A November Update

The last few days have been very busy for me, as a friend of mine came to visit me in Trier from England. This was very nice, as I had begun to miss some of my friends in England, so having someone here was a bit of a relief. Although I had to work most of the days he was here, we still spent a lot of time together and got through most of the touristy things in Trier, including a hike up to the Mariensaule.

The weather in Trier is starting to turn wintry, with the temperatures suddenly dropping very, very low, with many days now grey and overcast and short. I am still doing a lot of exercise, which is keeping my spirits up, but I do worry about the possibility of a return of the seasonal depression which made my last winter back in Oxford so miserable. The colours in the forest outside are starting to change to a darker hue, and it won’t be long before the leaves start to disappear from the trees completely.

The teaching is going well, and moreover I managed to arrange a few interviews and have been successful with the one I have had so far. I can only hope that the second one will go the same way, but that will remain to be seen.

On the whole, I have a quiet few weeks ahead of me planned. I have still not managed to get to Luxembourg city, so hopefully I can make that happen at some point in early December. For the first time in a while, I am also looking forward to Christmas. I realized a short while ago why this was: it is the first time since I was 11 years old that I will not have to sit an exam after the Christmas holiday. That thought is simultaneously deeply depressing and liberating, but that’s the way it is….

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About being a Foreign Language Assistant in Germany

The point of this post is to highlight some of the advantages and pitfalls of going to Germany via the British Council, to be placed in a school as a foreign language assistant. It has advantages, but I have also run into a couple of difficulties. On the whole, it is one of the easier ways to get a TEFL job in Germany if you do not already have a lot of contacts in Germany. Here are my thoughts.

  1. The application process

The application process for this programme is very simple. It is a matter of filling in an application form online. There is no interview. You will need a university reference, which means it is only really suitable for third year university students doing a year abroad, and recent graduates.

It takes a long time to find out the outcome (I applied in December, found out I was successful in April, and got a location/school in June). You have very little choice over where you are placed, beyond selecting a preference for N/S/E/W and Town/City/Village.

2. The move 

My experience with moving to Germany involved, if I’m being honest, not a lot of support from either the British Council nor my school. I was left to find accommodation and deal with my paperwork completely by myself. I managed, but had a number of delays due to issues getting certain forms from my landlord, and also because, in general, it can be difficult to find a room to rent in Germany, so ended up spending my first week in Trier in a hostel. Due to the strong laws for tenants, landlords can be very selective about who they take and may want a lot of evidence that can be difficult to provide (3 months’ payslips, for example). In the end, it got sorted. Most apartments in Germany are also unfurnished. I am still sleeping on a mattress on the floor, with no bed.

On the other hand, I know some ELAs who had accommodation arranged for them, sometimes at very reasonable rents, or even rent free. This accommodation situation, then, it seems, will vary heavily on where you are placed in Germany.

3. The job

The job itself is something I very much enjoy. However, the role of a “Foreign language assistant” is ill-defined, and many teachers at my school seemed to be unsure of what I was actually doing there. Resolving this for me involved actively seeking out more responsibility and teaching duties. I now feel I have a bit more to do, but some other ELAs I know have had trouble with this and ended up spending most days at work at a loose end; it seems to depend heavily on what kind of school you are at (Gymnasium or Realschule), and the working environment.

4. The pay

As a foreign language assistant, you are paid 850 euro per month. This will cover your living expenses (as the cost of living in Germany is relatively low compared with the UK), if you rent a room in a WG, shop at Aldi etc. It will not allow you to save or to travel frequently, unless you have access to other sources of money (e.g. an erasmus grant or student loan, as in the case of 3rd year language students). However, there are some benefits: you will receive a very good private insurance policy (as you are classed as a civil servant), which will cover basically anything.

Topping up this income is not straightforward. The market for English tuition in Germany is over-saturated with many people competing for the same positions at language schools, and demand also varies heavily by location. Nearly all positions are “freelance”, requiring you to file taxes as self-employed. The other assistants and I in Trier have all sought out extra work, with some degree of success, but the rates of pay are not great, in some cases barely more than minimum wage. Private tuition (Nachhilfe) commands about half what you would expect to be paid in the UK. Moreover, you will inevitably end up working split shifts, into the evenings etc.

