25 Years (Part I) – Takeoff!

When I started working at my school in August of 1994, my intention was to stay for a few years and move on. I don’t really know what happened, but exactly 25 years later, I’m still here. Last week I also noticed that people I have worked with for seemingly ages are beginning to drop off the radar to enjoy their well-earned retirement. Without me really noticing, I moved up the age ranks and pretty soon I’ll be the only one left from those early days.

So, time for a series of reflective posts, retracing my steps to see how I got here. That’s something I have never really done, simply because I didn’t have the time for it or the inclination to do so, but before the summer holidays (and a few weeks before my 25th anniversary at my school), I had plenty of spare time at school while chaperoning 5 days of a programming project that was run by five former students of mine who were trying to teach 20 others the intricacies of programming “Retro Games“. My job was essentially to watch out that everyone behaved (no problem) and because the students were doing an excellent job, I was essentially free to sit up front with my Logitech K780 and my Samsung Tab A (2016) and … type.

No links, no photos; just an autobiographical text for those of you who have been following along all these years and were wondering about … and how … and why.

This text ended up being rather, uhm, extensive, so I have decided to split it up into several posts that will appear here in the near future, interspersed with other unrelated posts that tend to pop up around here once in a while.

My 25th anniversary, by the way, is already a thing of the past (August 10th, 2017) and we celebrated it in a great restaurant on Lanzarote some weeks ago. Still, my 25th anniversary year at my school will extend to the summer of 2018 , so there’s plenty of time to post the rest.

1992-1994: Getting a Foot in the Door

At the time, in and around the years 1992 to 1994, the job market for teachers in Germany was absolutely dismal. It has been repeatedly so since then as our local and federal governments have never really managed to be at the top of their game when it came and comes to interpreting statistics that they themselves have put together (they are at the top of said game when it comes around to saving as much as possible and cutting down on the expenses in the education sector), but at that time it was especially dire.

Everyone who went through the entire teacher education with me knew two things that were essential to securing a job in that situation. First of all, one had to try to secure top grades across the board, something that wasn’t exactly easy in an environment in which one often had the impression that grades were handed out not because of individual achievement but because statistics told everyone who was going to be needed and who wasn’t. Secondly, in a fragmented educational system in which every federal state has its own approach to doing things, which usually differs drastically from the approach in other states, one had to be highly flexible and mobile.

In regard to the first point, I still count myself the luckiest person alive from that time because I was fortunate enough to be educated by a group of highly dedicated and experienced teachers and administrators who not only invested a lot of their time above and beyond the call of duty but also tried to give us a positive outlook at a time when most people were afraid of moving directly from teacher education into unemployment. I fondly remember Mr. Mohr (English) and Mr. Weber (Social Studies), both of whom taught me the ropes in two intensive years in which theory (university) was put into practice (school). Because of the drill these two wonderful educators put me through, I left with top grades across the board and felt more than well-prepared for just about anything that would/could come my way.

In regard to the second point, I was perhaps the only person (at least the only one I have ever heard of) who applied to every single state and to every single private school in Germany. I remember buying a book with more than a thousand addresses of private schools and every single state and county address that had anything to do with hiring a teacher. Using a (today) ancient version of Microsoft Word, I put together a – at the time – pretty nifty letter of application which only included my CV and a cover letter stating that I would submit additional material if anyone was interested. Actually, for someone who didn’t have much money at that time, sending more than a thousand letters was quite an investment but I knew that once successful, I could write my application expenses off the taxes in full, so I jumped right in.

Then I sat around and waited.

As I had expected, nothing really happened. Most of the states responded with the usual “Thanks … but no thanks!” letters within a few weeks. On the other hand, still today I am amazed at the many friendly and personal letters I received from a large number of the private schools I had contacted, often handwritten, in which people expressed regret that they couldn’t offer me a job but that they would add me to their waiting list and wished me good luck. It is only a few years ago I threw those out after rereading them and only after actually sending a few of those schools a nice email to thank them again for the reply they had sent 20 years before.

