Well, it is that time of year again! Christmas is creeping upon us and we are in a mad rush to buy as many presents for as many relatives and friends as possible. We have Christmas letters to rush. In cases like yours truly, there are lists to make regarding what to pack for the trip home to family and friends and a trip itinerary to put together. Â Each country has its own holiday tradition which takes place before and during Christmas. In the US, the holiday season starts with Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, where half the population lines up in front of shopping malls and retailers at 6:00am in the morning and fight tooth and nail to get that perfect gift for their loved ones. Families decorate their houses and lawns with Christmas lights and other decorations, and in some cases, there are holiday decoration contests to see which house is the most decorated of the entire neighborhood. Where no contests exist, there are people who love to tour the neighborhoods and are in awe with the bright colors and the designs.
In Germany, we are just as festive but in a different way. Sure we have the Christmas tree, although we usually do not decorate it until the 24th of December. We do some Christmas caroling throughout the holidays, like in the USA- even on the 6th of January in Bavaria. We have the Christmas pyramids, where the candles are lit causing the top wings to spin. We have incense men and houses, where the scent of Christmas roams around the house. But what is very typical during this time of year in Germany are the Christmas markets that occupy the market squares of over 6000 cities for one month, from the end of November until Christmas Eve. No matter where you go, you see a lot of Christmas goodies that are served during this time, from “Bratapfel” (baked apple) to roasted nuts, domino steins to gingerbread cookies, Thuringian bratwurst to roasted chestnuts….. Each Christmas market has its own theme. Dresden’s Striezelmarkt is known as the oldest known Christmas market in Germany. The most common Christmas market is located in NÃ¼rnberg, which carries the name Christkindlsmarkt. But there are multiple numbers of Christmas markets in big cities, like Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg. And Christmas markets in border cities, like Flensburg, SaarbrÃ¼cken, Aachen, and Basel bring in people from outside Germany to try all the specialties that are available.
How different are the Christmas markets from one another? The author of the Flensburg Files has introduced Holiday pics, where five Christmas markets have been chosen and the author will visit them and put a small impressionist summary together to provide the tourists with a chance to visit them the next time he/she decides to visit Germany, be it this year, the next or sometime in the near future. The top five pics of 2010 are mostly centrally located in Germany, however, other Christmas markets, like the ones mentioned above are high on the author’s places to visit list in the next couple years. Â Two states have two Christmas markets located near each other, which are Thuringia and Bavaria. They consist of the ones in Jena and Erfurt (Thuringia) and Bayreuth and NÃ¼rnberg (Bavaria). The fifth one is located in one of the most multicultural cities in Europe and also the most populated metropolis Â in Germany in terms of population density, Frankfurt (Main) in Hesse. Â All but Bayreuth have a population of more than 100,000 inhabitants, but like the cities themselves, each Christmas market has its own identity that helps shape the cities to what they are. We all know about NÃ¼rnberg’s popularity but the question is to what extent is NÃ¼rnberg’s Christmas market so popular in comparison with the other four candidates? Bayreuth is famous of Richard Wagner but the market in this small town makes it a treat for those visiting or even studying there (Bayreuth has a university which has contributed greatly to the city’s development). While Jena remains the central hub for the optical and technology industry in the easter part of Germany, every day at 5:00 in the afternoon, the brass plays the holiday tunes that make the Christmas market the most memorable for the people there. And then we have Erfurt, which combines traditional and medieval Christmas markets into one which tells a story to those enjoying a GlÃ¼hwein (mulled or spiced wine) and a good old fashion Thuringian bratwurst.
But there’s more to the Christmas market in Erfurt than meets the eye, as the city’s Christmas market is the first candidate on the holiday pics list to be given honors and a standing ovation from those who either have seen it many times, like the author has, or who want to see it very badly because their friends and relatives have seen it, as is the case with many people the author knows who are reading this column right now.
So without further ado, here we go with a tour of Erfurt’s Christmas market…..
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.
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.
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 particularÂ with a couple departments on campus during his Master’s studies between late 2003 and 2007. Â 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)? Â 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.
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.
OK, it’s official. I’ve just been declared the most wanted teacher on campus by the students! Â 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 aÂ 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.”Â 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.Â 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.Â 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 andÂ 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.Â 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). Â 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. Â 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 Â also important for a teacher, Â 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. Â 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 Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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 Â and the patronism on the part of the students take care of themselves.
