After leaving my undergraduate days behind, I set out to teach English in German secondary schools for a year. While teaching English abroad in Asia, Latin America, and Africa seems to be all the rage among college-educated vagabonds hesitant to settle down, the German education system remains, for the most part, inaccessible to foreign educators without the proper domestic certifications. Unless you’ve spent time studying abroad in Germany during high school or have the right connections, the teaching in Germany and the inner workings of a German classroom are most likely the stuff of legends.
People teach abroad for many reasons. Before starting my English teaching assistantship in Germany, I wondered if the secret behind the country’s economic prosperity and successes lay somewhere in the fibers of its education system. Was there some key aspect about the German classroom that was breeding the next generation of Porsche engineers and Bayer scientists? Maybe there was a hidden educational formula responsible for making Europe’s largest powerhouse economy tick?
While I still haven’t found the answers, my time instructing Florians, Fabians, and Annikas has led to some other quirky discoveries about German culture and its schools that have left me both scratching my head and amused. After checking in with other American teacher friends across the country, we’ve agreed on a few quirky takeaways from teaching in Germany that won’t be easy to forget.
The German school system is convoluted and confusing
At some point in the course of teaching in Germany you give up trying to understand how the education system works. Rather than having a nicely stacked vertical structure, in which students progress depending on age and grade level, Germany’s organization is more of a lumpy mass.
There are several different types of school for any given grade level, which are dependent on students’ academic ability and career goals. Elementary school, middle school, then high school? That would be too easy. Instead, try Hauptschule, Realschule, Gesamtschule, Gymnasium, Berufschule, and Grundschule. Just to keep things even more interesting, each Bundesland (or federal state) has a slightly different system that may even determine whether students attending the advanced secondary school graduate after 12th or 13th grade.
Technology is unnecessary in the classroom
Just when you thought the age of the overhead projector and transparencies was over, Germany has kept this 20th century relic in style. Even though some of the classrooms in my school are equipped with SmartBoards and mounted projectors, I haven’t heard of a single teacher who uses PowerPoint or knows how the SmartBoard works. Chalkboards seem to be the preferred instrument of instruction, but if a teacher is extraordinarily prepared, they’ll have a printed transparency with diagrams or photos in tow.
Students’ arsenal of stationery would make Officemax jealous
I thought I was a fancy kid in third grade when I learned to messily scribble cursive script in pencil, but German students take penmanship to a mind-blowingly new level. In primary school, students not only learn cursive script that resembles what you’d find in a letter from the 1800s, they write it with fountain pens. The result is a massive pencil case full of ink cartridges, various pens, markers, highlighters, whiteout, and the necessary protractors to help get those lines perfectly straight.
German punctuality is a myth
There is usually some truth to every stereotype, but when Germany’s national railway company is notorious for delays and teachers arrive to class later than students, it’s safe to say stereotypes aren’t entirely reliable. Because teachers don’t have their own classrooms, they congregate in the teachers’ common room during breaks and have to walk back and forth between several classrooms a day. Official class starting times are merely a suggestion, however, as class only really starts whenever the teacher casually strolls in.
It’s normal to see BMWs and Audis in the school’s parking lot
And it’s not just because those are German car brands! Teachers in Germany have incredibly high average salaries, especially compared to what teachers earn around the world. Becoming a qualified teacher for secondary school entails about 4.5 years of study, plus about two more years of student teaching. With this much time invested in education and training, it’s no wonder the occupation pays off.
Teachers bring treats on their own birthdays
Teachers in Germany don’t expect to be greeted with a fanfare of gifts and flattery on their birthdays. It appears that there’s no better way to spend the night before your own birthday than by baking enough treats for the entire teacher population, or stopping by the bakery in the early morning to buy enough bread rolls for all. It may seem counter-intuitive for everyone but the distinguished birthday star to benefit, but at least no one will forget it’s your birthday.
Seven months in, I still find myself facing unexpected occurrences at school, where I can’t help to marvel at the oddities. Apart from adapting to a new cultural environment, teaching in Germany confronts me with the challenges of unraveling an education system dissimilar to the one I grew up with, without the years of training that my colleagues received–a struggle known to foreign English teachers around the world.