A quick aside: In Germany, the school system differs fundamentally from just about every other school system known to man. The state (still) runs many different school types which are, for wont of a better expression, divided up according to individual ability, which has been a highly contentious issue for a few decades now, and many teachers who are hired (used to) become civil servants (for life). Next to that, in an entirely different ecosystem, you have private schools that, for the most part, have to adhere to the same curriculum as every other school in whichever state they happen to reside in. Although these past 10 years and more have seen lots of changes or attempts to change the underlying system, for example a push towards more comprehensive schools, day care schools, the attempt of many states to reduce the number of civil servants in all school types, different wage schemes for people essentially doing the same job, etc., fundamental structural changes have only happened in some few areas. That is no surprise as each federal state has the right, within a broader framework, to decide itself what it does with its educational system and in times in which the federal government in Berlin is trying to take more and more rights away from the single states, those states use those areas in which they are autonomous to demonstrate that, well, they are. So, in effect, it is still difficult (if not impossible) for students to move from one state to the other, especially when entering high school (11th to 12th or 13th grade, depending on the state) and although core curricula exist, in detail they are often as different as night and day, especially because they are – of course – politically shaded (usually leaning either to the conservative or the liberal/social democratic side).

Struggling for a Few Months

When it became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to secure a job at any school of any type in any state for the upcoming school year, I applied to a language school to teach business English but before I could start working there, (on a whim) I walked into a Catholic private school in Saarbrücken when I was in town shopping around for CDs and as luck would have it (I’m not a religious man at all, but other powers might have had a hand in it), the headmaster, who immediately jumped out of his office at me, had just found out that an English teacher was going to leave right in the middle of the year and hired me on the spot, first with what we call “half a post“. Two months that later turned into almost a full one until the end of the school year.

So, from one minute to the next I found myself hired by a school and was practically thrown into lots of English classes at all levels (6th to 11th grade) right away. I fondly remember those six or seven months at the Marienschule, a school which, at that time, was still dominated by a few (elderly) nuns that were a real blast; knowledgeable, attuned to the problems of children / adolescents and … infinitely patient. The nuns and the many other teachers there welcomed me with open arms and so did the students.

Those few months had too many highlights to get into here, but one of them was surely helping to organize a round of lectures for the other teachers to get them up to speed on recent didactic developments that the state government seemed to want to push to the forefront. In that capacity, I was able to establish quite a few contacts that, if they haven’t gone into retirement, I can still rely on today. School life itself was fascinating as the school tried to do things differently when compared to the state-run ones, but it was always quite work-intensive. I remember often coming home very late in the afternoon and then having to sit for another few hours to prepare whatever needed preparing. The school reminded me a bit of my own school (the Copenhagen International School) that I had attended in the late 70s and early 80s, especially because the students had developed similar ties and weren’t the ones to “evacuate” the building two seconds after the bell had rung. There were tons of afternoon activities and I often found myself just hanging around, talking to students and teachers and enjoying the atmosphere.

While working at Marienschule, I continued to apply everywhere and towards the end of the school year, typically the time when headmasters all around the country are looking for people to fill the gaps left by people who had gone into retirement or on maternity leave, the first avenues to a future job began to open up. Whereas most of the people I had studied with were struggling as much as I was, my applications to private schools were beginning to pay off and the first schools started looking at their lists of past applicants to find suitable candidates for a job opening.

East-German “Interlude”

German reunification had changed German history only a few years before and the first schools that started replying to my past applications were schools from the so-called “new states“. Two schools were especially insistent and I started exchanging letters and phone calls with them.

One school, which resided in a city much further north-east of where I was living and which had found itself in the press for homophobic and right-wing attacks on foreigners, contacted me and I will never forget the single-spaced three-page letter I received from the school’s headmaster who was essentially inquiring in much detail why someone with my grades and CV would even consider coming to work there. Because other avenues sounded more promising, a job there never panned out, but the exchange between me and that headmaster I still have today. At the time, letters were still the main route of communication, especially as most schools simply didn’t have more than perhaps one or two PCs and nobody to really work them, and the series of letters that flew back and forth between us perfectly summarize the state of German reunification at the time and the serious problems it entailed. The letters continue to be absolutely fascinating reading and many predictions the headmaster of that time made came true within the next 5 to 10 years, both the positive and the negative.

The second school that replied was a private school in Magdeburg and because it was the most promising reply I had received and before I even responded, I decided to jump on a train and check out the city and, if possible, to just drop by the school and show my face, signaling that I was more than interested.

From the altogether three trips I took to Magdeburg, I remember my initial exposure to the city. I hadn’t really been to East Germany before reunification and shortly thereafter, I had just visited Berlin and never even made it to the Eastern part of the city, so my initial exposure to how much the socialist system had lead to dilapidation and ruin was when I got off the train in Magdeburg for the first time. Dilapidated buildings right and left. Everything just looked more grimy, old and used and the first few seconds were as close to a cultural shock as I have ever experienced in my life … and I’ve been around the planet several times.

Once the initial shock wore off, it immediately became clear that the city was on the move. Construction sites right and left, renovation and restauration projects all over town … when I started walking around you could practically feel the people being busy with cleaning up and moving on.

When I got to the school, one that seemed like a safe bet on paper because it was solidly financed and supported by the neighboring (west-German) state’s Protestant church, I met with the (extremely young) headmaster, also an “import” from the West, the state of Northrhine-Westfalia. He showed me the school and he outlined his plans for the next 5 to 10 years in a city that was still reeling from 50 years of Socialism and which was being flooded with greedy west-German investors who were trying to buy up everything that was unable to escape.

His plan for the school’s teachers and staff was to hire 50% West- and 50% East-German teachers and to establish a high school beginning with the then upcoming school year. He was hoping that I could also help him with the latter. We immediately hit it off, simply because we had almost identical ideas of what the (new) school could look like and how we could quickly handle the rush of applications that were flooding in on a daily basis. The other (few) colleagues I was able to meet (most were still gone for the summer) were all extremely friendly and motivated and this was beginning to look like a prize winner.

So, I returned home and started packing. Everything looked like I was going to move to Magdeburg and start a new life there some weeks later. While packing and saying my goodbyes, I visited another two times, tried in vain to find an apartment and discussed details with the headmaster. I was going to be paid well, but below west-German standards, I would be en employee of the Church, which would entail further pay cuts, but I didn’t really care. I had a foot in the door and everything else would sort itself out one way or the other further on along the road.

Then someone called.
And then things changed fundamentally.

Wörth am Rhein / Rhineland-Palatinate

I had studied and spent about 10 years of my life in Saarbrücken in the south-western most state, the Saarland (itself with a fascinating history torn between France – just across the border – and Germany). So, naturally, my first applications had been sent to my then present home state and the neighboring one, the Rhineland-Palatinate.

One day, just about four weeks before the school year was about to start, someone from the government in the Rhineland-Palatinate called me and let me know that someone that had been hired for a job had unexpectedly declined and in the meantime I had moved to the number one spot on their rather extensive waiting list. He wanted to know if I was interested and if I could drop by for an interview … yesterday.

I was totally conflicted for a day or so, for several reasons. Whereas the school in Magdeburg sounded perfect, the alternative that popped out of nowhere offered more security because they offered me a civil servant position which Magdeburg obviously couldn’t. Job security, better pay and all of that in a region in Germany other people pay lots of money for to vacation in. Instead of deciding right away I thought it couldn’t cost too much to travel to Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, the seat of the local government that was suddenly interested in hiring me, and I took the train there the next day.

As soon as I walked into the typically bland government building on a blistering hot summer day, two things became immediately clear. Firstly, summer holidays had emptied out the building and only a few sorry-looking individuals were still around because they had been charged with taking care of last-minute hiring decisions. Secondly, they apparently had called several other people down the waiting list to make sure they would find a suitable candidate and get all the work done before the end of the day so they could also disappear into the hot German summer.

I hadn’t been prepared for what then turned into a very detailed job interview, but the aforementioned teachers who had educated me the previous two years had done their job properly and after the conclusion of several interviews they told me then and there that I had the job … if I wanted it.

The details weren’t too encouraging at first because they could only offer half a post for the first school year, but when I said that I needed a better perspective if they didn’t want me to disappear to Magdeburg, they did something unheard of before. They promised to write me an official letter that after one year I would be hired full-time and, most importantly, that if health issues didn’t stand in the way (every potential civil servant has to get medical clearance from an official before documents are signed), I would be offered a lifetime civil servant post. Bingo! Those were virtually non-existent at the time and from one minute to the next, here I was sitting with sweating government officials who were ready to officially give me one so they could get out of the building and hit the road for the summer.

Right time, right place … and all of that. The stars had (re)aligned and Magdeburg died a sudden death. It was perhaps the most difficult job-related phone call I ever had to make, but I told the headmaster in Magdeburg that I wasn’t coming. He was nice about it despite the tons of work I had unloaded on him with my decision (and a call months later confirmed the problems he had run into), but what the Rhineland-Palatinate was offering was just a step up in every regard.

Wörth am Rhein?

Wörth am Rhein I only knew from the daily TV news that year because it had been prominently featured as the one city in Germany with the highest ozone levels in the tropical summer of 1994. For weeks. I knew it was situated right along the Rhine, opposite the neighboring state and the city of Karlsruhe, which, for me, was perfect as it also held a central train hub which could quickly take me into every direction. Besides that, I had been to Karlsruhe before and it was a nice city with a French street café flair and a nice city center that had survived WWII largely intact.

