Teaching English in Germany in the time of COVID

In September 2020 we published an article by recent Sociology graduate Hugh Matthews, whose post-university experience of teaching English in Germany was interrupted by COVID. In this article, the second part of Hugh’s missives from Europe, Hugh tells us a little more about the history of the Hermann- Leitz Schule where he is staying and teaching, and the experiences that he has had in these strange times.

In 1945 Hitler’s Third Reich and his strangle hold on power was now reduced to the ever shrinking reality of the Fuhrer’s Bunker in Berlin, with The Red Army ensnaring the city; this marked the end of one of history’s most destructive regimes.  

Whilst the last remaining German opposition was being snuffed out in the woods around Hermann-Lietz Schule a division of US Army tanks positioned themselves in front of the school main building, waiting to receive their orders to fire and demolish what they thought was a Gestapo station. 

To the surprise of the American troops, who were ready to turn these buildings which boasted history dating back to 1800’s into dust; the Headmaster walked out in front of the tanks in a Tiananmen Square like response to explain, matter of factly, that these buildings were in fact a school and not secret police headquarters.

Resistance is a running theme throughout Hermann-Lietz Schule’s history. Upon falling under Soviet Occupation as a result of the 1945 land reforms; and due to the school’s location close to the former border which split up East and West Germany it became a station for GDR border guards. Teaching did not resume in the school until 1957; during this period the Thuringia Commissar would often give speeches to the locals and the border guards. 

These Communist Commissars did not speak German, so needed their speeches translated. Deftly, the translators missed words out and made the Commissar question his position and the Communist Governments authority in this part of Germany.  

When I returned to Haubinda to start the Christmas term, the first two few weeks saw a return to my normal responsibilities as a language assistant; helping in lessons and having the freedom to design my own English help after school sessions. This arrangement of having the day pupils coming to school and also the boarders in attendance was not sustainable in the school’s efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19. After a boarding family mother caught Covid-19 and went on to inadvertently infect the headmaster’s wife at the once harmless ‘coffee and cake afternoons’ that happen on Wednesdays, changes needed to be made. 

A large hand washing shed was built and attached to the front of the building; and ‘the mensa’ in which the boarding staff and boarders eat their breakfast, lunch and dinner now had hand sanitizer at the door. Moreover, day pupils no longer came in as their classes were moved online. The remaining students were the students who came through social care and boarded at the school. 

My job role changed due to the corona rules; as most teachers were working from home I would shadow their lessons with the remaining students so that the set work was completed and the students stayed on task. As experience had taught me throughout my time as language assistant it was necessary to carry around extra work so if a student said they were finished I could quickly keep them busy for the remainder of the lesson. Also, my after school lessons were often reduced to one two pupils, this had it positives as I could focus on particular language misunderstandings and build a better relationship with the students. 

In my house the number of boys living there went from 12 to 8 due to the corona rules, but the remaining 8 all possessed great energy and so the house never felt lonely. On Wednesday evenings as part of my role as language assistant (or older brother – in this context I believe is a more apt definition) I did ‘Lernzeit’, in which the boys in my house would do their homework. As a result of the boys claiming they had no homework to do, the evening would turn into ‘Spielen mit Mr Matthews’.  I am sure this held some importance for their teenage academic development, however what I learnt was that the boys are incredibly strong and an accurate shot with shoe.

In December my family father, who I lived with, had to take a week of work, so as second in the line of command I took up the role of family father. This meant that I made sure the boys were in bed by 9:30PM, up at 6:30AM and I was present for ‘Lernzeit’ in the evenings…and also to keep the peace. Some of the teenage boys in my house appeared to have developed a lacklustre attitude to keeping clean. At one point I was told by one of the boys that he showered once a week – at the most. I quickly devised a system of bribery with chocolates and sweets to convince certain boys of the importance of showering daily and brushing their teeth. Being the family father for that week was a formative experience, being in the position to diffuse fights and negotiate peace was a test of my patience and German speaking abilities but nonetheless intrinsic to my experience working in a boarding school.

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