Frustration in Schools

When Students Don’t Learn And Teachers Don’t Teach, Motivation Soon Dies

What’s the point of teaching, with little recognition, poor working conditions, and few career prospects? If they had the chance, a third of all EU science and math teachers would change to another career, a recent OECD study revealed.

The students aren’t motivated either. They are less willing to learn and often finding themselves in programs they aren’t interested in or ill prepared for, PISA researcher Günter Haider reported in early February.

But even more prevalent are signs of administrations unwilling to adapt.

“I was extremely motivated to bring about change at my school,” explained Ludwig Frisch, a computer science teacher, “but neither my colleagues nor the Landesschulrat were willing to invest capital or time into new projects.”

Nevertheless, creating a productive learning environment and thus breaking free from the vicious circle of de-motivation of both students and teachers is a key priority of many European policy-makers, in response to years of generally very devastating results of PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment.

“A motivated teacher is not only one who feels satisfied in school, but is also determined to strive for excellence and professional growth,” the OECD report states. But teacher wonder how they can be motivated if students are just waiting for their legal school obligation to end?

Teachers’ frustration shows in different ways: Heinz Heufried, a secondary school math teacher, describes people responding to him differently once they found out he was a teacher. Once, a gynecologist he met, hearing he was a teacher, asked him perplexedly what teachers actually do. Another IT teacher, Johannes Seidler, formerly on the management board of a company, still uses his old business cards as he believes teachers are not respected.

Teachers are also frustrated with the poor quality of students: Declining enrollments in in many districts mean that students who wouldn’t have been able to attend higher schools a decade ago are now studying for Matura, and oftentimes failing along the way. PISA researcher Haider claims that students get into Allgemeinbildende Höhere Schulen (AHS)  who can’t match the level of age mates from other European countries.

“I gave my 15 year old students an exam on basic German grammar and more than 50% failed,” recounted Ingrid Kurz, a teacher of German and geography. “And on the exact same test a week later, the majority failed again.”

Teachers admit that results like these kill their own motivation.

“I’ve set myself the goal to help students improve, so it doesn’t matter if they start at a lower level than maybe ten years ago, as long as they learn something,” Heufried continued, puffing away on a cigarette, appearing to be in the best of moods. “But what is frustrating is that there’s no mutual exchange between the students and me any more, which used to be most satisfying when I started teaching.” He took another happy drag. It transpired that he had simply abandoned his class to give the interview.

Most of the teachers interviewed had more than 15 years experience, and all confirmed that student’s intellectual abilities, and their ability to judge their own performance, have been declining steadily over the past ten years.

“If a student answers a 5-point question with one word, he’s not going to pass the test,” explained the German teacher, taking a sip of her herbal tea. “But surprisingly, it’s hard for many to understand that.”

Students not only seem to be less willing to learn, but are less able to exercise self control and behave in appropriate ways. For example, many are continually chitchatting during class, putting their feet up on the table, calling each other on the mobile phone, playing computer games in class, and downloading porn from the Internet. According to a study by the Institute for Social Research and Analsyis of the AKH (SCRA), 48% of teachers in Austria complain about students’ behavioral problems, and 40% about students not paying attention in class.

On the other hand, how can teachers motivate students, when they “get paid the same regardless of whether they read the newspaper or actually teach,” queried the math teacher.

Students have similar complaints.

“I had one teacher who came to class late, left ten minutes later to copy some handouts for class, and never returned,” said Max Freisler, a student, sarcastically. “Do you think I learned anything in that class?”

One of the authors had similar experiences, including being given a B on a German Matura exam because of three allegedly misspelled words. On being shown that all words were written correctly according to Duden, the headmistress simply said a student had “to learn to lose,” and refused to change the grade. The author’s father tried to intervene at the ministry of education, but was told that even though the teacher had marked the exam incorrectly, it is legally not possible to change the grade.

“Some teachers seem to be unable to cope with truculent teen-agers in the middle of puberty,” medical student Sylvia Kahler suggested, giving the example of a former classmates teasing the physics teacher by trying to pee in a bottle because she wouldn’t let him go to the bathroom.

“But we didn’t even try to annoy our biology teacher because we had so much respect for her knowledge and enthusiasm.”

Teachers as well as students appear to be caught in a vicious circle of de-motivating each other, and causing educational standards in Austria to fall alarmingly low. Claudia Schmied, Austria’s educational minister, said in an Feb. 13 interview with Die Presse that she saw a tendency of teachers to complain, but also recognized the fact that students were performing badly compared to other European students.

All this appears to point to the necessity for change in the educational system, starting from teachers’ education at university, which, according to Gerhard Riegler, chairman of a teachers’ committee, fails in both quantity as well as quality. He added in an interview with Die Presse that practical orientations as well as continuing education are virtually non-existent. This is highlighted by the widespread discontent among Austrian teachers (45%) with the lack of continuing education, according to a SCRA study.

So far, initiatives for improving the school system seem to go aground on the resistance of so-called “nein-sager,” people who say “no” simply because they don’t want change. But perhaps most importantly, students and teachers have to regain respect and appreciation for one another.

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