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College exchange program visits here
German guests observing classes
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German student-teachers Marc Walgenbach, left, and Tulay Akkalp visit Forsyth Central High to learn more about the American educational system. - photo by Jennifer Sami

Marc Walgenbach and Tulay Akkalp picked the perfect week to visit Forsyth Central High to compare how students are educated in America and Germany.  

The school was in the middle of spirit week, with students often walking the hallways dressed up to show Central pride.

It just intensified one of the major differences between how students in the two countries experience school.

“People show their feelings here,” Akkalp said. “In Germany, we have a much more calm society. They don’t really show their emotions.

“But on the other hand, I think the Germans are very honest. In American terms, they would even say it’s impolite.”

Akkalp and Walgenbach are in their third and final week in the Forsyth area as part of a new partnership forged between North Georgia College & State University and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany, where the two are studying to become teachers.

“You can argue that kids are kids, but each country has its own educational system,” said Bob Michael, dean of the NGCSU School of Education.

“We think it’s really important for our kids to not only see these, but to also test their own skills in another country if they’re able … many of our kids will come home and say it was totally life changing.”

Michael said three North Georgia students will be heading to Germany in May to complete the exchange.

The partnership between the two universities may be new, but students at NGCSU have long been a part of other exchange programs, including to countries such as England, China, New Zealand and Nicaragua.

“It really supports our internationalization effort, giving them a better understanding of world cultures,” he said.

Akkalp and Walgenbach have been visiting several schools in north Georgia, including South Forsyth High School and Central, where they spent a day in German teacher Anna Aigner-Muehler’s class.

Aigner-Muehler said the two students did not realize American students got to take make-up exams, and that the environment wasn’t as strict as in Germany.

“They were surprised to see that students were given so many opportunities to be successful, and perhaps not allowed to fail,” Aigner-Muehler said.

But the nurturing nature of American schools also lends itself to more options.

“Students here have a lot more choice about education,” Aigner-Muehler said. “In Germany, they’re very much tracked into one direction.”

“Here, students have the ability to make a lot of choices, to have a lot of variety and a lot of exposure to different educational paths, and they find that to be positive in a lot of ways.”

Walgenbach shared other differences, including how teachers in Germany are better paid and that students in U.S. high schools move between classrooms instead of the teachers. Also, she noted, air conditioning is central and prevalent here.

“A lot of the things that I’ve found that are better here, I can’t take them with me to Germany,” he said. “Each teacher here has his or her own classroom. We don’t have that in Germany … I don’t think I’m in the position to change that.”

While Walgenbach is 28 and Akkalp 32, both still are working toward becoming teachers, which they said is a more rigorous process in Germany.

In addition to needing a master’s degree, those studying to become teachers must also spend two years in an apprenticeship situation.

Despite the extra requirements, Akkalp said she is becoming a teacher because she wants to work with people and help improve children’s lives. Knowing she can make a difference is “a reward for me.”

Perhaps the greatest advantage in the U.S. education system is the use of technology, Akkalp said. While all Forsyth County classrooms have interactive white boards, very few have the technology in Germany.

The difference is capturing the attention of students, as the technology makes learning “not so boring,” Akkalp said.

“Most of a time as a teacher you spend thinking, ‘What am I going to do and how am I going to get there?’ And I observed it with Anna,” Akkalp said. “She was like, ‘I have an idea.’ And it was so easy to get this concept done because she has the whiteboard.

“If I would decide to show a YouTube video [in Germany], I’d have to bring my laptop with me, I’d have to plug in all the things and it’s just too much time that goes wasted from the actual teaching time.”

Aigner-Muehler and her Austrian husband provided a host home for Akkalp. They speak both English and German, which made Akkalp feel right at home.

During their third week in Georgia, the German students are staying at the college, where they will continue learning, Michael said.

They’re visiting language classes and elementary schools to “give them an understanding of who we are and how we prepare our schools and our teachers,” he said, adding he’s hopeful the exchange partnership will continue to grow.

“The two students who are here have already given us a world of information … the first half has been so beneficial already.”