In School in Germany: The Culling of Quatsch in German

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How to eliminate trash from the German language in order to make it more sophisticated

A few weeks ago, you know, there was like a cool article from that whatchamacallit online thing, where writers, like put down something like 15 words that should, you know, be eliminated from the vocabulary, because they are, like very dailylike and not good for use in college. Do you know wha I’m sayin?

First reaction from the audience: “Mr. Smith, can you please repeat that? I don’t know what you are saying.” (Typical reaction from a dedicated student from Denmark learning English for her job.”

Again: Don’t ya know, there was like an article on taking out stuff from the language, you know, English. It was like we cannot use these words because they are, you know, babylike…..

Second reaction from the audience: Basketball star Elena Delle Donne shakes her head in disbelief and puts on her headset listening to some iTune music, getting mentally prepared for the next WNBA basketball game. Yet at the same time, a hysterical mother of three stands up and says this as a third reaction:

“If you say one more like, I’m gonna pound you! Do you know how many likes you’ve said in a MINUTE?!!”

You can imagine, how many responses came out regarding the article that was posted in the Files’ facebook pages as well as the pages in the circles dealing with Anglo-Saxon and German cultures: in the short paragraph above, identify the words that probably made it to the list made by the newspaper and in the group circles.

While English is becoming more diluted with slangs and other expressions, which is making the language less sophisticated in both the oral and written senses, the German language unfortunately is suffering from a similar fate.

Take a look at the example that a former colleague from a German Hochschule where I taught for two years  received from a student of civil engineering via e-mail:

Hi, ich hab mal ne frage zur presentation, wir sollen die ja schon 2 wochen vorher abgeben, was is aber wenn wir später noch was ändern wollen, ich glaub kaum das ich schon 2 wochen vorher die finale version der presentation hab und die 2 wochen lang für gut befinde und nichts mehr dran ändere, auserdem wollt ich wissen wann ich jez eigentlich meine presentation hab jez wies aussieht alles nach hinten verschoben und ich weis nich mehr wann meine dann ist…..

In English:

Hi! I have a question regarding my presentation. We should hand it in two weeks beforehand. However, what if we have to change something? We doubt our presentation will be done beforehand. In addition, I would like to know if it is possible to push my presentation date back and if so, when. (This is a shortened translation of the German text, by the way.)

This is from a native speaker of German. Do you trust him constructing the next bridge carrying a German Autobahn? Especially the one being planned at Rendsburg over the Baltic-North Sea Canal in the next two years?

If you are a German academic or an expatriate who has lived in Germany for more than ten years, like I have, you will see the mistakes in less than a second.  Sadly, more and more e-mails, papers, documents and even theses are containing words that do not belong in the German language if a person wants to write like Goethe or Schiller- words like: geil, doch, noch, was and –ne, as well as some Denglish words, such as liken, downloaden, fischen, etc. While one could communicate them orally (but please, sparingly), they do not belong on paper.

So what is there to do about the erosion of the German language? It is a surefire fact that we need to eliminate some stuff from the German language in order to make it pure again, just like with the English language. And while Germans have adopted many words from English that can be used, and vice versa, there are some words that just do not belong in the vocabulary, period.

If you were a German teacher, which words would you like to see your pupils NOT use- both orally as well as written? Here are the English words that many people have listed that should be at least capped for use:

Whatever, like, awesome, umm, stuff, thing, honestly, irregardless, would of (instead of would have), actually, viral, addicting, just, maybe, really, very, went, that, literally, and absolutely.

Und du? Welche deutsche Wörter möchtest du zum Verwenden begrenzen, außer was erwähnt wurden? Her mit deiner Liste in the Flensburg Files Comment page, sowie in den anderen Seiten und wir freuen uns auf den Vergleich zwischen den englischen und den deutschen Wörten!

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In School in Germany: The Devil’s Advocate in the Classroom

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To start off this article, let’s play a bit of Truth or Dare, looking at the three scenarios below and daring you to do the following:

  1. You have your students find a newspaper article and write a brief summary to be presented in a social studies class. One of them finds an article on the recent shooting of nine African Americans in a South Carolina and the plans of the southern states to retire the Confederate flag. After presenting the summary, you as the teacher, in an attempt to spark a discussion in class, jump in to speak about the importance of the Confederate flag in American history and the need to keep it flying, unaware of the fact that half of your class consist of African Americans plus one of your pupils comes from a white supremist family…..
  1. You start off a debate about the question of wearing headscarves in the classroom of a predominantly Catholic school because of a debate in the Bavarian parliament about banning them in schools. This despite the fact that you have three Muslims and two Indians out of a total of 25 pupils in the classroom…..
  1. You and your class just finished reading the book and watching the film “The Perils of Being a Wallflower,” and start a question for discussion about the question of homosexuality, stating the benefits of being gay. The catch: Three of your pupils are homosexual, four pupils are opposed to homosexuality for religious reasons, five pupils find the topic too sensitive to talk about and keep mum, while the rest of the 20 pupils in your group…..

It is really hard to start a discussion about controversial topics, like the ones mentioned above. This especially holds true in a foreign language classroom, like English.  However, to play the Devil’s Advocate and state an argument in an attempt to start a discussion is like playing with matches. If you don’t strike it properly or near something flammable, and it produces a flame that you don’t want, you better hope you and your house are both properly insured. In other words, to start off a discussion by stating an opinion to the students in order to start a conversation could possibly result in you (as the teacher) coming under intense fire and later scrutiny by students, parents, and even the school principal.

