Jörg Knüfken believes that every German teacher needs to have the capacity to build positive, eye-level relationships that serve as the foundation for educational environments where students can thrive. With Changewriters e.V. Jörg introduces a multi-step transformation process for the education sector to shift a performance and output driven German school system towards a more human-centered approach that puts the relationship of its key stakeholders, teachers, and students, at its center.
The New Idea
Larger parts of the German school system are dysfunctional, when measured against its supposed competence to foster self-efficacy and 21st century skills while engaging youth to unfold their potential. Having been a teacher himself, Jörg has a very pragmatic view on this bitter yet widely shared insight. Still, he is convinced that there is a way to bring back the essence of what learning environments should be about: positive relationship building as a basis to personal and professional development – and he has found it. Building new realities in the classroom bottom up, Jörg helps both teachers and students (re)develop their self-efficacy and relationship skills. What comes across as a rather simple intervention process of trainings incorporating new elements of culture, methods, and practice of positive relationship building actually disrupts and thus changes the classroom reality.
In the German secondary education system, the relationship between students and their teachers is increasingly deteriorating through ever increasing performance pressure on both students and teachers. Through Jörg’s Changewriters training program, educators begin to understand students’ misbehavior in the broader context of their lives and relationships needs – thereby improving their ability to respond to those needs. This new understanding empowers educators to move away from relationships behavior that promotes insecure attachments (i.e. shaming, modeling, being unresponsive to others’ needs or emotions) and towards relationships behaviors that promote secure attachment (i.e. showing unconditional acceptance). The training program has been conceived in a way that it can be replicated in a similar manner in different settings, whilst at the same time having very individual effects on the teachers. It focuses on giving teachers the space to reflect on and become aware of their own behaviors in the class room and how it resonates with the students. Through this self-reflection and mindset shift, the teachers then are enabled to tweak individually their behavioral patterns in their daily practice. Hence, Jörg is providing teachers the right tools and posture to apply their theoretical knowledge of development psychology directly in the school environment. In doing so, Jörg educates a new generation of teachers, and is broadly redefining the role of teachers who become facilitators for students’ personal development, rather than solely information providers.
In addition to reinforcing the individual capabilities of the agents who are at the heart of the school system, Jörg creates the support network that enables them to carry out the needed transformations in the daily school practice. To ensure cross-pollination of experiences, Jörg is building a nationwide community of practice of schools and peer practitioners, who support each other in practicing this new framework for 21st century competencies (e.g. empathy, deep listening, self-reflection, relationship building) and also spreading it to other schools and education institutions. At the same time, Changewriters is accompanying schools, to become “Changewriter” schools, in a multi-year process, where the school leadership agrees that every teacher is regularly trained and coached to create the right learning environment and relationships with the students. With 25 accredited “Changewriter” schools already in the network with approximately 550 teachers and 14,000 students, Jörg is now starting to build a train the trainer program that allows Changewriters to spread this approach across Germany.
In Germany, relational pedagogy still receives little attention in teacher training. Even though it is scientifically proven that supportive teacher-student relationships can promote higher academic achievement, greater social competences, and less behavioral problems in students, the German teacher education system still focuses heavily on teachers as experts, thus equipping them with technical teaching skills and content knowledge but not the social and emotional competencies needed to sustain and maintain positive relationships. In addition, teachers are put under enormous pressures to achieve curriculum goals and expected student performance. Relationship work is not set out in the curriculum and thus takes place – if at all – outside the classroom (i.e., during annual single-day class trips). Such a performance-driven environment nurtures negativity, fragmentation, and an alienation of the relationship between students and teachers and ultimately the teacher and his profession.
Consequently, teachers can adopt negative attitudes towards their jobs and feel dispirited and demoralized, while students become further alienated, disengaged, and lose sight of their aims. For teachers teaching in schools that serve low-income communities, this is even more stressful, because of students’ higher needs in light of structural inequalities and other factors such as lack of resources for teaching material and professional training. This leads to severe consequences: 60% of all teachers in Germany are at high risk of burnout, the highest rate across all professions.
