Author: Gerda Damböck

Axel Kühner in an interview: Why are you committed to educational justice?

Countless studies pick up on the positive aspects of education in our society, point out the deficit orientation in the existing education system and the inertia for change. Teach For Austria pursues the vision that every child should have the chance to live a good life – no matter how much money or education their parents have. A key part of the initiative is the Leadership Program, which was also launched in Upper Austria five years ago. Teach For Austria brings selected university graduates to challenging kindergartens, middle schools and polytechnic schools as full-time teachers and educators. Stakeholders from business, politics and education support this program. Axel Kühner, CEO of Greiner AG, talks to Christiane Steinlechner, Regional Manager of Teach For Austria Upper Austria, about the reasons for his commitment.

Teach for Austria has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Together with our partners, we can look back on a decade of countless activities for more educational justice. You yourself have been instrumental in ensuring that Teach for Austria has also existed in Upper Austria for five years. What were the reasons for your commitment?

In my view, the importance of education is clearly underestimated in society. We support a wide variety of initiatives that work to give people better access to education. Teach For Austria convinced us right from the start, as we are very concerned about equal opportunities and educational justice. As a Gold Partner, we supported the expansion of the program to Upper Austria more than five years ago – something we are very proud of.

Who did you have to convince five years ago? Has anything changed in that regard?

Politicians were immediately on fire because they recognized the importance. Both the state governor and the state councilor for education actively supported our cause. In the operational educational landscape, there was initially more of a “not invented here” syndrome. But with united forces, everyone could be convinced. Today, there is a desperate search for lateral entrants, but back then it was different.

Apart from the personal responsibility of each individual to seize his or her opportunity, it is also important for us as a society to strive for educational justice. Why is this topic still relevant to you personally today?

In no other EU country does educational success depend so much on the socioeconomic status and educational level of parents as in Austria, as studies by the European Commission confirm. That has to change, and that’s where Teach For Austria comes in. After all, education is an important prerequisite for young people to be able to lead a successful life later on. Young people should be able to form their own opinions and drive innovation with their ideas. This is also relevant from a company perspective, because after all, Greiner’s success depends on the skills and innovative strength of our current and future employees.

You are regularly involved in Teach For Austria Week and give students with less favorable starting conditions an insight into your career to encourage them to go their own way. When you think about your educational and career path – what were the factors that you experienced positively or were there negative experiences where you needed support?

In the ninth grade, I almost didn’t advance. My class teacher advised my father that I should repeat the class because I would never get anywhere in math and physics. In the Matura class, I then had an A in both subjects. So it was a blatant misjudgement. It’s about trusting people and encouraging them and not badmouthing anything. Fortunately, I relied on my ambition at the time….

How important is “education” in your company? What educational responsibility do you see on the part of Greiner AG with regard to your stakeholders? And which topics are particularly important here?

For Greiner, education is an essential part of the company’s own sustainability strategy. As a globally active plastics and foam producer, we have a very great responsibility in the area of climate protection. That is why we need well-trained employees now and in the future so that we can succeed in our transformation to a sustainable company. For example, our apprentices have access to the “Moonshot Pirates” community, where they can collaborate on ideas and projects for a more sustainable future. We have also launched a global internal training program called the Climate Ambassador Program. The aim is for employees to build up extensive knowledge that they can pass on as climate ambassadors.

Our shared Vision 2050 “Every child has the chance of a good life, no matter how much money or education their parents have,” shows that there are different starting positions in life. Nevertheless, everyone should have the opportunity to develop on the basis of their own abilities and potential. In your opinion, what conditions must be in place for this to happen?

Career guidance is particularly important for students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, so that they are shown as many opportunities as possible. Training in STEM fields, i.e. mathematics, information technology, natural sciences and technology, generally offers above-average income opportunities – but unfortunately far too few girls still opt for STEM professions. Career guidance and breaking away from outdated role models are therefore particularly important here. I am convinced that education, as well as training that does justice to one’s own abilities and potential, is the key to a fulfilling life. And in the long run, education is also the most important lever for social advancement.

Teach For Austria’s Fellow Program brings dedicated lateral entrants to particularly challenging middle schools for two years in order to introduce new perspectives and have a direct impact on the work with children. You have been involved with Teach for Austria as an advisor for some time now. What do you see as the positive effects of this approach?

The fellows are enormously motivated and act as great role models for the young people. In addition, as lateral entrants, they bring new perspectives and a breath of fresh air to the schools. I am also convinced of the long-term benefits of the program, because when the fellows move back into the private sector, they bring valuable experience and skills with them from their time at Teach For Austria. It also happens time and again that a Fellow wants to stay true to the teaching profession after the two years – which is of course also very nice when someone has been able to find their calling in teaching through Teach For Austria.

The interview was conducted by Mag.a Christiane Steinlechner, MA, Regional Director Teach For Austria Upper Austria.

© Teach For Austria – honorarfrei, Fotograf Simon Groihofer
© Teach For Austria – honorarfrei, Fotograf Simon Groihofer
© Teach For Austria – honorarfrei, Fotograf Simon Groihofer

Axel Kühner held a lesson with Teach For Austria Fellow Ulrike Lanzerstorfer on March 10, 2023 as part of the Teach For Austria weeks at MS6 Wels Ennsleite. Central topics of the interactive lesson were plastics and recycling. The young people of a 3rd grade class were able to deal with different plastics in detail by means of some illustrative materials. For example, they were asked which plastic objects they had already handled today. Using the example of a yogurt pot, Kühner explained the process and significance of the circular economy in terms of sustainability.


About Teach For Austria

2050: Every child has the chance for a good life – no matter how much money or education their parents have. This is the vision of the non-profit organization Teach For Austria. Educators are an important key to getting there. The core of Teach For Austria’s work is therefore the so-called Fellow Program. This two-year leadership program brings particularly committed university graduates from a wide range of disciplines to challenging schools as full-time teachers and, since fall 2019, also to kindergartens as educators. Here they work with children and young people from socio-economically disadvantaged families who are at high risk of dropping out of education early. All participants in the program are career changers – they are selected by Teach For Austria, prepared for their work in schools and kindergartens, and supported for two years. Teach For Austria calls the program participants “fellows” and sees them as impulse givers who enrich everyday school and kindergarten life with their diverse study backgrounds and professional experience and support their children in pursuing further educational paths. Since 2011, 440 highly qualified young academics – 40 of them in Upper Austria – have been able to make an impact for around 45,000 children at 114 socially highly stressed schools and, since 2019, at 29 kindergartens in Vienna.


Gerda Damböck