It does not mean that you cannot play the Devil’s Advocate in the classroom. In fact, stating an opinion, be it your own or that taken from a source can provoke some form of discussion from the classroom, bringing out some ideas and thoughts from your fellow students and maybe even producing a few questions for further consideration. If you choose the right topic for the right audience, you may end up having one of the most productive sessions with your group. The right topics could include the ones mentioned above, the first of which is a current event that happened just recently. Current events would be the best brain food for such an activity. Yet a controversial topic based on a film or book, as mentioned in the third example would also be a good platform to take a side and spurn a discussion.

The caveats involved in being the Devil’s Advocate include these key elements:

1. The students: Your class will have a heterogeneous mixture of people coming from different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds as well as those who have certain preferences.  You cannot introduce an activity like this without having gotten to know your group for a long period of time. And even then, you need to make a very careful judgement as to which topic you wish to provoke a discussion with, keeping the risk of a possible fall-out in mind. Therefore, as a teacher, I would wait a few months before even trying this activity out on them.

2. The environment: What is meant by environment is the school, the policies that are in place and the “unwritten” rules that you do not see on paper but that you have to be aware of. This ranges from the way teachers teach and discipline their students, to the apparel to be worn, to the mentality of both parties- meaning their views on topics deemed sensitive to the school. It is possible that there is a sense of inflexibility as to what topics should be talked about in the classroom. Sometimes conformity is the safest way to avoid confrontation, so choosing a topic and deciding whether the Devil’s Advocate is appropriate is one to be taken quite seriously.

3. The materials available for use: This is even trickier, especially if you are teaching in an American school, because of a wide array of ever-growing number of books and films that have made it to the Red List- namely those not to be used in the classroom. While it is sometimes necessary to use certain materials to cover a topic before trying to be the Devil’s Advocate, you as the teacher have to be careful as to using the materials that are approved by the school. Sometimes in order to play it safe, I go by the rule of  “When in doubt, check it out.” That means ask your colleagues if the materials you plan to use for this particular exercise is ok or not.

4. You as the teacher: There are two types of passion to be aware of while standing in front of the board presenting new topics. There is the passionate type, where the teacher loves to work with the topic and the students. Then there’s the passionate type where the teacher has an opinionated topic to enforce on the class. This is the danger of playin the Devil’s Advocate- one gets too carried away with the topic. This has been seen too many times in school and even at the university. When you force your ideas onto someone, you will certainly have a stampede on your hands when the majority opposes it forcefully. In my humble opinion, playing the Devil’s Advocate is not suitable for these types of teachers if they cannot keep their passionate opinions to themselves.

To make it short and concise, being the Devil’s Advocate in order to start a conversation on a controversial topic is possible to do, but it takes a balance of a good student-teacher relationship, a good multi-cultural environment, a good but controversial topic to discuss, a good piece of literature and/or film (if necessary) and a good enough information about the school and its sets of guidelines- written and non-written, in order to pull it off. Even if you don’t play the Devil’s Advocate and state two different arguments to a controversial theme while allowing the students in groups to discuss among themselves, you are also running the risk of having some heated debates in the staff room.  The risks are high, but the risks are even higher if you don’t try this in your classroom.

Why?

Because school is a place for personal development, allowing students to grow beyond their limits. If we are obsessed with manual learning, testing them constantly, students will become robots as adults- programmed to do what was taught in school. We should allow the students to progress at their own pace, think for themselves and allow them to be creative in their own environment, challenge what is not right and what they think is in the right, and lastly, be themselves. Activities like these should serve as thought-provoking and challenging. Not to enforce one’s opinion on another.  To to close, I would like to ask the teachers when they should play the Devil’s Advocate in the classroom and which topic is suitable for this activity. If they have done this already, what were the results and why?

Any stories, place them here or in the Files’ facebook pages.

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In School in Germany: Children of Divorced Parents

Tunnel of Uncertainty

 

 

This entry starts off with a quote to keep in mind: Life is one long tunnel with uncertainty awaiting you. Run as far as you can go and you will be rewarded for your efforts.

The key to success is to have a permanent support group that is there for you whenever you need them. For children, the support group consists of family, such as parents, grandparents and siblings, but also your distant relatives. Yet suppose that is nonexistent?

Divorces have become just as popular a trend as marriage, for in the United States, an average of 3.6 couples out of 1000 people divorce every year, eclipsing the trend of 3.4 couples tying the knot out of 1000. This trend has existed since 2008, despite the parallel decrease of both rates since 2006. In Germany, 49% of married couples split up after a certain time, which is four percentage points less than its American counterpart, but five percentage points higher than the average in the European Union.  Reasons for couples splitting up much sooner have been tied to career chances, lack of future planning, the wish for no children, and in the end, irreconcilable differences.

While the strive for individuality is becoming more and more common in today’s society, the effects of a divorce can especially be felt on the children. In Germany alone, more than 100,000 children are affected by a divorce every year with 1.3 million of them living with only one parent. The psychological effects of a divorce on a child is enormous. They lose their sense of security when one parent has to leave and may never be seen again. In addition, families and circle of friends split up, thus losing contact with them. Sometimes children are the center of many legal battles between divorced parents which can result in intervention on the legal level. They feel isolated and sometimes engage in risky and sometimes destructive behavior, especially later on in life.  When one parent remarries, it can be difficult to adjust to the new partner, even if that person has children from a previous relationship.

In school, children have a sense of difficulty in handling homework and other tasks and therefore, their performance decreases. Furthermore, they can become more unfocused and agitated towards other people, including the teacher- sometimes even aggressive. Depression, anxiety and indifference follows. Surprisingly though, adolescents are more likely to process the affects of a divorce better than children ages 10 and younger. Yet without a sense of hominess and love, children of divorced parents feel like running through a long tunnel of uncertainty, with no end in sight, as seen in this picture above.

