Thursday, 19 December 2013

She doesn't even go here...

So, three months of Year Abroad down, and about to go home for Christmas (TOMORROW!!!!). Looking back at my blog posts from this term, no one would ever believe that I've actually had a job this whole time (I have, honest!). I've mentioned practically nothing about my work as a language assistant at the school, possibly because it didn't seem like the most exciting part of the experience. But I'm sure it will be of interest to some people reading this, be they friends or family members, prospective year-abroaders, or even other language assistants looking to compare experiences.

This first term has been a blur of pen-erasers, 11 year olds wearing 'twerk it' T-shirts (so wrong), and teachers flinging the windows wide (in spite of pouring rain or temperatures of minus a million) for the sake of 'fresh air'. I also had to stand up in front of far too many classes of unenthusiastic teenagers and introduce myself, which is awkward and embarrassing at the best of times, let alone when you're pretty sure none of them can understand a word you're saying.

For the first few weeks, I had my fair share of sitting at the back of classrooms learning about ancient Rome or the student revolution of 1848 (thankfully taught in English), while the pupils shot 'what-is-she-even-doing-here' looks in my direction, and the teacher asked me detailed vocabulary questions about parts of a 19th-Century barricade.

Gradually, however, I've moved on from this. I've even learned a few of the teachers names (at least 3), and am getting fewer 'what-is-that-student-doing-in-here' looks when I sit in the staffroom. Score.

Here are a few things that have particularly stood out about my experience in the school so far:


This seems like a not-completely-relevant topic, but it's a big 'un, so bear with me. Now, school is the only place (really) where I hear English - my beautiful, unique, and hitherto-taken-for-granted mother tongue - spoken by non-native speakers. It's a fascinating experience, hearing the different levels of language, learning what words and structures the pupils find difficult, and spotting direct translations from German (which can sometimes be pretty funny!). And, for the most part, I'm impressed.

But there are a few things I find baffling to the extreme. For example, the inability of any of the pupils of this school to pronounce the word 'clothes'. I already wrote in a previous post about sitting in on the year 5s' oral exams ('I am a chicken'... Remember?), and a few weeks ago I was called upon to do it again, this time for the year 12s. Not a single one of them pronounced 'clothes' correctly. The vast majority of them mumbled a word that closely resembled 'closes', although some went the extra mile and managed 'clothez'. When asked for feedback afterwards, I remarked upon this (with amusement) to the teachers doing the examining, and expected a wry laugh in response, accompanied by the usual complaints about how the students never listen no matter how much something is drummed into them. What I got instead was a pair of blank looks and the dawning realisation that this is how they have been teaching them to say it! And it's not just at my school. I've asked around and received insider information that this is how almost all teachers (hopefully just the ones who are not actually native speakers of English) are teaching this word. Two syllables. Clothez. Consider your minds officially boggled.

Another highly baffling pronunciation problem I've experienced is people (though mostly not the teachers, thank goodness!) pronouncing a 'v' as a 'w'. Yes, you read that correctly. In German, 'w' is pronounced like our 'v', so I would expect that mistake. But the other way around is just bizarre! It means they end up saying words like 'willage' and 'TeeWee' (the latter of which is frankly hilarious). I thought it might just be hyper-correction, but it isn't. I've had the extremely surreal experience of pronouncing 'invade' and 'advice' right there in front of students, and having them say 'inwade' and 'adwice' right back at me. How is this a thing?

Just to clarify, I'm not ragging on Germans for not being able to speak perfect English! I am well aware that my constant difficulties with articles, prepositions and plural endings in German would make me a hypocrite if I were. I am merely expressing my confusion at the bizarreness of these particular pronunciation problems.

I'm a teacher!

Honest! I taught a real class and everything! By myself! And not just once! Lots of times! (I think the abundance of exclamation marks in this paragraph accurately reflects how accomplished this makes me feel.)

I, for whole lessons at a time, was responsible for the shaping of young minds, for the moulding of a new generation, if you will. I think I'll just let that sink in for a moment.


