In School in Germany: The Characteristics of Being a Great Teacher of English (as a Foreign Language)

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A few months back, I was approached by a colleague of mine, who runs a pair of online columns devoted to English writing, wanting to know from me some of the things that are important for teaching English as a foreign language.  After some thoughtful consideration and looking back at what I’ve experienced in the 15+ years I’ve been teaching here in Germany, dealing with everything in the sun, I decided to compile a list of ideas that are especially useful for those entering the field or are struggling in their first year on the job. The characteristics I mention here do not necessarily mean that if you don’t have them, you will never be a great teacher. It just simply means that if something goes wrong, you may want to think about them and ask yourself if it is useful to try them, at least. After all, each teacher has his/her way of teaching English language and culture.

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  1. Image is Everything- This was the slogan that tennis great André Agassi used for his Nikon camera commercials in the late 1980s and 90s. As a teacher, you have to market yourself to the students in a way that they will respect you from the first day on. This goes beyond your outer appearance. It even outguns the knowledge of your native language. It has to do with being on the level with your students and finding ways to get them to follow you. Sometimes you and your students find the right chemistry right away and you have a productive and successful class. Other times there is a wall that you cannot overcome, even if you try. Then it is like the love affair between man and woman, or in my case, the beamer and the laptop as stated in an earlier article.
  2. Your Students are your Audience; your Friends. Treat them with Care- I was once told that teaching is a business and the students are your customers. If you have students who “hate” you and your teaching and decide to annoy you at their convenience, then that is where the German formal “Sie” and the business-like relationship comes in. However, not all of them are like that. Many of them stay with you as long as you are working at their institution and even become your friends for life. To give you a hint: In my last semester teaching in Bayreuth in 2009, I had a class where all but three of the 20 people had been in my previous classes. All of them are still in contact. If you have this experience, then it is because you did something right, by listening to what they want, customizing your classes to make them interesting and you are integrated into their “culture” and they into yours. Almost all of them are eager to learn from you, and not just for the sake of languages.
  3. You need Structure; You need Discipline- A Frank Fitts from American Beauty quote that definitely applies to teaching, especially English. As Germans, especially in the eastern half, are obsessed with a structured form of teaching, you should structure the teaching to cater to their needs. It’s like a presentation: you have the introduction, the key points, the summary and time for questions and clarity. Then you make sure that they are kept in line with what they learned. Entertainment only serves as a frosting to the cake. This was a lesson I learned from a colleague at a private institution recently.
  4. Less is More- Too much of everything in an English classroom, even worksheets, are never a good thing. If you find yourself having a complaint where there were too much print materials to work with, you may want to reduce it and alternate your teaching methods. Sometimes some help from another source will help a great deal.
  5. Back-up your stuff in the classroom: Stewart Tunnicliff, who runs a couple Leipzig-based websites and a translation/proofreading business once said this when he presented the WordPress presentation at the Intercultural Blogger Conference in March. I have to say it also applies to teaching as well. Despite the careful planning that Germans are famous for, a back-up plan must always be in store, should your original plan fail in the classroom due to the students’ lack of interest, some technical glitches, missing elements because you were in a hurry, etc. While some teachers believe that Plan B is non-existent, they haven’t seen some situations, including those I experienced, where it was warranted. So have a Back-up plan ready, and ……
  6. Plan for technical doomsday- Your computer will crash, its relationship with the beamer will fail, the files will not open, the speakers will not operate, anything will happen. It has happened with the best teachers and they have dealt with them. Almost all of those who experienced a technical “Panne” have learned to do this one important item next time they work a technical equipment: check to make sure everything is in order before entering the stage with eager students awaiting to watch something “educational.” 😉
  7. Creativity and spontaneity are bread and butter- If there is a characteristic a teacher must have, there are two of them: being creative and spontaneous. A creative person comes up with activities on paper, through brainstorming and best of all, in the classroom in a spontaneous manner. A spontaneous person foregoes a planned session because of cock-ups along the way, presents a new strategy out of the blue, and gives it to the group for them to do. 99 times out of 100, that works every time. Teachers must have the brains to do both if they wish to continue with their career in the long term.
  8. Be a great storyteller- Storytelling not only provides students with a sense of entertainment, but also lessons for them to learn from, both in a moral and philosophical manner as well as when learning a foreign language. The stories told don’t have to be very personal ones, but they should be ones that are related to reality, and students can relate to. Even the tiniest story, including a person and a chain-smoker, who disregards the no smoking sign, getting into a debate on smoking, brings value to the students as some of them are smokers wanting to quit but don’t know how. Think about it. 🙂
  9. Slow and easy always wins friends- Especially for Americans teaching foreign languages, teachers love to speak at their tempo, which is for the non-native speakers of English, too fast. Sometimes a problem with dialect can hinder the success in the classroom. Slow down. Speak high English (with a Chicago dialect), have someone listen to you if you feel it is necessary. No student will mob you if you speak extra slowly and clearly, or did one student do that?
  10. Make sure your exits are covered- If a student complains about a bad grade, explain to him/her why and what can be done to improve it. If students become a smart-ass, surprise them with a quiz to test their knowledge. If a person wikiing his assignment says his grandma helped him with English, invite her to class unannounced. If lectures are needed, give it to them. Students will respect you if you keep pace with their learning but will love you if you are ahead of the game. A lesson I learned after dealing with the unbelieveable. 🙂
  11. Finally, be decent. Teaching students goes beyond the subject or the basic skills needed for the job. The main goal of a teacher is to show students how to be decent. Decency is a commodity that is well underrated but one we need so that we can love our neighbors and friends and respect their rights and wishes. It also means that teachers learn by example, by being professional and kind to others. A video with a lecture of how decency and justice goes together, shows us how important our job is, which is to teach our future generation how to be decent.