During my time at the Gymnasium, I encountered an example of a student, whose parents divorced a year earlier. He was a sixth grader with potential, yet after the parents split up, his performance, interest in the subjects and attitude towards others decreased dramatically, causing concern among his teachers. While I had a chance to work with him while team-teaching English with a colleague who is in charge of the 6th grade group, one of things that came to mind is how schools deal with students of divorced parents.

In the US, intervention is found on three different level, beginning with school counselors and peer groups on the local,  psychologists on the secondary level, who help both parents and children affected by the divorce, and the tertiary level, which involves forms of law enforcement, should the situation get out of hand.  In Germany however, according to sources, no such intervention exists, leaving the parents on their own to contend with the effects of the divorce, and teachers (many with little or no experience) to deal with the behavior of the students, most of which is that of a “one size fits all” approach, which is not a very effective approach when dealing with special cases like this one. Reason for the lack of intervention is the lack of personnel, cooperation and funding for such programs, with areas in the eastern half being the hardest hit. However such programs, like teacher and counselor training, peer programs for students and divorced parents, team teaching and even 1-1 tutoring can be effective in helping these children go through the processes and get their lives back in order, getting them used to the new situation without having their studies and social life be hindered. Without them, it is up to the teacher to help them as much as possible. Yet, as I saw and even experienced first-hand, teachers are not the wonder drug that works wonders on everybody. Their job is to present new things for students to learn and to help them learn and succeed. Therefore additional help to deal with special cases like this one are needed to alleviate the pressure on the teacher and the students.

 

This leads to the following questions for the forum concerning children of divorced parents and intervention:

1. Which school (either in the US or Europe) has a good intervention program that helps children affected by family tragedies and other events, and how does that work in comparison to the existing programs in the US?

2. Have you dealt with children of divorced parents in school? If so, how did you handle them and their parents?

3. Should schools have such an intervention program to help children like these? If so, how should it be structured? Who should take responsibility for which areas? What kind of training should teachers and counselors have?

Feel free to comment one or all of the questions in the Comment section or in the Files’ facebook pages.

 

I would like to end my column with the conclusion of my intervention with my patient. When I and my colleague team-taught, we did it in a way that one of us worked with him, while the other helped the others in the group. Being a group of 23 sixth graders who had English right after lunch, it was a chore and a half, but one that reaped an enormous reward when I left at the conclusion of my practical training. That was- apart from a standing ovation- a handshake from my student with a big thanks for helping him improve on his English. Sometimes a little push combined with some individual help can go a long way, yet if there was a word of advice to give him, it would be one I got from a group of passengers whom I traveled with to Flensburg a few years ago:

Things always go upwards after hitting rock bottom.

In the end, after reaching the light at the end of the tunnel, one will see relief and normalcy just like it was before such an event. It is better to look forward than looking back and regretting the past.

 

Author’s Note:

Here are some useful links about children and divorced parents in both languages that can be useful for you, in addition to what I wrote in this entry. Two of them was courtesy of one of the professors who had dealt with this topic before and was very helpful in providing some ideas and suggestions on how to deal with cases like this. To him I give my sincere thanks. Links:

Click to access Familienforschung%20Scheidung_und_Trennung.pdf

Click to access trennung_scheidung.pdf

Click to access 2009landuccin.pdf

 

In School in Germany: Bilingual Teaching in the Classroom: An Author’s Perspective

Teaching History in the English Language: Teacher’s Task

 

This is a continuation of the series of Bilingual Teaching, the introduction of which can be viewed here.

Books closed. Exams completed. Chapter closed.  A sigh of relief for the pupils in the Gymnasium. Now moving onto the next chapter- but this time in your native tongues, please.

 

Having taught history in English, it is easy to tell who enjoyed learning in English and who was happy to see the camel be sent packing and speak German again. Yet to be that concrete and judgmental would not benefit anyone, even the teacher. In fact, since the US is too monolingual, this statement would be “too American,” for even my taste.

 

As mentioned in the introduction, bilingual modules were introduced slowly but surely beginning in 2009 in many parts of Germany. This includes Thuringia, which started teaching bilingual modules this school year.   The Gymnasium where I’m doing my practical training has had the module since the beginning of the school year, yet it had offered classes in English for upper grades years before the state passed the bill in 2009. There, courses in English, French, Spanish and other foreign languages have been offered in classes dealing with humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. History was one of the classes that has the module and has been completed. As I have indicated in my previous column entries, my theme deals with the USA in the 1920s and 30s and how it returned to isolation after World War I and watched the events unfold in Europe while it lived the lifestyle of the Roaring 20s. Apart from frontal teaching and providing materials and handouts, experiments were conducted to ensure that the students learn not only the history of the US but also improve on their foreign language skills, the concept better known as Content Language and Integrated Learning (CLIL), where foreign languages are introduced in the curriculum with the goal of students picking up skills in their respective areas of study. Such experiments included mini-presentations, using literature and video and mock debates, which best fits the subject of study in history.

 

And the results?

 

Looking at the results, one has to divide it into input (in terms of materials and teaching methods) and output (the reception of the audience). As there were no books available in the Gymnasium on history in the English language most of the activities had to be developed by the teacher himself, using the books at home (as well as one borrowed by another history teacher), as well as some creative ideas to garner the students’ attention. While Germany is conservative in many aspects, going by Konrad Adenauer’s “No Experiments” campaign, used in the 1957 elections for chancellorship, for bilingual teaching, it is important as a teacher to be creative and experiment with things, but make sure that the worksheets and activities to be presented to the students must be appropriate in terms of content and language (especially vocabulary). More important is that the students are able to retain the knowledge, which can be done orally, written, or both but at regular intervals. Highly recommended is a summary sheet with all the facts and vocabulary words for the class to learn and remember, especially when exams come up, and they will need them.

