Traits Of The Greatest Teacher Of My School Life.

A guy who made the most out of a flawed system.

I wish everyone the experience of a teacher as good as my tenth grade English teacher. I am mostly disillusioned by the state of school life here in Germany apart from my final three years at an economics-focused school that remedied a lot of that.

But even there the vast majority of lessons were boring, inconsequential, the teachers completely unmotivated save for two or three exceptions.

And they all had nothing on the English teacher to whom I attribute like a third of everything useful I ever learned in school.

He Taught Because He Wanted To, Not Because He Needed the Money

I will say that obviously this is not the default state that everyone can just push a button and be financially free — but this guy was. He had made money early on, enough to travel and see the world and when he decided to settle down in a small town in Northern Germany he did so with a plethora of friends, experiences and still no money issues.

This guy lived in a villa that one of his wealthy friends didn’t use and gave to him. He drove an ancient Jaguar that he repaired himself — a metal lathe in the garage because not even the company itself sold the spare parts anymore. A shed full of tools to tinker with.

He played guitar, was big into music and somehow along the way ended up an English teacher, I assume because he was bored. This whole guy’s personality was a bit of quirky fun stirred into a large glass of “if you do it, might as well do it right”.

If you were willing to listen not a single class went by without some small nugget of wisdom. When the son of a local Mercedes dealer got a new car he went to the blackboard and listed just how many bottles of beer one could afford instead, good beer at that because life is too short for the bad stuff as he quipped. He would teach us about alternative lifestyles just along the way by talking about his friend, the RV-living stock trader in the desert of Nevada.

Lots of actual life advice and the polar opposite to the teachers who had gone from school to studying to teaching without any real life in between. His only competition was our socio-economics teacher who had walked that exact path but with as many obstacles and odd jobs in between as she possibly could.

In my opinion that is what’s needed the most and the reason why we often think school is useless as being too theoretical. It doesn’t have to be.

He Did Away with the Expected Lesson Plan

He made us rush through the required reading so that we could get to the stuff he found actually useful.

I remember reading Mice and Men much like any class can be expected to, but for us it was a two-week read and maybe two more of discussions and tests rather than a full quarter. And that was a book that’s actually worth reading and talking about, never mind the rest of the curiculum.

In the remaining time we watched some great movies (The Milagro Bean Field War comes to mind, such an odd little gem) and most of the time he would sit in his chair and talk about his life, the people he met, the stories he had to share.

When the time came to prepare for final tests he invited us to his place so we could get drunk on expensive alcohol that none of us could differentiate from the cheap stuff.

He also gave us a list of non-required reading that was completely optional but valuable.

Of all the teachers I had in my life this guy was the only one who ever agreed when someone asked “when will we ever need this” and instead pushed through to actually teach us something. And these somethings ranged far beyond just English, included career advice, life advice, comedy and quibs.

He was Unfiltered

I got to meet him in his final three years before retirement, and he was also the last of a dying breed of teachers who were public officials, nearly un-fireable short of actual offences. He had nothing to fear and made the best of that, the worst of that. If you gave a stupid answer he told you so, if you did well he told you so. If he did not like a co-teacher he would spend the whole class dissecting their argument — in English of course so that it counted as an actual class.

A lot of people did not like him, hated his classes as much as I loved them. The pace was high, his grades were fair rather than favorable and you had to work your ass off to even keep up, let alone enjoy it. It split the class into a third who thrived and two thirds who survived — and some fell off.

Unlike with other teachers though these people did not fall off because of their origin though (as an aside: if you think racism isn’t alive my class started with eight immigrants and graduated as a pure-bred German constellation even though they worked twice as hard as some of those who graduated).

At one point this guy told a chick who I hated with a passion that her test was “quite good apart from the English”. At a later date when she tried to turn the transparent overhead projector sheet to continue writing on the other side the guy laughed tears instead of being polite. Needless to say I liked that, petty as I was. Nobody else gave that chick lip thanks to her rich parents and she deserved it every single day.

He certainly polarised in his efforts but if you came in on the right side he was also very motivating, encouraging. I would have hated to be on the other end of the spectrum and sit through his lessons rather than enjoying them, but what I liked about him was that he never held a grudge. A whole lot of people dropped in and out of his liking and some turned from barely speaking English to acing the government-mandated tests in the three years.

He Took Time to Coach Rather than Teach

Again, this is clearly something that not everyone can afford as it went directly into his own, unpaid time. But if you had issues (and he liked you enough) you could come to him after class, ask him for guidance, if he could help he would.

At one point I met him out in the city with his wife and he invited me to sit, have coffee with them and we spent an hour just talking, about inconsequential things to him I’m sure. But it was fun, I got a lot out of that experience and it still sticks in my mind.

He would also often times dabble in other teacher’s specialties as a sort of hobby and expand in his classes what they had started in theirs. Always under the guise of teaching us English, if you could ask the question in an understandable manner he would try to answer it as detailed as he could.

I find this contrast quite interesting compared to our German teacher who basically had the same kind of freedom at her hands and yet created the completely opposite experience. Sometimes polite, never helpful, always disappointed in you, herself, life as a whole. Either silent or yelling. Weird difference if you ask me, but by far the more common variant.

If Teachers Ignore Nearly Anything the System Requires they can Actually be Helpful

I have met more than a handful of objectively bad teachers. Racist, unmotivated, my arts teacher at one point told me to jump out the window, I have actively forgotten everything I learned in German classes thanks to a string of bad teachers.

I have spent most of my time under decent or even good teachers, funnily enough most of them were IT or language teachers. But I will give credit to everyone who made my school life not-horrible, there were plenty of good teachers who existed within the system and taught us what they were required to.

But the teachers who actually went and changed my perception of life, taught me things I rely on to this day were all at least partly outside that system. This English teacher was obviously an extreme but there have been others. Our Maths teacher in seventh grade figured that we might as well learn outside rather than being locked in and the whole lesson was three times as productive. Small things like that matter far more than you’d think to actually hammer knowledge into thick-headed youths.

However the system at large is incredibly inflexible, we learned from books that referred to German Mark as a currency even though that was replaced in 2001. Just this year one state famously invested over a million Euro into renewing their license for physical Encyclopaedias instead of giving their students the laptops they would have needed. I wasn’t allowed to use the internet at all until my final three years in school — the whole system is stacked against improving itself.

And that, to me will never not be weird because the point of learning is to adapt to new circumstances in life, yet it’s so backwards when it comes to itself.

So I wish everyone a teacher like this who manages to take the system and squeeze it to make room for the actually worthwhile.



Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash