Ada Abroad: Living and Working in Germany

An online journal recording two years spent as a Fulbright/Pedagogical Exchange Service Teaching Assistant at secondary schools in Germany. (2003-2004 I was in a village near Bautzen; 2004-2005 I will be in Nordrhein-Westfalen.)

Location: Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

I'm an American living in Germany, working as a foreign language assistant at a secondary school. Future plans: getting my Ph.D. (probably in Germanic Linguistics), becoming a professor, living an ethical and meaningful life.

Friday, November 19, 2004

The German School System, Part II

In the last post I discussed the school system in general. In this one, I`ll focus more on day-to-day life in German schools.

One difference that I brought up in the last entry is that homerooms always stay together. In Saxony, children are assigned to a homeroom in seventh grade at a Mittelschule (after they`ve been devided into Hauptschüler and Realschüler) and in fifth grade at a Gymnasium. They are also assigned a homeroom teacher. The classes have all of their lessons together, and they stay together until they leave school-- homerooms don`t change from year to year, and neither do homeroom teachers. This system has its good points-- German students have a kind of comeraderie that American students usually don`t get to experience.

Another difference is that while American middle school and high school students have the same schedule each day of the week, German students (and therefore also German teachers) have a different schedule each day. So they might have Music lessons only on Wednesdays, for example. The lenghth of the school day also varies from day to day-- on Mondays everyone stays at my school until 3pm, but on Fridays most people go home after noon.

German schools have no substitute teachers. This means that when a teacher is sick, her colleagues have to cover her classes. However, they teach their own subject of specialization. For example, when my boss got sick this week the kids had an extra Biology class instead of English. --If no one is available to cover the class, then the kids are simply sent home early.

By American standards, German classrooms are very formal. Seating students around tables never caught on here-- they all sit in rows, facing front, two to a desk. When a teacher enters the room they have to stand and say 'Good afternoon' (or 'Good morning') and they may only sit down when the teacher gives them permission. There is comparatively little misbehavior-- but also not nearly as much creative thinking. I find that my students are quite passive and have trouble with tasks that require critical thinking skills. They tend to accept whatever the textbook or the teacher says (or at least pretend to accept it), and have difficulty with assignments involving things like evaluating newspaper articles for bias.

Grades in Germany are on a scale of 1 to 6. 1s are only awarded for really exemplary work-- most papers that would have gotten As in the US are given 2s here. (No grade inflation!) A 6 is failing. Teacher announce students' grades in front of the entire class, as well as specific criticisms like 'your pronunciation was terrible' or 'you didn't make eye contact with the audience.' Praise, on the other hand, is doled out sparingly, as if it were a rationed commodity. (I try to be the exception in this regard!) Students are also invited to critique each others' work in the upper grades. The result is that German students (and German adults) are used to public criticism and are therefore more self-assured than most Americans. But they also tend to be on the defensive side.

Corporal punishment is not allowed, but comments like 'If you do that again you'll get a black eye' are standard. This is mostly in jest, though. (It's still interesting when you think about the fact that even joking about that would get you fired from an American school!)

Younger German kids (grades 5-8, or so) seem more innocent than their American counterparts, and also more responsible-- they`re used to riding public transportation and running errands by themselves. Older kids (grades 9 and up) are more worldly and more jaded. At 16 they can drink legally, and it`s common practice for teenage kids to have their boyfriends or girlfriends spend the night! (I find this kind of disturbing.)

Other random differences:
-German students are required to take either Religion class or Ethics class. My school offers Catholic and Protestant religion classes. Some schools in areas with large immigrant populations also offer Muslim religious ed.
-German kids snap their fingers when they want to answer a question!
-There are two long breaks: one for breakfast at around 9 am and one for lunch at noon. On Tuesdays a bakery truck comes to the school during the morning break and sells fresh bread, rolls, pastries and sandwiches!
-Instead of one long summer vacation, German school breaks are spread throughout the year.
-Extensive class trips are very common. This May I`ll be going to England with my ninth-graders!
-There are no water fountains in the school (bad!) but also no vending machines (good!). The school does sell a hot lunch, and students can buy milk or juice during the morning break.
-German students are in better physical shape than their American counterparts.
-EVERYONE, regardless of their type of school or educational track, learns at least one foreign language: English. Students in Gymnasien also learn a second foreign language: usually Latin or French, but sometimes Russian, Polish, Czech, Spanish, or Italian. Since I`m in a theoretically bilingual area (actually only the Sorbian minority is bilingual, but that`s a topic for another post...) my school also offers optional Sorbian lessons. But we have only two students who participate, although there are a lot more who come from Sorbian families!

Well, I hope that was enlightening for you, and maybe also entertaining, or at least not deadly dull. I know that some of my readers work (or have worked) in schools-- as for the rest of you, I`ll try to come up with something really sarcastic for the next entry!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our teachers just completed parent-teacher conferences. Do they have the equivalent in Germany? Also, is there something comparable to a PTA? Mom

9:10 PM  
Blogger Ada said...

Hi Mom

Yep, they do have a PTA, and it fulfills just about the same function as in the US.

As for parent-teacher conferences, they do have them, but they`re optional. All teachers have to offer them (and on the same day) but not too many parents actually come.

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I definately appreciated the overview of German schools. I've heard bits and pieces of this before, but was never able to put it all together. Danke schön!
S. W.

p.s. I did eat dried horse meat once in Sweden. I liked it.

4:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yea im student on german school... they pretty much do what they want tp do... and you r only forced 2 go 2 scholl till 9th grade

4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


you mentioned that we would have to stand up to say good morning, well in my school in Germany I never had to stand up. I think that is up to the teacher. Some teachers are easier (not as strict) as others and some are even anoyed by the fact that everybody says it at the beginning of the class.

I think german schools are a lot stricter than american schools.

Oh, and snaping your fingers too often will make the teacher mad. haha

1:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a first year German student, and this was really helpful. I'm doing a project on the German Schools, and it was really good to get some input from an teacher.

9:01 PM  
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