Apart from what I had mentioned earlier, in terms of Guessing Quizzes, The Mock Debate, Mini-Presentations and literature for analyzing, what was useful was using video and audio examples, like recordings of Roosevelt’s Fireside Speeches or the first radio broadcast in 1926. This way, students would have the opportunity to listen, analyze and interpret them in connection with the topic presented by the teacher.  Yet the preparation time is immense and it was not surprising that I, like many other teachers in the Gymnasium, had several late nighters in the row in order to produce the perfect task for the students in the coming session. While this is only a practical training semester (Praxissemester), and a future teacher can afford such experiments, it becomes even tougher when you are a full-time teacher. During an interview conducted with teachers, many of them feel that having worksheets and the book could cut down the time to prepare for classes effectively. The question is, how to order the right book without going broke? Many schools, especially in the eastern and northern parts of Germany cannot afford the luxury of ordering books for bilingual teaching, due to a lack of funding by the state. The problem has been ongoing for over 15 years now, and unless the German government and the private sector can step in to help, the budget will be thinner. This includes the availability of (interactive) technology, which is making strides in many countries, including the US, but Germany is lagging behind in many areas. Therefore we are left with being creative in producing our own worksheets and activities, in order for the bilingual class to work at all. From my experience, if there are no print materials available in the school,  get some from the internet and plan to prepare early, as one page of worksheet- produced from scratch- will take you an hour. A summary,  30-minutes per page.

 

As far as the students were concerned, the results were mixed. There was a wide correlation between those having basic knowledge of English, those having sufficient enough knowledge of English to start a conversation and those who are fluent and have excellent knowledge of English, which makes finding the medium rather difficult. Yet once found, the next step was garnering their attention and involving them. Apart from the fact that the target group were 9th graders, many of whom are going through or have finished “growing up,” the key problem found in the group was being intimidated by the fact that the teacher was a native speaker of English, and even more so from America, which means they had to be acquainted with an American accent instead of the British one that they were used to hearing before. But as mentioned in a previous article, the trend a shifting towards an international form of English, where American and British English were being divulged into one with no accent and words from different regions.    In either case, after a pair of sessions, many of them became more forthcoming with communication and learning vocabulary, which was done through chalk and board and pronunciation (the latter was important to ensure that they are spoken correctly).  In some cases, when only a fraction of the group is not forthcoming with English, one could call on them to speak in a given situation. Yet many of them fell back to German to better explain their answers and opinions, a clause that exists in the curriculum provided by the state, but can also hinder their attempts to better themselves in a foreign language, like English.  Despite being active in discussions and learning new subjects through various methods, one of the factors that makes bilingual teaching ineffective, if looking at it from the student’s perspective, is the time factor. Two sessions of bilingual History in English a week with 45 minutes per session may be a lot for students, but not enough to better understand the subject material and reflect on the importance of the theme with the subject, like History.  This holds true if a teacher plans a session only to find that half of the session was covered due to external factors. Therefore, when planning your sessions in another language, look at your students and their language knowledge. Test their knowledge in the first session before planning your curriculum. Choose wisely when working with a subject like this one I did. Do not be afraid to experiment as long as your students are able to follow. But make sure your time is divided in a way that you complete your task, but the students can profit from it, especially when working within the confines of time.

 

From the teacher’s perspective after experimenting with bilingual teaching (History in English), one can summarize that it is possible to teaching subjects in a foreign language if and only if one follows the guidelines:

 

  1. Know your group and their language level
  2. Know the time you have for the module as well as per session
  3. Know what materials you need to make in connection with the given topic
  4. Know that it is ok to experiment if no materials are available in the school and you need to develop some
  5. Know that the students will need to adapt to the language, regardless if you are a native speaker or not
  6. Know that some students, who either lack the knowledge or are shy, need a push from you and some help with vocabulary in order for them to improve their foreign language skills
  7. Know that the students will be happy to have a summary at the end of the topic so that they have something as reference.

As there is an expectation that there are no books and other materials available, you need to know that time and efforts are needed, preferably before beginning the topic as it will enable you to make the adjustments along the way. And lastly, if you are teaching a subject in a foreign language for the first time, don’t be afraid to leave a copy of your materials for your colleagues for future use. You will do them a big favor.

 

Now that the teacher’s aspect has been spoken, we’ll have a look at what the other teacher colleagues and students have to say, as a questionnaire and an interview was carried out in connection with the topic. More on that later in the series on bilingual teaching in the German school.

 

Author’s Note: The Files will continue its series on In School In Germany through the end of September. Reason for that was because of the World Cup and lots of other non-column commitments, including things related to the Praxissemester. Stay tuned. 

In School in Germany: Overture

Learning for the future. Unknown painting taken by the author.

8:00 in the morning on a Tuesday. Place: A German Gymnasium.

For all the readers wondering what I’m doing in a German high school, I have a confession to make. Even though I love writing, which is the primary reason why I run two online columns, I love teaching even more. For 13 years, I’ve been around the block teaching English to adults, college students, pupils with high school degrees that are pursuing their apprenticeships in the area of industry and technology, and even kids. This includes six years at three universities, eight years at three institutions of continuing education (German: Volkshochschule) and lastly many years as a freelancer at other independent institutions that are supported by the German Job Service Agency (German: Agentur für Arbeit).