There are many more, but these eleven are the most important elements of a teacher, in my opinion. Each teacher has his/her style of teaching which works in some cases and fails in others. Even more so, teachers have different personalities that can work out or cause conflicts. In either case, what is important is making sure the students get a proper education so that they can go out, see the world and experience it themselves. How it is done is solely up to the teacher, yet if something fails, they should take a different approach. In either case, in the end, if students walk out of the halls of school or university with a great sense of satisfaction, then it is a sure-fire sign that they will leave footprints in your hearts forever,

let alone pairs of sneakers on the line outside your home. 🙂

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Moving On Up in the East in German Soccer

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RB Leipzig, Dynamo Dresden and Erzgebirge Aue, all in Saxony, are going up one league in the coming soccer season.

The German state of Saxony is celebrating this week, for despite having a week left in the regular soccer season, three teams are being promoted to the national level, one of which will make its debut in the German Premere League (1st Bundesliga). The automatic promotion only applies to the top two teams in each flight of the soccer league, with a relegation playoff match taking place between the third place finisher in the lower league and the third to last place finisher in the upper league. Dresden and Aue finished in the top two respectively in the third league, thus automatically qualifying for the second league or what Germans call the Unterhaus der Bundesliga. Würzburg can join them if the team defeats the third place finisher in the playoff match once the regular season concludes. Despite its placing in second behind SC Freiburg, RB Leipzig will enter the top tier of the German soccer league next season after its victory today. How they got there? Here is a brief summary:

SG Dynamo Dresden-  The team carrying the colors of Germany will make its debut in the second tier of the German league for the first time since 2014. After finishing sixth in the standings in the third league last season, the team under head coach Uwe Neuhaus and assistant coach Peter Nemeth started the season strong and on top and never looked back for despite having 20 wins, 15 ties and two losses, the team advanced to the second league two weeks ago after tying Magdeburg 2-2. The team set the mark for being the earliest promoter with four games left in the season. Another reason to celebrate is the team being debt free for the first time since 1995. Acquiring players and coaches, combined with the construction of a new soccer stadium in 2009 contributed to the team’s financial woes. However, despite this, the team utilized a variety of players from many parts of Germany and eastern Europe to pull it off. The question is how to advance in the next stage, for the team had struggled mightily in the second league before being demoted to third league play in 2014. But with a clean slate and high quality players, it is possible that the team might achieve its next goal: the return to the Oberhaus for the first time since 1995. Whether it is in the next season or the 2017/18 season depends on the team’s developments but things are looking really good for Dresden at this point…..

Erzgebirge Aue- Located in the Ore Mountain region in southern Saxony, the 72-year old club is no stranger to the second league as it had been competing in that league for 10 out of the last 13 seasons since 2003. After being relegated in the third league last season, the team and its head coach, Pavel Dotchev made it clear that it wanted to go back. The team’s wish came true yesterday, after Aue defeated Fortuna Cologne 2-0, solidifying its second place finish and forcing third place finisher Würzburg to play in the relegation playoff game at the end of the season. This with one game left in the regular season.

