Things I am learning

This is my classroom:

Every day, 20 completely unique little people fill this room. They come to learn, whatever that looks like for them that day. Maybe they are tired, or full of energy, worried or excited, easily distracted or ready to concentrate, happy or sad, grumpy or full of smiles. Most days they will cycle through these emotions faster than I can count. At the start of the year, I knew only their names. And now, every day I learn a little bit more about what makes them exactly who they are. What they love and hate, what they find hard, what they learn (or don’t learn) at home, how they relate to their friends and the people they are not so keen on, how they listen (or don’t), how they feel about rules. Sometimes they tell me these things, sometimes I watch, sometimes I only find out what is on their heart when they pray in circle time or draw something on a sheet of paper, sometimes their parents whisper advice, sometimes I never find out exactly what they are thinking. And when they share little bits of their lives with me, I learn so much.

I am learning that I have forgotten what it is like to start at the very beginning. A couple of weeks ago, one of my girls looked up at me with massive eyes and slightly trembling lips and shook her head when I asked if she wanted to carry on working in her maths book – at the start of the book, to practice writing out numbers, they have to fill all the different sized boxes on the page with a zero, or a 1, until they get to 9. And she said to me ‘weiss du, die 5 ist voll schwer’ (which is something like, ‘do you know, the number 5 is properly hard.’) And it made me stop. Because it had not for one second occurred to me that 5 would be harder to write than any other number – but for her, it was. As far as she was concerned, I was making her copy a meaningless squiggle over and over again, and she wasn’t sure where exactly the line was between it being a 5 and not being a 5, she just knew that she was doing it wrong. We sat for a while working on it together, and the next day she ran to me breathlessly and showed me her whole page of 5s, the number which had given her so many more problems than the other 9, and told me that she had finished, and was now doing 6, and she hadn’t believed she would get that far, and wasn’t that amazing? And it is amazing. That she found words to explain what was making her frustrated, that she managed to remember which direction to move the pencil in and what order to do the going-down-bit and the going-across-bit, and that she kept going, and that she recognised that that was a big deal for her, and she wrote them the right way round rather than mirror-image. (This is the girl that a few days before, when the teacher told her she was writing her 3s back-to-front, decided it was easier to turn the book upside-down and keep writing them the same way, than to learn to do them differently. She’s going to go far in life…). And I can sympathise, because when I had to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet I couldn’t for the life of me work out the difference between symbols that were upside down or back to front, or looked very similar to each other. My super-patient-friends literally sat for hours with flash cards until I learnt them all properly. It is nothing short of a miracle that some children don’t find learning numbers hard.

I am learning that being patient with one child asking which letter comes next in whatever super-long-word they want to write that day is a lot easier than being patient with the 20th child. And that when the 20th child is half way through trying to spell K-A-K-T-U-S and you ask them what comes next and they reply with ‘M for Mouse’, the correct response is to calmly count to 10 in your head, and then reply ‘A mmmmm? Can you hear a mmmmm in Kaktus?’, rather than bang your head against the table in frustration. They will get it – one day. Maybe tomorrow. I hope.

I am learning that if a mostly-reliable-child tells tales on a mostly-prone-to-annoying-the-others child, the time when I don’t check my facts and assume I know from experience what has happened will be the one time when the first child is not so reliable after all. And then everyone will be cross.

I am learning that beginner recorder players in Germany are prone to swapping their hands the wrong way round, hitting themselves or their partner in the eye with the recorder, using the cleaner as an earring, and playing when the teacher is talking, just like beginner recorder players in England. But that I have to learn the names of the notes all over again, because here, there is an H instead of B. I couldn’t believe it… A-H-C-D-E-F-G. Just, what…

I am learning that walking the 20 minutes to the sports hall is much more effort than the sports lesson itself, because what I thought was a fairly ordinary street is actually the most distracting place ever. And that it doesn’t matter how many times I repeat instructions to look in the direction we’re walking, hold hands with a partner, catch up with the rest of the children, or hurry as we cross the road – no-one will listen. Because they are too busy begging me to buy them ice cream, and touching all the clothes outside the shops, and trying to tread on the shoes of whoever is in front, or craning their necks to find where the delicious smell of food is coming from, or telling me where their best-friend-from-Kindergarten’s cousin’s house is. There is nearly always at least one child who walks straight into a lamppost.

I am learning that my class are still at an age where they need to experiment, and see what happens. Which means that there will be at least one point each day when I stare in astonishment and something completely random and unexpected. Like 2 boys dunking their sausage and potato in each other’s tea at lunchtime, or one girl spontaneously deciding to take her socks and shoes off outside even though it had rained all day and everything was wet, or a small flock of slightly squashed ladybirds smuggled into the classroom by an enthusiastic bug-hunter, or one child who just sat for the whole art lesson because he ‘wasn’t really feeling like it’ and it took a full 10 minutes before we realised he wasn’t doing anything.

I am learning to embrace the utter chaos of giving the children lots of free choice about what work to do and how fast to do it, because otherwise I will spend the whole year searching for a calm that is easier for my ears, but doesn’t help them to learn.

