None of Judith’s teachers are aware of just how unhappy she is. “In my school it is very impersonal and if you have problems in the family the teachers do not care. If you have academic problems the teachers do not help.”
It is a common concern in many German schools. German second-level schools do not practise an all-day timetable. Students and teachers show up for class and are free to leave campus directly after if they have a free period. The result is that students are not compelled to be around one another during breaks or free periods so it can be very difficult for students who are introvert, new, or living in a different locality to make friends and integrate. In larger towns and cities groups of students roam the streets at all times of the day and it is here you can most easily see just how many individual students are excluded or isolated from their peers. In short, the current school timetable is a deterrent to promoting inclusion and building community in schools. Regardless of the good intentions of the school it is almost impossible to build a strong school community when students are not required to be present on school grounds throughout the day. This system also affects teacher behaviour. Because the expectation is that teachers must also only be present to teach it is most common for staffrooms to lie empty until five minutes before the school day begins and to be empty five minutes after. Where there is not an all-day system, the role of the teacher is condensed into the bare definition of the position – show up in class and teach. The result, as Judith points out, is that relationships between students and teachers are contractual rather than personal.
This stripping back of education to forty-five minute blocks of instruction leaves students feeling under pressure and unable to see the purpose of their studies. Judith summarises “You go to school. You learn, you learn, you learn but it is only for the exam and then you forget everything. Teachers try to squeeze as much information into you as they can.”
In her final year of studies the overwhelming impression that Judith has been left with is that the purpose of education is examination. “The Abitur (final exam cycle in German Gymnasium) is two years of constant stress. Teachers put pressure on us when they should calm us. When I have an exam next week I study hard for a week in advance and when it is over I forget everything. What am I learning for? For my future? For exams? For the sake of one week?”
The problem, Judith argues, is that “The system sends the message that the only talents that matter are those that you can evaluate.” She argues that teachers are only interested in good grades. “Teachers shouldn’t transmit the message that it is all about good grades and that you are stupid if you do not earn a lot of money after school. Everyone has to find his own passion. Schools get the best out of students in theoretical matters. Yes, I get good grades but there are other things that matter. Some students are very creative but they do not do well in school. The system tells them that their skills do not matter.”
Even though Judith is a high academic achiever she feels that the current system is good for no one. “Sometimes I come home and I think I am stupid if I get grades that are not so good. The true intelligence of people is not shown by grades. You can be intelligent without an Abitur.” And she is not naïve as to the workings of the world. She does not blame her teachers personally for the current state of education. “It is the system that says you must have an Abitur or you are nothing. And it is not just the school system that is the problem. It is society and finding your place in it.” However, it is hard to take comfort in this knowledge when faced with a daily pressure to succeed academically that can shatter the self-confidence of even the most dedicated student. “Sometimes when I don’t get it I sit in class and I feel overwhelmed.” Because of the absence of personal relationships with teachers as outlined above, she feels that asking for help is a sign of intellectual weakness. And she is not the only one who feels this way. “Many students in my year tell me that they sometimes go home and cry because they are so overwhelmed with presentations and exams and work. You might think it cannot be but there are many like this who feel so much pressure to perform.”
I ask her what can be done to give students a better school experience. Her solution is practical. There needs to be closer relationships between students and teachers. Teachers (and she is sympathetic to the external pressure placed upon them) need to find ways to promote student creativity, social and emotional intelligence. Teachers can cater for these through more engaging lessons that make cross-curricular links, promote engagement and demonstrate teacher passion. “In German class today the teacher used music and examples of architecture and art to explain postmodernism. Because of this it is still in my mind. If a teacher just talks at me for two hours I don’t remember anything. This teacher today worked with passion. He loves to teach and he loves his subject so he could easily transmit this to the students.”
By allowing students to pursue their passions in the classroom through interactive lessons and cross-curricular project work, teachers can provide them with a wider array of experiences that should help them identify future paths of study, and ultimately careers, that they themselves are passionate about.
Importantly, teachers need to be able to clearly articulate to students why what they are learning is important. As Judith says, “We have some teachers who show us that what we learn is important for future employment and for common knowledge. Then there are those where I think, ‘why do I need to know this?’ And I get the feeling that the teachers do not know why we need this either.”
Teachers should be proud when their students achieve good grades; however, they should also define their work as igniting passion in their students and setting them on the path to choosing their individual roles in society.