RasenBallsport Leipzig- People in the city of Leipzig are celebrating its return to the big times for the first time since 1994. That was the last time a soccer team had competed with the likes of Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Berlin. VfB Leipzig was the last team to compete in the Unterhaus before being demoted after the 1993/4 season and subsequentially beginning its gradual demise, which ended in the team being dissolved through bankruptcy in 2004. Other teams in Leipzig have made attempts to climb back to the national stage, such as the (now defunct) Saxony Leipzig and Loc Leipzig but with no success. However Leipzig is returning to its glory days this fall with RB Leipzig making it to the first league! After defeating Karlsruhe 2-0 today, the team under Ralf Ranick has placed the city back on the map again. The team, which is owned by Red Bull Beverages in Austria, has been the darling of German soccer, as it has marched its way through the ranks since its inception in the fifth league (Oberliga) in 2009, having advanced every season except last year, where it finished sixth in the second league. However this season, the team upgraded its talent and finished in second place with 20 wins, six losses and seven ties, two wins less than SC Freiburg but two more than FC Nurnemberg, which awaits its opponent from the 16th place finisher in the Oberhaus. Leipzig will receive new faces come this fall as Ralph Hasenhuttl will take over as head coach of RB Leipzig, while Ranick, whose storied career included creating a winner in Premere league team 1899 Hoffenheim, will continue operations as manager. In either case, after being the first of 90 German soccer teams that formed the Bundesliga in 1900 but being absent from the top league for 22 years, Leipzig is back, and with that, tens of thousands of fans will storm the stadium this fall to watch them annoy the well-established Bundesliga teams! 🙂

 

With these three teams already going up, we may have another one after this month if FSV Zwickau in the Oberliga North East Division maintains its course. With three games left, the team in first place has more or less locked up its regular season championship. It must participate in the relegation playoff game with the first place finisher in the western division of the Oberliga after the regular season ends. The team with the highest goal ratio in their favor after two games will advance. The team failed to achieve this last season with Magdeburg advancing to the third league. However, this team has a greater chance of achieving this goal this time around. If so, there will be four teams from Saxony moving on up, thus making the eastern German state an attractive place for people to go for soccer. More on this development to follow.

In the meantime, the Flensburg Files would like to congratulate Dresden, Leipzig and Aue for making it to the big times. Best of luck in the coming season! 😀

 

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All They Want is Stuff: The Use of Stop-Gaps in English Part I

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Willow Creek Bridge in Mason City in the 1950s: New Bridge on the Left, Antique 1800s Bridge on the Right. Photo courtesy of Iowa Department of Transportation

This article is co-produced with sister column, the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles in connection with a project being constructed.

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Stop-gaps. Each language has its set of stop-gap words that people use, either as a substitute for a word they were looking for (but couldn’t find it), or as a bridge in the conversation with the purpose of avoiding a pause and revealing their insecurities in communicating with other people. Many of us are guilty of using these stop-gaps, both in our native tongue as well as when learning a foreign language. Here are some examples of how they are used in English:

  1. In connection with the picture above, I had my final conversation with my grandmother back in January 2007 about her community’s strive to destroying historic buildings and bridges, including a bridge near her home and a high school that used to be a haven for theatricals. Her reaction to the city’s plan to tear down the high school: “All they want is stuff!”  Difficult to replace stuff with new or modern things, but she was opposed to modernization, fighting all the way up to her death three months later.  Highly spirited woman I admired. 🙂 <3
  2. A former college classmate goes off on a tangent over a teenager’s excessive use of “like.” Example: “I was like great. We could like meet at like 7:30 at like the theatre. Would you like that?”  Overhearing this in a restaurant, she paints a vivid reaction on facebook.  Geil! 🙂
  3. A college professor stresses the importance of not using thing in a paper and was appalled to see at least 10 of these words in a 25-page paper in English. That student bawled his eyes out while receiving a failing grade, using that as one of the main reasons justifying the need to rewrite it.  The professor was Czech and his student was from Saxony, who had spent time in Iowa as a high school exchange student, by the way. 😉

But the underlying question is which of these stop-gap words are really informal and used for personal communication, and which ones are formal and can be used  for formal purposes as well as for research papers? In connection with a project being conducted at a university in Jena, a question for the forum is being introduced for you to think about. All you need is two minutes of your time to answer the following questions:

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1. Which of these words do you use the most in terms of verbal communication?

 

2. Which of these words do you use the most in terms of written communication?

3. Which of these words do you think are considered stop-gaps and used for informal communication?

4. Which of these words do you think are NOT stop-gaps because of their use in formal communication?

5. Why do you use stop-gap words in English?

For the first two questions, only one word applies; the next two has a limit of five possibilities and the last question has more than one answer possible. Each one has an option where you can add other words and items that are not on the list.  You have until 16 May, 2016 to vote. The results and some exercises will come in June. In case of any questions, please feel free to contact Jason Smith at the Files, using the contact details in the website under About.

The purpose of the questionnaire is to find out how often these stop-gap words are being used and why they are used. Already there have been discussions about this subject and even the author has put together a worksheet on this subject for use in college (that will be presented in the June article). It will help linguists and English teachers find ways to modify the use of stop-gaps and (especially for the latter) encourage students of English to use other alternatives and widen their vocabulary. Interesting is to compare the use of stop-gap words in English with that of other languages, including German- one of the words has been used here in this article.