So, although things are going a lot more smoothly than they were at the start, let's not forget that I'm still being a sort-of teacher (with no teacher training) in a secondary school (ugh teenagers) in a foreign country. Pretty solid recipe for awkward times.

Let's start with the keys. Basically, every room in the school locks, and they all get locked after use, so obviously all the teachers need keys. I have no keys. Although hearing stories from other assistants of the extortionate sums they would have to pay to replace their lost keys does make me slightly glad of this fact, it's still a bit annoying. Not only can I not get into the classroom for my English AG (more on that in a bit) because, despite the room being officially booked for the purpose, no one seems to have informed anyone about it, least of all the teachers who continue to lock the room after the lesson before. Cue me having to sprint to the classroom for 1 o'clock to catch the teacher on the way out, then having to wait around on my own in the classroom until 10 past when the lesson actually starts. Also, the staff toilets get locked too when no one's using them - as if any student ever would go in and risk meeting their teacher in the loo (a child/teenager's nightmare come true). This means that I either have to go up to the staffroom and awkwardly ask someone to come and let me in (did I mention the awkwardness?), or just perpetually hold it in. Not ideal.

Further awkwardness arises when I have to choose whether to use Sie or du (the two forms of 'you') (well, there are actually three, but let's not get ahead of ourselves). In theory, I know Sie is more formal, and is used for someone older/more senior than you or just to show respect, and du is more informal. But in practise it is a lot more hit-and-miss. I pretty much just say what pops into my head at the time, then worry about it afterwards. A couple of teachers have specifically asked me to duz them (use du), which makes my life a million times easier. But others just allow me to struggle on unaided, smug in the knowledge that they have their stupid language as a mother tongue and never have to painstakingly learn it. Grr.

N.B. I like German really.

English AG

AG stands for Arbeitsgemeinschaft, and basically just means extra classes. This is my supplementary English class that I set up as a way to offer extra help (and bulk out my woefully-empty timetable), which, despite my worries, people actually come to. And some of them even come back, which would suggest they actually enjoy it. Win!

And while the aforementioned 'advice'/'adwice' scenario did take place during one of these lessons, I love the fact that the 16-19 year olds who come are actually enthusiastic about learning English and want to improve. They're also a laugh; a group of them went to London for a day and were telling me all about their antics, and another girl discussed with me how she'd learnt all about different regional accents from TV shows like Geordie Shore (worrying...).

Faith in children restored

Finally, the one thing that has surprised me the most is the way some children behave towards me. Before coming, I was having visions of some of the classes I was in (or heard about) at secondary school, where the teachers ran out crying or decided to quit their jobs. Of course, the kids here are no angels, but I have had so many of them surprise me in lovely ways. One group of girls came over to me while I was sitting twiddling my thumbs in the mid-lesson break (another thing to add to the awkward list!) because they thought I might like company. Another girl, whose family moved here from Iran last year, offered me sympathy because she knew how hard it was being foreign and not speaking the language well. (That class has actually been told I don't speak German. Awkward list.) And she gave me a sympathy biscuit.

Loads of other pupils have been really friendly to me too, especially the ones who I've met in choir and orchestra, but also loads of others who are just really nice!

Maybe this last bit is just me getting all sentimental about the end of term. Who knows?

Anyway, off to England tomorrow! Bis nächstes Jahr, Deutschland!

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Holly and the Rachel

Hint: the title makes more sense if sung to the tune of 'The Holly and the Ivy'...

