When Your Germany Born and Raised Child Doesn’t Speak German–and Other Parent Fails.

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I think all parents have moments where they feel like complete and utter failures, and I’m experiencing that right now.  Here’s my issue: My daughter was born in Germany and yet, at 4.5 years old, she can’t speak a lick of German.

Now, here’s where I need to rush into a complete defense of how/why this is possible.  Laken went to a German Kita (daycare) when she was 1.5-3. She had the most wonderful experience there and picked up some of the language (though she often spoke a pigeon mix of English and German because she hadn’t quite separated the two, yet.) Our plan was to send her on to German Kindergarten (which is the equivalent of pre-school over here.) There, she would gain fluency.  Then, we would put her in an American kindergarten on the army base where my husband and I work, and she could continue on developing her German through community activities/lessons/etc.

We discussed our rationale for not sending her to German school, endlessly.  

First of all, German schools have a different schedule than ours, from the daily level to when their summer break is and how long it lasts. So, that would have been a hassle.  Then, we tried to imagine helping Laken out with her math homework a few short years from now. Seeing as my husband is a self-proclaimed math atheist and doesn’t speak German, and my own German does not cover the vocabulary of polynomials, etc, it just seemed like we’d be putting her at a disadvantage.  Finally–in the military, and even in the relatively sturdy position of DoDEA teachers–there’s always the chance that we’ll be flung into the world of a transfer, or base shutdown, and have to move back to the United States. I’m also firmly convinced the government will one day be alerted to the incredibly good deal teachers of military children get and cancel the whole operation.  

Perhaps our biggest reason for not wanting to send Laken to a German school was that we’ve simply heard better things about American schools.  I hate to say that, because I do think Germany is so amazing that I want to hold it up as an example in all sorts of ways but, in the case of education, it’s just the common denominator for what we’d been told.  

They also track students in this country.  In fourth grade the teachers sit down and decide whether a child seems destined to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, or a prostitute and send them to one of three schools after fourth grade geared towards sending the child to the predetermined point B.

I just don’t like that.  It reeks of The Giver, if you’ve ever read that book.  So, we decided to take advantage of the superb German kindergarten system, allow our daughter to become fluent, and unleash her upon the German community in all sorts of playgroups and hip-hop Tanzkuerse, all the while moving through the good old American Common Core, which is a whole other type of hell, but at least one we speak the language and can help out in terms of homework.  Maybe.

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans.

We had Laken on no less than thirteen waiting lists for German kindergartens throughout Wiesbaden, and I emailed most of them in broken, beggy German to accept our child.  Eventually she was given a spot at a kindergarten run by the same company as the Kita she first went to.

We were beyond happy to be accepted, but in the end it didn’t work out.  The rooms on the first three floors of the center were your typical construction paper laden, sunflower and butterfly-heavy dream, with children’s artwork hung on the walls and wooden toys galore (as Germans don’t gravitate towards the plastic, flashing, noisy ones.) But, the room Laken was assigned to–the Dachgeschoss, aka attic room–was less than ideal.

They attempted to cram 25 children into a tiny, windowless, soulless, art project-less space.  The teachers blithely greeted the kids in the morning before gathering at their own table to eat an adult breakfast and let the kids fend for themselves for the better part of the morning.  Whereas the rooms on the bottom floors had bulletin boards with neat schedules framed with butterfly emojis, laying out the Thursday field trips and the English lessons and dance classes, there didn’t seem to be any plan at all for the room upstairs.  Something was written in brown crayon on a crumpled piece of paper and stuck to the wall.

I kept asking when they’d be taking the famed Thursday field trips, like the kids in all the other rooms were doing, and was told “soon.”

Whenever we picked Laken up, she was tucked away in a little galley where they stored the cots, playing something by herself.  I think she went there to hide, and it broke my heart.

She held onto her Minnie Mouse lunch box like a comfort object. I dissolved inwardly when I led her up the eight flights of stairs to her classroom and saw her chubby little hand gripping the pink handle with no intention of letting go.  Her teachers couldn’t get her to leave it inside during lunchtime. She took it outside with her when all hundred something kids at the center were released to the playground, and carried it close when she ran smack into the middle of a game of soccer played by kids at the neighboring Grundschule. 

They yelled at her in German to get out of the way, and she stopped to suck her thumb and stare at them, uncomprehending. No teacher stepped in to help her.

I tried to convince myself Laken would do fine there until one day when I was leaving the kindergarten side by side with the mother of the smallest child in the room.  She cried all eight flights down the stairs about how awful it made her feel to leave her child there, and how she was looking for somewhere (anywhere) else for her daughter, and that was my definitive breaking point, too.  If even the Germans parents weren’t stoic about the situation, I most certainly couldn’t be.

That moment, coupled with the conversation I had with another teacher who worked at the center (who was attending a birthday party we were at) who let me know that we should try to get Laken in another room because these teachers were notably mean to the kids–so much so that this teacher confronted them over a scene she witnessed in the cafeteria.

Yeah, no.

So, we put Laken in the Child Development Center on base and it has been more or less a great experience.  We are on the same vacation schedule. She’s learning site words. She’s made friends. I know she’s in an environment where the teachers take profound measures to ensure her physical safety, whereas at German kindergarten kids are a bit more on the trial and error system. In other words, go ahead and try out climbing that tree–but when you faceplant on the concrete, you’ll have learned your error and the stitches are an unfortunate bonus.

But.

Even though I know we made the best decision for our child at the time, I can’t help but feel like I’ve set up our daughter for failure. It’s so easy, so easy, in the military community, to live an isolationist life.  The military base can be like a giant, beige-colored bubble of at-home perks to include everything from Kellogg’s cereals to English movies.

I know many people–I’d venture to say most of the military families here–who have settled in Germany and restricted themselves entirely to that bubble.  It’s a tempting, cozy little existence and very easy to fall back on.

I realize that this problem might seem highly solve-able.  Why not sign your daughter up for activities now, anyway? That’s where she’ll learn German! Get a German tutor! Have her watch German cartoons! Make German friends!

All of these things are falling flat in my attempts to make up for the fact that, in our decision to send Laken to American school, we are potentially cutting her off from the society she was born into on the macro level.

I’ve looked up all child-centered activities in the Rheingau area–from table tennis to programs at the local Feuerwehr (fire station.) Everything starts at a time too early in the day for us. Because German schools let out earlier, activities start earlier and there simply isn’t anything we could be around for.  We had a German babysitter, but she just had a baby and tackling my child’s linguistic deficiencies has taken a lower rung on the priority ladder. We do watch German cartoons on a daily basis and, while Laken stares at them while happily eating her mermaid shaped Fruit Loops, I don’t think the take-aways are significant.

As for making neighborhood friends…the house we just bought is on a quiet street where I’d say the average resident is 97.  

Twice we were at a local playground, though, and I convinced my child–my brave, present, eager baby–to approach a group of kids and say, “Hallo! Mein Name ist Laken!” with hopes that would lead to all sorts of things, presumably inclusion on the teeter totter and then a lifetime of neighborhood friendship and language aptitude.

Sadly, in both cases the children stared at my daughter like she was some kind of walking virus, and then they stared over at me as I gamely explained in German that, “This is Laken and she’s four and she wanted to introduce herself because she’d just love to play with you?!” only to be told in no uncertain, gutteral terms that they weren’t interested.

Ugh.

I think the point of this whole rant is that at certain points, as a parent or as an adult, we’re more aware than ever of the Butterfly Effect our choices might have.  And, the fear that this Butterfly Effect might take a horrific trajectory for the people we love the most, who aren’t yet capable of making their own major life decisions, is terrifying.  

My greatest fear is that Laken will one day look at me and ask why I didn’t do more to make sure she didn’t feel isolated from the country she was born in.  Just writing those words makes me want to cry.

I already find myself in situations where I have to defend Laken for this choice we made.  For example, her primary physician is fond of making comments like, “What a shame it would be if she grew up here and didn’t speak the language!” YES, I KNOW THAT, AND AM LOSING MY MIND OVER THIS FACT BUT BY ALL MEANS, MAKE A COMMENT.  Or, when we went back to the States for Christmas I got lots of questions like, “So, does she just know to switch from German to English whenever you come home?” And, there’s a part of me that wants to LIE and say yes, that’s exactly what happens. Just like I sometimes want to lie when people ask how long I’ve been living in Germany for and I want to cut the number of years I give them in half to make it sound like my language is more appropriately fluent than it is.

