In School in Germany: Substitute Teachers or Flexible Class Schedule?

What happens when your teacher is sick and the planned course schedule for that particular day has to be postponed or cancelled? This question may be a no-brainer to some, yet inquiring minds want to know. With the increase in absences because of illness among the teachers due to stress (some resulting from burn-out syndrome) and other viruses that students bring to the classroom on a daily basis, it is important to find out how schools plan ahead so that the students do not fall behind in their classes.

Each school system has its own guidelines with regards to Plan B, regardless of which state or region it is located. In the United States, it is normal to find a substitute teacher taking over classes in case if illness or family emergencies. Substitute teachers are very flexible in a way that they can jump in at any time when they are needed. While some of them bring the knowledge they learned in their education programs at the university to continue teaching- picking up where the absent teacher left off, others elect not to take up the chore and decide either for study hall (meaning students have a chance to catch up on their work in other classes) or other activities. One of the substitute teachers at a junior high school I attended in Minnesota was into reading and therefore, read us many stories during the class period. While she has long since passed, she encouraged others like yours truly to pick up a book from time to time and burn through the pages.

The other plan B can be found in many schools in Germany. If one class is cancelled because of illness or other serious matter, another class takes its place, taught by the teacher.  That means if an English class taught by Mrs. Steinkreuz (for example) is cancelled because she had the stomach flu, that class is replaced by another class, such as History with Mr. Hermann, Ethics with Ms. DeJesus or even French by Madame Moiselle.  The reason for such a flexible class change is simple: Unlike the US, which runs mostly a strict schedule where courses are taught at a certain time every day and teachers have to keep to the plan, Germany’s schedule, at least on the high school level, resembles that of a college class schedule, where students elect to choose certain classes that fit their schedule. Granted that (foreign) language, history and social studies, and sciences must be in the mix, but a flexible schedule enables the student to work with their studies to ensure they have them completed at their pace, while teachers have a chance to further their planning. Some class replacements may have to do with a teacher having an extended session to watch a film, while others may be in connection with a field trip that was planned. In either case, this flexibility does have some advantages. Yet one notable disadvantage is that a sudden change in scheduling can also put the planning of both the students as well as the teacher out of alignment, which means that some topics planned for the session may have to be either postponed or even cancelled; a disadvantage for the teacher as well as some students that were eager to learn about it.

But it does not mean that schools in Germany do not have substitute teachers.  They are usually available to jump in should plan B does not work. It can consist of someone from another school, one working part time in the school system, Referendar (those teaching on a probationary basis for 1-2 years before being hired full time by the state) and the interns doing their Praxissemester (like yours truly did).  Sometimes substitute teachers can also have a positive impact in a way that they can keep the schedule in tact as much as possible while allowing the students to complete their work on their topic without missing the beat.  But as I noticed from my experience in the Praxissemester, even that combination has its limits, especially when  many teachers are absent due to stress-related issues, which will be discussed later when talking about Burn-out Syndrome, and the number of substitutes are limited, both in numbers as well as in knowledge. In the case of the interns, they require a hired staff when teaching a session, to ensure that they are not overrun by the students in class. A concept that is understandable when the intern is 22 years of age (on average) and does not know if the profession is the right one.

Keeping the pros and cons of substitute teaching and replacement sessions in mind, let’s ask the Forum about this topic:

  1. In your school, how does it work when a teacher is absent due to illness or other emergencies? Do you provide a substitute, replace a session with one from another subject or do something totally different?
  2. How have you dealt with teachers who are absent for longer periods of time due to illness, etc. (say more than 1 week)?
  3. If you had a choice between providing a substitute, replacing a session or both, which option would you choose and why?

Place your comments here or in the Files’ facebook page and share some information on how you deal with absenteeism among teachers. Sometimes your suggestions and ideas will help others in the long term. As we will eventually talk about Burn-Out Syndrome in the series, the profession can be a highly demanding job that requires teachers with nerves of steel to do the job. However even the teachers have their limits, even yours truly.

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:

http://www.familienhandbuch.de/cms/Familienforschung%20Scheidung_und_Trennung.pdf

http://schulpsychologie.lsr-noe.gv.at/downloads/trennung_scheidung.pdf

http://www2.uwstout.edu/content/lib/thesis/2009/2009landuccin.pdf

 

Respect

Over the weekend, as I was working on a piece for my column, a thought came across my mind as to how to define the word Respect. Respect is a term that seems to be undervalued and misunderstood more often than not, especially when you deal with different environments, such as schools, on business trips, in social gatherings and even in relationships.  Many people are of the opinion that respect has to be earned, meaning a person has to sacrifice certain things that are valuable to him/her and embrace that of others.  Yet that is not the real definition of Respect. Respect has two meanings that are different yet they seem to be related to each other.

The first meaning of respect is winning the hearts and souls of others by being successful in a certain realm, whether it is as a teacher in school, a CEO at a company or even a student in academia. It does not take much to win respect from others, and it can be easily won in no time, just as much as you lose it, if you lose your face because of scandal or a series of mishaps that degrades you in one way or another. Therefore trying to win respect from others does not necessarily define respect. Respect can be one that is earned, but it is one that is a given right, therefore the second definition:

The second meaning of respect is acknowledging and liking a person for who he/she is and what he/she does. That person whom you may try and either mock or change may come from a different background where traditions, customs and mentalities are far different than yours. Therefore it is important that these people are respected for who they are and what they do, and that changing their ways can only be possible if that person sees the need to do it. This type of respect is a given right because of the comfort zone the person is in and how he/she handles things differently. This given right unfortunately has been undermined because of external forces that are changing the way we think about our values.

Of course some changes are necessary so that we have a more harmonious environment, as we deal with issues like discrimination, environmental problems, globalization and culture identity, and politics that seem to have become sour. However, how much change is necessary in order to gain respect from others without losing one’s own identity?  I’m afraid to say that when looking at people in the hallways in school or at the university, as well as on the streets today, many of them seem to have lost their own identities as they drown in their Smartphones, streamline education to become human calculators and herds of cattle heading to the business world, and striving to earn the respect of the “society” consisting of mono-culture led by the select few. We seem to have lost the given right of respect and replaced it with the earned respect that is never to be earned without making sacrifices that will make us pay dearly in the future.

So as a little food for thought, ask yourselves this question: How do you value yourself as a person? Are you being respected by others just by the respect that is being earned or are you being respected based on who you are as a person and what you have done to make yourself  happy? Chances are one in two of us are ignoring the respect as a given right and are trying to earn respect from those who either could care less or would love to see you put away somewhere out of sight and out of mind. If you are one of them, write down a list of things are characteristic of you, followed by what the people like about you. Then ask yourself how you have changed over the past few years and whether they were for the best of worst. If the latter, then it is time to make the changes that will make you feel like yourself again.

Remember: Respect is a given right. Only when you are happy about yourself will you make others happy. And in return, the people will respect you for who you are and not by how you earn it.

My two cents on this topic.

In School in Germany: Early School Starts

Two one-room school houses in Allamakee County, Iowa. Photo taken in August 2011

 

It will not be long before the next school year starts in Germany, for after two months off, many states are starting their school year on August 31st; in states, such as Bavaria, they are starting even later. Parents have already begun to prepare for the Einführungsfeiern (The Induction into elementary school) for the incoming first graders, scheduled for the 30th of August (in most states), which is as sacred as Christmas Day. But that is a different story to be told at another time.

In the United States however, school has already started in most states, such as Minnesota, where I grew up being acquainted with the state’s school system and culture. This start of the school year is the first time the US is starting its school year much earlier than its European counterpart, and it is raising some questions about its effectiveness, for this early start is having a huge impact on other aspects that are typical of a summer break but are being threatened.

How and why might you ask?

Well, turning the clocks back 20 years, we see a different environment. 1994, right before becoming junior in high school in the US, we started our summer break at the beginning of June and ended it on Labor Day. Three months’ time we had, where we could travel the world to see our relatives, work a summer job to earn money for a car, participate in a summer camp, help with the crops, prepare the animals and the like for the county and state fair competitions, and just relax on the beach or on the water. Summer time was a time to meet with friends, become acquainted with new ones, experiment with love with an innocent girl or even cruise around in the car with the music cranked up to the maximum, waking the neighborhood.  It was the time when we needed some down time before we went up a level- whether it was the next grade or college. My summer was a spectacular one, as it featured fund-raising for new music uniforms for choir, golfing with friends, cruising around with bass music, and competing in the talent show, where we won on the county level but was levelled in the semi-finals at the state fair.  There is no way we can say this if we fast forward to the present.