So, it's December now. Time to officially break out the Christmas music and drink Glühwein like there's no tomorrow. (Let's pretend I haven't been doing that for weeks already.) Germans do Christmas in a big way, and I won't deny that this was the time of year that I was most looking forward to spending in this country. So far, I've had quite a few Christmassy experiences, which began rather early, considering the school's orchestra started rehearsing their Christmas pieces in September! It even inspired me to download a CD of German traditional Christmas carols. (I'm listening to it right now actually.) I have also been taking every opportunity to purchase all the Christmassy foody goodness in the supermarkets!
Tastefully arranged Christmas foodstuffs. (That house thing is filled with Lebkuchen.) Mmmmmm....
A particularly exciting German tradition that I have discovered since coming here is BAKING. I'm not talking about your standard Christmas cake. Everyone here is crazy about Plätzchen, which are special German Christmas biscuits that everyone seems to bake about a million of around the beginning of December. The Reichelts have about 20 tubs of them, and the mum took a special day off work so they could spend the whole day baking! Now that's commitment. A couple of weeks ago, I went to a Backparty (baking party) hosted by a couple of the teachers from my school, and we spent the whole time rolling out dough and going crazy with the cookie cutters. Yum! Although sadly my attempt to explain the concept of mince pies drew nothing but blank looks (possibly due to my lack of appropriate vocabulary...).

But the most exciting thing (by far) has been the much-anticipated visit from my appropriately-festively-named friend, Holly, which I had been looking forward to for weeks.

A few minor setbacks occurred on the day of her arrival, namely Holly's delayed flight and the perilous combination of giant puddle and passing lorry that resulted in me getting thoroughly drenched (not to mention pointed and laughed at!) on the way to the station to go and pick her up from Hanover. However, these paled into insignificance compared to my gleeful excitement as I waited for her at the airport. I'm pretty sure our joyful reunion at the arrivals gate would have been enough to convince Scrooge of the merits of love and Christmas cheer, or at the very least earn us a place in the final scene of 'Love Actually'.

The next day (6th December, a.k.a. Nikolaustag in German land) we headed off to Lemgo's one-weekend-only Christmas market, Kläschen, but not before discovering makeshift paper Stiefel (boots) on the doorstep, filled with chocolate and goodies courtesy of the lovely Reichelts (I mean, ahem, Nikolaus).
Makeshift paper Stiefel filled with goodness. (Also, yes that is knitting wool...)
When we arrived at the actual market, it was evident that we were super early (keen beans that we are!) and it was mostly still being set up for the day. Undeterred, we headed to the Eiswelt (ice rink) and took advantage of the lack of people, which meant we could skate gracefully and/or flail wildly across the ice without the danger of injuring passing children or embarrassing ourselves (too much). It even snowed while we were skating (!!!) and led to much excited squealing on our part, and much indifference from the Germans. (These people just don't seem to get excited about snow! It saddens me...)
Appropriate levels of snow-related excitement.
Afterwards, we warmed up in a café with a chai latte and a nice game of German monopoly (Holly thrashed me. It was awful.), before taking another wander around the market in its fully festive glory. Of course, the highlight of the experience was all the foody/drinky goodness we were able to sample, namely the ever-present Glühwein, and a hitherto-unknown-to-me delicacy, Poffertjes (like tiny pancake puffs sprinkled with sugar - the best!).

It was certainly nice to see good old Lemgo in its Sunday best, decked out with quaint little huts selling all the foody goodness you could desire (plus plenty of drink-related goodness as well!), and assorted handicrafts, not to mention a bizarre array of canned goods, hideous Spongebob Squarepants hats, and JML-esque kitchen apparatus. It wasn't anything particularly spectacular though. At least, not for Germany! It seems like every town here has a Christmas market. OK, so there are markets in the UK too, but we totally stole this idea from the Germans!

One of my favourite markets so far has to be the Bielefeld one (well, to be fair it's the only really decent-sized one I've properly seen, but still). I went there last Monday with some other assistants, and visited again with Holly on Saturday night.
Part of the food court area - here we had some sort of Glühwein/Punsch/-bowle thing with lots of sugar in it. Lecker!
I have to say, I am loving the festive décor here. It's enough to give anyone the warm fuzzies. Nonetheless, I do miss Christmassy stuff from home, namely carol services (pretty sure they do them here too but I haven't been to one... Besides, they'd all be in German, which is clearly not as good!), Costa Christmas drinks (who'd have thought I'd miss working there!) and putting out all the old Farmer family Christmas stuff round the house. Holly did bring me mince pies though, which is easing the pain a little! Besides, I'll be home in ONE WEEK!!!

Ich freu mich riesig drauf!