At the same time, I do believe that as parents we have to make carefully evaluated calls that feel like the very best ones for our families at the time.  A friend once pointed out to me, and this makes sense, that if things are easier on the parents and stress is kept to a minimum, the kids will benefit from that.

It’s just hard to know sometimes if the choices that seem like the best fit for us, are necessarily the best ones for our children. 

Sometimes, as in this case, I’m just not sure.

I guess the bottom line is that we have to make these calls using our best possible foresight at the time.  Yes, I want my child to speak German, but I don’t want her to hide in a classroom closet all day in order to (possibly) achieve that goal.  Yes, I want my child to be included in this culture, but not at the expense of being entirely alone in comprehending the demands of her school work as she gets older.

Parenting requires us to make life decisions for people who are not yet capable of doing that for themselves. It can be so hard  to do this, but the best we can do is go with our gut instincts, pick a path, and then be entirely in charge of padding any negativity in the Butterfly Effect that follows.

I suppose as long as we do that last thing, we’re doing well by our children.

But, man, it’s hard to feel like I’ve failed at providing my daughter with one skill that should be totally easy for her right now.

Survival Skills: The Teaching Middle School Edition

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I didn’t really believe the statistic I vaguely remembered about 50% of teachers leaving the profession within the first five years.  But, alas. According to blogs.edweek.org, the research is true. What a shame! Teaching is the best profession of all time (second only to “influencers” who are paid to travel the world and post their pictures on Instagram.  That’s a pretty good job, too.) But, it’s also not a surprising figure. The early years of teaching can be overwhelming as you try to find your stride. After all, there’s relatively little support and so much to learn! Teachers don’t just teach, after all.  They’re expected to be disciplinarians, referees, geniuses, quasi-parents, psychologists, and curriculum leaders, to name a few. It takes a while to feel confident in any one of these pairs of shoes.  

I’ve been teaching for ten years, and I’m just starting to feel like I have a handle (sometimes) on what I’m doing.  Even now, I know that I have a ton to learn. In fact, three of my Christmas presents this year were books about teaching (which might also show that I’m a bit of a nerd.)

Anyway, there are a few tips that might just help out the fifty percent who feel like they can’t hack it in the classroom.  Here are my tips for surviving!

  • Give assignments that will be fun to grade.  Let’s face it.  As a teacher, you spend the bulk of your time grading papers.  It’s just what we do. English teachers have it the worst, and don’t let those ornery history teachers tell you otherwise.  Most kids will see a few comments on their papers and not realize that all those brief comments add up. Fast! Grading is one hundred times better if you’re reading something interesting.  Try to give students a bit of choice, so you aren’t reading about the exact same thing one hundred times in a row. Be creative.
  • Don’t grade every single assignment.  If you do, you’ll go crazy.  You’ll drown. You’ll go under water like a seal hunted down by a Great White shark.  Sometimes, it’s okay to just check for completion and call it a day. A fellow educator once told me that if the teacher is working harder than the students, that’s a problem.  I agree. Some things deserve closer attention, comments and a grade. Other things serve as practice and a little check-mark in the book is fine.
  • Students are people.  Remember that.  They aren’t beasts.  (They may look and sometimes smell like they are, but they aren’t.) Not only are they people, they are treasured people to just about all the parents they belong to.  They have feelings, ups and downs, other lives, complicated problems, and a need for down time.  Treat students like the people they are and, best of all, take time to form relationships with these people! Get to know them! Enjoy them! Teaching is 100% better when you have relationships with your students and when you look forward to talking to them every day.  If you are a parent, or even have a close relationship with a child, think about how you’d like to see that child’s school day go. Wouldn’t you want them up, out of their seats at times? Laughing? Enjoying their education? Make it happen.
  • Be consistent and fair.  One thing just about every teacher is told at the beginning of their career is to “not smile until Christmas.” You should be super strict, make sure students fear you and your classroom is a smooth operating machine, and only then can you start smiling at your classes (ie once you’ve got them all under control.)  I don’t think I agree with this. Would you want to spend an hour every single day with someone who goes out of their way to be a disciplinarian machine? Probably not.  Instead, set clear expectations at the beginning of the year, along with consistent consequences for not meeting these expectations.  Follow through, always, and you’ll be good to go.
  • Don’t expect more from the kids than you expect from yourselves.  Teachers are the worst at faculty meetings.  They arrive late, don’t have their materials, talk when the speaker is talking, ask dumb questions, and–maybe I’m speaking for myself here–take frequent bathroom breaks just to get away from it all for a second.  And yet, these are the same teachers who rule with an iron fist and expect their students to be prepared, checked in, and empty-bladdered one hundred percent of the time. That isn’t fair. What we need as teachers, they need doubly as young people. 
  • Beg, borrow, and steal. Why reinvent the wheel? There are, according to nces.ed.gov, 3.6 million secondary teachers in the U.S.A., alone.  That means there are a lot of people doing this thing, and a lot of good ideas floating around as a result. In today’s world we have this thing called the Internet and there are oodles of these ideas to be found there.  How did teachers ever make it through the day pre-Internet? Use it! Follow blogs! See how other professionals are engaging their students.  Ask other teachers in your subject area how they did X, Y, and Z. Go to the web site www.teacherspayteachers.com and be a legit good person by paying other teachers for their ideas! Not gonna lie–finding and trying out new lesson plans is one of my favorite things about this job.
  • Don’t try to be cool.  Don’t put a target on your back.  Don’t say things like, “That’s lit!” or “Your shoes are fire!” You’ll get laughed at.  (However, if you want to be laughed at, by all means do these things.)  My mom was a teacher for many years and her coworker used to go to student parties.  I mean…what?? That’s just weird. And possibly illegal. Don’t be weird.  Don’t be illegal. They have their own friends, already. However, try to be approachable.  There’s a saying (that I can’t remember off the top of my head right now) that goes something like this.  “They’ll forget what you told them or what you learned, but they won’t forget how you made them feel.” I just butchered that saying, but you get the idea.  Be there to listen, and be sure to listen, rather than expound on your own philosophy of life.  Be someone they look forward to talking to. 
  • Reflect.  If you go into teaching thinking that everything you do is the bomb-diggity, you’re going to be in trouble.  There is always, always, always, always room for improvement in this profession.  From day one of teaching, when you’re young and other teachers ask for your hall pass because they confuse you with the students, to day 6,000 when you’re on the verge of retirement and incontinence is becoming an issue, there’s always ways you could improve your teaching.  When a lesson doesn’t go well, acknowledge it and then try to make it better. Learn what students are interested in, and try to bring that into your lessons. Think of each class as its own individual entity, and treat them as such.
  • Get out of the way.  Don’t talk too much.  Get off the stage. This is the hardest thing for most teachers, myself included.  Students need to explore and work on their own. You can and should be there to guide them and answer questions, but remember that the average attention span of an eighth grader is 10-12 minutes.  So, if you’re still yammering away in front of the class after twenty-five, it’s not a benefit to anyone at all. 
  • Don’t take yourself so seriously.  Whenever I feel myself getting all worked up about the standards, my students, their lack of motivation, etc., I take a minute to remember myself in middle school.  Put it this way–I spent the bulk of seventh grade passing a notebook back and forth with a friend of mine. For whatever reason, we thought the name Floyd was the funniest thing we’d ever heard of.  Even funnier was if we could insert ‘Floyd’ in to words or phrases. So, for example, I might add the entries ‘Floydilocks and the Three Bears’ and ‘Little Floyd on the Prairie’ to our notebook and pass it across desks to my friend Jodi, laughing hysterically as I did this.  (A lesson would be going on in front of us, mind you.) So…yeah. That was my level of maturity in middle school. Cracking up over ‘Floyd.’ And yet, I avoided becoming a derelict for the most part, and I’m a functioning member of society who can read and write, so I picked up some things along the way.  At the end of the day, it’s middle school. It’s not worth getting an ulcer.

In conclusion, teaching, like any profession, can be really tough at times–especially at the beginning when you aren’t a pro, yet.  But, give it some time and it might become the type of job where you say, “Wow! I can’t believe I get paid to do this!” It’s an awesome job.  You form relationships with kids, get to design your own day, and you get ten weeks of vacation in the summer.  I mean, come on. That’s ridiculous.

I hope these tips help you survive the 50% dropout rate, and make you the type of teacher who gets all giddy in September when stores stock up on college ruled paper.  It’s a good feeling.