At the same time, the lack of teacher-student relationships exacerbates educational disparities. Socio-economic and migration background continue to play a key role in educational success. Children who do not grow up in safe, secure, and nurturing family relationships and environments are at greater risks of experiencing learning problems in school. Rather than overcoming social disadvantages and inequalities, the current German school system appears to reinforce them. The hierarchical grade and performance driven school system typically does not build on skills and capacities, but rather on the deficits of children and young people while neglecting their individual potential. Through the one-dimensional grading system, focused mainly on knowledge reproduction, students are continuously compared against each other. This leads to “lower performing” students often suffering through bullying, parental pressure, and the institutional threat of failing a year or even needing to leave the school to go to a school that is lower in the school system of Germany. Young people who, in the current structures, can barely achieve positive learning experiences, do not see any prospects, and consequently have a less promising self-image. Teachers acting continuously technocratic by giving out bad grades reinforce the student’s feeling of failure and inability, which they internalize over time.
Students in such situations become increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied, often resulting in negative attitudes to school and learning in general. Consequently, the vicious cycle continues as the misbehavior of students is often met with punitive practices by the teachers, which amplifies students’ inappropriate behavior. Behavior problems in the classroom create school environments that are toxic for the students’ development. This can be observed in increasingly high drop-out rates can be observed amongst the already most vulnerable communities in Germany.
With no structural actor tackling the increasing relational gap between students and teachers in the German secondary school system, Jörg has built an organization, Changewriters e.V., that equips and supports teachers, school principals, and educational staff to turn the classroom into a supportive and trusted environment in which the traditionally dichotomy between teachers and students is replaced by equal relationships. Through Changewriters, Jörg (1) cultivates ongoing self-reflection among teachers as a prerequisite for their empathic engagements, (2) provides them with the pedagogical tools and methods to adopt a new posture responsive to children’s emotional relationship needs and (3) works towards building a movement of relationship-centered schools.
Advertised as a practical method training for teachers with easy-to-use tools directly implementable in daily school activities, Jörg uses his modular training program to get his way in to the heart of the school to trigger a deeper cultural change. Like a trojan horse, he infiltrates the DNA of schools through three steps:
Firstly, he is working on getting buy-in and support from school leaders who commit to creating relationship-driven learning environments for teachers and students. For this, Jörg relies on scientific evidence of the performance benefits of improved student-teacher relationships as well as positive feedback collected from participants of the Changewriters training to show school leaders how they can support the professional and personal development of their teachers, both inexpensively and quickly. By bringing the training to the school, principals signal to their teachers that relationship work is considered important.
Secondly, Jörg is raising awareness that creating a space for relationship building is not sufficient and works with teachers on adopting a very specific, often unknown posture: They need to be supportive, empathic, and understanding towards students’ personal needs, experiences, and individual life realities. Jörg believes that teachers’ deficit-oriented attitudes promote insecure attachments. This is why every teacher goes through a 4-days training program that combines theoretical and practical elements inspired by educational psychology. This training includes insights on the reality experienced by students to develop teachers’ knowledge and empathy and help them recognize their own judgments and interpretations. A key element for this is that the teachers read students’ diaries that Jörg has collected over years working in schools. In those the teachers read authentic descriptions of the broader reality of a student’s life and give a lot of insights into their behavior. Through group discussions, teachers begin to understand that most often students’ misbehavior is attributed to their individual/personal struggles. Additionally, the teachers learn about how to build trustful relationships by working on self-reflection and ways of connection that go beyond performance reviews. As with his students, Jörg encourages teachers to start journaling and observe how their context influences their work as teachers. Lastly, they also gain insights into how to identify and reinforce a student’s strengths, to help him/her recognize his/her own potential. In the course of the training, teachers in the group experience all didactic Changewriters methods themselves, so they experience the positive influences of relationships on their own emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Lastly, as Jörg experienced himself, teachers are equally time poor and often stretched. He therefore provides them with a large methodology toolbox to choose from, with exercises to build trust and relationships between teachers and students that are engaging from get-go. Additionally, Changewriters accompanies schools over a period of 1.5 years in the implementation of pedagogical methodologies through a series of reflective meetings as well as refresher trainings. In doing so, he guarantees a sustainable shift in school and classroom practice and culture at the partner schools that put students’ personal needs and student-teacher relationships at the center of education. Jörg understood that he needs to reach 30% of the teachers in a school to shift the whole school’s mindset.