Yet, like in the United States, teaching in Germany is a difficult job to keep for two reasons:

1. Educating the people, in particular students, can be an exhausting job- exhausting enough that many of the educators quit well before retirement to pursue another career. This can stem from having your authority be undermined by students and even staff members. It can also include losing interest because the demands of the students are different now than in the past. It could also be a physical problem, where you lose your voice or suffer from burn-out. In either case, teaching can be a chore but also a charm if you have the right ammunition full of creativity and materials to give to the students, and that they are very thankful for what you are giving them to learn.

2.  Many teachers at the university live off limited contracts ranging from a year to four years. In Germany, the average  amount of time an English teacher stays on at a university is only two years, with many states not allowing extension possibilities or even providing permanent contracts, even if you have a PhD degree.  While some states have clauses that keep people on even longer, others, like Bavaria, don’t even allow you to look for another job at another university in the state once your contract runs out, unless there are loopholes. This can be torture if your students are used to your teaching and enjoy every minute in class, only to have another teacher in your place for two years, with a “fresh set of ideas,” as one of my former colleagues put it, but whose teaching qualities are not to the students’ liking, most of the time that is.

 

Likewise pay at the university as well as the school is below what a person receives at a   corporation.  No wonder why teachers are high in demand and efforts are being taken to improve working conditions at all educational institutions from the bottom up.

 

After a two and a half-year stint at a university in Erfurt (which followed two years in Bavaria), it was time for me to find something permanent, instead of living a life as a nomadic lecturer living off limited contracts. Teaching is something I enjoy doing, and the safest place to get a permanent post is in a German high school. To do that, I had to go back to school to get a teaching degree, which I started pursuing last year.  At this time, right now in the present, I’m about to do a five-month teaching semester at a Gymnasium in the state of Thuringia (name and place are being kept anonymous for legal reasons).

In preparing for the Praxissemester (as Germans call it), I had a few questions that needed to be answered. First of all, how is teaching in a German school different than in the US?  Both countries have their own set of requirements for becoming a teacher and curriculum to be carried out in the classroom. Plus the mentality of the students in a German and American classroom is different in many ways.  Secondly, what are the people’s attitudes towards learning a foreign language in general? How can a person teach a foreign language to a group of 10-18 year-olds without having to lose them in the process? How important is history in the classroom, and how do people handle delicate topics?  What are the central themes that affect educators, parents and students today, which include psychological problems, like Burn-out Syndrome, or addiction to Smartphones, internet and video games?  And what makes a teacher an excellent teacher that is well-respected, appreciated of what he is doing and feels good about showing the students ways to their future of happiness and success?

 

Chapel at Cornell College in Iowa. Photo taken in 2011

 

In the next six months, the Files will go behind the scenes in a German school, uncovering some of the themes that are important in today’s educational environment, providing some tips on how to become a better teacher, and comparing the German and American educational systems and the changes that have been undertaken since 1996, the year yours truly graduated from high school in the state of Minnesota. For expatriates wanting to teach in Germany, some tips on how to obtain your teaching license and teach in German schools will be provided as well.  It is my goal to show the readers, like you, what life is like as a high school teacher, from multiple perspectives, but also show that teaching can be a great experience if you have the right tools to do the right job, the right support for feeling right about the profession, and the right frame of mind to help others make the right choices that are important in their lives.

My entries may not be daily, but the posts will come very often, and while there may be some people that will provide some articles as guest columnists, and interviews will definitely be carried out, almost all of the articles on this series will come from yours truly, who will be witnessing what school life is like live, for the first time since being a high school student 20 years ago, and in a country whose language is not English, but is screaming for native speakers to make the language fun to teach in Germany.

An outline of the themes to be covered can be found at the end of this article, but you can also provide me with some questions, either on the Files’ facebook page or via e-mail at flensburg.bridgehunter.av@googlemail.com.

 

So without further ado, welcome to class everybody. Sit down and turn to the first article of the series…..

 

 

OUTLINE OF SERIES:

Education System in Germany and the USA

_ Structure

_ Training to become a teacher

_ Changing trends since 1996

 

Teaching methods/didactics (German: Fachdidaktik)

_General

_English

_History

 

Teaching in a German school (experience, themes, etc.)

_Tips on becoming a successful teacher

_Pitfalls to avoid while in school

_Expectations of American expatriates

_Themes affecting students and teachers in Germany

_Burnout Syndrome

_Right-wing extremism

_Financial support from the state

_Other themes discovered during Praxissemester

English Roundtable at the Irish Pub

The Venue of the English Roundtable: Irish Pub on a cold foggy night. Photo taken in November 2011

 

7:30pm and after a long day in the classroom, what wonderful opportunity does a teacher have but to meet with the most dedicated students at a beloved bar in town, to practice some English in terms of small talk and to hear about their private lives, both as students as well as people. The English Roundtable (in German it would be called the Englisch Stammtisch) at an Irish Pub, like the Dubliner just minutes from the old town was just the place gather just for that occasion.

I never understand why teachers never have such events for students. After all there are many advantages that bring students together to have small talk with the native speaker of English. First and foremost, there are not many opportunities to practice English except in the classroom, but that is rather pathetic if you only have the opportunity to do that for 90 minutes once a week. Contrary to the beliefs of those who think that it is not necessary, there are a select few who want extra lessons from someone who can be reached easily for help, but cannot because of- well lack of opportunity to do it due to time and other commitments.  Having a Roundtable like this also creates a bond among the students and with the teacher, guaranteeing them that whenever there is a problem, they can turn to each other for help. It makes a distinction between who is your real friend and who is not. It provides a student with a wide array of topics worth talking about, whether they are culturally related, in connection with current events, or anything that is on one’s mind and is worth talking about, which is food for thought for those who may be interested in this. And last but not least, it produces some events that are worth remembering, whether they are funny or embarrassing, and whether they are in connection with rituals started or anything that is just out of the ordinary.

