4: What’s on the syllabus? Public humiliation

Progress has been made. Six days ago, I made a joke. (This was in German- I tend to tell jokes a little more often in English.) I even got a laugh which probably wasn’t even out of pity. I’m going places.

Despite working in a school for over two months now, I’ve realised that I’ve said very little about it. Whilst the differences between English and German schools is a topic familiar to anyone with GCSE German, I’d like to be a little more specific than boring you with details about their lack of school uniform or assembly:

Public humiliation is considered a necessary part of the curriculum

There’s a reason why Germans are so unapologetically ‘direct’ (tactless)- school encourages them to say exactly what’s on their mind. After students give a presentation or simply read out their work, the teacher encourages the rest of the class to offer feedback on their fellow classmates. Whilst peer assessment is also used in English schools, the outcome is markedly different.

“I thought his presentation was not so good. There were many grammatical errors and also the content was very very bad”, one boy remarked about his best friend’s essay. Sugar coating clearly didn’t make it across the channel.

They all give feedback in this way. Enemy, friend or soul mate, whoever your classmate is, if their work is bad then it is your responsibility to let them know, regardless of the consequences it might have on their confidence/self-esteem/integrity. I watched in horror as eleven year olds’ presentations were ripped to shreds. But then it was my turn.

“I was really impressed by the research that went in to your presentation. Aside from a few mistakes with verb endings, it sounded pretty idiomatic”, I lied about a student’s grammatically incoherent presentation, which had almost entirely regurgitated Wikipedia.

Another example of this tendency to publicly shame little children arose when they got their ‘Klausuren’ (class tests) back after half term. The teacher unashamedly read out the children’s marks to the whole class, deliberately pausing after each grade so that the crowd had time to woop, gasp or laugh accordingly. To rub salt in to the wound, the teacher then wrote up each grade on the board (a 1 is equivalent to an A, 2 = B, 3= C, etc) and then wrote the number of pupils who achieved each mark below it.

I think I was the most mortified person in the room, cringing for the poor boy who had got a 5, much to the delight of the rest of his class. In my old school (Habs Girls), teachers usually handed tests back face down so that only you would get a peak of your own mark. In fact, teachers actively discouraged us finding out how we compared to our classmates, constantly emphasising that “only your marks should be of interest to you”. In typical girls school fashion, the only hint of a friend’s mark was discovered through the leading question “are you happy?” which was almost always answered with a “no”, indicating that the girl in question had got below 90%. By contrast, German teachers are required to, at the very least, inform their pupils of how many students achieved each grade. Clearly the German educational authority has no qualms about shattering the British luxury of confidentiality.

 ‘Lunchtime’ is non-existent

When I was at school, our one hour and ten minute lunch break was far more than time merely allocated to eating. It was an opportunity to get involved in extracurricular activities such as play rehearsals, orchestra or netball or, latterly, bitching, meeting up with the boys or poking at your three salad leaves whilst loudly complaining about how fat you are.

My students, by contrast, are not afforded this luxury. Instead, they have either a 15 or 20 minute break between every double lesson to run to the canteen and scoff down three pretzels. Or they can simply wait until the end of the school day (2.30 at the very latest) to have their lunch. This is, of course, entirely in keeping with their obsession with efficiency; why waste valuable lesson time on over-indulgent lunch breaks when the act of eating only actually takes about 15 minutes? Why waste time on digesting food when you could be simultaneously learning?

Extracurricular activities (known as ‘AGs’) and the social aspect of school are instead pushed back to the end of the school day which, somewhat inevitably, compromises the ‘community feel’ of the school. The lack of school uniform, assembly and long school days all further downplay the role of German schools as forms of communities; they seem to be there more to provide a service (education) than to give students a sense of belonging to something. This may, however, be characteristic of a ‘city school’, rather than a German one.


Every term, usually in a month in which they don’t have any school holidays, the students are treated to a ‘Wandertag’. This is translated as a ‘field day’, although we don’t really have that in England, but it’s basically a day allocated to school trips. In my school, school trips involved five minutes in a museum and four hours in a café, with the visit to the gift shop comprising the highlight of the day.

Rather than pretending that twelve year olds are cultured, German pupils are allowed to choose what they would like to do on their ‘Wandertag’. ‘Wandertag’ is therefore a tacit acknowledgement that school is boring and that, at least once a month, students should be allocated a day to do something non educational (fun) on a weekday.

My year 9 class opted for bowling and I was privileged enough to be allowed to accompany them. This mostly involved them trying to avoid the English girl who keeps lying about how good their language skills are, although I did have the occasional nice conversation. I learned, for example, that the coolest, laddiest, wife-beater wearing boy in the class is actually a Latin and ballroom dancing champion and is in the top 10 in Germany for his age. Never judge a book by its cover.

A lesson which I should perhaps extend to my initial judgement of German schools. Whilst I arrogantly mock the differences between English and German schools and accuse their system of being weird, the more time I spend there, the more I begin to question the traditions and practices of English schools. Why do we treat our grades as private property when, in the real world, success is a relational measure?  Why do we insist on always framing feedback positively when honesty is the only way in which students can accurately gauge their progress? Why do we vaguely model a school day on a 9-5 working day when children focus better before lunch time? Why do we insist on exclusively educational school trips when pupils will always treat it as a glorified ‘day-off’, regardless of the activity?

After all, assimilation is a process of realising that the people you once mocked for their ‘otherness’ might be getting it right, and maybe it’s you who’s the wierdo.