Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

I Told You So!

January 11, 2015

It has happened exactly as I have feared. My newly reacquired profession as a classroom teacher has absorbed me so completely that very simply there has been no spare time to write about my many interesting experiences. And interesting experiences I certainly had, plenty of them! But now that we have once again crossed the threshold into a new year, there must be somewhere a quick opportunity to take a breath or two, and let you in on what has been happening here in the tidy and highly controlled garden of Switzerland.


First in the order of all things I have to tell you that this teaching business is very simply a task impossible to do right. You can certainly always do your best at any given time and that might be enough if you’re a person easily satisfied. But if you accept your duty to prepare today’s youth at least somewhat adequately for tomorrow’s world, there’s just no way you can achieve perceivable results within the rigid framework of the classroom! So you’re faced with that eternal and extremely beautiful task of making it possible for the impossible to become possible.

It is a familiar chore and for me it means I’m constantly rolling grave doubts around in my head, feverishly working my imagination through a string of scenarios, depicting possible solutions for the many problems that manifest before my eyes persistently every day anew. The bewildered eyes of sixteen students are staring at me like outstretched arms of drowning souls in the tumultuous sea of modern times, and constantly I find myself having to choose. Which one am I able to help, and which ones must I abandon and let them wither away?


In many ways it is a situation very similar to sailing the oceans. Just like out there at sea only calm nerves can efficiently hold a course, and I’m learning to explain complicated problems in very simple terms. My students, of course, want to know nothing of change. They have achieved a first level of personal autonomy by fighting their way through the grinding mill of an education system that without much mercy forms its citizens to be obedient and well adapted. Very understandably they are not willing to give the slightest inch of it away. Any intent of turning their heads toward the real problems around them is resisted fiercely with varying degrees of violence. It is a challenging cat and mouse game where only very agile dancing allows for the tiny opening of little windows here and there.


I’m able to hold on to one important thing, however, and this is something I have learned while building our sailboat Aluna, our floating home, which at this time is taking a good and well-earned break from the ups and downs of the gruesome life on the ocean. In a nutshell it is simply this: Persistence can eat its way through many a sizeable adversary, it is the brain that moves the brawn, the David that fells the Goliath, and it is how what seemed impossible at first, slowly but surely comes into shape, takes its natural course and begins the inevitable transformation towards a healthier future. Only time however will show the fruits of my labor, if there are any at all. We shall have to wait and see, to find out whatever might have been my practical contribution to the shape and form of this new next generation, those very same people that are going to be in charge of calling the shots in our societies once you and I will be old and weary.


The good side of this extreme situation is of course that this impossible task holds me upright, proudly facing the wind, standing up to the fading times, being active at the frontlines of the present civilized life forms that crawl like cybernetic ants all over the planet Earth. And boy, crawl they do! I am observing my fellow citizens here in Switzerland with intense curiosity. In their slightly stiff twists and turns I manage to see what would have happened to me, had I not left my country thirty years ago. How important it is, I realize amazed, that you take your own life into your own hands at the earliest possible age! Had I not run away the chances of reaching escape velocity would have slowly faded away over the years of dutifully accumulating the needed wealth to secure the painful eons of life as a useless pensioner. Steady droplets of bittersweet comfort would have hollowed the stone of my practical wisdom. I would be a humble little wheel in the mill of globalized commerce and my soul a strangulated bundle of hurt.


Many stereotypes fall away when you spend some time with the people they try to characterize. Some of them though they stick, like perfectly shaped to represent the species. One of the stereotypes that refuses to loosen its grip on the Swiss and does not even dissolve by closer and more detailed observation, is these mountain folk’s proverbial dedication. Whatever they do, and wherever they are, they do their things with a furious fervor second to none in the world, and their tireless drive for perfection could well be cause for very cautious admiration to the uncritical eye.


The fact is, of course, I have not spent each and every minute of my life in the classroom during the past couple of months. The ‘Pensum’, the term used here in the Canton of Bern for the amount of time I am obliged to dedicate professionally to the school, is generously ‘locker’, or loose, with some free time available for social activities. I have been fortunate enough to meet with a string of very interesting personalities. Most of them I had retraced from my roots, or at least from where I last remember tearing them out all around me some thirty years ago, during those distant times of upheaval on my early way to adulthood. Some have gotten wind of our return from others or through newspaper articles, some I have run into by chance on a stroll through town, and some I have looked up myself, wanting to check up on them out of my own curiosity. I will try to work on a couple portraits to present them to you over the few months that are left for us here in this country of unbound riches.