It is a Tuesday night and I am drinking a pint of Snake Bite at the Irish Pub. The night was horrible as one feels like walking through pea stew while at the same time, freezing to a point where one could turn into an ice cube in minutes!. There is a soccer match going on between Barcelona and Pilsen with the former cutting the latter into pieces. But I could not think but the memories that I had with this place and how it reinforces the idea of having more of the English Roundtables in places where universities are numerous and English is needed, for many businesses communicate in this lingua franca language.  I remember the reunion with some of my former students, three of which gave me the nickname of “Headband” as I wore it to class and pronounced it like “Head bäääääännnddd!” as one mispronounced it as “Headbahnd.” Another three and I went on a Glühwein drinking spree at a Christmas market, trying every sort of the spiced wine with all kinds of flavors, such as pear liquor and tequila (the latter really packed a punch and gave me the hangover of the century the next morning), and then rooting for the home team in a basketball game. They lost a heartbreaker thanks to a last second basket, but it was fun to cheer them on while intoxicated. Then we had another heartbreaker of the game we all watched here at the Irish Pub, where we were crying over the Pittsburgh Steelers losing by only a few points to the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl- dressed up in Steelers jerseys and staying up until the wee hours of the next morning, despite having to write the exam the next day- and me having to administer it! Then we had the women waitresses serving us and many male students staring at them because of their looks, and me rolling my eyes and wondering when they will finally get it done and date one for Christ’s sake.

Each of us had their own purpose for coming to the English Roundtable- to get help with getting a job or internship in America, to ask for ways on how to convince a non-native speaker of English to teach English the proper way, to learn more about American culture and the differences between them and us (the Germans), or just to sit, relax, enjoy a Guiness and do some small talk in English. Mine was and still is to help the students learn and send them on their way, no matter what endeavor they are pursuing. I have my regular customers and those who come and go at their convenience, yet still each one leaves their mark when they leave the Roundtable, whether it is in spirit or in writing. For mine it is almost always the latter, as each time we meet, we would take a post card, sign our names on the back and write down the topics we discuss before stashing it into the drawers of the tables for the waitresses and guests to see and awe in amazement what we discussed.

One makes me wonder why there should not be more of these Roundtables. If it is because of family commitments, I balk at it as the argument is considered null and void; especially since I have a wife and daughter who do not mind me having one as long as I stay out of trouble (that’s what spouses and children are there for). If it is because of having enough English in class, let me tell you that one can never have enough of a foreign language as it takes time and efforts. If it is because of the fear of closer student-teacher relationships, firstly a Roundtable is a meeting place for all who are interested and there are better places to meet to get to know someone further. Besides, almost all teachers (say 99.5%) over here fall into the category of married with children or have a relationship, so there is no fear of being paranoid. All the excuses that are made against a Roundtable are considered politics and counterproductive to the goal of teaching students the importance of a foreign language and how it gets them from point A to point B. The organization may be difficult and not many students will come in the beginning. But as the semester goes along and the word gets around, more will come and in the end, it will be a double victory for the teacher- for collecting valuable experience to share with future employers and with the family and for making a difference in the lives of the students.  One should give it a shot and see how it blossoms into a really popular group for all students to attend.

As I finish my last drink, I decided to look ahead to the next Roundtable for me in Erfurt. It was too foggy for the students to go to the meeting and many were just too busy to come. But looking at the Christmas market, which is about to start in a couple weeks, I can tell that many will take advantage of the opportunity and come to the next Roundtable as we will have some wonderful experiences there, in English and over spiced wine. And while most of my students from last year have left for future endeavors, there are new students who will benefit from some additional English and laughter, meeting new people and learning a little bit every day. That is what a Roundtable should be.

Education: Profit at a Price?

EN Translation: Education dies because stupidity rules. Photo taken at Erfurt Railway Station

Johann Friedrich Pestalozzi, a famous Swiss pedagogic theorist and educator once mentioned that it is of utmost importance to educate the population in a way that they become civilized experts who can pass their knowledge onto others. Failure to provide the very basics in education can result in the population becoming animals- not being able to control themselves in society and throwing it off balance. Education is the key to new dimensions in the life of a human being, as they serve as the steps from becoming a person who dreams of making something happen to one who made it happen, practically. However, in today’s society, it seems that the path to practicality in the lives of the students is being threatened, as many are being forced to give up their dreams and try alternatives in order to make money and provide food on the table. Or in the case of being a teacher or professor, it is becoming more and more difficult to get a permanent post, let alone settling down to have a healthy balance between a family life and a career.

The education system in Germany is a complex system, where the country has several different forms of higher education, ranging from the typical university, to the institutions that provide science and technology programs for students. The tuition varies from state to state, where some fees can range as high as 300- 500 Euros per month, which is far less than the tuition at even public American universities. Normally, with a Diploma degree, you would need five years to complete your studies, but this degree- equivalent to the American Bachelor and Master’s in one was replaced with the Bachelor and Master system in 2007, which means students can complete their Bachelor’s in 3-4 years and their Master’s in 2 years. Yet still, the education system does have one thing in common with the American counterpart: it is being underfunded by the state and federal governments, with more cuts on the way.

