• Berlin
  • The teaching under-class


The teaching under-class

German teachers bring home comparatively more bacon than their EU counterparts, so why are those leading the capital’s classes biting back? They’re fed up with an unjust system of temp workers, long hours and the lowest pay in the country.

Image for The teaching under-class
Photo by Marta Dominguez

In Berlin as many as 30 percent of classes don’t take place as planned. Impoverished schools are filling the gaps with temp workers – underpaid young teachers on precarious contracts. Wladek Flakin investigates.

Berlin, January 16. On a cold Wednesday morning, a dozen young adults carrying signs and blowing whistles brave the slippery sidewalks to demonstrate around the Friedensburg-Oberschule, a public high school in Charlottenburg. “I’m on strike because I’m against precarious education,” declares one handwritten sign. “I want equal treatment,” says another. Marta Hernández*, a Spaniard who teaches English at the school, is among them: she temped at the school for six months for a little over €700 per month – i.e. less than 30 percent of what a full-time teacher would make for 60 percent of the work. Now hired on an unlimited contract, she still makes a lot less than her German colleagues because she has a foreign degree.

The Charlottenburg protesters weren’t alone: the January 16 demonstration drew hundreds of Berlin schoolteachers into the streets. Berlin’s 651 schools are in crisis. The 33,000 teachers are going grey: their average age is just over 50 (only 13 percent are under 40!), significantly older than in the rest of Germany. Meanwhile, since 2003 Berlin’s invested very little in teachers, leaving underfunded public schools with little choice but to resort to temp workers, i.e. short-term contracts and low wages.

Absent teachers

Beate Stoffers from the Berlin Senate Administration for Education might claim that 100.7 percent of teachers’ positions are filled. But the truth is that any school system needs more than that to cover for the five to 10 percent of teachers that – for whatever reason, don’t show up for class every day. And the older the teachers get, the more frequent the sick leaves, the more classes cancelled. An estimated 10 percent of classes in Berlin schools don’t take place. This can mean an individual period being cancelled – or it can mean that a music teacher has a chronic illness and music class doesn’t happen for an entire year.

Tom Erdman, from the teachers’ trade union GEW, thinks 10 percent is a conservative number. “At the beginning of 2012 we did a survey at selected schools and found that in one week up to 30 percent of classes don’t take place as planned.” The cancellations have widespread repercussions. “Students with special needs are supposed to have a second teacher in the classroom. But these second teachers often have to substitute for other teachers who are sick,” explains Erdmann.

As for regular pupils, they’re left with a rather patchy education, moving from one teacher to the next. “In some schools, social workers have to substitute for teachers.” Whereas the GEW union has been urging the government to ensure that 110 percent of jobs are filled to compensate for illness, the city currently provides each school with just enough money to hire 3 percent more teachers… on a temporary basis.

Fillers from Europe…

“I got my first temp job teaching English the same day my application for Hartz-IV was approved,” says Marta. For the 27-year-old from Madrid, teaching was just one more precarious job out of many. “I had sold wrist warmers at the Christmas market, worked in a call centre and advertised video games at Media Markt.” Her first contract was part-time (60 percent of a full position) and expired after six months.

Marta was part of the Personalkostenbudgetierung (“personnel costs budgeting”) system that was introduced in 2006. “PKB” means that individual schools hire temp workers to cover up the worst gaps in their syllabi. The Senate Administration couldn’t say how many PKB teachers are active at any given time – there were 2115 contracts last year, but one person might get six contracts in a row.

With a teaching degree from Spain, Marta makes €600 less per month than her German colleagues.

The union estimates there are about 700 teaching temps. At the same time, people on unemployment benefits work in school offices – they get €1.50 an hour on top of their benefits and are thus referred to as Ein-Euro-Jobber. “After six months in a PKB position, a job opened up. I got lucky,” Marta says.

But since she earned her teaching degree in Spain, she is a “teacher according to foreign law” and still makes €600 less per month than her German colleagues. “This job doesn’t leave you any time for a life,” says Marta. She teaches 26 hours of classes per week. This might not sound like much, but “you also have to be a bit of a social worker and a bit of a psychologist”. Counting homework grading, meetings and countless other tasks, she estimates her real working week is closer to 50 hours.

