“This was the feeling of how time seems to have stopped” – Hugh tells of teaching English in the Thuringian countryside

My name is Hugh Hamish Matthews I was born in Exeter and grew up in Devon until I finished in Exeter College in 2017 and moved to Hull to study Sociology. I have since graduated with a first from the Sociology BA course at The University of Hull, during which I was fortunate enough to study abroad at Utrecht University in the Netherlands in my final year through the Erasmus Program. Having studied abroad and grown accustomed and familiar with the student life in Europe, I was inspired to find a way in which I could return to Europe and combine my wish of becoming a teacher with my passion for immersing myself in new cultures.

Hugh in front of a painting of School Founder Hermann Leitz Haubinder

History and politics were a huge motivation and influence in my studies at Hull University and in my semester at Utrecht University. So, I thought that Germany would be the perfect place to work due to its complex history and unique cultural traditions. Honing this down further, I focused my job search in Bavaria and Thuringia; these two districts were hugely involved with the fall of the Berlin Wall and also have a very different cultural perspective to the one found in Hull or Devon.

Upon finding Haubinda Lietz Boarding school  (found on the border between Thuringia and Bavaria, just north of Nuremberg)  I was intrigued, as it is focused on giving a rural educative experience to children who have difficult backgrounds or specific learning difficulties.

Hermann Lietz Haubinda is a privately owned school founded in 1901 by the eminent professor, Hermann Lietz. Professor Lietz was influenced by British boarding schools, and he viewed that pupils’ character development was central to having a bond and understanding with the countryside.

Professor Lietz kept the school open during World War One (in which he fought and was wounded; eventually succumbing to his wounds in 1919), and it continued to remain open during the rise of fascism and World War 2.

Following the fall of Nazi Germany and the Land Reform Act of 1945, Haubinda faced dramatic change as it became part of the Soviet Occupied Zone. This Soviet occupation led the school to become a GDR police station from 1957 to 1961.

By 1971  Haubinda had begun readmitting students from local villages under the GDRs education system; this meant it became a ten-class polytechnic high school.

The school remained as a ten class polytechnic high school until the dramatic events surrounding The Wende (The great ‘turnaround’-this refers to the pivotal point of Germany’s reunification after The Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, marking the collapse of the USSR’s influence in Europe and its political downfall).

The Collapse of the USSR and reunification of Germany allowed for the redevelopment of Haubinda as a School and the rediscovery of Professor Lietz’s legacy as a reform pedagogy approach. This meant that during the 1990s the school was partially owned by the state and was eventually bought in full privatisation by 2001.

I arrived at the Haubinda on the 27th of August 2020. I travelled from Vienna, where I was staying, by train to Coburg which took around 6 hours and only involved three changes (thoroughly washing my hands at every change). Upon arriving at Haubinda, after convening with language teacher Sara Notzke and the other English Assistant Ellie Cole, I was suddenly struck by two things: how much of the German language I did not know and how traditional the school’s German architecture actually was in real life. 

The school itself is hidden deep in Thuringian countryside in a network of lanes and paths, surrounded by dense woodland with hunting stands spotted randomly in the landscape.

Once I had been introduced to the rest of the staff, we were sat down for pizza and Hell Bier (Light Beer). At this point in time  it all felt a bit dream-like, and I could not quite believe where I was, so I  remained in a  partially catatonic  state occasionally puzzling together bits of German when I was spoken too.

During the period of time before the children arrived the other language assistant Ellie Cole (Miss Cole) and I were slowly coming to understand what our responsibilities were pertaining to our jobs.

I am living in a house called ‘cherry house’ a five-minute walk from the school, and for the first two weeks I was responsible for the waking up of eight of the German boarders  (this was until the family father would arrive 2 weeks later in which I would hand my responsibilities over to him), and I was also responsible for maintaining the peace at night before the ‘family mother’ arrived in the evening to put the boys to bed. For me, this came as a bit of a shock.

Nevertheless, this enabled me to build a relationship with the boys I might not have been able to have otherwise; and hugely improved my German language skills.

Furthermore, after the first introduction week, I received my timetables in which I was given the responsibilities of helping in morning lessons and doing grammar help with struggling students in the evening’s lessons.

All the while, masks are to be worn when travelling in between lessons and queuing in the canteen. Despite the isolation of the school, coronavirus seems ever present in our reality at Haubinda.

Whilst taking on and learning the nuances of our new responsibilities, Ellie and I used our free time to explore the woodland and countryside surrounding the school. This provided a well-needed break for the intense nature of our jobs and allowed us to understand the reality of the rurality of the school. 

Moreover, what stood out to me was something I only found in the deepest darkest parts of rural North Devon. This was the feeling of how time seems to have stopped- this mood seemed emphasized by the silence of the countryside seemingly only disturbed by the distant buzzing of farming vehicles and the continuous ricochet of the crickets.

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