International Experience #3: Grading System, Student-Teacher Interaction, Classroom Atmosphere


Photo courtesy of Klaudia Rixmann

Numbers, letters, pass or fail; schools all around the world grade their students in different ways. At Kettle Moraine School for Arts and Performance (KM Perform), we are used to a one through five grading system, five being the highest score. In legacy high school or traditional high school, students are accustomed to receiving an A, B, C, D, or F. At Johannes Kepler Gymnasium (Kepi) in Reutlingen, Germany, students are graded also on a one to five system, except one is the highest score. However, Kepi students do not take part in a competency-based system, as we do in KM Perform. The grading structure of Kepi is much like that of the legacy high school here at KM, but with numerical values. One noticeable difference between the legacy and Kepi structure is that the former allows for reassessments, while the latter adheres to more of a “one-and-done” style of testing.

Perhaps this contributes to the more strained relationship between teachers and students at Kepi. At KM Perform, on the other hand, there exists a special dynamic between teachers and students. Teachers hold great respect for their students and the students, in return, hold great respect for their teachers. The KM Perform staff recognizes that they, themselves, may be learning alongside the student, rather than seeing themselves as the sole well of information.

At Kepi, a more traditional attitude of teaching is popular. Students are seen in a more simplistic way, and the teachers believe that lecturing students is best. Although types of personalized learning exist at a larger scale within the German educational system, it is missing at a smaller, and arguably more important, level within the high school. I noticed many students fall asleep in class, try with only 50 percent effort, and continually complain after each lesson. At KM Perform we are used to the sound of learning; quiet discussions about topics, the back and forth of collaboration, the squeaks and scratches of busy pencils and markers…but at Kepi, the only other sound than the teacher’s voice is the murmurings of unfocused students conversing about the weekend or the latest gossip.   

I noticed that many students had very little respect for their teachers: often talking while the teacher was dictating, throwing things across the classroom, cracking jokes instead of offering answers, and generally disrupting the lesson. However, I believe, to some extent, the disrespect traveled on a two-way street. Teachers would not let students eat a snack or go to the bathroom when they needed, and were told to sit in chairs a certain way or else be singled out for “looking lazy”. Additionally, I noticed that some teachers talked with the students as if they always had a hard time understanding. They seemed to hold the students’ hands through tough problems or concepts. But instead of gently redirecting when an answer was wrong, the teacher simply gave up with the student and moved on. I must say, however, that the majority of the disrespect fell on the side of the students, and that the teachers reacted out of exhasperation, not knowing how to reform the class. But for an atmosphere to devolve to such a level, the teacher’s style must also be somewhat at fault.

Perhaps what Kepi needs is a little bit of KM Perform respect that comes from creative freedom, but as is the case with many other things in life, what works well in one place may not work so well in another. My experience in such a classroom atmosphere, having come from a different educational world, was strained and at times quite frustrating. However, my experience was not all negative. I did meet a few forward-thinking teachers and attended a few quite interesting courses.

I concluded that the lack of motivation and excitement in the students was due in part to both teacher style, but also to student attitude. Education is a group journey with each individual traveling to a unique place. It is up to the student to want to navigate that journey, and it is up to the teacher to guide them well.  


Read the next and final addition for a wrap-up of my experience at Kepi and what I believe the experience truly was like, and if you should study abroad, too!