Can you figure this one out and find the English equivalent? 🙂

 

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Germans and Demonstrations: What We Want is Color; What We Don’t Want is a Union

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Protest, the right to express our opinion, our objection, our own dismay to something that does not fit. Derived from the Latin word meaning to testify for something, protests are designed to deliver a message, whether it was objecting to a decision of a local mayor to demolish a historic landmark in favor of a shopping mall, demanding a change in government because of a corrupt leader, putting pressure on companies to increase wages and improve working conditions or as seen in the pics here, rejecting certain people because of their threat to their societal infrastructure.

Germany leads the way in the number of protests and their variety of themes. No matter when the politicians speak, no matter if it is spontaneous or planned, no matter how many policemen are involved, and no matter how extreme, when a demonstration takes place, the entire city is shut down and isolated from the rest of the world. The demonstrations take place in many forms. We have the May Day demonstrations and with that, also demonstrations by workers’ unions, demanding better pay and working conditions. This form occurs most frequently, no matter where. Then we have the most popular, which are the environmental demonstrations, featuring sit-ins, blocking and chanting for no nuclear storage facilities, international trade deals harming the environment and no pollution, period.

Then we have the most current, which are the demonstrations involving refugees and right-wing extremism.

For more on that and to see pictures of a typical protest, click here to continue……

 

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Sensation Made in Germany

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Magdeburg avenges Flensburg-Handewitt in the Handball German Cup, FC Bayern Munich wins another title, German Invasion in American Football?

The weekend of May 1 will go down as sensation made in Germany. A heavily favored team goes down in handball, the ladies soccer team beats the men at the title and lastly, a German is coming to Minnesota to play for his favorite professional football team. How did this happen? Let’s have a look at the highlights.

 

MAGDEBURG WINS FIRST GERMAN CUP IN 20 YEARS

Last year, the Fighting Albatrosses of SG Flensburg Handewitt stole not only one but two titles, including a stunning come-from behind victory against SC Magdeburg in the German Cup. This year, the team, with its aspirations of going for the triple crown, including the regular season title, may end up finishing the 2015/16 handball season empty handed. After being eliminated in the Champions League by Kielce (Poland) last week, the team had its last chance of redemption spoiled by SC Magdeburg. The team, currently in 10th place, not only beat the current second place team 32-30 today in Hamburg, taking revenge of last year’s defeat in the German Cup. Magdeburg’s German Cup championship is the first in 20 years. The team took advantage of early misques early by Flensburg and lead for much of the Finals game. Despite beating the Rhine-Neckar Lions 24 hours earlier, FH will need to win out and the Lions lose half of the remaining six games in order to win the regular season title. While Magdeburg is celebrating its first title in ages, this may serve as momentum going into the next season, as their place in the premere league is secured. 20 years was worth the wait. 🙂

 

FC BAYERN MUNICH WINS ANOTHER TITLE 

The record is getting old and tattered and the songs are being played over again. But another soccer title is coming to Munich…..

in Women’s Soccer!

The ladies of FC Bayern Munich knocked off Bayer Leverkusen today by a score of 5-0. With only two games left in the season in the Bundesliga, the team coached by Thomas Wörle won its second regular season title in a row, dousing all hopes of second place finisher Wolfsburg of winning its second title in four  years. The men’s soccer team has yet to clinch their 26th Bundesliga title. While they failed to do that in a 1-1 draw against Mönchengladbach yesterday, the team can still clinch the title in the next game against Ingolstadt on May 7th.

 

GERMAN AMERICAN FOOTBALL PLAYER COMES TO MINNESOTA

America has long since been the place where people go from rags to riches, even in professional sports. While the Baltimore Colts picked up a jem off the streets in Johnny Unitas and made him a champion quarterback (read about his history here), there is another person that is following his footsteps. The catch: he has played American football for only five years but never at an American college. And he’s from Germany! Moritz Boehringer, who played only one season in the Bundesliga version of American Football for the Unicorns of Schwabish-Hall, is heading to the Minnesota Vikings after the team drafted him on Saturday. He plays wide-receiver, has speed and can outsmart the defensive secondary. The question is with only a handful of years experience, can he pull it off in the big leagues? Growing up watching fellow Viking Adrian Peterson (who is running back) play, he will have his wish come true by meeting him and perhaps work together to get him acquainted with life in Minnesota, which is not only laden with American football on all levels in the fall, but also anything pertaining to the culture of snow and cold, which is typical of the professional sport. But for the German, who is entering a different culture, he will feel right at home as not only the team, but also the people in the state are keen of having a chat over hot chocolate, going ice fishing, displaying their prized animals at the state fair, golfing, travelling to the lakes area for a swim, watching baseball,…..  In other words, herzliche Wilkommen in Minnesota von einem aus diesem Bundestaat gestammten Amerikaner, der seit fast 20 Jahren dein Land und seine Kultur als Kolumnist und Englischlehrer genossen hat. Viel Spass und viel Glück! 🙂  More on the German football player in Minnesota here.

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