Intuition taster: Teaching world

Teachers Phil Young and Michael Puetker deliver construction and engineering courses in the UK and Germany. Their training and professional development are similar in many ways, although there are clear differences in their working practices.

After my “Abitur” (secondary school certificate after 13 years; similar to A-levels), I did an apprenticeship as a construction mechanic (making components/assemblies for various applications, such as fences, bridges, cars, ships, machines, escalators, lifts, or (industrial) buildings mainly out of metal. During these three-and-a-half years, I was sent to the US American branch of my company for two months to gain some international and work experience, specifically to design components for cars.

When I finished my apprenticeship, I worked for a further one-and a-half years in the same company. Coincidentally, a friend of my family suggested I became a teacher in my professional field (metal processing technology/mechanical engineering), stating that the job prospects were excellent. This led me to spend a week of my annual leave in the vocational school that I knew from my apprenticeship in order to experience some aspects of the teachers’ daily work. I then worked on improving my English to prepare for my studies.


Practical teacher training

In 2007 I began my studies at the Dresden University of Technology to become a teacher for vocational schools. Seven years later, I began my practical teacher training at the vocational school centre “BBS Brinkstrasse” as a “Referendar”, which I finished in April this year. I have now been teaching for about two years.

Teacher training in Germany consists of two elements. In particular for becoming teachers at vocational schools, aspirants first have to achieve the university degree “Master of Education” (equivalent to the previously required “first state examination”).

The course of study leading to this degree (including the “Bachelor of Education” degree) is a combination of various aspects in three fields of study: the professional field (in my case: mechanical engineering), a subsidiary teaching subject (my choice: English) as well as education and didactics (for the professional field and the subject, respectively).


Work experience

A prerequisite for these studies is a proof of practical work experience within the chosen professional field of at least twelve months (my successfully completed apprenticeship was accepted for this). Aspirants who seek to begin these studies, but have not achieved the Abitur at a regular grammar school (general education) can acquire this required certificate also at a professional grammar school or at a technical school (after an apprenticeship).

With the degree “Master of Education”, aspirants are admitted to the practical teacher training as a “Referendar” (trainee teacher) in a vocational school. This involves 18 months of guided teaching, some observed and evaluated lessons, plus weekly seminar meetings (in the three fields of study outlined above) and concluding with a (second) state examination.

Teachers at vocational schools in Lower Saxony (the German federal state that Osnabrück belongs to) generally have to teach 24.5 in-class lessons of 45-minutes per week, on average. I currently teach 26.5 lessons/week, which are relatively unevenly distributed across the weekdays (short Mondays and long Thursdays). In addition to this, I spend at least 25 hours on preparation and assessment (more when I have tests/exams to mark) on a weekly basis. Furthermore, I need an estimated three hours for administrative tasks (keeping the register, keeping contact with the companies, taking part in conferences, and so on).


Coordination divisions

Depending on the classes I teach, I presently belong to four of seven different departments of our school (called “coordination divisions”, each led by one member of the school management team). There are separate teacher teams for each training profession that I am teaching (for example, industrial mechanics and construction mechanics) as well as for my subsidiary subject (English). Therefore, I am currently part of seven of these teams.

In my professional field, I mainly teach apprentices in their first year (metal workers, industrial mechanics, construction mechanics, and plant mechanics) as well as a one-year vocational school class, dealing with the basics of producing components using hand-held tools (choosing a suitable saw for a specific purpose), of assembling components (knowingly deciding on a particular joining technology), and/or of maintaining machines (considering the wear and tear of machine components and what can/needs to be done).

I also teach metalworker apprentices in their second year craft forging. This involves planning the work including choosing suitable tools, determining and keeping the right temperature for the material, calculating the amount of material. Additionally, I teach English in mechatronics technician apprenticeship classes as well as in technical school classes (future “higher technicians”).

The apprentices mostly work in their profession – often employed by the same company. Directly continuing the vocational education in higher technician classes is hardly possible, because this necessitates some work experience. Going on to the university (of applied science) is only possible for those who already fulfil the prerequisites (for example, the Abitur).

Various further training courses are offered (by an institution related to the ministry of education in our federal state, Lower Saxony). For instance, I will have taken part in two of such courses this year, dealing with assembling and maintaining industrial sectional doors as well as with fastening technology, and relevant magazines are passed around in the respective teacher teams.


Learning fields

The current framework curricula for apprenticeship classes are subdivided into so-called “learning fields”. An example of these is “Making job-related components with the use of machines”, which includes all the relevant and level-appropriate aspects that are necessary for fulfilling such a “typical work task”: drawing the component, discussing and choosing adequate tools (drills and lathe tools), considering the properties of the material, calculating/ determining the correct rotational speed, selecting adequate measurement and checking methods, writing “working plan” etc. Therefore, there are no separated school subjects like maths or material science. Normally, there are four “learning fields” to be dealt with in a school year.

This structure of the aims and contents of the vocational in-school education (supplementing each other with the practical in-company training) demands and supports a principally activity-oriented stance. This means that typical examples (components/work tasks) should be dealt with in class as well as that the students need to be active. They are supposed to find out the relevant aspects of knowledge primarily by the way of their own reading of given information, drawing, calculating, putting together of puzzles, creating overviews, discussing, writing/completing of typical job-related documents, and so on.

Therefore, they should construct the new knowledge themselves. This can be supported by elements of discovery, comprehension by touching, and cooperation or interaction. Plus, the sequence of the students’ activity should resemble the “cycle of complete actions”, consisting of the steps understanding the situation and task, planning, deciding, doing, checking the results and the process. At the end of each learning phase (each lesson as well as each topic (coherent lessons), the results need to be taken down in an adequate way.


Variation in styles of teaching

As a teacher, I prepare appropriate tasks and activities as well as guiding and supporting the students. Therefore, I am more of an “assistant in learning” than a “lecturer”. Nevertheless, I think that some degree of variation in the style of teaching is helpful for the students with respect to motivation and appeals to the different types of learning preferred by the students. Hence, I sometimes also lecture about some aspects.

A highly important aspect of the described style of teaching and learning is all learners’ contribution to the process. In interactive phases, I often directly praise or reprimand the students. On a regular basis I talk with the students about my observations regarding their individual participation in the lessons and their contribution. Of course, this may be even more frequent if there are any noticeable difficulties. At the end of each term, I determine “oral grades” on the basis of these observations.


Written tests and group work

In addition to this, the students “display” their level of achievement in written tests or equivalent “products” (group work results). For these, they directly get grades which are combined in a “written grade” at the end of each term/year (apprentices get a certificate only at the end of each school year).

In dual apprenticeship classes, there is some cooperation with the companies the students/apprentices work in. Especially if there is some problem with the students (for example, being frequently late, scoring low grades, uncooperative behaviour, and so on). The teachers come to agreement with the training instructors, who are responsible for the apprentices in the companies, and coordinate their activities. This means that the people concerned work closely together to improve each student‘s/apprentice‘s performance if necessary. Often, teachers and instructors know each other personally.

Furthermore, some of the companies (primarily those who train the students/apprentices) support the teachers’ work by giving products and components to them. This is important and helpful for teachers because they need to know what is being done in the companies in order to be able to realise the described type of teaching (talking through and doing tasks that are done in the “real world” and ways of doing tasks.