Marching down Juri Gagarin Ring to the Landtag

Take the state of Thuringia for example. The state is planning on cutting aid to the universities by up to $21 million, which would result in programs being cut, staff being laid off, and students losing more options to study, let alone teachers who can help them. In response to the plan to save money to balance the state budget, as many as 3,500 students and teachers from universities in Erfurt, Jena, Nordhausen, and Schmalkalden (just to name a few), as well as members of various workers’ unions and other organizations, took to the streets in protest this past Tuesday (23 November), to address this plan in protest at the State Parliamentary Building (Landtag) in the south of Erfurt. With loud whistles and horns, posters and sheets with signatures over three kilometers long, the march started at the Erfurt Railway Station and made its way to the governmental district where the Landtag was located, over an hour later. It would not take longer than 30 minutes until the Minister of Culture and Education, Christoph Matschie (SPD) showed up to address the audience, while dealing with the boos and geers at the same time. Matschie’s plan, according to his statement at the demonstration, was to compensate the losses with a supplemental fund from the Hochschulpakt 2020 (an agreement with universities where funding would be available up to 2020), while at the same time, expand and reinforce the university structure with additional support.

To sum up the reaction of the audience, many of the 3,500 were not amused with the plan and even received support from oppositional parties, including the Greens and the socialist party Die Linke, both of whom encouraged the continuation of the protests even if it means turning it up a notch further with more voices and louder whistles. Since the Elections of 2009, they have served as the oppostition to the Grand Coalition, consisting of the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Christian Democrats (CDU), the same party where Germany’s current chalcellor, Angela Merkel presides in Berlin. Christine Lieberknecht, who is the Prime Minister of Thuringia, also comes from that party. The students and unions have every right to protest the cuts as that has been the general plan since the beginning of this year. Some of the other cuts planned include reducing the funding for primary education (elementary, middle and high schools) as well as nursery schools, plus consolidating the high school and university structures to resemble an American educational model. This includes Matschie’s concept of having the University of Thuringia, which would consist of consolidating every kind of university into one, making it resemble something like a State University with over a dozen campuses in one of the US states, like Minnesota, where the author originates from.

Minister of Culture and Education Christoph Matschie speaks- and takes the heat from the crowd. Photo taken at Landtag

These cuts in education spending in Thuringia are part of the plan that was passed by the German Cabinet under Merkel to save up to 80 billion Euros in four years and rein in the national budget, in accordance to the policies implemented by the European Union. The eastern part of Germany, where Thuringia is located has been especially hit the hardest by these cuts, mainly in part because of the high amount of unemployment in that region and the social welfare support the region has been receiving since the German Reunification in 1990. However, as many members of the unions and student groups have mentioned already, the universities have saved as much as it can and can no longer cut any further. This is an understatement as many universities, like the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena have dealt with overcrowded seminar rooms, lack of access to research areas, problems registering for classes, and a very high student to professor ratio resulting in the professors being overburdened with obligations and requests and students not receiving the help needed to succeed in their studies. The author of this article can testify to that problem in particular with a couple departments on campus during his Master’s studies between late 2003 and 2007.  However, are cuts to the education system, like the universities in Thuringia really the way to go? And what about the future of the students, who want to have a high quality education without having to pay high tuition (something that may happen if the cuts are not through)?  Apparently, after receiving rolls upon rolls of signatures from students who petitioned to the state parliament, there is some reconsideration that will have to take place in order for Matschie to save his face and the politicians to avoid taking more heat than they received through this demonstration. The good part is that the budget for 2011 in Thuringia has not yet been completely etched in stone and that another demostration is scheduled to take place on 8 December with the goal that the parliament (and in particular, Matschie) will keep to the plan of not reducing the funding for universities and come up with alternatives.

Doubt has its limitations, but this poster..... Photo taken on the way to the Landtag
The crowd in front of the gates of the Landtag.
Petitions presented to Matschie at the Landtag
Candle of Hope for the future of the students of tomorrow? Photo taken at Landtag

The Flensburg Files will continue to keep you posted on the situation with the education system in Germany and the US as events unfold. In the meantime, enjoy the photos provided by the author as he took part in the demonstrations and took some pics of the events.

Useful sources:

http://www.otz.de/web/zgt/suche/detail/-/specific/Sparplaene-treffen-den-Osten-haerter-2049407950 (Deutsch)

http://www.otz.de/web/zgt/suche/detail/-/specific/Studenten-wehren-sich-gegen-Kuerzungsplaene-des-Landes-953077867 (Deutsch)

http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international-business/Germany-approves-deep-spending-cuts-in-budget/articleshow/6480600.cms


Most wanted teacher

Teaching: the fruits of life
Teaching: the fruits of life Photo taken in 2007

OK, it’s official. I’ve just been declared the most wanted teacher on campus by the students!  Just when I was about to sit down and relax over a cup of cappucino, I was received by a storm of students whom I taught English in the last semester at a  university in Erfurt, Germany and their first question was: “Mr. Smith, can we join a class you’re teaching?” The next comment was “Mr. Smith, I’m really interested in taking part in your class. Do you think it’s possible to do it this semester?” Then came the next one: “Mr. Smith, we really enjoyed your class last semester. Is there a way to participate in one of your classes?” And another one: “We really miss you, Mr. Smith.”  The further the trend kept going and the more helpless I became because I realized a few days days earlier that my courses were filled to the brim with no elbow-space to manoever. While I had to tell them that it was not possible this semester (which I didn’t really like doing), it led me to conclude that patronism has reached levels that had not been seen until this afternoon. In the almost 10 years I have been teaching English in Germany, the only highlights that I have seen in my success, apart from climbing up the “corporate ladder” in the educational food chain starting with freelance teaching adults to teaching students full time at a university, were students patronizing my teaching by visiting my classes over and over again, while recommending my classes to others. Many of students I’ve taught over the years still keep in touch with me through all possible means of communication, and I help many of them out when they need it. This includes having an English gathering outside the university once a week, where we just sit and remininsce over a beer or ice cream. This also includes having an English section in my facebook profile, where many students pick up some interesting facts worth noting.  But still, what makes a teacher really good at what he is doing and what makes the students patronize you for your work?

