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New York City
May 2003

European Teachers Take On Challenge of NY Schools
by Sybil Maimin

“Everything after this will be a walk in the park,” exclaimed Karin Hammer, a bright-eyed woman from Vienna, Austria who teaches at Alfred E. Smith Vocational High School in the South Bronx as part of an educational exchange program sponsored by the Austrian-American Educational Cooperation Association (AAECA). She was part of a large group of impressive young people from Central Europe who were recently feted at a reception at the Austrian Consulate for their work as teachers of math, science, and art in some of the most difficult public high schools in New York City.

Begun about five years ago in answer to a need and an opportunity, the program is the brainchild of several people. On a professional visit to Austria, Dr. Alfred Posamentier, dean of the school of education at City College, and a group of high school superintendents were surprised to learn of a surplus of math and science teachers in the region, the reverse of the situation in New York. A light flashed and an idea was born! Among the superintendents was Dr. Joyce Coppin, currently executive director of Human Resources at New York City’s Department of Education, who, together with Dr. Posamentier, was instrumental in bringing the teachers here. Also key was Eugene Goldstein, an immigration attorney who addressed new limits on professional working visas by creating a legally acceptable category of visitors who would study at CUNY and work for the Board of Education. The AAECA, which has worked with CUNY for ten years, describes Posamentier as a “mover and shaker.” “Our job,” explains Ambassador Michael Breisky, Consul General of Austria, “is networking, getting people in Vienna in contact with Posamentier and arranging regular visits between school superintendents in New York and Austria. It is a win, win situation.”

The pilot program in 1998 involved 25 teachers and was so successful that today, administered through Vienna, over 1200 teachers are recruited in 12 countries. Applicants must have good English skills, a college degree, some background in math, science, Spanish, or Special Education, and must pass an interview. They are hired for two years, paid the same salaries as American teachers, and take classes in education and English language skills at CUNY. They are placed where most needed which means they work in poorly performing schools and encounter many difficulties.

Alexander Sztranyovszky of Slovakia heard about the program on the Internet. He taught in Slovakia in place of doing military service, went to Oxford in Great Britain to learn English, and saw the American offer as a way of combining his pedagogical and language skills. He requested a “challenging job” and has found it at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn. His students “don’t hate math but are confused because they do not have a good base and do not focus.” To be successful, he “needs to develop a different approach than the one in Slovakia.” Karen Hammer confesses, “I started one week after September 11. It was really, really tough in the beginning—the worst months of my life.” She stayed because she “had a strong bond with the kids. They have no family support. School and teachers are the only stable thing in their lives. I had to come back for them.” Lothar Voeller, from the Black Forest in Germany, read about the program in The New York Times. He taught in Germany for 23 years and now works in Park West High School, a SURR school, and lives in the Chelsea Hotel. Enthusiastic and fascinated by New York, he finds his students “very different from German kids. There, they respect a teacher more. Consequences are more severe.” Determined to succeed, he admits, “Sometimes it’s discouraging, but I won’t give up. It just means I haven’t found out how to handle it.” Some have given up—typically after two to three months. According to Voeller, “If they survive the first year, they go on.” Explains Dr. Coppin, a common problem is the “transition period to a new educational system and new culture. The role of the teacher is different from that in Austria.”

Schools chancellor Joel Klein came to thank the visiting teachers. “You bring much needed resources. It is terrific for our kids who grow up in the most international city in the world to have international teachers. It takes a certain kind of person to leave home and go into the most challenging schools to give kids love and attention.” Sabine Schubert of Vienna remarked, “There are lots of challenges and discipline problems, ups and downs. But, you cannot pay for this kind of experience. I do not regret a single minute.”#

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