I am learning that the children have kind hearts, but they need to train them properly so that kindness is a reflex and not an enormous effort. And that unless my expectations for how kind, gentle, patient and loving I need to be are more than what I want for my class, then I can’t even attempt to model good behaviour for them to copy. And that I fail every day at this, but God is gracious and can still use me even when my heart is so far away from looking like His.

To be honest…

When I started blogging, I promised myself I would write the good things and the bad things, and write how I was feeling rather than how I wanted to feel. Wednesday was a bad day, and I came home and wrote this post. But with no internet in our apartment again, I couldn’t publish it… and the next day, when I felt calmer and a lot less miserable, I wanted to delete the whole thing. But seeing as I can’t edit this year to take out all the bad moments and leave only the picture-perfect fun bits, here it is, 3 days late.

To be honest…today was hard. Like, no-more-tears-left hard.

I’m not very good at holding back – I tend to say what comes into my mind without thinking about it properly first, and then regret it later. But I also don’t really know how to do things by halves. And so when I started working, I just gave everything. And I think that is true for Inma too. From 7.30 until 2 or later each day, we are physically with our children, and that brings quite a lot of emotional turmoil anyway. But, because our job is the only reason we live in Germany, it tends to seep into every aspect of life. We go home and need to process what the day was like, and we talk and talk, and we plan for the next day, and try and prepare. But we’re lacking the coping mechanisms that we usually have around us – friends, family, a language that we understand without trying, access to the internet – basically, all the things that make you feel secure. All the things that stop the small problems from piling up until they crash down on top of you.

When we started, we gave our hearts to the children we’re working with. And when everything is going well, that’s the best feeling in the world, because it is real happiness.

But some days, it feels like we’ve been trampled on by the same children who we’ve sat with for hours as they’ve laughed and cried and needed so much help from us. And as we sit there, feeling bruised and vulnerable and slightly betrayed, we know that we have to get up and try again, before we’re ready, still carrying that hurt around. That all sounds a bit abstract… and I don’t usually do abstract. But the problems themselves are so small compared to the massive emotions. Like when a child tells you every day that he hates you, or that the last volunteer was better. Or when you get hit in the face, not entirely on purpose but not entirely by accident either. Or when a child refuses your help because you’re ‘not the proper teacher’. Or when they assume you’re stupid because you don’t know a word, or laugh in your face when you try and tell them off, because ‘you speak funny’. Or when you just spend the whole day feeling a bit lost because working in a school is new, never mind a German school, never mind a school totally different from all the other German schools. Or when you just need to hear that you’ve done something right, and all you can see on your own are the things you’ve done wrong. Sometimes, nothing is even wrong – it’s just that 20 small people physically and emotionally grabbing hold of you all day is HARD. I have not written the hardest things, because some of those are not my story to tell, and because the strands are too complicated to pull apart. But they are weighing heavily on my heart today.

One of our friends said to us a couple of weeks ago, after a particularly difficult day with her teenagers, ‘the children are like vampires. They just take… everything.’ And although my mostly lovely 6 year olds aren’t usually very vampire-esque, and I probably wouldn’t say that to the parents on parents evening, I know exactly what she means. I don’t have anything left to give today. And tomorrow, we will go into school slightly wary, aware that we have no energy reserves left, and it won’t change anything in the slightest. The children will keep taking what they need from us, and we will keep letting them – they’re only children, after all. Hopefully, we will get better at riding these emotions, and clinging on to things that will help us feel secure. Because as Inma and I clung on to each other in an exhausted heap this evening, I remembered the advice we get in acrobatics: when you’re trying to keep your balance, you need to look at a point that’s not moving, otherwise you will fall – and we’re both wobbling all over the place. Still, it means a lot to have a friend on this crazy ride.


Last weekend was the annual Altstadtfest. The streets were flooded with more people than I think I’ve ever seen in Görlitz in total, and it was amazing to see the city come alive in a different way.

After a long week at school, and a particularly long Friday, with our friend Nastia moving into the apartment for a while, we went out in search of ice cream, and decided to walk through the quieter streets as the sun set. About 15 minutes from home, we walked up the Nikolaistraße and found a street full of people in medieval costume dancing in pairs to live folk music. A child from my class was sitting on a sack of hay right next to the musicians, and grabbed hold of my hand, so we sat with her family and watched the dancing as the sun went down, with the smell of freshly baked bread drifting down the hill from an oven which served bread and Kräuterbutter all weekend. It felt like we had been transported back hundreds of years within a moment…

The rest of the weekend was about 30 degrees, and we wandered around, finding something new round every corner. I wanted to hold on to everything all at once – hazelnut ice cream, eating bread by the river, air filled with herbs and spices and wood smoke and waffles, stalls with swords and headdresses and pottery and carved wooden ornaments, children on seesaws, flower stalls in Poland, cobbled streets in dappled sunlight, heat that took our breath away, the sound of violin music floating through the air, voices chattering happily in some languages I know and some I don’t, a summer breeze in my hair, bright lights, face paint, views from the ferris wheel, singing.

The memories are already slipping away. But I will remember feeling happy, and I think that is enough.

Some pictures, because they will explain better than words: