds, nobody to push them forward and no emphasis on education. The teachers they meet in prison are in many cases the only person in a long time who tries to push them forward academically.

It pains me to see that many teachers actually don’t push the inmates very much. The drive and the sense of accountability that I felt in the presence of other teachers at an outstanding school in central London was missing inside the prison. Teachers don’t stick around long enough to build deep enough relationships. Maybe, teachers have little hope in truly having an impact on the lives of these children. Many of them only stay for 100 days or half a year and then return to the very environment in which they derailed in the first place. It is difficult – if not impossible – to achieve true and lasting changes in a young person’s life within such a short amount of time. Education is all about patience. A the delicate offshoot needs to grow in a protected space until strong enough to stand by itself. Teachers cannot be expected to solve such deep running problems within 100 days. Maybe they don’t push the inmates because they have no hope for them.

Connor was by far the brightest student I met during my stay. He was 17 years old and hasn’t gone to school for three years. He wanted to know what the Large Hadron Collider does and whether cancer will soon be curable in all cases I explained to him how mutations lead to cancer, why they are detrimental for the body, how chemotherapy works and why a bone-marrow transplant is such an ingenious therapy for Leukemia patients. His thirst for knowledge was incredible and much more than that of any student I have ever met in school. He told he he wants to do his GCSE and A-Levels, but thinks these degrees are unattainable for him. He lacks a lot of self-confidence.

Even if Connor pushes himself over the remaining half year in prison he will probably not continue on a success trajectory. Many return to prison because they derail in their home environments – just like they did in the first place. There are exceptions to the rule and I hope that Connor can pull through, but the odds are stacked against him. Conner does have more of a shot than the others and it is for inmates like him that teachers have to continue pushing.

Yes, Andrei, Mark and Conner have the odds stacked against them. Teachers can only influence them for a short period of time, they’ll return to the same environment that got them into prison and will likely be back in a few  months. Education will only be stressed inside prison. But maybe, if teachers push the inmates enough, they can foster enough self-confidence and communicate the importance of education so that the boys can continue on that trajectory without external help. In an ideal world, the prison would offer an intervention plan that stretches beyond their prison stay. They would get the needed support until they can support themselves. In the end they are just kids who did something stupid and don’t have the support they need. They are lost and need guidance from adults who care about them and their academic achievements. 30 hours of school per week is a good start, but hardly enough for the most needy kids out societies. May these kids beat the odds. I wish them all the best.

A Case for More Discipline in Education

In Summary

  1. This post is based on a leading German education veteran called Bernhard Bueb who led the renowned boarding school Schule Schloss Salem in south Germany.
  2. He argues that the ability to ‘make an effort’  has to be taught to young people repetitively
  3. This can only occur if students accept their parents and teachers as their leaders who act in their interest.
  4. Parents and teachers carry the responsibility to act as potters who mould their children by setting appropriate tasks.
  5. As young people develop the ability to set their own goals and pursue them they earn independence of external guidance.
  6. Discipline should ideally lead to self-discipline, but it takes a lot of leadership from adults and lot of trust and discipline from young people. An old saying: “Sometimes you have to force others to their happiness”


What This Post is Based on

bs-buebThe Schule Schloss Salem is a world renowned boarding school located in the south of Germany. It has been educating the elite since 1920 including Prince Philip – Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Sofia of Spain and Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark. Bernhard Bueb, headmaster of the school between 1974-2005, published a bestselling book in 2006 entitled “Lob der Disziplin: Eine Streitschrift” (translation: “Praising Discipline: A Polemic”) (Source). In it, Mr. Bueb talks about the importance of discipline in education, as witnessed at Schule Schloss Salem. This post recounts some of the points he made to an English speaking audience.

The Gardener’s Rule

People usually don’t like the word ‘discipline’ very much. We associate it with things like duty, rules, self-control and even compulsion and submission. Discipline requires effort, which humans actively try to avoid. However, we admire people who are disciplined. It is a universally sought after character trait because it allows one to overcome difficulties and reach goals.

PotterPlantBueb groups teachers and their teaching styles into gardeners and potters.  Teaching like a gardener means to promote, foster, nurture, encourage, facilitate and support your students. They believe that students will find their way all by themselves if they follow their interests and get the necessary support from their teachers.
On the other hand, teaching like a potter means to force, demand and push students as well as subject them to the leadership of the teacher. In other words, they demand discipline. Such teachers see themselves as blind dogs that guide students along a path they believe to be appropriate.

Today’s zeitgeist clearly favours the gardener. The teaching profession is shifting from a role of authority and leadership to a role of mentoring and nurturing. Students are given more and more choice in their studies and their extracurricular activities instead of having teachers decide what would be most appropriate for them. I would like to argue for the potters among the teachers. I believe we need more discipline in schools because it is in the best interest of the very students we teach.


Discipline is Effort

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 22.51.00An infant is hardly able to suppress its desires. It acts out of pure impulse. By forcing a young person to do something they don’t like they can learn to appreciate the positive outcomes that come with effort. They learn that suppressing their impulses and resist temptations can have great benefits. The graph below illustrates how we reach our goals by overcoming initial effort. For example, a student prepares tirelessly for the big drama class performance. Another student studies for days on end for the upcoming exams. Such behaviour is not trivial and needs to be taught through many cycles of repetition. It takes many years of schooling and lots of parental guidance to engrain an understanding of how making an effort leads to desirable outcomes. Eventually, students learn to discipline themselves and become free from guidance – they become more free.


Discipline and Freedom

In school, teachers impose their authority over students by setting challenging tasks they don’t necessarily want to do because teachers want them to experience the positive outcomes of their demands. With time, students learn to apply their effort-making abilities to reach their own goals, essentially achieving self-discipline. This earns them more freedom because they become able to pursue their own goals without the guidance of a mentor. However, the first steps in their early years can only be achieved with the help of enforced guidance because young people are most of the time not able to see the advantages of making an effort without having experienced it themselves. The German poet Paul Fläming said that “he who masters and can control himself can conquer the whole wide world” (translated from German).

Children think that freedom means the exemption of rules (e.g. ‘the freedom to drink alcohol’ or ‘the freedom to stay at the party until midnight’). These rules exist for the protection of young people. They can be lifted if children show that they can handle that freedom responsibly. In the ideal case, parents and teachers act like a benevolent dictatorship that gives more freedom to a child as it matures.


Discipline Requires Trust

6060083868_4b51418347_bRelationships are two-way streets. Although young children are strongly dependent on adults to guide them, they must in return have to know that adults are acting in their interest. The idea is that children will only make an effort if they trust the guiding adult. Teachers must be accepted as professionals who know the student, can guide him or her through the education landscape and towards a brighter future. Think of teachers as guide dogs. They know the terrain and can guide each student along a certain path depending on their needs. But they can only do so if the student trusts their leadership and willingly completes the guidelines. Teachers could let students wander the forest by themselves and make sure they progress. However, only by forcing students along certain paths can they learn to appreciate things that lay outside of their perspective. An old saying is very fitting at this point: “Sometimes you have to force others to their happiness.”


What to Do?

Bernhard Bueb suggests that schools should teach their students more discipline. The goal still is to educate independent minds that can set and pursue their own goals without the guidance of another person, but that ability needs to be taught. Teachers and the school leadership should use their knowledge of the individual student to select coursework and activities that are more beneficial to the development of the student. This requires that students and parents trust the judgment of teachers and school leadership to make the right choices towards the development of a child. Asking young people to do things they don’t like (e.g. coursework) will strain the relationship to the student, but it can endure if the student can trust the leadership of the teacher.

I’d love to hear your opinion on this. Do you agree with this train of thought and have something to add? Do you have some counter-arguments?