Out of the Ordinary


I started to study physics in 1981 in Constance (Germany), where I enjoyed a familiar atmosphere and high-quality education in the department, as well as the vicinity of Lake Constance (in summer) and of the Swiss Alps (in winter). For my diploma and my thesis, I worked in an experimental group on the electrical activity of dopants in silicon. We used a wide range of technical means and were always developing new hardware for the realisation of experimental ideas. Accordingly, this was a very interesting time for me. The intense teamwork of group members to perform complex experiments using accelerators (at the university and at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics near Geneva) was especially satisfactory and brought a lot of fun.

Thus, I gradually "grew up" to become a more senior scientist, whose distance from laboratory work increased steadily. This was mainly because I was busy writing publications, but also because many administrative and science-business activities claimed much of my time. At this point, in 1991, I felt it was time for a change. My first idea was to apply for an industrial job. Inevitably, that would have meant living in a big city far away from the direct access to nature that I had learnt to like a lot in the previous 10 years.

At that time, Germany was in the middle of one of its periodic serious shortages of junior teachers, and the Bavarian ministry for education, in an unusual event, offered 60 positions as teachers for mathematics and physics to physicists with at least a diploma degree. Because an even more pronounced deficit of not only engineering but also science teachers is about to build up at the moment, I would expect that similar opportunities will open up again over the next few years. I was attracted by several presumed qualities of the job. First of all, it represents a new and challenging task that can be done and organised independently for about half of the working time. It has high job security, a reasonable income and civil servant status, and--last but not least--the possibility to practise the job in any region of the country with good living conditions for the whole family.

But first, I had to do the same 2-year period of practical education as the regular teacher candidates. The income during this phase was about half of the payment for permanent teachers and hence comparable to what I had received during my thesis. On one hand, it was not easy to decide to start again from zero in a new hierarchy, and I had to go through some hard experiences caused by the conservative (not to say suppressive) structures of the teacher-education system in Bavaria.

On the other hand, I would not consider these 2 years a waste of time. Because understanding a subject oneself and being able to teach it to large and inhomogeneous groups of pupils can be very different things, this phase was really valuable for me. Although I benefit a lot from my scientific experience, which allows me to supplement my lessons with interesting aspects beyond the obligatory content, the social development of the students requires an integration of more psychological knowledge and techniques of teacher education for successful pedagogical work.

In the first years, the challenge of simply doing the job in a satisfactory way dominated my life. It was interesting to learn to explain physics by vivid means instead of elaborate mathematical tools. I had fun improving and creating demonstration experiments for the lessons, even if the corresponding budget was very low. And it?s a wonderful feeling when from time to time a combination of interested pupils and a good personal performance combine to make an especially good lesson. On the other hand, I had to learn that in contrast to the widespread opinion, working as a teacher requires a high quantity of work, of which a significant portion is pure routine. This includes, for example, correcting exams--typically 50 per year with about 30 copies of each--which is a boring burden and can cause doubts about the quality of one's own work if the results are bad.

Actually, in my opinion the main problem at school is that the atmosphere between pupils, parents, and teachers has started to change significantly in the last years. The motivation to reach one?s aims with a steady engagement is disappearing. Corresponding to the lifestyle of our "fun society," parents and pupils want to get the degrees without being willing to give the required input and without asking for the real quality of their education. This decay was recently documented in studies by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study and the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment. In my opinion, it will be very difficult to steer against this trend if we don?t succeed in implementing a new (or old?) and less superficial manner of working in our young generation. A very desirable modernisation of the methods and contents of our education can be effective only under that precondition, which will depend on suitable political decisions and developments in society.

In the meantime, I started to gain back for myself some of the lost fun and enthusiasm for physics by working with a few interested pupils in voluntary lessons besides the obligatory curriculum. Emerging from my personal interest for renewable energies and environmental problems, we founded a group called Weather and Environment 5 years ago, starting with the construction of an automatic weather observation station and the weekly evaluation of the data. During the construction of our "ecological" house (the realisation of low energy consumption and the energy supply system was my big private physics project during the last years), I got in contact with people who were willing to act as sponsors for our school. From them, we obtained a thermal and a photovoltaic solar demonstration system equipped with monitoring instruments. And, in the meantime, several pupils have won prizes for their investigation of renewable energies in the nation-wide "Jugend forscht" (youth research) competition.

Another interesting and constant task for me developing small computer applications for use in maths and physics lessons. Being more established in the hierarchy now, I have succeeded in fighting boredom and routine by taking charge of other functions in school--e.g., timetable organisation--outside of teaching. Thus, I?m rather optimistic that my job will remain an interesting and steadily developing task for the remaining decades of my working life and that I?ll be able to preserve my motivation for the benefit of our young generation.

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