By Heidi Klotz
My teaching career began in 1984 and ended on the first day of Fall 2021. (Life’s little ironies fascinate me.)
My calling to teach began much earlier. The first time I heard it was in sixth grade after abysmally failing a timed division test to ascertain, who was to go on to honours math, who normal math and who basic or remedial.
The “teacher” said, “Oh, I thought you were one of the smart ones, but now you can go sit with the ‘dummies.'”
Had he always spoken this way and I simply not heard it? Now I heard it and heard as he told us, that he hoped we liked rotten bananas, because we would be getting our food from the trash in the future.
So now I sat with them, my fellow dummies, and showed them how to do long division. “It’s not so hard,” I said. “You just need to relax and believe in yourselves.”
These classmates said I explained it better than the teacher. “Damn right, I thought. Maybe I’ll become a teacher.”
The first time I was called a racist was also in sixth grade. A classmate called me a racist. I thought about it, and said, “No, this cannot be. I like your brother very much, but I do dislike you. The reason though is that you are a liar and are mean, not because of your skin color.”
So I decided to become a teacher. But was I smart enough to go to college? Did a girl or anyone need to go to college? My father joked that we didn’t need a dishwasher, he already had three. Yet he had four children.
Eventually, when I figured out hat I was not as stupid or worthless as I had been lead to believe, (which was the most liberating thing that even happened to me. Life and success are so much easier, when you believe in yourself!) I was told, that smart people don’t become teachers. It’s a job for stupid women seeking an Mrs degree. So my ego considered other options. (That dreadful ego, that makes us think we need to be important or rich or famous. We just need to be ourselves!) But I knew I wanted to save the world or at least try to make things better. So I considered a few options.
The ministry? I knew I could comfort, console and advise. But there was not a church big enough for God. I only ever really found God in nature—under the sky, the trees, on the mountain tops, in an insect wing, in a glass of water. Of course, God is everywhere—in a piece of plastic, in the smog and even in churches. But I could only feel that on good days. It felt hypocritical to join church. But as much as I love to preach, perhaps I missed my true calling.
Law? Back then I thought lawyers stood up for what is right. Do I still believe it? Hrumph. I believe it is a tragedy that we live in a world, where such things are decided by strangers in suits, rather than people that know each other. But it must be, since no one really knows anyone anymore. I also believed shuffling briefs and wearing suits would not make me happy.
Politics? It seemed to require more ego, more confidence and above all more ability to endure endless, fruitless meetings than I could muster. There was a promise to change the world, but it didn’t seem like it was one for the better.
Teaching? Wow! Now here was the place, where one could really touch the future. I chance to help. A chance to learn. Trust me, you never learn or understand something better than when you try to teach it. Witness division!
Ah, division. Back to the reason my calling ended.
The thing I have always hated about teaching (aside from staff meetings) is grading. The sifting and sorting we’re supposed to do. Don’t get me wrong. I love competition! It is fun to measure ourselves against others and find our strengths. It encourages us to strive to do more to be better than we were. Yet the point must be to find everyone’s strengths. To show each individual that, yes, we are different—thank heaven for that—but we need each other. Everyone has something to offer. We are better when we work together, when we value the different points of view, because there are infinite points of view. (Funny, points another concept that baffled me in math. How can a point contain infinite lines without the point getting thicker? Didn’t all the lines bring their own points to the conversion point? No, silly Heidi. It’s all connected and it’s all one. Separation is an illusion.)
But these days division and separation rule.
In sixth grade, we also enacted “The Blind Men and the Elephant”. The elephant is a fan, a spear, a rope, a wall, a tree, a snake. Not listening to each other’s points of view makes us all blind. Everyone’s vantage point is different and they all have truth.
There is truth in all things but only partial truth. We need each other. We all have strengths and we all have that unique point of view. We need to listen to each other and to get more vantage points and thus move closer to the truth and not the many little bits of truth we all individually see.
