Hamilton County exchange program gives German, American teachers a chance to learn from each other

CINCINNATI -- Every year since 1991, a group of teachers from Hamilton County have participated in an exchange program with teachers from Munich. Started as an extension of Cincinnati’s sister city relationship with the German city, the program typically pairs five or six Cincinnati teachers with Munich teachers for two-week stays in each country.

“The goal is an education and cultural exchange,” said Matt Wendeln, who participated in the exchange as a teacher in 2013 and is now the program coordinator through Hamilton County Educational Service Center, which facilitates the exchange. “There is a richness and depth in the exchange, with conversation and learning about the structural setup of the educational systems. The teachers can look at what is successful in a system that is different from theirs and what they could take from that.”

Around Easter this year, the group of German teachers traveled to Cincinnati during their spring break and stayed with an American teacher. They spent much of the time visiting and observing their teacher partner’s classroom and school, as well as traveling to other local schools to observe the differences between American and German school systems.

The host teacher paid for all the activities during their paired teacher’s visit, and the favor is returned when the Americans visit Germany. In addition to school visits, the German teachers experienced a show at Playhouse in the Park, museums, Segway tour of Cincinnati, Krohn Conservatory, a visit to Amish country and Cincinnati foods such as Skyline Chili and Graeter’s ice cream -- the Germans asked to go for ice cream almost every day, said Monica Espinal, a program participant this year who teaches English as a second language in the Norwood City School District.

Norwood teacher Monica Espinal and her German exchange partner, Lena Schaefer, on a Vespa in Munich. Photo provided by Monica Espinal

In late June, the American teachers traveled to Munich for their two-week visit. They stayed with their German teacher partner and observed classes at different schools -- still in session in June -- and toured the region, including a visit to a Nazi concentration camp, the 1972 Olympic Park, a castle, museums and BMW headquarters.

The American and German teachers later observed and discussed the many differences between their educational systems.

German teachers’ working hours are much different than in the U.S., said Joy Lohrer, an intervention specialist at Norwood View Elementary School and exchange participant. American teachers generally work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day with the students; in Germany, the teachers might work from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. one day and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the next. Students end the school day at 1 p.m. and go home and have lunch with their families, she said.

“They couldn’t believe that our children have such a long day,” Lohrer said. “The biggest difference to me was the safety net that Germany provides for its people. When we explain breakfast, free school lunch, the school closet, the school nurse, they (the German teachers) are bewildered that people would have these needs. The German safety net provides that, all those things that our school provides as social services.”

Students in Germany are placed on a specific track -- toward college or a vocation -- based on their skills and abilities after the fourth grade, which was another big difference compared to the American experience. When she first heard about that part of the German educational system, Espinal wasn’t sure that sounded like a good idea for students at an early age. When she went to Germany and saw it in action, though, she could understand some of its merits.

“Here we expect all students to go to college or it is looked down upon if you don’t, so it is interesting that they already have it all set up for the different types of students,” Espinal said.

Espinal -- who has also lived and taught English in the Dominican Republic -- said the exchange was valuable because it provides a different perspective.

“It is important to see what is out there in the world, and it makes you understand a lot more about different people and about yourself as well,” Espinal said.

The exchange also allowed the educators to bring home new ideas for their own teaching.

“It’s good to remember there are many ways to do what we do and we have to keep trying to find the better way,” Lohrer said.

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