Last Friday was a day filled with firsts. (Ahhh, alliteration.) One of these was my first substitute teaching experience, or Vertretung, in a German classroom.
For most Americans, the mere mention of substitute teaching (“subbing”) fills the head with horrible imagery. This is due in no small part to most of us remembering how we treated subs when we were students. Subs were the enemy. They always made you complete a silly worksheet, never let you go to the bathroom, and gave out detention like it was some sort of reflex action. We never cared that the it was the regular teacher who left the silly worksheet. It felt completely unfair and upset our routine, so we acted out our indignation by behaving like utter jerks. (And I was one of the “good ones.”)
If you are one of those American students who happens to become a teacher, you quickly learn why substitute teachers were often so mean. They are often fresh graduates who were unable to find a full-time teaching job, or retirees trying to keep their health benefits (in Virginia). Nine times out of ten, they are placed into a subject area, which they are not able or qualified to teach. To top it off, you don’t know the students’ names, and maybe not even the school’s rules. So there you are, standing in front of a bunch of teenagers with a worksheet you may not be able to complete, yelling, trying to stop the constant flow of students from your room to the bathroom, and feeling generally helpless. This is no one’s dream job, and it definitely isn’t easy.
In the German Gymnasium (college-prep school – more on that later), teachers at the school cover for teachers who are out for a period or a day. This is called Vertretung. If no one can cover, class will be cancelled for the day, and the kids either hang out until their next class, or, if it’s the last period of the day, leave early. There is a person in the building whose job is to create the Vertretung schedule and hang copies in the lobby and teachers’ lounge. The teachers check each day to see which periods they will cover. They often know the students, and it runs smoothly, but other times, the kids go nuts, just like in the US.
In addition to the English classes in which I will actually teach, I had been observing two German classes. The teacher was out last Friday to accompany her student teacher during one of his exams. The Vertretung scheduler asked me if I could cover the class since I’m normally there anyway. I agreed, and the teacher approached me with an idea for the lesson. She asked them to each write a short imaginative essay about what their lives would look like if they lived in the United States. There were to also come up with five questions each to ask me. In turn, I could ask them about Germany and Damme. I thought it seemed like a great idea, unless, of course, no one wanted to talk to me. Then it would be a long ninety minutes.
On Friday, I went to the classroom found the students waiting outside for me. I struggled with the key, but eventually unlocked and opened the door. The students scrambled inside, set down their things, and stood at their desks, waiting until it was quiet. Remarkable! I thought. This is exactly what they do with the normal teacher! I basked in the moment for a few seconds before I remembered that I had to greet them first. So that’s why they were all just staring at me…
“Guten Morgen zusammen,” I said. (Good morning, everyone.)
“Guten Morgen, Frau Daquila,” came the choral response. Then they sat down.
They had each done both parts of the homework. A few volunteered to read their essays, in which they stated that their lives wouldn’t be that much different (true). Then they asked me their questions. I end up being an immediate disappointment to each class I meet because I a.) have never seen a celebrity, b.) have never been to New York City, and c.) have never been to L.A./Hollywood/Beverly Hills. This particular group also seemed to be under the impression that the United States suffers from constant natural disasters. (On second thought, given the news in the last decade and these students’ young age, I suppose it’s not an illogical conclusion to draw.) Tornadoes were their main interest. I drew a [crude] map of the US and explain that tornadoes happen mostly in the Midwest and only during certain times of the year. They frowned, but quickly bounced back. Other question topics included where I was on 9/11, where my ancestors came from, whether or not I liked Barack Obama, and what I thought about the oil problem in the United States.
Once the questions started to dwindle, I should some photos of my family (“There’s so many!”), and a Virginia Tech football game (“That stadium is bigger than Bayern-München’s!” “No it’s not!” Frau Daquila jumps in and ends the argument.) They also enjoyed the photos of Mcafee’s Knob on the Appalachian Trail, as well as some pictures of an elk and a moose from Colorado, and a shot of my dad’s cabin. The students received these final photos with an appreciative “Whoaaaaaaa!”
Soon the period was almost over, so I asked them about where I had to eat and what I had to see while I was here. Between the 28 of them, the suggested nearly every restaurant in the surrounding area, as well as a zoo with canals that you could ride through and Disneyland in France. I guess the magic of Disney appeals to kids everywhere. There was also a spirited debate about whether the North Sea or the Baltic Sea was a better vacation destination.
All in all, Vertretung was a success. I felt confident to go to my first English lesson after it ended. Maybe I should have lied about the natural disasters, though. I could have had them thinking I was a bad-ass, tough chick. 😉
Here are the photos I showed them: