Teachers Take On Challenge of NY Schools
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.
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.”
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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