Suddenly, I was extremely busy because I had been hired in the very last possible second (unfortunately, this hasn’t changed at all these past 25 years and it still happens to tons of people every year). I had to get clearance from a doctor who was probably also away for the summer, I had to find an apartment, I had to … well, first I had to go to my future place of residence to have a look. So, once again, I packed a small bag and hit the train station.

First encounter

When I finally arrived in Wörth am Rhein a few weeks before I was to start work, I came to have a look at the city and to try to get myself an apartment so I wouldn’t have to work out of some moldy hotel room.

When I got off the train and was hit by the tropical heat, the first impression was bland. The train station looked like it hadn’t been fixed since the early 1950s (it was completely redone just a few years ago), and looking around from that vantage point, the city had an industrial shine to it. There was a gravel pit just behind the train station, in front a large number of Daimler and Mobile Oil trucks were parked and the train station was separated from the rest of the city by a busy street. In the distance, one could make out two bland high rise apartment buildings and … that was it.

Across from the train station, the city had been nice enough to put up a large map of the city and what it displayed was a smaller city cut in half by train tracks which divided, as I found out when I started exploring, the old part from the new part. The school wasn’t labeled on the map and I decided to simply start walking and exploring, first heading into the old part and then making my way into the new part.

I had only read a few sentences about Wörth somewhere a day before and those had told me that before the Daimler truck factory, the largest one in Europe, and Mobile Oil (they had a refinery along the Rhine a few kilometers away which closed down shortly after I moved to Wörth) settled there, Wörth had been a sleepy town of a few thousand inhabitants. All that changed in the 1960s when more and more workers were needed and moved into the area with their families. A new part was developed and added to the town around that time, including new schools, a shopping center and lots of areas for housing.

When I hit the old part, it immediately showed its charm and I distinctly remember taking a break from the heat in front of a candy colored building that had previously been a typical half-timbered house before they had spruced it up to fit to the other nicely renovated ones …. and the two church towers that dominated the old part.

When I finally reached the school an hour after having walked around the small city, I was surprised that the front doors were open. Typically, German schools are open for the first and last week of the summer holidays and closed for the rest. On that day though, the school’s secretary was in the office to water the plants and check for any mail she might have missed. She was an incredibly friendly lady and when I told her that I was about to start work here she laughed and said: “Don’t be so sure about that!” What she meant was that the school had been notified that someone was going to arrive … and then, typically, all communication with the local government stopped. The people who had hired me were on summer vacation somewhere and had simply not notified the school of anything more.

We talked for a while, she showed me around the school and when I asked her about finding an apartment anywhere in the area, she told me to head over to the local bank to ask in their real estate section if they had anything available.

So, I headed over there and the second I had stated my case the person in charge started smiling and beaming. He jumped out of his chair, said “Hurry up!“, grabbed a pair of car keys and drove me to the old part of Wörth … to the candy colored building I had taken a break in front of a little more than an hour before.

As it turned out, the building had just been renovated and the two apartments (above the branch of the same local bank residing on the ground floor) they hadn’t been able to find tenants for yet.

He showed me the top-floor apartment which seemed huge (140 sqm) when compared to the student apartment I was coming from (55 sqm) and when he told me what the rent was (more than twice as much) I apparently looked totally disappointed and said that I couldn’t afford that.

Instead of shrugging his shoulders and driving us back to where we had come from, he smiled, made a phone call to his boss and said that I could have the apartment much cheaper. Just like the people who had hired me for the job and wanted to get done quickly, he saw a chance to get someone into the building – someone who was going to be around for years – and seized the opportunity. He said the rent would increase once I was established at school and was paid in full but, conveniently for me, they forgot about that part of our agreement until 24 years later.

That same day I signed the lease, not without a queasy feeling in my stomach. The local government had not only forgotten to notify my future place of employment about changes, they had also only sent me one letter that they intended to hire me for the job once I had gotten my clearance from a doctor … and that was it.

So, if you want to look at it from a legal standpoint, I was moving to Wörth without having any official final documents backing me up. To be quite honest, I thought I’d just move and get set up in Wörth am Rhein and if the local government screwed it up I had enough paperwork etc. to sue them from here to eternity.

(to be continued)

Up next, in a week or two: The First Day of School, my first school year, settling in and getting to know the natives.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. Thanks for this very interesting insight into the German culture / education system, Volkher. Looking forward to parts II and III.


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