A typical work day for me? There isn’t. I teach English at something similar to a British vocational college/vocational school or an American business-related target high school cum distributive education classes*/two-year business college and have done so for over 28 years now. So many basic premises of the German and American school systems are fundamentally different that I need to point out some of the biggest disparities.
German pupils and students stay together in their class group in the classroom and the teacher goes from classroom to classroom. I don’t have “Commercial Correspondence for grade 11” in the first period Monday through Friday and “first year English for Dialog Marketing” in the second period every day. “Commercial Correspondence” is seven lessons per week, sometimes two, sometimes one lesson per day, or perhaps we skip a day. “Dialog Marketing” is for a whopping one 45-minute lesson per week. By the time I learn all 28-30 names in each class, the year is at least halfway finished.
My subject matter seems to be changing more and more quickly as my years of teaching experience add up. Our focus was on written English three decades ago. A large portion of our teaching is now devoted to how to communicate with customers, telephoning or how to make presentations in English. Current affairs also play a much bigger role than they did when I first started teaching here.
I must admit that some of my favorite lessons take place in our super-duper language lab/multi-media room (one of only two or three of its kind in Hamburg) where students can simulate dialogs (my thing) in semi-realistic situations or research on the internet or practice their typing skills.
Grades are given on a semester, not a quarterly basis, and a three-hour written and a half-hour oral final examination are compulsory for everyone. We teachers are responsible for creating, implementing and correcting all of the exams – in addition to our regular teaching responsibilities, of course.
Way back when, back when I was teaching junior-senior high school German and Spanish in Spencer, Iowa, we teachers were to be in the school building at 8:00 for 8:35 homeroom and not to leave before 17:00, even though the pupils finished at 15:30. My first culture shock came when some of my Hamburg colleagues arrived at 7:59 to start teaching at 8:00 and left right after their last class finished, usually at 13:10 or 14:05. Lesson preps and test or homework corrections are done at home, because staff rooms with workstations or even your own work desk, until very recently, have been an unknown commodity unless you are in school management.
45- or 90-minute class periods, no breaks between periods 1 and 2 but a 20-minute break between 2 and 3 etc. meant a lot of adjustment for me. No detention here in Germany, no PA communication system in the school building but plenty of hall duty. Until recently, no regular assessment visits by the principal to check up on the quality of my teaching, no in-service days at the beginning of the school year, etc., etc…
I find that my job includes a whole lot more advising and counseling than I did in Iowa. The approximately 25 students in my “homeroom” class are my responsibility for the two years they are at our school. I’m the one who calls home to find out why Susie hasn’t been at school. It’s my job to talk with Linda about whether or not this is the right course for her when her computer skills are abysmal and she’s failing both English and French. I’m the initial contact person for problems at school, problems at home, unexpected pregnancy. We do have something akin to school counselors, but they’re colleagues who primarily teach; they have a reduction in the number of lessons they teach and have taken part in a two-year, intensive training course on various counseling aspects.
In one of my classes a student – seven months pregnant – was to be deported, and the class spearheaded action to get permission for her to stay. At that point I knew very little about deportation regulations in Hamburg or the political contacts involved in such actions; it’s called on-the-job learning. In another class I was called as a character witness in court when a student was on trial for the manslaughter of his mother.
Our school has been housed in two buildings for 30-some years now – one on Mittelweg, next to the Jugendmusikschule, the other on Barmbeker Straße, not too far from U-Borgweg. Due to the distance between the two buildings, I share department-head responsibilities with a colleague in the other building. We’re responsible for most of the administrative work involving English. We have 50-some colleagues, mostly from Germany, but also from France (4), Great Britain (3), Ireland (1), Spain (1), Russia (1) and the USA (that’s me!). If everything goes as planned, we’ll be moving to a new complex in about five years’ time. It will certainly be interesting to experience the planning and building of our new school.
*distributive education is an educational program in which students receive both classroom instruction and on-the-job training.
Originally published in the May/June 2010 issue of Currents, Vol.XXVI No. 3 "Daily Routine"