It is not necessarily the qualifications you have.  People can go to college and obtain an education degree with very little or no experience in the classroom and they end up becoming the worst teachers in the institution they are working. It is even more striking with professors at universities both here in Europe as well as in the United States, as they are faced with, on the one end, the publications versus the people scenario and  on the other end, the publish or perish approach. That means that in order to become successful, they have to publish as many pieces of work as possible, even if it comes at the expense of interacting with the students and helping them when they need it the most. If they interact more with the students, they risk not spending time with their work and thus become expendible.  Sure training courses and obtaining a certificate saying that you can teach a certain subject may help a teacher become more successful, but practical experiences make it more rewarding, something that is lacking across the board for many wanting to enter the field.

This brings me to another point worth mentioning, which is the need for English teachers in general. In the past 15-20 years, we have seen the increase in popularity in the English language because it is being used on a regular basis, while doing business, travelling, and dealing with politics on the international scale, just to name a few. In fact, while over 375 million people use English as their primary language (in other words, they’re native speakers like yours truly), almost a billion people- a sixth of the world’s population use English as a secondary language (English as a foreign language).  The numbers are increasing and with that, the demand for English teachers is also increasing, as companies, academic institutions, and even private groups (like families, for example) are hiring people who either have the qualifications needed for teaching or have practical experiences or both.  It depends on who you are working for.

The only problem with that is as an English teacher, unless you have strong connections with your colleagues or if you can identify and expose any loopholes in the regulations, you are sometimes expected to be mobile, which makes it difficult for many who just want to settle down and work in one spot for more than two years. This was the case with one of the universities in northern Bavaria where I was hired there for only two years with no contract extension possibilities, and despite building my cartell with mainly the students and other personnel, I had to leave when the contract ran out. Fortunately I did land a job elsewhere right before I left, but it clearly shows that flexibility and mobility are  also important for a teacher,  albeit it does have its disadvantages regarding gathering experiences, developing ties with other people, and settling down and having a family life just like everyone else.

This brings me to the topic of cartells, which can reap rewards if you develop your ties carefully with the right people. The success as a teacher can depend on the following factors: 1. Whether or not you can get along with your colleagues, 2. Whether or not you can get along with your students, and 3. Whether or not you can adapt to the system that is present at the place where you are teaching or if it collides with your own set of ethics. From my personal experience and based on my personal beliefs, it is important that you have your own code of ethics on how to interact with people, work with them so that they are very successful in the end, and be yourself when you’re in front of the class teaching them some new and interesting facts. By the same token, one also has to adapt to the environment and make some compromises between the teacher, the students, and the rest of the people working in the institution, so that everyone is on the same page in the end.  However, sometimes things do not work the way they should and you just have to make the best judgement and hope for the best.

One factor that a teacher should be aware of is the student-teacher relationship, which is a big deal in the USA and is becoming more and more of an issue  in Europe. This is really fragile as it can either help or harm your career, pending on the interaction between the two. While some students are better off being students, and some will become friends, there are some rare occurances where one will become your “coach” for life, changing your life and world around to your benefit. However, laws are being put into place forbidding this type of practice which has split the public into two. Proponents claim that it would avoid any types of scandals affecting the institution and the reputation involved, opponents claim that it would poison the relationship in the classroom where it should be relaxed and enjoyable to both the teacher and the students.  There is an interesting article on this topic which is enclosed at the end of this file.

But all of these factors that I’ve just mentioned only represent a fraction of what makes a teacher an excellent one. Qualifications help but practical experience counts the most. The need for native speakers and those with a solid background in foreign languages (in this case, English) is high. The relationship with the students is also important. But the secret to being a successful teacher is being you. Based on my personal experience they include:

Being creative and spontaneous in teaching some new things to the students

Finding the trouble spots and exploiting and covering them

Being there for the students when they need your help regardless of the circumstances

Being sensitive but stirn to the students- meaning man has to know his limitations regarding what is allowed and what is not allowed.

and most of all, if anything goes wrong, it is ok to admit your mistake. This is the pitfall for many teachers who claim to be Mr. Perfect but defers every single bit of responsibility to others without looking at himself first.  Students will understand if you admit and apologize for the mistake and will respect you more if you learn from them.

What makes it also useful is to develop your own set of guidelines and add the rules as you go along, whether it is on a sheet of paper or making a mental note. In either case, it helps you remember, based on your experiences, what you can do and what is not allowed. This helps you in future dealings with situations that you dealt with in the past.  The more rules, the more you’re respected by your peers because of the set of morals you have, and in the end, the more people you’ll have on your side when you need them.

And best of all, while you are the man who provides the students with the materials and stories for them to learn, it also helps to take some lessons and ideas with you from the students as they will be useful in the future.

Every great teacher has his own roots at the beginning as a novice and if he can proceed in making a difference in the lives of the students while at the same time be himself, then he will in the end become profi in his work. While my ideas I mentioned above are just my strategies in becoming successful, others may have their own set of ideas. The main point is to be yourself and be true to your students and let the success  and the patronism on the part of the students take care of themselves.

This takes me to the fazit which I can say that while many students from my last semester have to wait until the next semester when the opportunity arises, many have expressed interest in my next English gathering, which is once a week and off campus. It will be interesting to see how many of them will show up at a café in the city center for a good beer and some good conversation…

That concludes the files. Until next time, folks.

Links:

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=401935
For those interested in teaching English as a foreign language, here is a link that can help you:
http://www.tefl.com/