Teachers’ training course

I loathed it from beginning to end. I had never been less motivated to do something, the only reason being that it was wise to complete one’ s education in case one was forced to have recourse to it any time.

With a number of other candidates I was attached to a “Gymnasium” (grammar school), remarkably still in existence in “red” southern Hesse, the area south of Frankfurt, where  comprehensives were the rule. We had to give so many lessons a week under the supervision of the regular teacher, a person mostly sympathetic with us, having been through this ordeal him/herself. The next important person was the “subject head” who was in charge of groups of trainee teachers, grouped according to the subject they taught and spread over the ten or so schools of a certain area covered by the so-called “Seminar”, the centre and focal point of our practical training where all trainees had to meet once a week. There, the theoretical and political foundation of our practical work was laid. Political it was above everything, being in South Hesse, and theoretical, being in Germany.

The seminar was headed by the most fearful dictator, worse than any professor I had seen at university, because he was “politically” motivated. He was only a schoolmaster, if in a higher rank, but his position of judge over us gave him power. He used it to make us accept certain socialist ideas, to implement them in fact, watched by him on a visit, in our teaching. It was wise to do this during the time we depended on him. He would not be in a position to check up afterwards. We had to write long papers in preparation of the lessons he attended, and it was important to express, or at least hint at things he wanted to hear.

“Anti-authoritarianism” and “equality of chance” were this dictator’s favourite slogans. Amazing how much can be said about these, and from trainee teacher to subject head everybody crouched before him. “Anti-authoritarian” meant that we as teachers did not have to impose our knowledge on the pupils – we had to get them to give their opinion, not intimidate them, but bring out whatever “divergent thinking”, another slogan, that is, different from the beaten track, might exist. I never found out how this principle is applied in language teaching. The dictator himself was, I believe, a history teacher. Some pupils were useful in so far as they were able to throw in the odd remark that did not seem to fit into the context. This was put down immediately to “divergent thinking” and duly analyzed and dwelt upon, when the dictator was present.

Some of my colleagues were on christian names terms with their pupils, in order to be truly “equal” with them, had sessions where mutual criticism was voiced, discussed their marks with them, did not hesitate to change their mind under the impact of “divergent thinking”.

The dictator did not look for this latter phenomenon in us, his subjects, I don’t think.

He also discussed our marks with us. Not that it made any difference ! We used to sit in a circle with him. Before saying which mark he would give to any of us, he asked us to suggest one, not for ourselves, but for another person present whose performance was being discussed. Once after this question there was silence for quite a long time. I think people were not sure about the relationship between the person concerned and the dictator and were therefore cautious. I did not see this at the time. I liked that particular person and thought him quite capable, put up my hand and suggested a mark. This earned me the only praise I ever had out of the dictator’s mouth :  “a woman has the courage to make a suggestion !”. My colleagues were duly impressed and more silent than before. I for one wondered how equal women were in this fellow’s view.

I only did this training because I wanted a paper to file with the rest of my documents. The dictator sensed it. Or else he knew my ultra right-wing background (remember my father’s occupation and my place of birth!). I can think of no other reason why this man detested me as he did. I had never before had such a negative rapport with anybody. The subject head for English noticed it and did not understand what was happening; he never expected a reasonable mark for any of my lessons when the dictator was there. On the contrary, he expected a poor mark in the final examination and urged me to write a good thesis, so that he, in the crucial discussion, could throw it in as a counter-weight. He asked me outright whether there had ever been an incident between the dictator and myself. I did not know of anything.

This subject head was a small, busy man who talked a great deal and thought himself terribly important. He was, in so far as he could make our lives difficult. It was useful to be on friendly terms with him, ask his advice – not that we ever received any – to please him and do little jobs for him. We could not expect much in return. He stuck up for himself more than for anybody, putting his feet onto people when he could, while bending his back to anyone higher up; a “cyclist” who had only recently attained the dignity of his rank and was determined to live up to it. The subject head for French was also small, but pleasanter. He declared himself shattered at my poor examination mark, told me I had deserved better and assured me that he had done what he could, in the examiners’ discussion, to improve it – a fruitless effort.

There was another person we had to pay attention to : the “school seminar head”, representing the dictator at the school we were attached to. Each school had one. Ours was fittingly called Cesar – another little man who talked a lot. Why are they always small and loquacious ? He was the most important person of the lot, in his view, anyway. Married as well, like the others. What sort of women did they live with ? No doubt they kept a lower profile at home than at school ! Perhaps Cesar wrote a bad report about me – I have no idea what material he might have used for that – I never saw him in my lessons. I never looked at him, despized him outright and perhaps showed it.

Some of my colleagues were much better at coming to terms with our superiors. They always seemed to be there when needed, did exactly as they were told, had the right ideological attitude to society, could see nothing but advantages in comprehensive schools which were the latest fashion, and, most important of all, knew the correct terminology, having read all the books published by frequently quoted authors of an obscure subject called “sociology”. I did not know what it had to do with teaching and simply did not understand what they were talking about; yet, I would claim to have an average degree of intelligence. When they had their long discussions with the dictator at seminar meetings, they sounded to me like talking in a different language. And they did it so seriously ! I must have laughed once or twice in the wrong place. No doubt the dictator did not like that. I also started making a list of words I did not understand, but soon gave up, because too boring.

The revenge came in the final examination.

I had heard that a much criticized colleague had achieved no more than a pass. I considered myself better than he and consequently expected a better mark. Little did I know the dictator ! He floored me with a single question. One might wonder what it had to do with teaching. Here it is :  “Are you a political person ?”. It made my father’s hair stand on end when he heard it, and he gave me a nice big gold coin for having successfully   completed my education – for I did not fail the examination, I achieved a pass. My father was certainly confirmed in his worst fears about “leftists”.

I don’t know. The dictator must have been a socialist, and with my background I could say what I liked, it wouldn’t be right, or no doubt too right. Not that I was much interested in politics. I may have said something about “polis” in reply to his question, which would not be “committed” enough.

That was the last time I saw the dictator.

The subject head for French expressed his sympathy to me. The one for English had a bad conscience and busied himself elsewhere – I did not see him again, nor the little fellow I should have watched when it was time.

I went home to find comfort with my husband and the baby who had arrived halfway through the training course – this did not prove a problem – , and number two was on the way.

I took a little while to recover from the first traumatic experience of my life and then devoted myself wholeheartedly to my family.