Nowadays it is all about division. Nationality, wealth, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, vaccination status, all of it creates a label. Most of it has a caused a reason to go to war. All of it keeps us from seeing our connections. The common speck in the universe we share. The DNA in every known life form. The air we breathe and the water we drink.
All of this has frustrated me for years, increasing every year, lately every day. It hurts me. I felt myself getting angry. I apologised to my students. I told them, I no longer felt I was doing the right thing. Making children sit on their bottoms longer than an adult could endure, when they need to be moving; asking children be quiet, when they need to be talking; separating children into different groups and age levels, when they need to be learning from the very old, the young adults, the older students, but they also need be nurturing the very old and the younger; forcing students to learn history, when they first need to learn the present (and to be present!)—it is wrong! We all need to see how we need each other and how we are needed. Children need this even more. Yet this is exactly what we don’t give them. It was making me angry.
Now I had to tell children to put a mask in front of their faces; to try and listen to and understand someone behind a mask: to insert carcinogenic swabs into their noses and rub it against tissue so delicate it is deep in the nose, so that it cannot be touched; to no longer hug each other; to fear the breath of others. It was making me angrier.
I perhaps should have quit much earlier.
So how did I finally fall?
It started with the toilet issue, another issue that has accompanied me throughout my career. I did assemblies and wrote songs. (You’ve got to flush,flush, Flush the poo away; You’ve got to wipe, wipe, wipe, the seatie off; You got to brush, brush, Brush the spoor away and keep that toilet clean!) I even won a toilet in the German toilet competition, a program designed to develop awareness and appreciation for the fact that we have toilets. I pointed out how even Ghandi said that cleaning toilets was an individual obligation and suffered marital problems, because his wife felt she needn’t stoop so low. Sewer systems were a great way to teach history—cities are all about how they solved their sewer and water issues.
So now the old theme had risen again—toilets! The student representatives reported that their project was to try and get the toilets reopened. So many students, (No, it probably wasn’t many, just a few bad eggs.) were literally destroying the toilets—not just the typical not keeping them clean, but literally destroying toilets—stuffing not only toilet paper in them, but sunglasses, pencil cases, cell phones, firecrackers, etc.; ripping soap boxes and paper towel dispensers even sinks off the wall; writing insults and obscenities not only in markers on the walls. Thus, half the toilets were locked. Totally unfair. Yet somehow totally understandable. While the custodian was fixing one, he could open the other, only to have it most likely destroyed as he worked. An insane situation. Very unfair to the vast majority of students, but also to the custodian and tax payers.
The students wanted to negotiate with the custodian. He said, he would try. Could they motivate the students to keep the toilets clean for a week? Sadly, I was dubious. Where had my optimism, my faith, my hope gone?
I made the point, that sadly it is generally the few that ruin it for the many. And then I tried to make a point that seems to be beyond, what the students could grasp.
The point? Generally, but especially when times are tough, people seek someone to blame. The ones that get blamed are those that are different, those that stick out, the minority. (That word is already a thorn is some students’ sides, which I can understand, but we still need words.)
I pointed out that we in the Europe School stand out simply because we speak English. This makes us different and easily identifiable. So, when we are rude, loud or vulgar people can not only easily identify who is doing it, they also begin to label the group as being so, regardless of whether it is true or not. Sad, unfair, but true. Thus, if we take pride in our group, which we can and should, we need to be better than the rest. All of us, because again, a few people ruin it for everyone.
I pointed out, that as the extreme right political parties are demonstrating, hatred and distrust are on the rise. Unfair as it is, minorities need to be better than the masses. I used the example of a parent, who had three children at my former school. She was looking for a school for her third child, who was not as successful at school as the first two, who was feeling left out because of his skin colour. I said, “Send him to our school. We have a lovely African community.”
“That is exactly why I don’t want to send him there,” was her response.