“People in this profession seldom work until retirement,” says Susanne Reiß, who started working as a teacher in the 1980s and now is an elected representative in the Berlin teachers’ union GEW. “There are many cases of exhaustion and chronic illness” as teachers get older. And when they get sick, more temp workers are hired.

…and further away

“I don’t know if I’ll have a job next week,” says Mike Brigand*, who has worked for the last four months as a music and English teacher at a high school in Reinickendorf. Before that, the 26-year-old from New York spent half a year at an elementary school – but then summer vacation came and his contract expired. “I couldn’t even get unemployment benefits without endangering my visa – even though unemployment insurance was deducted from my salary every month.” He spent the summer doing odd jobs to keep his head above water.

Unlike Marta, Mike doesn’t have a teaching degree, foreign or otherwise. “I’ve worked as a music teacher at a school in Harlem and also with the state-sponsored orchestras of ‘El Sistema’ in Venezuela.” By all accounts he isn’t a bad music teacher – in fact, when he had to say goodbye to his fourth-grade class, they gave him a book in which each of them had painted something. “You are the best teacher in the world,” one 10-year-old girl told him.

The school principal agreed that it was a shame he had to go: “You are a victim of politics,” he said, referring to the PKB system. A PKB position is supposed to fill in for one teacher with a long-term illness. “But I never actually figured out which teacher I was replacing,” Mike remembers. “I was supposed to work as a second teacher in a special needs class, but I almost never saw those kids because I was always substituting somewhere else.”

Schools can claim that a PKB worker is replacing one teacher before the summer break and a different one afterwards – and thus avoid paying them over the holidays. “The worst part is that my visa is tied to my contract, so every two months I need to go to the Ausländerbehörde. That’s six hours and €40 each time – and of course a whole day when I can’t teach.”

Stay or go?

Rather than stay and put up with these conditions, Berlin teachers have been looking to other Länder, where they can get €600 more each month in addition to the cherished Beamte status – by which state employees get a job for life. Berlin stopped making teachers Beamte in 2003, and now roughly one in five don’t have the coveted status.

A memorable advertising campaign sponsored by Baden-Württemburg and Hessen called for Berlin teachers to ‘defect’ from their impoverished Land for better conditions elsewhere, with mixed results. Some teachers surely took the bait, but only for a short, lucrative visit – just the time to get the sought-after civil servant status and salary to match, which they could later claim upon their return to Berlin.

Some have chosen radical individual action to force the authorities to take notice. “All I want is equal rights for equal work,” said Steffen Werner when he went on a hunger strike in the summer of 2010. The English and art teacher, also from Reinickendorf, was in a desperate situation when his PKB contract ended in July. He spent four days and three nights on the ground in front of City Hall before the Senate Administration caved in and gave him a contract for the next year. He still has a temporary contract, but at least he could stay at the same school.

And since January, Berlin’s 7000 non-Beamte teachers have been bonding and are ready to fight. They are demanding wage increases and equal treatment for all, whether they are Beamte or not. And if the strikes on January 16 and February 18 are any indication, the anger is widespread.

The trade union is also demanding a “limitation of limited contracts”. Mike is thinking about how to make the voices of the precariously employed heard during the strike. “I think PKB teachers need to organise together,” says Mike; a few of them met up at a strike assembly in February. Marta’s salary might be closer to that of her German colleagues, but she wants more rights for foreign teachers. “I’m really in the mood for a revolution.”  

* Names changed

The truth about Berlin teachers’ salaries  

  • Although they must work longer hours and salary levels vary depending on experience and many other factors, German teachers are by and large relatively well paid compared to their colleagues in other countries. Starting teachers in Germany have the fourth highest salary among OECD countries, behind only Spain, Switzerland and Luxemburg.
  • The best-paid German state to teach in is Baden-Württemberg, where a teacher can earn as much as €4100 a month.
  • Berlin teachers are the worst-paid in the country, earning even less than those in poor eastern states like Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Sachsen-Anhalt.
  • A young Berlin teacher can expect a net monthly salary of about €2700, eight percent less than the national average. A full-time foreign teacher gets around €2100.
  • Foreign PKB (temporary) teachers make just €1200-1300 for an 80 percent position.