In School in Germany: Great Expectations
To start off this entry, here’s a universal question addressed to those doing their student teaching right now (or will be doing so in the near- future): What expectations do you personally have for your practical training semester (Praxissemester)? Are these expectations based on your personal experience you had in school or on the experience your friends and family members had in the past?
Each of us should have a list of expectations ready before embarking on a mission to become teachers, and likewise, a list of the realities that will either fulfill or contradict these expectations. Walking into the classroom, like a blue-eyed boy, with no expectations and assuming that the students will understand you is fatal to your prospects of being a teacher; more so to your career if you are a teacher already. This is speaking from personal experience.
In Germany, one of the prerequisites to doing a Praxissemester for teaching through a university is to have gathered several hours of practical experience, either working with or teaching the youth up to the age of 19. In some cases, previous experience teaching in other areas and to people older than 19 is a plus, for reasons of determining what kind of teacher you were in the past to what you could be in the future, when handling kids. But there is a reason why it is important to have the practical experience with these kids before entering the classroom, and this is where my expectations for my Abenteuer im Gymnasium comes in.
In the 13 years that I’ve been a teacher in Germany, I’ve taught mostly adults and college students, who have fled their parents’ nest and are embarking on lifetime experiences of their own. These people look up to teachers specialized in their fields in order to gather the hard skills needed for use in their own careers. These people need English for their work as they deal with correspondence with native speakers, manuscripts to be written in English, and other forms of business and technology that require the use of the lingua franca.
Yet when teaching kids, it is a whole different ball game, for they are growing and developing their own characteristics, and teachers are often expected to teach them the basic and soft skills necessary for real life. And sometimes it can be a daunting task. Take for instance my experience teaching several groups of kids, ages 16 to 20 at an educational institution that provides training to “Hauptschule” graduates for the blue-collar workforce. There you have (mostly) kids whose parents live below the average household income in the country- many of them receiving the infamous social welfare support in a form of Hartz IV. As their prospects are at the bottom of the educational food chain because of poor grades, lack of financial support and help from external sources to help them succeed, and having dysfunctional families, one could develop the stereotype where their behavior in the classroom is primitive, their respect for the teacher is at near zero, and their interest in subjects similar to their profession is at an absolute zero. But surprisingly, this stereotype is half-right, half-wrong, just as much as when you’re teaching students at a university, whose darker third of the student population may not have the characteristics of the Hauptschulabgänger, but they are sometimes disrespectful to their professors and whose behavior also on the border of primitiveness.
While these kids I taught were socially disadvantaged, over half of them showed interest in the subject of English and were actively engaged in the subject, although our meetings were only occasionally and for a whole day. Like us academics, they were engaged in technology, embracing the internet and apps for their use, even in the classroom. Yet they are also curious about life and what they want to do with their future, which led to some fruitful conversations in both German and English. This first-hand look at teaching these kids made my experience fruitful enough to consider a profession like teaching in the school.
Also worth looking at is how school life is different from that of my time, 20 years ago. Unlike in Germany, US school systems have a unified grade K-12 system, where we do not have the separation into different schools after the fourth or fifth grade, but we have the same students for 13 years, meaning from kindergarten to 12th grade, teaching similar subjects until high school before specializing in certain areas through elective courses. Technology, such as the internet, came as I was leaving high school with my diploma. We prided ourselves with sports and extra-curricular activities- sometimes a bit too much that it hindered the students’ ability to do their homework and learn something. And lastly, through the unified structure, we presented our classic example of how heterogeneity works, having people from different backgrounds and nationalities. The lone exception is the introduction of charter schools in the early 1990s, where people with special talents were given exclusive education. In Germany, these types of schools exist but as a form of reform school, using different types of education methods created by Montessori, Petersen and Pestalozzi, just to name a few.
Keeping these factors in mind, I have my own set of questions that I hope to have answered during my Praxissemester in a German Gymnasium:
- How heterogeneous is Germany’s school system today, in comparison to 20-30 years ago, as well as in the US?
- How are students using technology for learning in the schools?
- How much interest do the students have in foreign language?
- How diverse are the classes and other out-of-school activities in Germany in comparison to the US (both in the present as well as during my time in high school)?
- How is the relationship between teacher, student and parent? Do we have cooperation or contradiction among the three most important entities?
- How is the quality of education in the German schools, comparing the types that exist on a public level with the reformist level?
- Lastly, how do students look at their future prospects today in comparison to 20 years ago?
A lot has changed, and looking at the German attitude on a European and even international scale, I would say the pupils are more open-minded and willing to try new things, such as learning foreign languages, travelling and the like than many Americans today, yet they have the same issues as we do, with burn-out, helicopter parents, and inequality. Yet, this is my hypothesis which will most likely be wrong, but speaking from what I’ve read and experienced so far, it may not be far from the truth either. In either case, I’m not entering the Gymnasium with my assumptions, but more with questions that will be answered in the coming months, many of which will be posted here.
While I have several links you can click on for more info, the next entry will focus on the German school system itself, so that you have an overview of how it works in comparison with the US system.