The shortage of teachers is particularly painful in special education schools

As of: March 14, 2024 5:07 p.m

How can we get more teachers into schools? The state education ministers are dealing with this question. The staff shortage is great. The consequences are particularly dramatic in schools for children with learning disabilities.

Lennon’s parents take him to school in the camper van. The sliding door opens and Lennon goes straight to Tim Zellhöfer, who is waiting for him in the schoolyard. Sometimes he has to wait a long time because Lennon only comes to school if his parents can get him to drive. Lennon is 13 years old and autistic.

Zellhöfer is an integration assistant at the Helene Schoettle School in Stuttgart – a school for children and young people with intellectual disabilities. For Lennon, he is the main reason why he actually enjoys going to school. Zellhöfer is his most important reference person here.

Overall, however, it takes two people to look after Lennon because he sometimes loses control of himself. “Otherwise it could happen that he endangers himself,” says Helene Eller, who is there as a special education teacher. Lennon could get hurt or just run away.

Schoolchildren have to stay at home

But the school has too few staff, only 80 percent of the positions are filled. This has consequences that Lennon and his parents also feel. “Every now and then we get a call asking whether it is possible for our boy to stay at home,” says his mother. “That really messes up everyday life and his nerves too.”

Lennon needs solid structures. He can only learn in individual lessons. The sensory impressions of a class situation would overwhelm the boy.

His carers speak to him quietly. They always go for a short walk with him. Or the boy needs to lie down for a moment. In between, Lennon does short lessons. It’s about seasons and days of the week, numbers and letters and he does coordination exercises.

Larger classes – more aggression

At the Helene Schoettle School they also teach in class groups. But these children and young people also need a lot of attention and individual tasks that are tailored to their very different deficits. The school tries to keep classes as small as possible.

Stefan Kienhöfer teaches mathematics. Today he brought large pictures of banknotes and coins; it’s about calculating amounts of money. There are ten boys and girls in the class, all between 15 and 17 years old, some with autism and Down syndrome. The class is actually too big – six students per class is the official requirement.

The school has been in a precarious situation for three years, says headmaster Andreas Thiemke. “We no longer offer afternoon classes, only emergency care,” he explains. The reason is not only the lack of skilled personnel, but also an increase in autism disorders that can be seen worldwide. The number of students has therefore been increasing for years.

The fact that the classes had to be made significantly larger had a noticeable impact on everyday life. Conflicts or aggressive behavior occur more frequently in the classroom.

Do career changers help?

There are no aggressive arguments in Stefan Kienhöfer’s class today. It’s a normal day, he says. And yet things are always turbulent. A girl feels harassed by her neighbors and leaves the room several times. Another student crosses her arms in front of her face, saying she doesn’t want to continue working either.

In moments like this, Stefan Kienhöfer is happy that Annabel Kraus is at his side. She takes care of the two girls, goes to the door with them and calms them down. However, it is also clear here that the school has to cope with a small number of staff: Annabel Kraus is not yet a fully trained teacher, she is still in her traineeship.

Kienhöfer has no pedagogical training at all. He is a so-called career changer, worked as an architect last year and then reinvented himself professionally at the age of 57. “I wanted to do something different,” he explains his decision. “Something where it’s not just about costs and dates, something where I feel like I’m helping someone.” He’s doing that now, but he’s reaching his limits.

“On my first day here, I immediately started working as a teacher without having received any training. Without the support of the staff, it would be very difficult,” he reports.

Lateral entry is not easy, even at general schools. At institutions like the Helene Schoettle School you need not only educational but also medical expertise. Some children have seizures or need to take medication regularly.

Is the teaching profession attractive enough?

Lateral entrants are a strategy with which the education ministries are trying to solve the personnel problem in schools. Some other ideas: They are also considering admitting educators who have only studied a subject that they can then teach. And they want to make it easier for applicants from abroad to enter the teaching profession. In addition, teachers should work less part-time in the future.

The last point is very controversial. “As an employer, I would be ill-advised if I make the working conditions less attractive when there is a shortage of staff,” says Monika Stein, the Baden-Württemberg state chairwoman of the Education and Science Union (GEW). Instead, the profession must become more attractive. This is the only way to prevent fewer and fewer people choosing this career or dropping out during their studies.

“A lot is being done, but not enough yet,” says school principal Thiemke. He welcomes the fact that additional study places for special education have been created in Baden-Württemberg. But more of it is needed. And he recommends lowering the barriers to entry, focusing less on school grades and more on personal suitability.

Career-changer Stefan Kienhöfer also has wishes for politics: He always does short training courses. But what would really help would be a two to three month intensive workshop, he says. In return, he would even accept a reduction in his earnings during this time.

How much he already means to his class today, even without any further qualifications, becomes clear at the end of the mathematics lesson. Student Charlotte stands up and says: “So Mr. Kienhöfer, I would like to say thank you very much. You are a great teacher!”

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