Biking on a trail going along the Baltic Sea Coast, I had to put away my thoughts and fears that were affecting my everyday life and embrace the unknown. I had never been up to the Baltic Sea for a long time, and the area I was visiting- Flensburg, Sondernburg, northern Germany, and southern Denmark- was untouched until I got off the train at the station and explored the region that I hadn’t seen before. The first thing I did was get to know the people up there, the culture, and the surroundings. I looked, I listened, and I learned. It started with a trip down the beaten and rutted trail that snaked its way through the forest, after crossing the wooden bridge into Denmark north of Wassersleben. The various jumps up and down the hill, the sound the wind breezing in from the sea, and the multiple shades of green and brown are all that occupies me opens up new doors to the things I’ve never heard and seen before. However, the dangers have to be figured into the equation: The trail was rutted, rocky, and really run down. It had pine trees placed in and along the road, and the down hill ride was filled with the unknown. I looked, I listened, and I learned. By the time I ended up in Sondernhafen (Danish is Sondernhav) enjoying Europe’s finest hotdog and Danish ice cream at Anne’s Hot Dog stand, I had mastered 15 km of rugged terrain and gathered some images that were worth taking with me. I tried some Danish delicatessen, listened to the good humor of the Danes and learned about the long-standing relationship that they had with the Germans, that consisting of love and hate, trials and tribulations, toil and tears, and division and unity. Both sides had their differences that had to be settled through military conflict- among other things the war of 1864 between the then Prussians and the Danish kingdom which included a lop-sided Prussian victory at Dubel (near Sondernburg). There was of course the battle over Flensburg and who possesses it as both sides laid claim to it until 1951 when it was considered a border town for both the Danes and the Germans. This was in addition to World War II and Hitler’s quest for breathing room. But today- they live in peaceful co-existence for one reason and one reason only: because they looked, they listened, and they learned. They looked at the benefits of coexistence, they listened to each other, and they listened to each other.
Leaving that as is for another time, I took this experience with me and re-entered reality- a reality that is filled with multicultural diversity but it is the target of xenophobia, cleansing, and pure hatred. This multicultural diversity does not necessarily have to do with the place of origin or ethnical, religious, or cultural backgrounds. It can also focus on family tradition, socio-economical backgrounds, and even the preference of a certain group disregarding politics, themes worth talking about, or even sexuality. Each of us has its own set of values, thinking, and ideal world that we feel comfortable with. The problem with that is we are being sounded out, played down, browned off by factors that don’t want us to be who we are, let alone share our views with others. Through the actions of these factors, consisting of harassment, intimidation, and even verbal or physical assaults on our identities, we are vulnerable to a change that is against our nature mainly because the factors don’t look at us, listen to us, and learn from us. It is no wonder why so many people take their own lives and those with them- because they feel that they don’t belong to society and need to express their frustration to the rest of society.
When I read about an 18 year old taking his own life because he was gay and therefore was cyber-bullied, or a 17 year old storming a school to pelt others with bullets before providing his own head with one, it makes me ask myself, why are these people doing this. Like us, they had a right to live and share their experiences with others without being ashamed of it. But the people who bullied them to a point of suicide did this because they were afraid of seeing them in their world. These are the people who are careless because they don’t look at the people for who they are, listen to them and how their lives developed the way they were, and learn from that experience and perhaps can relate to them. By being wreckless, ignorant and fearful, what happens to the victim actually comes back to haunt them. It’s like travelling along that rutted path through the forest, that I mentioned earlier- the careless and faster you bike, the more likely that you will create a very nasty fall that will cause injuries (some serious pending on the degree). If you look at the incidents that has happened over the past decade: Littleton in 1999, Erfurt in 2002, Cold Springs in 2005, Red Lake Falls in 2007, Virginia Tech in 2008, Ansbach and Winnenden in 2009, and now a slew of suicides that has been happening over the last six months, including the aforementioned cyberbullying that resulted in a suicide in Massachusetts, they all follow the same pattern.
So why don’t we all be careful with what we say or do with other people? Is it necessary to be wreckless and take action without thinking of the consequences? And what is wrong with embracing other people and cultures? It’s free and priceless. You learn more about them and make yourself a better person at the same time. You become more popular to the community because of your openess, tolerance, and acceptance of other people and their views on life. And the most valuable experience from all this is you may end up befriending the person whom you wanted to bully to begin with. It’s very easy to do. One just has to look, listen, and learn.
I would like to close with some food for thought, looking at this topic from a historian’s point of view. If you look at the picture at the end of this entry, you’ll see a fort that was built at Dubel in 1864 as a fortress to fend off the advancing Prussians and protect neighboring Sondernburg. While the defense was not successful and the Danes lost the war, both sides 87 years later realized that there was no point in wasting lives and resources not only in fighting each other but also erecting memorials comemorating the battles, so they took the cheapest and easiest way out and built a bridge connecting the two cultures and embraced each other. They didn’t care about their backgrounds or their differences, and it’s understandable why. We spend more money, resources, and nerves on conflicts and the memorials commemorating them than we do when we spend the few precious free minutes of our lives to say hi to another person and get to know him/her. And the benefits of just a few minutes to learn from the person far outweigh that of ignoring or even bullyiing them. So instead of spending that money on defending ourselves against people who don’t fit in society why not build a bridge for them and do what we should be doing in the first place- look, listen, and learn.
And the file closes with the pics worth taking with you. Until next time, happy trails until we meet again.
Fort Dubel near Sondernburg- the source of the conflict between the Danes and the Germans in 1864 and the symbol of division and the fear.
SOLUTION: BUILD A BRIDGE AND OPEN UP!
FAQ: This bridge, built in 1926 did serve as a symbol of unity between Germany and Denmark. Up until the Schengen Agreement in 1995, the bridge was guarded by the patrolmen on both sides, who maintained peace free of conflict, and people had to present their passports before crossing. Since then people can bike across freely and the patrolmen’s house on the Danish side is all that remains.