It hit me like a fist. But it was true. A small but very vocal group of students was increasingly separating themselves from the others with loud, rude, obnoxious behaviour and dress. When I told them this story, I was called a racist. For the second time in my life.
Black pride? Long overdue. Too long these beautiful people have been used, abused and made to feel inferior. But must the pendulum swing to other extreme?
If these students who were separating themselves to truly show they were proud to be different not only with unique hairstyles but better behaviour or least behaviour that didn’t interfere with the rights of others, by all means!
I can understand the chip on shoulder. I can understand the pain, the rage, the hurt, the anger. I get it all too well. My point is simply, if we lose ourselves in this, we are—lost.
So unfair as it is, all of us but especially minorities (and we are all minorities somewhere) need to be better—not only to help the individual but to help the group.
It turned into a shouting match. Several of the students in my class have behaviour issues. They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t. They’re smart but haven’t learned the self-control and self-reflection necessary for success. Our broken system tends to only hurt these kids more instead of helping them. Which is why I came to the school—to try to help them.
This change was the most difficult thing I ever did and my biggest NEVER! Teach junior high? No way!!! Junior high had been the most painful difficult time of my life. I was mobbed, ostracised, mocked, ridiculed…, all the things that I thought only happened to me, but were probably happening to everyone.
Kids at that age don’t know who they are. They have spent their lives up to that point as children and their bodies are suddenly doing things never done before. They can’t wait to be adults, but simply aren’t yet. They feel understandably insecure, weird, ugly, outcast. Does society help them with this? No. We toss them all together in overcrowded classrooms and make them (or try to make them) sit still and shut up. Worse yet, we make them deal with each other. They would make wonderful mentors to younger children. They could test themselves and their strengths the adult word—get a taste about what is coming. They could take the responsibility of caring for the elderly. But no, we put the scared with the scary and the hurt with the hurtful, because they’re all scared and hurt and thus scary and hurtful.
Even worse, in Germany, they sort children out at the most vulnerable period in their lives. They tell some of them that are fine and may go on to gymnasium. The rest get the very clear message that they are not good enough. They get sent to other schools. (Just another thing that makes me angry.) Every year, there were sadly one or two kids from the elite elementary school, where I taught, who didn’t make the grade and were sent off to find a school that would accept them. I foolishly wondered if they could still be helped. I thought of myself as some sort of super teacher. I wanted a new challenge. I wanted to face my fears. I still wanted to make a difference. So I voluntarily transferred from a dream job with dream students and parents to—a junior high.
Part of it was hell. Substitutions, which I had always loved (a chance to meet new kids, show off my best lessons, develop a new fan club, hey, I started my teaching career as full-time sub!) became torture. It was like being sent in a lions’ den, without any way to protect myself or subdue them. They banged on tables, yelled, threw things. I often left on the verge of tears doubting myself and worse doubting humanity.
Yet in my individual classes, I made progress. Students, who had never met with success, suddenly began believing in themselves, opening themselves to the world and their own success. Yes, there were always a few that were hard to reach, but I was sure I could do it. It seemed worthwhile.
But the few again ruin things. They refused to work, refused to be quiet, refused to be on time and worse treated the other students terribly not to mention the teachers. Still, I thought with time, patience and love I could help them. On good days I even thought they were the necessary rebels, showing us how bad the system is, how badly it needs to be fixed. But only on good days.
In English we have the term, white trash. Of course, it is impossible to put any other adjective in front of the word trash, and yes it is outrageous to call any human being trash. Yet sadly, it seems to exist. Those few bad eggs, rotten apples that ruin everything. They can be found across the board, in all cultures, social classes, religions and (dare I use the word?) races.
Why? I don’t know. What to do about it? I don’t know. I try to believe that love is the answer. I don’t believe prisons or punishment are. Consequences? YES!
Germany seems afraid of consequences. Their troubled history keeps them afraid of anything authoritarian.
After having daily fire alarms and on some days up to five, the administration said we needed new rules. Ha! Isn’t it already a rule not pull the fire alarm? Now we were supposed to keep students from using the stairwell, where the alarm was most often pulled. Quite a task for teachers, who already have enough rules to try and enforce with no consequence for breaking them—except that teachers get lied to and insulted for addressing the issue and get a rise in blood pressure.
When I said we don’t need new rules, we need consequences for breaking the rules, I was told, “We don’t want Nazi conditions in our school.”
I thought, “We’ll get them soon enough, if we keep tolerating everything and letting kids search for the limits without finding them.”
What do I mean by consequences? Not punishment. Consequences. I was in the army (although I swear I am a pacifist—another long story for another day). I had to do push-ups all the time! Most of the time it was unfair and totally unjustified. I really hadn’t done anything wrong. Still, I had to do them. Did it hurt me? Quite the contrary! It just made me very strong.
I introduced push-ups and knee-bends as a consequence in my classroom. It changed the energy, got rid of excess and energy and was even seen as good fun—many asked if they could join in. And it worked. People knew if they messed up, push-ups awaited. As beneficial as they are, most of us still don’t really want to do them, so the undesirable behaviours declined. Yet, I was repeatedly told by my German colleagues that this was Körberverletzung—physical assault. If I believed that, I never would have done it. I experienced them first hand and they made me physically and mentally stronger. It did the same thing for my students. They even called for them and reminded me if I forgot.
Aboriginal societies probably used shunning or exclusion as a consequence. We are social animals. We need each other to thrive. The threat of being left out or excluded is always painful and possibly as serious as the death sentence. How could you protect yourself alone in the jungle? Not nice, but a consequence that works. So time out and expulsion could also be a consequence.
But what do we do with our bad apples? We put them all together in one school, so the good kids don’t have to deal with them. In the US they get put together in prisons. That not only solves nothing—it makes things worse.
So here I was teaching junior high. Already in my fifth year of it. It actually seemed to be going well.
Two weeks ago the students asked where the deputy head was. He had been off sick for almost a year—as well as the head mistress. I said, he had gotten a position at a new elementary school and that I was thinking of applying there. I did like him and a final change seemed like a good idea.
The class was indignant. “You can’t do that!” “You have to stay with us!” “You have changed my life!” My most challenging student even proclaimed that she was already planning how she would thank me in her Oscar acceptance speech.
I reassured them, that I would stay with them till they graduated. I hadn’t invested so much time and effort into them without waiting to see it finally bear fruit as they went from really obnoxious seventh and eighth graders to increasingly reasonable and pleasant ninth graders. But after them, I said I would prefer to go back to elementary school for my last four years of teaching.
“No! You can’t,” they cried. “You are good with this age group. You change lives.”
This touched me immensely. I felt again like the super teacher I once believed myself to be. I said, “This surprises and flatters me. Yet, I believe the best teachers are needed in first grade. If you had had great first grade teachers, would any of you be here?” You could have heard a pin drop (for the first time in the history of that class).
Was it pride that went before the fall?
So what happened your rightfully ask? I tried to drive home my point of our responsibility to prevent prejudice. I said, my image of Arab men had been that were the coolest, most handsome, best educated, classy men alive. Yet now, I more often than not feel myself repelled and even frightened by them. A case of few bad apples ruining it for everyone. I submit these images to make my point.
Yes, fashion changes. And one is entitled to be different and make a statement. Yet to my ignorant “white” eyes this looks less like pride and more like an attitude and not a very friendly attitude at that.
Speaking of attitudes…
…interesting attitudes. I don’t know how to label. I hate labels for that matter, but it’s a trend that feels aggressive and if I may judge, wrong. It’s a trend that polarises, divides. It is hurtful.
I tried to make these points in school. In the process my most challenging students very vocally challenged me, calling me racist. Fair enough. They are entitled to their opinions. For the third time I was called a racist.
After the next break, students screamed me in the hallway, “You’re a god damn racist.” I was surprised and hurt, but one gets used to abuse in a junior high school.
On the street after school the jeering continued. “RACIST!”
Nonetheless I came to school the next day. Did my political science lesson. I noticed tension in the room, but it worked.
During the my lunch supervision a dear colleague came and said he wanted to support me and help me. He didn’t want me to leave. I wondered if he was making fun of me. Why would I leave? We went to lunch together. He said he admired me and didn’t think he would manage to be a teacher as long as I had.
What was going on? I’m not such a wimp. I told him I had it under control. That in the English lesson that afternoon I was going to present them with some important vocabulary.
By now when I walked the halls, I was not only hearing “Racist!” I was hearing, “I can’t believe she is still allowed to teach.” Suddenly I been called this more often than I could count.
Nonetheless, I attempted my vocabulary lesson. First word.
—prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior
—the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races
Arguably by the second definition, I could be a racist, for I do indeed consider most other “races” to be superior to my own. I first loved the native Americans and their culture far more than my own. I admired the beautiful skin colour of all “brown” people, trying myself to get brown with at least a tan. I would love to have thick curly hair and full lips. I truly do think “Black is beautiful.” I also think that “blacks” have better athletic ability, more rhythm, more powerful voices and more ability to show a simple joy of living than my fellow whites.
My loudest student roared that this is not he definition of racism. Since when did she write dictionaries? The Oxford English Dictionary seemed like a fair enough source to me.
preconceived opinion that is not based on
reason or actual experience
This was the point I had been trying to make the previous day. The experiences people make form our opinions. We need to make these experiences positive. Otherwise we not only ruin our own reputations but also of those with the same —whatever we want to call it as we have.
the action or crime of making a false
spoken statement damaging to a person’s reputation
The Germans have an even better word for slander. Rufmord. One could literally translate this as “the murder of reputation.”
What my beloved students had done—well only two or three of them out of twenty-eight but it only takes one—was to murder my reputation. They had recorded me without permission or my knowing it and posted what I said out of context in all the many ways possible throughout the various chat channels. They had murdered my reputation.
I told them without my good reputation, I could not teach in that school. It was an act of bravery in the best of times to walk those halls and take the abuse. They had given the students a powerful weapon, that they would blissfully and cruelly apply. What little authority I may have had was gone.
The yelling started again from the infamous two or three. I said it was enough. I would fulfil my supervision duty in the hall, but I would no longer attempt to teach. I left. Students immediately rushed to talk. They were sorry. They could fix it.
Maybe they were sorry, but fix it? How?
A wonderful woman, who was new to the school as a middle school coordinator came by. She had witnessed the belligerent behaviour the day before. She said she would speak to the class. She did. The main culprit finally came to apologise, alas with a terrible sneer on her face. She was the one that only a week ago was going to mention me in her Oscar speech. Maybe she still would, as some villainous racist in her past. I no longer had the strength to deal with this. I felt stabbed in the heart, drained and empty.
So now you know how I fell. Pride goes before the fall? Indeed. Is there truth in all things? Indeed. Am I a racist? Perhaps we all are. I don’t know.
But I do know that muck sticks. I know that I myself always wonder, “But what did you do to provoke this?” when something happens. What did I do? I tried to tell you honestly.
Someone said, I tried to teach a lesson that was too complex for children. Another said I was expecting too much of adolescents. They are right. Still, it seems like a harsh consequence.
Yet my firm belief remains that all things are ultimately for the best in the end. If it doesn’t seem like it is the best, it simply means the end has not yet come. I’m almost 62. Young enough to try new things. Old enough to know what I don’t want to do anymore. And lucky enough to have lived a blessed life so far. I suspect this is also a blessing in disguise.
Heidi Klotz has been a classroom and subject teacher for over 30 years, having imparted her knowledge and wisdom to young and inquisitive minds in three countries. She has been a teacher in the ever-changing Berlin school system since 1991.