Pupils in a number of Swiss cantons went back to school this week after the summer break. But while many teachers used the holidays to enjoy leisure pursuits, 60 from canton Zurich have just spent four weeks in the United States learning new techniques and preparing to hold classes in English.
The teachers ended their four-week training programme at the Swiss Teachers Summer Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University on Sunday.
The course, concentrating on comparative education, English and computer work, had proved increasingly popular among Swiss teachers. The programme this year had twice as many participants as last year.
The programme is a partnership between the Education ministry, canton Zurich and the private sector. Acting through the Spenderverein Foundation, several Swiss companies, including the cement group, Holcim, and the country's largest bank, UBS, are financing the project until 2003, covering the SFr600,000 annual budget.
"After 2003, the canton will take over the financing", Christian Aeberli, head of projects at the education ministry, told swissinfo. Canton Zurich is to the fore of efforts in Switzerland to introduce English rather than a second national language into the school curriculum.
During the course, the Swiss teachers immersed themselves in the American education system, took English courses, had computer training sessions, visited schools in Florida and spoke to numerous American teachers, education experts and researchers.
Overall, Swiss teachers rated the programme very highly, although linguistic immersion seems to have been made difficult by the large number of participants.
"I will probably feel more comfortable using the computer and Internet in the classroom now", Zurich teacher Irene Deboni told swissinfo. "However, I did not profit much from the English immersion because there were a lot of Swiss teachers around me and we often ended up switching to German."
Participants and organisers also compared the US and Swiss education systems. "There are similarities, but we may be more modest and don't sell our work that much," said Deboni.
"In Switzerland, there is a great tradition of teacher autonomy, creativity and responsibility and they do that as a team...whereas our system in the US is much more hierarchical and more centralised in the sense that the teacher's work in the classroom is very much defined by the system," said Victoria Dimidjian, director of the Swiss Teachers Summer Institute.
The Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), which opened its doors in 1997, is a public university supported by the state of Florida. For the university, the Swiss programme is a big step forward.
"It is extremely important to us because it is our first international programme of this magnitude, and also because in order to bring this programme to Florida, we were in competition with prestigious and well-established universities in the US like Harvard and Stanford", the university's provost, Brad Bartel, told swissinfo.
by Marie-Christine Bonzom
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