There are probably some arguments favoring such an early start, such as stockpiling snow days so that we can use them or preparing for aptitude tests in April to compare ourselves with the European and Asian counterparts. Yet when looking at those arguments, I can counter them with the fact that we too had snow days but did not have to make up for them at any cost. And those aptitude tests to determine who is weak in math, reading and writing- studies show that they are hindering the development and own creativity of the individual. A very useful DVD entitled “Alphabet” by Erwin Wagenhofer, shows how streamlining education and enforcing the ideas onto even children have led to an increased rate in suicide, especially in Asia, where children start learning math and economics at the age of three.  While such tests, like the PISA are important to determine where we are in the world, the curriculum and the planning should not evolve around it directly. Otherwise we will have more children left behind than 20 years ago.

Baseball at Target Field in Minneapolis. Photo taken in September 2010

These early starts will indeed have a tremendous impact on the traditional past-times that we have been used to for ages. The hardest hit will be the county and state fairs, for these events, which last 1-2 weeks on the county level and 2-3 on the state level and feature a display of prized animals and products as well as concerts, will see a substantial decrease in the number of visitors. This will force organizers to consider moving them up a month, which will put pressure on farmers and their families to have them prepared for exhibit by the Fourth of July. Other events that usually happen in August, such as the Rennaissance Festival near the Twin Cities, as well as sporting events, like baseball and softball will also take a hit regarding the loss of attendants and even participants.  And lastly, for the students and the teachers, early starts mean less time to recuperate from the stressful school year behind them and especially for teachers, it means less time to upgrade their curriculum and plan for the upcoming school year. Even though most schools rely on text books, with the advancement of technology, many teachers need time to work with them and integrate them into their planning- and this in addition to their own creative brewing of activities useful for their classes.

And for what? The use of snow days AND for preparing for tests that will determine who is “dumb” and who is not?

If there are some ideas on how to deal with the two, speaking from a teacher’s point of view, my advice is to scrap the idea of early starts. Many schools in Germany have 8-11 week summer breaks which cover all of July and August. In Finnland, summer breaks are for 11 weeks from the end of May to the middle of August. Yet this is the same country that stresses individual development over tests and flexibility over stockpiling snow days.  Figure in the week breaks both countries have, and they are equivalent to the 12-13 weeks the US has off. While it would be possible to start break in mid-June, which would cover the entire time in July and August, the bottom line is that many of us cannot envision August not being the time for summer break, especially as summer reaches its peak in terms of hot weather, and most of the activities occur during that time.

So my word of advice to the school administrators in the US: look at what your European counterparts are doing for their children and look at what you are doing to your children. Scrap your obsessions of the aptitude tests and look at the individual development of the children. Look at your schedule and how it is impacting events outside the walls of the school building. And scrap the early start and reintroduce the school year starting after Labor Day.  Americans have been so used to this tradition and it does have more benefits than drawbacks, especially as far as the children are concerned….

Tribute to Robin Williams

Somewhere on the beaches of Travemünde (in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein), where kite-flying is one of the most popular sports to find along the Baltic Sea, traces of Robin Williams will be found, either in a form of kites, or the sound of the radio with his voice on there, doing his finest impersonations, and making people very happy, laughing all day and making their day.   Yet the news of Mork being found dead in his home in California, breaking Mindy’s heart is not typical of the comedian. In fact, we are all speechless, trying to find answers as to why he left so soon- at a young age of 63, but many miles to go in his career.

Leonard Nimoy once coined his famous term while saving Krusty the Clown from jumping off the Monorail in the Simpsons (in 1998): The World needs laughter.  Logically speaking, yes- in dark times as well as in the age of euphoria, we do need some laughter to make our day. Robin ensured that we would receive it, either as an actor, a stand-up comedian, or anything that is Hollywood-related.

Yet as we pay our respects to the greatest comedian with many faces, it makes me wonder if Robin had not been not a comedian or an actor, how he would have fared out in other professions. After all, as some people become greats in their careers, others keep looking for the right fit, even in their 50s. I dug out some examples of alternative careers that one could see Robin playing a role in, in real life. Let’s take a look at some of them:

 

Doctor:  An apple a day can keep the doctor away. Yet if it is imminent, a doctor visit can chase the sickness away.  Especially for children and the elderly, doctors can cheer them up and just be plain funny, as is seen in the clip from the film, Patch Adams. Robin played the medical student doing his internship at a hospital, despite having been in a mental institute for depression at the beginning of the film. Based on a true story, the actor showed that you can (and should) have a little bit of humor when treating patients, as happiness and humor go hand-in-hand in treating and curing (almost) all illnesses. Perhaps he would have done the same as a doctor, which if it was the case, he would have been honored in a film bearing his name: Dr. Rob, or Dr. Willie, or something like that.

Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byPJ22JDFjI#sthash.LKivEsMU.dpuf

 

Radio Talk Show:  Closer to his role would have been a talk show host on radio. Of all the radio talk shows that exist, any show with his name on there would rake in more viewers than the Jay Leno, Rachel Madow,  David Letterman, and Rush Limbaugh shows combined. Why? No biases, no bashing celebrities. Just some humor, turning any current event scenes into something worth laughing at while driving. Jokes and impersonations of celebrities would belong to what would have been a masterpiece, had he gone into radio instead of acting. Example would be in Good Morning, Vietnam, where Williams played a radio DJ for a station in Saigon, starting off with Goooooooooooooood Mooooooooooooooooooooorning Vietnam! The best scenes from the film can be found here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Erf2iFHG44M#sthash.17ceEQH6.dpuf

 

PoliticianRonald Reagan would not have had a prayer in the 1980 and 1984 Presidential elections. George W. Bush just would not get it in 2000 and 2004.  Sarah Palin would have been taken to the cleaners for reading her script in the Vice Presidential TV debate in 2008. Mitt Romney’s pleas for a “Return to Normalcy under Bush” would have fallen on deaf ears, had Robin Williams ran for political office, even as President, and won in the process by a landslide. It would have kept every viewer glued to the One-eyed Monster 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the social networks would have been blooming with likes and comments. Yet, as history serves itself, a promise needs to bring practice, as was seen with previous actors who ran for political office- most notably, Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yet the results of Williams’ run would have been more than marginal, as seen in his political satire presented by the likes of Monty Python in the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KW2jSLuHlz4#sthash.17ceEQH6.dpuf

 

 Cook/Au Pair: I used to work for a restaurant in Iowa while in college and was taught the golden rule of food service: Always make the customer happy, no matter what. These words came from the owner who had gotten his lesson from his father, who had owned a restaurant in Minnesota for over 50 years before retiring in 2008. Could you have imagined Williams working in the restaurant business, or even as au pair had he not gone into showbusiness? Look at this scene and decide for yourself. As the father of the restaurant in Minnesota died two weeks ago and was honored yesterday for his service, I’m sure he and Williams will get along in the business in Heaven:

Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAp8j4c2LGs#sthash.17ceEQH6.dpuf

 

Teacher/Professor:  Like in the doctor role, Robin would have been honored by Hollywood in a film bearing his name, had he decided to become a professor or a teacher. Speaking from experience, a teacher has to be creative, flexible, funny and a person who provides food for thought in order to become a great and have people follow you. This was what he did, playing the role of Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, winning the hearts of his students of literature at a private college in the northeast of the US. Yet in all reality, being a professor and having such liberal thoughts, using the logo Carpe Diem to encourage students to be successful, may not be to the liking of some (conservative) universities, but to others, they would embrace him and his work in (yes, definitely imagineable), literature. Here is an example of his barbaric yawp in Dead Poet’s Society, where the Captain shows the students for the first time, the meaning of life in literature:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ec8FOZvcPVM#sthash.17ceEQH6.dpuf

 

Diplomat:  Can you imagine Robin Williams as a diplomat? If you look at a scene where Mork meets Fonz, one could say, yes. Diplomats are open-minded to different customs from different regions, willing to trade values and learn from one another. Had Williams been an ambassador to the United Nations or a US Ambassador, he would have found very successful ways to breaking down barriers, taming countries out of control and even coming up with universal solutions that everyone would have been happy with. Sometimes a smooth and good-humored person bringing a certain sort of magic to Geneva and New York makes meeting international diplomats more enjoyable and entertaining, right?

Clip:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHWXAJhmvyU#sthash.17ceEQH6.dpuf

 

We will never know which alternative role he would have taken, had he decided on calling it quits. But maybe he did not need to do that, as he made so many people laugh and made a difference in millions of lives. He helped out many who wished to become comedians and actors, yet with his passing, it will definitely be difficult to fill in his shoes, if not impossible. We will never know why Robin Williams left us so soon, as we learned a great deal from him, growing up, watching Mork and Mindy, as well as his films. As a teacher I sometimes refer to his films for guidance and ideas for classes. Others have done the same for their purposes. In either case, he will never know how many of us miss him, or let alone, as drive into the sunset, how many radio shows will play the best of him from his many films that will still continue to play in theaters. He is the man that cannot replaced.

 

Both the Files and the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles would like to say thank you to Robin Williams for his work and to his family and friends for making him one of a kind. He will be sorely missed but not forgotten.