The return flight that will bring us back on the adventurous track has been recently changed. You might remember that originally we had planned to be on board a commercial flying machine for the passing into the new year. Now that flight has been postponed and the flight half way across the planet back to our maritime home is set for the second of the merry month of May. We hope that this will give us enough time to clean the barnacles off Aluna’s underbellies and pressure clean the layers of guano from her decks, and then be able to leave the rugged shores of New Zealand just before the onset of the austral winter months with its deteriorating weather. Where to? There is no need to decide that yet. Planning only leads to places we have already seen!


October 4, 2014

Sometimes it does feel like our sailing and travelling adventure has come to a full stop. We have embedded ourselves to such a degree into the thick and sticky web of Swiss normality that at times I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to escape it again. But at closer inspection that is not the case at all. While thanks to my birthright we have had access to the ‘inner circle’, the cream of the society, we continue to live like flashy butterflies at the very edge of things. A row of shiny red and white flower petals serves as a garden bench from where we look in awe at the immense tapestry of the most frenetic activities imaginable that passes before our eyes.

While certainly at the mercy of modernity’s pulse with its slew of abstractions, the job of an educator is a timeless one, where the appearance changes continuously but its essence stays eerily still. The process of shaping human beings and equipping them with whatever they might need for their journey through the treats, tricks and travesties of life is a complicated affair, one that needs absolute dedication, but also one humongous degree of flexibility. There are times in the demanding trade of classroom showmanship when you have to follow strict guidelines, sometimes down to the very letter of the fine print, but at the same time you might find yourself directing a spicy confrontation with an unruly teenage spirit who happens to have no sense whatsoever of fitting into anything, and you must do that without losing any of your sympathy.

My students have the mandatory school years behind them but for one reason or another have not yet found a fitting place in the tightknit world of the adult workforce. Their peers have gone off to start an apprenticeship in a local business where they learn a profession by which they all hope to be able to earn enough financial security and bring up their own family. A few have even gone off to compete with the strenuous demands of higher education, where they will be tested to the core and only if found fit will have access to a material wealth inaccessible to the vast majority of the population. So the tenth school year is a curious kink in the educational landscape of the Canton Bern purposely built to catch the late bloomers to give them one last chance to jump on the bandwagon of an acceptable professional career.

I was fortunate enough to have landed on a kind of a bandwagon myself, being firmly embedded in a groove laid down by a long lasting family tradition. Both my parents were educated teachers and on my mother’s side the pedagogical trade goes back to at least one further generation. My grandfather was a happy chap with sparkling eyes and a very gentle soul, and always with a loving word for us back when we were kids. I remember him surrounded by clouds of exotic smelling smoke from his ever-present pipe at the yearly Christmas celebrations. He fought for social justice with intelligence and passion, and had a definite musical vein. I tuned my very flesh into his parting soul when doing night watches at the bedside as a freshman in college. There his tired body was withering away under the cruel menace of prostate cancer. Painfully slow the life force retreated from his desiccated body and far behind his glassy morphine saturated eyes a torch lit that has provided steady guidance for me through many a dark night.

But to say that teaching runs in our vein sounds a wee bit cheesy and some people would love to jump on that argument with revenge to decry the inborn arrogance in our family lines. The fact is that for the next six months I’ll have a dozen and a half youngsters under my wings and I’ll do twists and turns and many other spiritual circus acts to help them to the necessary tools for their survival in modern society’s merciless catch as catch can. A very complex task is awaiting me in those mottled school halls up on a hill at the outskirts of Langenthal and to round up this short reflection it will not at all be unlike the crossing of very vast and very wavy stretches of unruly oceans we have honed our skills at over the last five years or so. The sense of adventure must certainly prevail and guide my actions once the doubts will come and try to cloud my reasoning. Routine, as much as it is a requisite brought forth by the structure of an orderly educational institution, is the enemy of all living things. It must be broken up and transcended so that the necessary changes, like possible instant insights and raving revelations illuminating those growing minds, can play out freely unhindered by stiff rational limitations.