Conclusion?

I am enjoying my time in Germany a lot, after some initial hiccups. The contract you get through the British Council is only for 9 months, and is not intended to be a permanent job. If you go down this route, it is important to be realistic about what your lifestyle will be like and what you will be able to do with the money. Staying in Germany more long term is possible, but there can be difficulties: you will be legally required to get a new private insurance policy (expect to pay around 50-100 euro a month), and any TEFL work you will be able to do is highly seasonal. In the long run, I do not see myself being able to stay in Germany beyond July or August 2018.

Music, culture and language teaching

I am fortunate in that, in the last weeks, I have been given a lot of freedom by the teachers at the school in which I work to plan and teach my own lessons. This is not something all foreign language assistants get to do. This is facilitated in part by the flexibility of the German education system, which affords a tremendous amount of leeway to individual teachers to choose and produce their own curriculum.

My favourite class at the minute is a year 12 class, with whom I have been trying to teach about Northern Ireland through engagement with music. We are eventually going to watch the movie, “Good Vibrations”, about the Punk scene in Belfast in the 70s, but first I have been trying to set the scene and give some context. I have enjoyed it so much partly because music is something which I greatly enjoy, and also because I think listening to music offers an insight into culture (and in particular the psychology and emotionality of that culture), which is difficult to access in other ways.

In truth, being from the North of Ireland (or Northern Irish), while working for the British council in what is so clearly a soft-power/cultural promotion position is a bit of a tricky spot to find oneself in (not that I didn’t chose it). A powerpoint presentation on the royal family, for example, presented baldly as “my culture” would feel dishonest. I am lucky, I suppose, then, that my school has not thrust this on me, as has happened to some of the other ELAs I’m friends with.

Teaching this class gave me occasion to think hard about the relationship between music and identity (and in Northern Ireland, they are certainly intertwined), but I am still far from conclusion. Even in my own life, I seem to be unable to escape the connection. In the midst of a depressive episode earlier this year I listened to Black Sabbath and the Trainspotting 2 soundtrack on repeat (not much to be proud of), but it at least seemed to offer some validation of my self-perception, and the reassurance that others shared it. This motivation seems to be in operation in the forcefully cheerful, table-thumping Stammtisch-Lieder I have come across a few times since I’ve been in Germany, as on Halloween night when a friend and I stumbled into one on the hunt for a cigarette machine (a one off, I promise).

The mysteries of German drinking culture aside, I hope that showing these students English language music will teach them something about the Anglosphere, or at least about Northern Ireland. If not, maybe they will enjoy it, which is more than can be said for many school activities.

Halloween in Trier

On Tuesday night I celebrated Halloween with some of the other language assistants. We had a dinner at the house of one of them before going to a house party at another’s WG, while another had travelled from a nearby town to join in. All in all it was a good night, the first real party I’ve been to since I’ve been here. I had been curious to see how the Germans celebrated Halloween, and while it didn’t compare to Ireland or the UK, I was impressed by some of the costumes on display, especially those made by my friend’s flatmates, some of whom are design students. My costume, however, was rather more low-effort:

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Coincidentally, we also had three days off school which helped to facilitate this party, as 31st October was the 500th anniversary of the reformation, and the first of November, All Saints’ Day or Allerheiligen, is an important holiday in Germany.

A few days before I also walked up the Trier Weinberg (a large area of public land given over to vineyards), with an ELA friend and another ELA who was staying with her for the weekend. It was truly beautiful, and made me appreciate the colours of autumn here in Germany.

 

I am looking forward to November and am looking forward to a few different possibilities, hopefully including a trip to Luxembourg. I will try to return to my previous diligence when it came to maintaining this blog, and apologies for the irregularities of the past few weeks.

Frust

Die meiste Zeit mag ich mein neues Leben in Deutschland. Ich mag meinen Job und die neuen Freundinnen und Freunde die ich kennengelernt habe.

Natürlich zuerst hatte ich ein bisschen Kulturschock. Es gibt viele Dinge in Deutschland die anders als die sinngemäße Dinge in Großbritannien sind.

Ich probiere meine Kenntnisse der Deutschen Sprache verbessern. Aber gibt es jedoch ein großes Problem. Wenn ich mit einem Person Deutsch reden probiere, tauscht man meistens sofort zum Englisch. Manchmal denkt man, dass ich eine Französin oder Niederländerin bin, aber in diesem Fall erscheint das gleiches Ergebnis: Wir fängen Englisch sprechen an.

Es ist unmöglich, eine fremde Sprache zu lernen, ohne Fehler zu machen. Oft finde ich, dass die Fehler als eine Barriere funktionieren. Manche Leute sprechen langsamer mit mir, aber viele Leute enden das Gespräch schlagartig mit einem einfachen Satz: ,Hab nicht verstanden’.

Good news and getting into the swing of things

After a difficult first few months, I have had a couple of small victories this week.

The first victory was finding out that that I do not, in fact, have skin cancer. Despite the difficulties I had in actually getting the doctor to speak to me, I managed to talk to him on Monday and got the news. After everything, it turned out that the mole was not cancerous but merely unusually pigmented. Of course, I now have a hefty bill to pay, but my insurance will refund it.

Secondly, I have started to get a couple of more concrete responses to my attempts to find extra work. This is encouraging, and is making me feel a lot better about everything. I had been very worried about what I was going to do about the summer, but my hope is that if I can take on as much extra work as I can manage throughout the year I should have the funds to cover it, and if I’m lucky I might even have enough to put a bit of it towards my CELTA in August/September 2018 (yes, my ever changing life plans have changed again).

On the whole, right now, I am trying to take things easy and get through them step-by-step. It is a change from me to try to adjust to not knowing what is coming in the future, not being able to plan everything out in minute details, but I think having this uncertainty in front of me and not allowing it to panic me is for the best in the long run. I am enjoying my job and my lifestyle at the minute, so why bog myself down with worrying?

3 weeks into Stoptober, the benefits of regular exercise and…waiting

Unfortunately I have still not received the results of my tests, which is frustrating to say the least. When I went to have my stitches out, I was told by the nurse to call this week. I did so (well – emailed asking them to communicate via email as it’s easier for me to understand). Later that day I got a phone call from the doctor which I was unable to answer as I was teaching a private lesson. By the time it was over, the clinic was closed. Unfortunately their Sprechstunden are very short on a Friday, with the result that I was unable to call back as I had to be at work. It is all very frustrating, but hopefully I should be able to find out on Monday.

I am also into week three of Stoptober. Truth be told, at the minute I have very rarely felt the urge to smoke. It is probably helped by the decision I took about two weeks ago to force myself to do a large amount of exercise, driven probably by the same masochistic urge which led me to start smoking in the first place…. In any case it has had the desired effect – I am less anxious, less prone to misery and generally feel more contented and balanced overall. Experience has taught me to not take this for granted in the long term, but I can’t be too cynical about it.

With the end of the Herbstferien on Monday, I have also started to do a lot more at school. While I was rather overwhelmed at the beginning, by the size of the school, the sheer number of people I was meeting, as well as the ambiguity of what exactly the role of a Fremdsprachenassistentin comprises, I have finally started to get a grip on things, ask for more responsibility, take on more teaching responsibility, and so on. It feels satisfying, at least insofar as my no longer feeling like a spare part who does nothing but endlessly observe lessons.

The end of the holidays has also meant that the other ELAs have returned to Trier and we are able to do a bit more stuff, socially, which has been a relief. We are currently trying to plan something for Halloween. I am curious about how Halloween is celebrated in Germany, given that there is no real history of it being celebrated here and as far as I’m able to tell it is a fairly recent import. That remains to be seen.