Loving life in Lauf: All you need to know about teaching in a small town
Well this time last year, my year abroad seemed a million miles away as I was slotting back into the Bubble and enjoying life as a second year- partying with friends and enjoying being back where I felt I belonged. However I’m now writing this from a very different setting in a small town called Lauf an der Pegnitz in South Germany. I imagine that, if you’re a second year languages student, you will already know where you’ll be living, whether you’re studying at university or to bracing yourself and going back to school to teach! Well, I chose the second option, thinking that it would be a great opportunity for work experience whilst not being quite as terrifying as sitting in a seminar and not having a clue what was going on. Thankfully now that I’m almost at the end of my time here, I can say that I’m truly enjoying myself and couldn’t be happier about my decision to teach.
The German School System
So to help you with your decision, I thought I’d share some words of wisdom (well, hopefully you’ll agree!) about what life in a German school is really like. So to give you a quick overview of the school system, German secondary schools are organised into a three-tier system and pupils take an exam which will match their academic abilities to the appropriate school when they’re eleven years old. In order of academic performance Gymnasiums are the best, then Realschules and finally the Hauptschule.
I work in both a Gymnasium and Realschule, but to be honest there is not a great difference in terms of the ability, or at least not as far as teaching English is concerned. The Gymnasium seems to have a few more resources, though neither school has Wifi throughout or even computers in every classroom. There are a few interactive whiteboards in the Gymnasium, but generally you’ll be writing on the blackboard and wheeling out the overhead projector! But the best bit of teaching is that, whilst school starts at the crazy time of 7.50am, you’ll have finished work by 1pm which means this year is an opportunity to do everything you’d like to England, but don’t have the time for. Join an art class, go to the cinema, explore your town - when everything is in a foreign language then you can even count a DVD under your duvet as work! Plus when you do make it through the snow to school at 7am, you are greeted by really enthusiastic kids because people here seem to love you simply because you’re from Britain!
Below is a photo of the Christmas box we sent to our partner school in England, a partnership I set up with the help of UK-German Connection. We received lots of presents and food in return. There are plenty of projects to get involved with!
Do I have to be an expert teacher?!
No, not at all, because most classes work through a textbook and therefore you have plenty of resources to help you. The teachers will often ask you what you’d like to do with the class which means that you can work according to your comfort zone. Therefore if standing in front of the class isn’t your thing, you can take a few pupils out of the class and practise speaking with them. On the other hand, if you fancy a challenge then the teachers will be thrilled to hand their class over to you for the lesson! Just be enthusiastic and relax and you’ll receive the same approach from your students. I’ve found that teaching can be a bit like a mirror, the pupils will pick up on and copy your mood, so if you’re happy to be there, they will respond to you and be equally as eager to take part.
So why should I be a teaching assistant?
There are also numerous benefits for you if you decide to become a teaching assistant. Firstly you will most likely become a resident celebrity and find that you’re really appreciated for your work at school- the teachers are often eager to get to know you and ask your advice with grammar questions whilst the children will have a million questions revolving around whether you drink English tea and eat Fish and Chips. However, as you teach in English all day, it’s a good idea to improve your language by firstly taking advantage of what’s on offer at your school. For example at mine, they offer free swimming on a Friday afternoon and have a badminton / volleyball/ football team for teachers. This has really helped me to get to know the teachers and feel less of a stranger in the staff room, not to mention giving me the opportunity to speak German.
To make sure I can keep up with essay-writing when I return to Warwick, I asked to join the German classes as a student which has proved really useful and it’s far cheaper than joining a German class at the Community College! I’ve even taken up learning French alongside 12 year-old pupils and run a British Club after school to teach about British Culture. So even if you don’t plan on being a teacher in the future, you’ll gain invaluable skills- working to a tight deadline, planning lessons spontaneously, being flexible in changing your lesson plan according to the enthusiasm of the class, and most of all, learning how to talk confidently in front of a sometimes challenging audience. Since my time here I’ve been to teacher training sessions in beautiful locations as well as a week- long ski-trip (below, Inzell in South Germany), which is definitely a highlight of being a teacher! Yet being taught to ski for the first time in German was certainly a tester for my language skills!
Location, location, location
So your next hurdle is settling down in your location. Initially I too applied for a big city and so was disappointed to discover that I’d be somewhere half the size of Leamington, however after a best friend pointed out that Lauf does in fact have a McDonalds, I realised it couldn’t be too far from human civilisation. Now I’m here, I recognise that a smaller town was the best possible place for me. It’s easier to make friends, which tackles the first challenge of your year abroad. Many people go to the same groups and clubs and therefore it makes relationship-building a faster process and everyone seems to know each other. Being able to say hello to people you recognise is something that we all take for granted until we’re placed somewhere where we know no-one, so I’ve really come to appreciate not being anonymous in a big city. If you want to make friends quickly it also helps to say 'yes' to every invitation… but it’s a good idea to ask exactly what you’re doing first. After a few weeks here, a teacher asked me if I’d like to go climbing and walking with her at the weekend (which I assumed would be a pleasant hike) and it wasn’t until she gave me a helmet and safety equipment that I realised we were going rock climbing. Despite my fear of heights I tried it (and actually enjoyed it) and therefore I’m pleased to have tried something I’d never have attempted in England!
Over to you!
Well I hope that some of my experiences might help you when you’re making your decisions about your year abroad. But I have to add that, regardless of whether you choose a university or teaching assistantship, you will gain lots of opportunities to speak your chosen language so long as you’re pro-active. It’s particularly important that you mix with people other than those in your Erasmus circle or the other English assistants, even though spending your weekend with them is a great idea to explore the local area. But do try and make the most of every offer from teachers or what’s going on in your local area because your language will bloom because of it, and feeling part of the community will lessen your homesickness.
It’s inevitable that at some point, whether it’s at the very beginning or after you return from Christmas, you’ll feel a little homesick, but everyone feels the same so don’t feel guilty if from time to time you wonder what on earth you’re doing there! You have a whole year to make the most of your time abroad, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself when you first arrive. Whether you’re at university or teaching, your year abroad is what you make of it, so it really depends on you. Throw yourself into whatever your town and school offers and take each day as it comes. The time goes fast, so just remember above all to enjoy yourself!