One of the largest differences between the Austrian and the US public secondary-school systems is that Austrian children are placed in a specific academic or vocational track quite early—as young as 10. Austrian students are streamed into two major groups after the completion of 4th grade (the last year of primary school, or Volksschule). At that point, a child's parents must choose between the Gymnasium—the university-preparatory track—and the Hauptschule, which has a more vocational focus.
The Gymnasium continues from US grades 5 to 12 (in Austria, numbering starts over at the beginning of Gymnasium, so these are Austrian grades 1–8). The Gymnasium generally follows a liberal-arts model, though there is more of a focus on "core subjects" than electives compared to a US high school. At some Gymnasia the students can focus on a particular field of study, such as languages or natural sciences, while continuing their general education. At the end of a student's Gymnasium years, the student takes a comprehensive school-leaving exam and is granted the Matura, a diploma or secondary-school certificate of completion that entitles the student to enroll in most Austrian university programs.
The Gymnasium is referred to as an Allgemeine Höhere Schule (AHS) because it provides a higher level of general education for those who will presumably proceed to university and pursue professional careers. There is also a second branch of secondary schools that grants the Matura called Berufsbildende Mittlere und Höhere Schulen, or BMHS.
After the first four years of Gymnasium or Hauptschule (US 8th grade/Austrian 4th form), students can elect to leave the AHS's general curriculum to attend a Berufsbildende Mittlere und Höhere Schule (BMHS). In a BMHS, students complete the general education necessary to receive the Matura and continue on to university while concurrently completing vocational training in a wide variety of fields. Students at a BMHS generally spend an extra year in secondary school (graduating at 19) because their vocational training requires extra coursework. There are many different types of BMHS that train students in numerous fields, ranging from various branches of engineering (Höhere Technische Lehranstalt, or HTL) to business and tourism (Handelsakademie, or HAK) and kindergarten teaching (Bildungsanstalt für Kindergartenpädagogik, or BAKIP)–and that is just a select sampling of the many fields of specialization you may encounter as you teach English in Austrian schools. Upon graduation, students can continue to university or work in the field in which they have been trained.
The Neue Mittelschule continues for another four years after the Volksschule, along the same lines as the Gymnasium but with a more vocational and less academic focus. Upon completion, superior students may be in the position to transfer to an AHS or BMHS to get the Matura and become eligible for university. More typically, however, students from the Neue Mittelschule go on to the Berufschule and Lehre, where they receive further training in their field while completing an apprenticeship. There are over 250 recognized trades in this track, ranging from opticians to hair stylists and printers.
Placement of US teaching assistants in Austria
As a US teaching assistant in Austria, you will generally only work with students over the age of ten. Most teaching assistants are assigned to an AHS or BMHS, though there are some placements at schools dedicated to fashion, forestry, farming, and many other fascinating fields. For more information about the Austrian school system, please consult this helpful diagram.