The impact of the program has been scientifically evaluated by the Protestant University of Applied Sciences Berlin and shows significant results in terms of empowerment. The majority of teacher participants, for instance, confirm that their relationships with students are getting better and that they are rediscovering their motivation to teach. Many noticed a higher engagement rate and fewer disruptions in the classroom by switching to a more understanding attitude. Teachers also reported that integrating Changewriter methods in daily classroom activities, such as journal writing, helped them to build new connections with previously hard-to-reach students and reinforce positive relationships with those already close. Accordingly, these methods help them conceptualize students as products of their respective contexts, thus developing empathy and understanding with their personal situations. Students also report changes in their teachers’ attitudes: they perceive them as being more supportive and appreciative, trust-worthy, and open towards them. Moreover, students perceive a positive change in the overall classroom environment. Additionally, students’ performance in the Changewriter schools have been improving, reducing drop-out rates and classroom conflict tremendously.
Twenty-five schools have already become a Changewriter school, meaning that they have undergone the 1.5-year long journey. By the end of 2022, it will be 45 schools. Changewriters e.V. has reached more than 530 teachers across 22 cities of Germany. Via these teachers, the model reached more than 14,000 children, building their confidence and self-efficacy to actively participate in their education and furthermore in society.
To diffuse his new approach on a national level in Germany, Jörg is leveraging on the already existing network of Changewriter schools and teachers to trigger a larger-scale social movement. Aware of the rigidity of national education and training systems, Jörg is convinced that change needs to scale organically and through referrals, as well as via teacher unions and associations. Therefore, he regularly brings Changewriter schools together for network meetings, giving them space to share their experiences, develop a feeling of belonging to a broader movement and share best practices to strengthen the movement across all 25+ schools. This allows him to create an eco-system of committed teachers and schools, which share the same understanding of the structural shortcomings of the German school system and the same willingness to exert change, together making up an essential first critical mass of allies. It also provides the needed support system and safe haven for teachers to continuously reflect on their practice and role.
Moreover, Jörg relies on this network to share their experience with other schools and teachers since they are the best evidence that there is a causal link between teacher-student relationship, well-being, and academic success. As an example, Changewriters recently organized a successful meeting with 24 Changewriter schools and other traditional schools from 5 federal states, leading to several interested new schools reaching out proactively to Changewriters. Changewriters has developed an App through which this growing network stays connected.
The next step, after gaining more and more reputation in the German school landscape, is to build strategic collaborations with the German teacher association to attract more teachers. Ultimately, Jörg wants to see the permanent establishment of the role of a “relationship commissioner” in every German school, so that relationship-centered schools become the norm and not the exception.
Being the first person to attend the Gymnasium (high school that qualifies to go to university) in his family, Jörg felt a lot of pressure from his family to perform well, continue his education in university and get a well-paid industry job. Personally, he was not interested in this performance driven environment. This led him to fail his classes and change schools several times – through which he experienced the downsides of a deficit-oriented system: he was bullied for having failed a class and treated differently by teachers. After ultimately succeeding in his “Abitur” (the German equivalent of the SAT), Jörg did not know what to study and dived into his voluntary work at a local church that he had been doing during his school time. This experience made him realize that he wanted to be a social worker to work together with vulnerable youngsters to understand their problematic situations and find solutions together with them. He ultimately created his own youth center.
At this point Jörg wanted to have more impact within the system than only in the extracurricular time of the youngsters. So Jörg started his education path as a teacher in a secondary school serving a more disadvantaged school in North Rhine Westphalia. While he successfully managed to engage youth in his previous roles, in the everyday school life he found himself confronted with a very different reality: most students showed disruptive, defiant, or aggressive behaviors to teachers who, as a consequence, either resorted to extra-punitive responses or fully surrendered.
Convinced that there must be another way to reach these students than school expulsion, he came across the movie of the “Freedom Writers,” which is based on the true story of an US English teacher who used journal writing as a means to connect with at-risk students in her classroom. By starting the experiment in his classroom, he realized how he began to see the students from a completely new perspective: as whole people. With the simple, yet effective tool of diary writing he experienced himself how he was able to get through to these students who had previously signaled rejection and distance. For Jörg, this helped him rediscover the value of his work (his self-efficacy as a teacher) but also opened his eyes to how the current system does not adequately prepare teachers for their job.
After 3 years of further developing the methods at his own school to support teachers and over 400 students in building trusting relationships, he realized that the need at other schools was just as great. Starting with a group of colleagues, in 2014 he founded Changewriters. Within two years, he was able to mobilize enough funding to grow his organization to a team of eight people, which was necessary to satisfy the increasing demand from over 100 schools for the Changewriters program. Jörg's clear goal is for a successful relationship culture to become an integral component of everyday school life.