As a teacher in the US, I sometimes feel sorry for myself. It’s not because I work at a high school—despite being told “you poor thing” by strangers, I like teaching teenagers. It’s also not because the pay is low compared to other professions—I wouldn’t trade my summer break for a $10,000 raise. And it’s definitely not because the job is very difficult—the challenging work continually keeps me engaged. I have no reason to complain: my school supports its faculty, pays well, and is full of great students and colleagues. Still, I feel sorry for myself, because I was a teaching assistant in Germany for two years and got to enjoy the perks of their school system.
Here they are:
1. Vacation Days
I remember touching down in Munich from DC and overhearing a German boy commenting on the weather. “Typical German weather,” he sighed, “cold and raining.” German weather does typically suck, but after talking to your average self-deprecating German, you get the feeling they hate their country and are only staying out of obligation. Perhaps this is why all German jobs require 30 vacation days, and schools are always having extended breaks. In Germany, we got a two week fall break, a two week winter break, a week off for Mardis Gras, two weeks off for Easter, and then another week or two for the Pentecost before summer. And most Germans aren’t even religious! Then, to top it off, there’s still around six weeks of summer vacation. I remember a colleague complaining on the first day back from Christmas break that there wasn’t going to be a holiday for almost two whole months. Trust me, he survived.
2. Sick Days
I took a lot of sick days in Nürnberg, so the day after (barely) surviving Istanbul, I went to school the next day with a bad case of bronchitis, not wanting to look like I was just taking time off. I was promptly sent home. “Leave!” one colleague demanded, “you’ll infect everything!” I happily went to the doctor who immediately told me, “You’re not going to work this week.” I have to think it’s the same for full time teachers; I remember covering for a colleague who knew exactly how much school he was going to miss (two more days) the evening after seeing the doctor.
3. Dress Code
I must’ve looked like such a dork my first week at the Humboldt-Schule in Kiel. Dressed in a tucked-in button-down, khakis, and dress shoes, I went into my first class. At least the students were polite enough not to make fun of in me to my face. It didn’t take long before I was dressed in the German teacher uniform—a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. A year later I was in Nürnberg talking to my mentor Dieter about how American teachers had to wear ties. He looked at me funny, like the concept was unreasonable. “One of the reasons I became a teacher,” he told me, “was so I could wear a T-shirt to work.”
4. The School Day
The day goes from 8:00-1:00. Not all classes meet every day. There are six 45 minute periods, which teachers start walking to after the second bell. There’s a short 10-20 minute break after 2nd and 4th periods. Sure, students can have some after school classes like art or gym that might meet after 1:00, but that happens about twice a week. There’s enough time to take a breath in the German school day, but classes are still over before you know it.
Of course the real fun of teaching in another country isn’t about vacations and dress code. It’s about absorbing the culture of the school and students. When I first arrived, even small things, like the pleasant four note school bell, seemed exotic. I loved fielding the questions about America my students had. Still teaching in Germany does have its downsides. Teachers don’t have their own rooms, just float from class to class. There is no principal to deal with a problem child—you’re mostly on your own. Teacher stress, while much less pronounced in the very well-respected Humboldt-Schule, was ubiquitous in the other two schools I taught at in Nürnberg. There’s no way around it: teaching will always be hard work and stressful. Still, I loved certain customs. For instance whenever a colleague had a baby, the teachers would have a champagne toast during break in the Lehrerzimmer. I enjoyed going to my next class with a slight buzz, looking at the students’ blank faces, knowing I felt better than them.
I do have to admit I’m looking at my experience of the German teaching world through rose-colored glasses. As a Fremdsprachenassistant, my job was to come up with interesting lectures on American culture and be friendly and laid-back. I worked three classes a day, four days a week, and there was a stipulation in my contract which said I wasn’t allowed to grade anything. It was all the best parts of teaching with none of the downsides. Still, I have to admit, I wouldn’t mind celebrating the Pentecost this year.