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Learning ‒ teaching ‒ sparking enthusiasm

May 2015

She definitely didn’t want to become a teacher. Yet she is one. For 15 years, Anja Renold has been teaching at the Gymnasium Bäumlihof in Basel. Since 2008, she is also the Deputy Principal. A perfect mixture for this bundle of energy: She can get things moving and combine her passion for strategies and management with her love of teaching and inspiring interest. An impressive workload but sitting around at home is not her thing. 

You first studied molecular biology and then added botany and zoology. Why?

Originally, I studied medicine but soon discovered that the causes and research interested me more than the symptoms. So, I changed to molecular biology. But later, when I decided despite my former prejudices to become a teacher, I was faced with the problem that the Biology II course at that time was not recognized for teaching. That’s why I enrolled for postgraduate studies in botany and zoology.

A research assistant in Boston, then a PhD at the Biozentrum. Did you originally plan a research career?

My studies and my husband’s PhD both finished at the same time. We thought that this would be a good time to go abroad. Boston is a paradise for molecular biologists and I soon found a quite challenging position at Massachusetts General Hospital. Despite this, I was “only” an academic laboratory assistant and I realized that I didn’t want to end up as a boss’ right hand but to have my own projects. Hence the dissertation. There were, however, two reasons why a career in research didn’t come into question: Firstly, I am not a “lone warrior”, for although there is a lot of team work involved in research, one still hast to put one’s own interests first. And secondly, I really enjoyed teaching in the Block Course very much. So, I told myself that I should perhaps consider becoming a teacher after all.

After three years as Deputy Principal you still took on a school principal training course. How did this additional knowledge help you?

An important aspect was the management function, as teachers tend to rule over their own little kingdoms. Furthermore, it dealt with how to bring together the many players - the teachers, students, parents, the authorities, canton and the federal government - or how to get a relatively slow-moving system into action. Communication and crisis management were also important topics, as well as quality management and finances, as a “Gymnasium” is usually semi-autonomous. We also looked at legal issues, as we are constantly confronted by these. For example we are currently dealing with the question: For how long can a teacher confiscate a student’s mobile phone?

And what are your tasks as the Deputy Principal?

This is handled differently in each school. We function here vey well as a team. A large part of my duties lie in the administrative area. I organize entrance exams, plan the yearly calendar and am responsible for the student holiday and absence requests, the talent support program as well as for communication. In addition I hold annual reviews with some 30 teachers each year. This management tool is very important to us and has enabled us to achieve much in the last eight years. I also look after two class levels and have regular contact with the home class teachers. And finally, we intervene in crisis situations to support the teachers. 

What do you enjoy the most?

On the one hand, I like solving problems. On the other, I enjoy getting things moving. When I started as Deputy Principal, the education system survey dealing with the interface between school and the university was published. We came to the conclusion that we wanted to initiate some changes. We started out quite small implementing the project GBplus in a single class. It basically threw all the conventional teaching structures overboard. We split the year into six phases, so that the students only had to concentrate on five subjects at a time instead of thirteen. We also divided each phase into a learning and an exam phase. Can you imagine trying to give an exciting biology lesson while half the class is learning French vocabulary for the test in the next lesson. This is frustrating and doesn’t benefit anyone. At the beginning there was much criticism from the staff, particularly because the pace that we had set proved quite ambitious. But today everyone is on board and half the classes are taught using this system. 

Does your job as Deputy Principal absorb you completely or do you still teach as well?

I do still teach. The amount changes from year to year and I sometimes am a little annoyed that I don’t do more of it. I love teaching and I really enjoy working with young people. I always have. While I studied, for instance, I trained the junior synchronized swimming national team. The interaction with young people, their questions, the chance to show them something of all the exciting things that the world has to offer and if possible to wake their interest are all things I find great. And biology is a great subject in this respect.

How much molecular biology appears in these classes?

A large amount in my classes (she laughs). Of course, there are other teachers who are more at home with plants and animals and not so comfortable with molecular biology topics but about half of our biology teachers come from the Biozentrum. So, generally one semester of the three year biology curriculum is reserved for molecular biology. 

It is often said that women are not as interested in science. Is this what you also observe?

In the sciences, this depends greatly on the subject. Males and females are equally interested in biology. Generally, more men tend towards mathematics and physics. And young women are not reluctant if they are shown the whole spectrum of possibilities within the sciences and the doors that these can open.

How to interest more students in the STEM subjects is often discussed. What is the problem?

Honestly? I think our school system simply doesn‘t give these subjects the importance they would need to get. The curriculum has a very strong emphasis on languages and the students don’t have enough contact with the scientific subjects. Yet, in my opinion, interest in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) must be sparked long before the “Gymnasium”. At that level it is already too late. I am convinced that this should be happening already during their primary school years.

You are a co-founder of the BioValley College Network. Its goal is doing just this, to strengthen the sciences at school. What does this network do and how did this come about?

We, five teachers, almost all from the Biozentrum, were asked in 2003 by Novartis whether we would like to take part in an exchange with Boston. The goal was to strengthen molecular biology in the school curriculum. When we returned, we didn’t want to lose the momentum that we had brought back with us, so we founded the tri-national BioValley College Network. We started out quite small but currently around 550 students participate at College Day, where students meet experts at the university. The continuing education course offered for teachers, the Life Sciences Symposium, is also very popular attracting 150 to 200 teachers from around Switzerland, Germany and France. Furthermore we provide learning opportunities in the form of a sabbatical of a two to six month return to research which is financed by Actelion. And lastly, we have established two school labs. 

Your day has also only 24 hours. How do you manage all of this?

I don’t really know. With much talent for improvisation (she laughs). Actually now that my children are nine and fourteen years old, it is much easier. I also have a very understanding boss and a husband who gives me much support and I extremely enjoy doing all of this. I receive much in return. In the meantime I have also learnt to say no now and again. And I simply couldn’t sit at home. Six months of maternity leave already felt like a very long time to me. 

What advice do you give your students for the future?

That you never know in which direction the road will lead and so it is best to go through life with a great deal of openness. I also find it important to persevere, even if now and again things are not so great or exciting. I also had my crises while working on my dissertation but even in these situations you can learn something that can help you later. 


Anja Renold is Deputy Principal of the Gymnasium Bäumlihof. She studied Biology II at the University of Basel and then spent two years as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. After her return in 1996, she conducted research at the Biozentrum for four years, and got her PhD in Biochemistry. In 2000, she began to work as a biology and chemistry teacher at the Gymnasium Bäumlihof in Basel. At this time, she also completed postgraduate studies in biology at the University of Basel and got the teaching qualifications for gymnasial schools at the teacher’s college in Basel. In 2008, she became Deputy Principal. She armed herself with additional tools for this function with the EDK Certificate of Advanced Studies school principal course at the University of St. Gallen. She is a member of the BioValley College Network Board, who aims to better link the Gymnasiums, research and industry.