Blog Post 24. (05/11/2022) – The “What” and “How” of working as an English Teaching Assistant in a quaint Saxon village, as well as a brief account of the village itself.
“It doesn’t really resemble the wilderland Charlemagne talked about”. That was the first silly thought to cross my mind as the leafy expanse of the Dresdner Heide rumbled by.
The city-sized sprawl of curated woodlands shuffled right up to Dresden’s edges, and really, it did not much resemble the dark and endless haunt the Frankish hosts marched through during their crusades against the belligerent pagans. But what can one expect after 12 centuries of Christianization, urbanization and then industrialization…
Some comment that I didn’t quite catch from my guide, Ryan, woke me from my reverie. The legendary histories of old Europe baptized my imagination long before Narnia or Middle Earth ever made their mark there, but we dreamers have to take care that the mental image does not distort the real thing.
Ryan made some further comments as we rolled onwards, I was to mark this town here and remember this stop there- that village was an optional stop and had tripped Ryan up before, missing it could be fatal on a workday. It was really a great gesture on his part, suggesting he accompany me on my first day at work, especially since he had already given me a tour of the city on my first day.
Ryan said having the former English Teaching Assistant accompany the new ETA would help provide a continuity for the students, especially since we were like-minded individuals and both Americans (a previous assistant was Scottish). He was talking about the Schulleiter, Herr Schloegel, and his expectations when it came time to stand and disembark. The forests of the Elbe-Tal had long since yielded to the rolling hills of the Roeder-Tal and the village came into view as we broke from a copse of aspen and pine. Saxon country was falling behind us and we were approaching the Sorbian borderlands that surround Großröhrsdorf, our destination.
Village does Grossroehrsdorf as much justice as river describes the local Roeder, which is itself nothing more than a overgrown stream on the rainiest of days. But it’s perhaps the most appropriate title since the name of the place literally translates to “Big Reed Village” – a unique and worthy name that gave my German friend Linus a few minutes of laughter when he first heard it. The ‘village’ of ten thousand stretches for a few kilometers along the Roeder stream and its accompanying old post road, wrapped in a girdle of green pasture-land that reminded me of the country around my previous workplace in Campo Charro near Salamanca.
The walk to the school grounds was no more than 16 minutes (I would know from many days of tight commuting), but it felt longer as we discussed the history of the town and the habits and nature of the English Lehrkraft, the seven teachers I would be helping. The school was a gymnasium, the most academically rigorous type of German secondary school and I was lucky that the teachers all spoke very good English. As many of my fellow Fulbrighters could tell you—that’s often not the case, especially in rural, former East Germany. My mentor teacher was particularly fluent, having married an Irishman.
Ryan told me that the expectations for me were not too high, but I needed to remember to wear my American accent proudly and represent my country freely. The job is really all about embracing the best of the American spirit, dialect and attendant history, something I am happy to do. The students ranged in age, from wide-eyed 5th graders to mischievous (and often competitive!) 8th graders to studious 11th and 12th graders gunning for university.
I am happy to say that Ferdinand-Sauerbruch Gymnasium is one of the most dignified buildings in town, a four-story, nineteenth century affair with tall stone windows that rises a little over the surrounding villas and Mehrfamilienhauser, perhaps a relic of the profitable “ribbon-weaving” (Bandweberei) days. The building bears the name of an eponymous doctor, a famous surgeon who owned a stately villa we passed on our commute, contributed greatly to his field and was conscripted by the national socialists… a checkered history to be sure.
Ryan got plenty of waves as we approached the school grounds, having built up quite a camaraderie with the students during his two year stint at the school. We happened upon my mentor teacher as we made our way into one of the shiny new expansions. I had spoken to her over the phone before, but it is always something special to meet somebody in person. Just like Ryan said, she speaks perfect English and led us on a tour of the school- winding our way up through the original building and making broad loops around the shiny new expansions with the occasional comment about the rooms, their purpose.
When we made our way to the staff break room she introduced us to Herr Schloegel, the kindly, mustachioed Schulleiter, who greeted us with a hearty Saxon accent (one of my favorite dialects, even if it is difficult to understand). Most of the students and teachers had already left since seventh period had finished a few minutes ago, otherwise Ryan would have gotten more smiles and there would have been more students crowding about us- all wanting to speak with ‘the native(s)’, something I have often been called since starting at Ferdinand-Sauerbruch Gymnasium.
We signed what forms we could (I still had no permanent housing at the time) and marked out my schedule, and I will admit the specifics caused me some lasting confusion. There are 7 women on the Englische Lehrkrafte, most of whom are blond and 5 of whom have very similar sounding names that start with K… well, one quickly learns the difference but not without a few errors.
My first few days of work were rather busy, full of introductions, talks about Montana, expectations and formatting. My presence initially seemed to have more of a dampening effect on the classroom dynamics than an energizing one, as many of the students (notably some of the 8th graders) became more shy about their English on my first few days as I introduced myself, my background and my reason for being at Ferdinand-Sauerbruch.
Some of the older students took a marked interest in me and my status as an American. On my first day of classes, I got the classic questions from some of the 11th and 12th graders: 'do you own a gun, Trump vs. Biden, do you believe COVID is real, what’s your favorite German food, what does Germany do better than the United States and vice versa?'. Most of these questions, many of which were asked in jest (the boys-only 11th grade class asked the toughest ones), led to interesting conversations about the United States, its unique characteristics and geopolitical status.
Time has been getting on though, and the leaves that were green on the day I first walked the neat streets of Grossroehrsdorf have withered away. Terrible at names as I am, I have been getting to know my colleagues and my students bit by bit. There’s never a dull day at Ferdinand-Sauerbruch, the topics range from the somber (9/11 and January 6th) to the personal (family history relating to the great depression, revolutionary war, etc) to the engaging (Halloween traditions and High school). There’s nothing quite like being able to engage the students’ curiosity about a long-considered topic whatever it may be, it makes me feel useful because it speaks to my innermost purpose here: connecting with people across cultures in a mutually-edifying way.
Time is getting on indeed—by the time I’ll publish this it will no doubt be mid-November, and deadlines are closing in. There are new bureaucratic issues to attend to, more papers to file and all sorts of vexing stuff. But that doesn’t mean I’ll forget about blogposts completely. Next topics will be either visting my family’s new house in France for the first time or a blog that combines my hikes in the Saxon Switzerland with my experiences living with a Nobleman’s hunting fraternity.