How an Innovative German School Turns Education Upside Down

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“…there are no grades until students turn 15, no timetables and no lecture-style instructions. The pupils decide which subjects they want to study for each lesson and when they want to take an exam (Source).” This is how The Guardian showcased a forward looking school in the heart of Berlin, Germany. The “Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum (ESBZ) is led by Margret Rasfeld – the probably most prominent principle in Germany. Under the leadership the school has grown in reputation and shown how a school can be organized radically different.
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Rasfeld’s book –  EduAction – describes the school in detail, but it has not been translated into English. Therefore, I’ve decided to give you a deeper look at what is being done at one of the most forward thinking schools in Germany.

The ESZB is a “Gemeinschaftsschule” (literally community school). These type of schools are fairly new to the German education landscape and they offer a more inclusive school form. Germany had ratified the  UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities guidelines back in 2009 and set itself the goal of ensuring that every student – including students with special education needs – can attend regular schools if they like (Source). The Gemeinschaftsschule seeks to improve upward social mobility and achieve better integration of migrant children into society. That means there are no admission requirements and it is prohibited to separate students based on their abilities. I’ve written a blog post about the German education system, which you can find here.

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I am fascinated by the school because of how it helps students develop. I don’t necessarily mean their academic skills, although they can be quite impressive. I am rather referring to the focus on developing character strengths, building deep relationships and building a solid moral compass in each student’s heart. Through their experiences at the ESBZ the students appear to have grown in confidence, self-efficacy, engagement and compassion. That should become obvious over the next few paragraphs.

In this post we’ll be looking at a timetable of an ESBZ student and go through the different “lessons” listed in it. We’ll also address the question of how well students are doing academically and they are being assessed.


The Timetable

The timetable below is from a 7th grader at a London secondary school. There are 25 lessons per week + 5 hours of pastoral time spread across every morning and afternoon of the week. All of these lessons are mandatory and the curriculum is fixed.

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Below is the timetable of a typical 7th or 8th grader at the ESBZ. Although the lessons are fixed, the content is selected by the students. There are obviously certain tropics that all students need to cover, but aside from these it is all driven by students. Finally, the majority of the lessons are something you would not be able to find at a regular school.

Let’s go through each of these “modules” and see how they work:

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Learning Bureau (Lernbüro)


Every morning, students spend 1.5 hours freely choosing the subject they want to study (German, English, Mathematics, Geography or History). As shown on the picture, worksheets are stored on bookshelves and sorted by topic. Students can choose any of these worksheets and get on with their learning.
Students are grouped into horizontal sets of 80 students that are composed of 7-9th graders. Teachers do not instruct, but act as Lernbegleiter (i.e. teaching assistants, mentors) who are viewed by students as the last resort in case their fellow students were not able to help them.


This arrangement leads to some interesting dynamics. First, giving students freedom over the subject and topic they want to spend time on gives them a feeling of control and agency, which is essential for human beings to feel content (see Daniel Pink’s “Drive“). Second, grouping students across year groups leads to more student-student learning. 9th graders can help 7th graders with their geometry work and refresh their own knowledge in the process. We know from memory research that relearning a topic after some forgetting has set in is a powerful way to consolidate memories as long-term memories. I would call this kind of social learning “quizzes in disguise”. Third, since teachers are not busy teaching they can focus on individual students who require more guidance.


Workshop (Werkstatt)

Students attend the Werkstatt (workshop) twice a week. In it, “7th graders get to choose a topic that matches their interests and abilities”. Here are some examples:

  • The “Let’s go Shopping – Fair Consumption” course allows interested students to learn about how consumption impacts the environment and how to minimize it.
  • A group of 10 girls formed “The Big Sisters” club where they visit a refugee home on a weekly basis and play with the kids that have recently fled to Germany from war stricken areas.
  • A group of students are working on a music video with the help of a film production company.
  • A father donated an old jolly boat, which the students fully restored in their woodworking area.

Just like the learning bureau, the workshop is student-led. The wide range of offers and strong practical elements makes it possible for all students to find something they might like. It challenges them to delve deep into a project and experience their own self-efficacy.


Social Learning and Student Council (Soziales Lernen and Klassenrat)

It is one of the core missions of German schools to educate students in their democratic thinking. Ideally, students leave the school being outspoken, responsible and socially active members of society. Just like other schools, students at the ESBZ attend classes in citizenship (Soziales Lernen) in which they discuss socially relevant topics. Students learn to develop their views and opinions and how to lead a proper discourse with others.

On top of these theoretical classes students are given 1 hour every week to run the Klassenrat (pupil’s council). In that hour, students deal with school-related topics such as mobbing incidents, the arrival and integration of new students or changes in the timetable. They also discuss their own projects such as organizing a school trip or redecorating their classroom. The whole lesson is student-led – from the contents to the decisions that are made. The teacher sits in the circle, rarely intervenes and may even have to leave the classroom if the students require more privacy (e.g. electing a teacher to be their mentor).


Topics are not only dealt with on a theoretical level, but they are also applied in a practical manner within the school context. Once more, students are given control over their daily lives, which means they have to take up responsibility. And through long discussions they learn from others’ point of views and how to have a discussion based on good arguments.


The Tutoring System

In case you were wondering how the teachers make sure that students are not falling off the rails – the tutoring system is the answer you’ve been looking for. Every student is assigned a teacher who acts as their tutor. The tutor is the student’s first point of contact and who keeps an overview of their progress in all subjects. They meet once a week to review the current and to plan the upcoming week. Students document their progress in a log book / planner that they have to bring to the meetings.

The big advantage of this approach is that students get a much more differentiated feedback on their progress and future targets. Students can better focus on their own progress instead of comparing themselves to others since everyone is doing something slightly different. Finally, since the students have a say in the planning process for the upcoming week, they can help set targets that are challenging, but realistic. The feeling of being confronted with attainable goals is crucial for their motivation. Too often have I seen students who have shut down because the lesson is going over their heads. This may in turn lead to self-doubt and a tendency to avoid challenges.



Over the course of the academic year, students need to complete 3 projects. Each project spans approximately 3 months. Every Thursday students are given 6 hours to work on their project. The topic can be anything from an in depth look at the French revolution to building a vegetable garden. Students are allowed to leave school during this time. They may want to talk to a historian about the French revolution or visit a local gardener to learn more about gardening. Teachers serve as mentors who step in when things become too challenging or go the wrong way. Their final work is presented in front of the school upon completion. It’s a bonus if the project has a social impact.

Students say they enjoy delving deep into a topic. School curricula are usually so crammed that every topic can only be studied superficially. I think that giving students so much time to work on a big project shows them just how complex things can be. It allows them to think in bigger terms.


School Assembly (Schülerversammlung)

“A school that does not know how to praise the week has not lived the week.” That’s what Rasfeld has to say about the value of praise. This school’s assembly is different from other schools in that teachers and students can come up on stage and highlight a special achievement by a teacher or fellow student. Praise can be given for small things such as “Mathilda helped me with my algebra today.” It may not be a grand thing in the large scheme of things, but for Mathilda, being praised in front of 400 students and teachers for something she has done is something quite the confidence boost. Standing on stage in front of 400 people can also be quite the challenge!

Giving praise so freely allows for students and teachers to express what matters to them. This in turn helps define what is being valued within the community. Over time, students internalize these values and carry them into their lives during and after they have left school.

I think it is needless to say at this point, but the assemblies are organized by the students.


Responsibility (Verantwortung)


According to the German Federal Agency for Civic Education the engagement within civil society has steadily decreased since 1999. That is a very frightening development since a democratic society depends on a strong public spirit and a shared sense of responsibility. But responsibility is not learned through books and moral pleas. It is rather learned by taking up real responsibility. Hence, the ESZB offers the course “Project Responsibility” in which 7th and 8th graders take up responsibility within their community for a year. Entrusting students with responsibility allows them to experience the positive effects that their own actions can have.

Ivi (15) describes how she helped primary school students plan and perform their own dance show (Source). The kids were anxiously awaiting Ivi’s arrival to the school and telling her she was the best dance teacher they ever had. These kinds of experiences can build tremendous self-confidence and give young people a sense of purpose they often don’t experience in a regular school.

The important aspect about this subject is that students feel needed and able to help (purpose and self-efficacy). Their achievements are showcased and celebrated during the school assemblies at the end of the academic year.


Challenge (Herausforderung)


During the the course “Project Challenge” students from 8-10th grade come up with a challenging task at the beginning of the year and work exclusively on it for 3 whole weeks. The project must take place off school premises. Each student is given 150 Euros of which they have to pay their rent, travel expenses and meals. 150 Euros is by far not enough money to cover those 3 weeks. Hence, students have to get creative. Here are some examples of what students did:

  • A group of 4 girls (8th grade) went on a hiking trip through France. The train ticket to Paris cost them nearly all of their 150 Euro pocket money. They asked local residents if they could setup their tents in their gardens, which was particularly difficult due to language barriers. None of the girls spoke French and the English language is not widespread on the French countryside. Their parents thought they wouldn’t make it, but were – needless to say – incredibly proud and amazed that they had pulled through. The deep friendships that these girls formed by living through these hard times made them inseparable.
  • A group of 5 girls organised a bike tour from Berlin to Greifswald (approx. 200 km). Although they were accompanied by an adult they were explicitly left to their own devices. During one evening they got lost because they were looking at their map completely wrong. The adult did not intervene. It is important for young people to work through mistakes on their own. They eventually found their way and successfully completed their bike trip.
  • A group of 9 students joined their teacher on a 13-meter yacht from Greifswald to southern Sweden and Denmark. At one point they experienced wind forces of 7-8, which can be very frightening. Pulling through such intense emotional experiences can be highly rewarding and allows an individual to grow as a person.  “When you’ve lived through such a tough experience for 3 weeks, life seems much easier afterwards” (Nicolas, 11th grade).
  • 9 boys decided to spend their 3 weeks practicing their music instruments for 8 hours per day in an small village on the countryside.They were accompanied by their music teacher who helped them progress. “After having spent 3 weeks practicing with the same people you know each person so well that you can talk about their strengths and weaknesses with ease. The boys went on to perform at their school and later at a congress in front of 1600 people. 9 encores were played that evening.
  • Henriette worked on a farm in southern France for 3 weeks in exchange for free accommodation and meals. She did not speak any French. Needless to say, traveling alone to another country has given her a tremendous confidence boost.
  • Loukie – an 8th grader – wrote a 300-page novel. He says he has learned to see through the eyes of his character, which has allowed him gain a deeper appreciation for the fact that humans beings differ in their views and opinions.


Staying abroad (3 months)

In their 11th grade students must spend 3 months abroad. They are free to choose the project they want to join as well as their destination. Here are some examples of what students did:

  • Antonia worked on a tee plantation in Darjeeling, India.
  • Agnes worked on a permaculture plantation in Argentina.
  • Shana went to Colombia to work for the NGO Fundación Viracocha and to re-discover her Colombian roots.
  • 4 students traveled to Yunnan, China to work on a reforestation project. They also managed to raise 7,500 Euros for the project.
  • Ben decided to attend a high school in Vancouver, Canada to improve his English skills.

I am a strong believer in inter-cultural exchanges. I think it is the best way to foster tolerance and understanding around the globe. Experiencing how other people lead radically different lives from yours is an eye-opening experience. It allows you to contrast your own life to theirs, which can teach you a lot about yourself – the privileges and shortcomings you may have as well as how to think about things differently.



Instead of having students sit the same exam at the same time, students at the ESZB are given the option of writing any exam whenever they feel ready. The advantage is that students can go into examinations knowing they prepared well. This also eliminates something quite toxic: comparing oneself with other students. The focus shifts away from comparison and towards self-improvement. The discussion starts to automatically revolve around what could have been done better rather than feeling bad about having done worse than other – something teachers struggle to achieve at regular schools.
Students do not receive numerical assessments (marks, grades) until 9th grade, which is when they start preparing for their Mittlere Schulabschluss (comparable to the GCSE). Prior to the 9th grade they are given written feedback on their progress, which is very similar to Montessori and Waldorf schools. Written feedback is more elaborate and multi-dimensional. The teacher can express positive and negative aspects at the same time, which is something grades cannot. Grades have one dimension – good or bad.


Why is this approach worth it?

Here is s a direct comparison of a more traditional school with the ESBZ:

Old system

New system (ESBZ)

Fragmented school day into lessons and subjects.

Long daily sessions, projects that stretch over months, students are given a choice on what to learn next.
Spoon-fed, externally driven, assessed. Practice independent learning skills, build on interests,  strengthen self-confidence.
Measured up against each other in a competitive system of winners and losers Emphasize the importance of the community, working together, caring for others
Theorize over abstract and hypothetical scenarios.

Turn theory into practice, act in meaningful ways.

Rasfeld realizes that a brighter future must begin with creating compassionate societies that care for one another and the planet as well as learn to handle the increasing complexity and disruptive changes on this day in age. The big transformation that Rasfeld envisions is very simple:

“Schools must have people at the core of all their actions.”

That means, teaching them how to build confidence, how to be compassionate human beings, how to be active citizens and carry responsibility for their society, and how to help solve global challenges such as the energy revolution or climate change.

We need more schools like this.


The principal – Margret Rasfeld – has radically restructured her school. … She got rid of standard 45-90 min lessons because they hinder project based work, which can often times take much longer than a lesson. …

Rasfeld talks of 3 columns the school focuses on:

  1. First column – learning to act – involves acquiring interdisciplinary competencies as well as experiencing self-efficacy.
  2. Second Column –

For example, the “Responsibility Project” requires 7th and 8th graders to spend 1 year serving their local community as an extracurricular activity. Students are given 2 hours out of their weekly school schedule to do this. The project culminates in a presentation of the work at the end of the school year where students are honoured for their work. These kinds of projects show students how real-life changes can be achieved through their own doing within their local community.

Experiencing ones own self-efficacy strengthens self-confidence. One way in which the ESBZ helps students experience their own self-efficacy is through the “Challenge Project”.  8th through 10th graders take up a challenge for 3 weeks. Most of the students get together in groups, but some venture out by themselves. Henriette spent 3 weeks on a farm in southern France although she didn’t speak any french. The family provided her with an accommodation and food in return for her work on the farm. Loukie – an 8th grader – wrote a 300-page novel during those 3 weeks. Unlike regular lessons where students are guided by their teacher, these girls were left to their own devices. Having successfully completed their challenge, these girls must have gained a lot of self-confidence. I don’t know of any 8th graders who wrote a 300-page novel, not because it is impossible, but because they never get the chance to try. The added value that students can gain from such projects is tremendous.


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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.