Sunday, September 11, 2011

Teaching First Graders English in Vienna


I have been hired to teach English as part of a bilingual language program established in the public schools here.  I'm working at Astrid Lingred (author of Pippi Longstocking books) School and teaching first graders.  It's part time work requiring only 11 teaching hours per week. 

I spent a few days last week at the school and there are already some noticeable differences between education (and the school environment) in the US vs. here. 

There was a parents' meeting this past Wednesday and when I arrived the room was packed full of parents.  Contrast this with the handful of parents I actually met while working at the Baltimore City schools' system.  However, it must be noted that the VBS program (the bilingual program) is highly selective and many parents want their children to be enrolled in it.  Also, many of the parents are affluent and, if not for the VBS program, would have enrolled their children in more expensive private schools. 

What is this VBS program?

The way bilingual education works here is that, at the end of last school year, students were chosen for either the German language classes or the English language classes.  As the Native speaker English teacher, I will be teaching 11 hours total per week.  7 of these hours will be English only pull-out instruction for the students who speak primarily English at home.  1 of these hours will be English only instruction for the German speaking students and 3 hours out of 11 will be team teaching. 

The goal is that by the end of Grundschule (Primary or Elementary School here), the students will all be bilingual.  This is the first year Astrid Lingred school is participating in VBS, so it should be an interesting experiment. 

So what were some of the obvious differences between schooling here vs. the US?
First of all, as I mentioned earlier the parents are really involved here.  However, there is a very good reason for this.  The Vienna Public School system uses tracking.  Tracking is the practice of predetermining a students' future academic potential based on grades and placing them in the appropriate "track."  For example, I was in the college prep track throughout most of my education where as some students were prepared for vocational careers.
Tracking is really big here and starts after students have finished primary school.  The school system here consists of Primary school (grades K-4), and then either gimnazium (Secondary School track towards university) or a different secondary school geared towards trade professions.  Secondary school is for 8 grades.  Instead of our system in which students move from K>12th grade, here it is K>4 and then it resets to grade 1 in gimnazium until grade 8.  So grade 8 gimnazium = our grade 12.

Back to tracking, so after 4th grade, the kids are placed into different schools, ultimately determining their fate.  As early as 10 years old, in this system, a child will know whether they're potentially going to college or gonna be a street sweeper. 

Obviously, the end result of this system is parents want their children to get the best possible education and the best possible grades as early as possible to ensure they are accepted into the gimnazium- university track.  This is one possible reason why parents are even more involved during elementary school.

Another obvious difference here was the time the principal took to show me around the school and introduce me to all the other teachers.  She must have spent at least 3-4 hours with me over several days giving me a tour of the school, explaining who works in each classroom, what level they teach, where all the different rooms are located. 
She has made it very clear how happy she is that I will be working at the school.  I'm not used to this kind of positive attention and appreciative nature. 

The length of the school day here is much shorter.  School instruction starts at 8 am and is blocked off in 50 minute long lessons followed by a 10 minute break for the children.  On most days, school instruction ends at 12 or 1 pm.  There are either 4 or 5 blocks of instruction per day.  However, many students stay at school as part of an after school program until as late as 5 pm to coincide with their parents' work days.  I was informed the after school program offers instruction plus a snack for the cost of 170 Euros= about $250 per term. 

When I arrived at school on Friday to meet with my co-teacher and discuss next week's lessons, many of the staff were in the Faculty lounge with a bottle of champagne opened on the table.  When my principal saw me, she approached with a huge smile and informed me it was her birthday.  So the staff celebrate the principal's birthday with champagne and I think they all pitched in to give her a gift.  I observed all this as if from another planet.  Champagne on school grounds in the US, never!

I'm sure I'll continue to find similarities and differences while working throughout the school year and I look forward to sharing them with you.  On Monday, I start working and am eager to get back into a daily routine.



  1. Do remember, however, that those who learn a trade in Germany and Austria are part of an intensive apprenticeship program and come out highly qualified to do work they're actually interested in. It's just that students who, say, would like to detail cars get to have classes catered to and made interesting for them instead of forcing them to go the college route if it's not for them.
    Also, at least in Germany, it's not "permanent"--you can make up the time and switch to the higher system if you're willing to invest the time.

  2. Any suggestions on how to get work in Vienna if you are an American? Did you have an Visa issues?

  3. I was able to get the necessary work permits through my spouse who had already accepted a position. I would not recommend coming here without some promise of a job in advance. The employer I work for now did not want to consider me for a position until I "was settled" in Vienna. This really is not the best country to teach English as a Second Language. The Eastern Asian countries or the Middle East are very eager to hire native speaker teachers and often willing to provide compensation packages including transportation. If I had not been with my spouse who already had a job, I think this would have been a very difficult (if not impossible) situation. Please bear in mind that, for non-locals, finding an apartment is a very expensive predicament, often requiring multiple months rent as deposit along with a couple months rent as a "commission" to the Real Estate Agent. Unless you have some family or friends who can support you in the beginning or a contract for a job, I would not recommend Austria for teaching. To reiterate, there are other countries out there which value English Native Speakers better!
    Don't take my word for it, read more from other expats in this forum for foreigners living, studying or working in Vienna here:

    Good luck!

  4. Andrew,
    Which program did you go through?