Adventure cannot be delegated to some remote island deep in the distant seas. It is the salt of life in every day’s doing and undoing. Lifting the chokehold of habit, normality and indifference the real purpose of our actions lies bare and visible, touchable, drinkable, breathable. Unsettle your self and let the drama of reality unfold, engage and expose, live and love, if you happen to know what I mean!

Onwards To A Completely Different Trade

September 22, 2014

I’m walking uphill under the midday sun. A comfortable asphalt road snakes before me neatly separating two impeccably green fields one from the other. Those pastures roll gently upwards and end sharply against the deep azure of the sky. I’m leaving the last proud houses of this little Swiss village behind. It’s a village that likes to call itself a town, but that’s another story. I leisurely continue my stroll upwards. Under a mighty Lindentree close to the top of the hill I find a comfortable green bench. Some benevolent community association must have put it there for the benefit of many wanderers who have been or will be in need of a short break in their long and winding journeys.

I sit down on the bench, stretch my legs and muse about this short but very sweet escape from the classroom in the trade school down there in town, where I had been entrusted with a six-week substitute teaching job. I had downed a quick lunch and finished the prep work for the two German grammar lessons in the afternoon in time for this quick interlude of leisurely idleness. Forty minutes was all that was left from my lunch break and half of this is gone by now.

My eyes dazzle along the horizon, hop over smooth wooded crests and spring from one puffy cloud to the other in a dance of lost contemplation. A trio of earth-brown feathered raptors soar amongst those clouds, cleverly riding thermals and updrafts with their slender wings spread wide, moving only the pointed tips of their tails with the sharp precision of a seasoned hunter. A yellow butterfly wiggles its way happily across a cut cornfield, and its color contrasts curiously with the deep brown of the exposed earth underneath its itchy path. A short while later the flurry shape reenters the verdant green grass pasture and the distance its dance had put between us had already tremendously diminished its shape. The little lemon speck led my gaze back to the pile of concrete and red clay tiles that made up the human settlement I happened to have found such a clever way to escape.

It vividly occurs to me how terribly unimportant all those human activities down there are: The brand new car with its aggressively streamlined lines, the imposing houses that seem to want to swallow their neighbors on either side, the latest and greatest of those shiny gadgets that cling to us modern denizens like oversized ticks and override any and all of the meager social skills we have left. I realize right here and now how tiny and little the part we play in the giant clockwork of nature actually is. We’re but a miserable speck embedded in an endless procession of creatures whose existence is a dense and intertwined tapestry of precisely planned destinies, where the concept of causality explodes in a catastrophic nuclear blast, and my little butterfly’s flapping wings cause a definite change of course in the dark and rolling thunder clouds that drag their watery charge across the vast rainforest canopies on the heated planes at the heart of Brazil. At least out here in the countryside human activity can be seen in perspective, I muse, should you happen to wish such a stern perception upon you. If you move closer to the urban centers of the cities however such fine-tuned realization quickly becomes impossible, blurred out by the random noise of cleverly organized corporate consumer commitment.

But the call of duty brings my short excursion into the light realm of contemplation to a premature ending. After a quick glance at my watch I stand up and stretch my legs, then begin my descent down into this little hearth of civilization.

Step by step I reenter the realm of busyness. First some students whiz by riding colorful bikes on their way back to school from the lunch break back home. Then cars squeeze through narrow lanes, big red excavators dig their rusty shovels into a ditch filled with plastic pipes and many danger orange clad workers hurry about. A bright red lorry rumbles past the schoolhouse just as I quickly squeeze through its heavy oak door. The door pulls shut behind me and the orderly but institutionalized silence inside the building envelops my full attention.

Three girls are already sitting on their desks in the classroom. They giggle entranced by teenage chatter and soon the rest of the students slowly trickle in, barely able to tip the balance of bodily inertia in their favor. At 13:30 sharp I walk towards the pulpit onto which I deposit the sheet of paper with my prep notes and the German grammar book with the purple cover. I carefully collect my thoughts, let my eyes scan over the class from left to right and then back from right to left, and soak in the prickly energy of my seventeen teenage friends. Their chatter had peaked just as I had stepped in front of them and now slowly, much too slowly in fact, it descends to a point where I can make myself heard. There is no sense in waiting for it to die down all together, the times where a school class listens to their teacher in awe have long come and gone.

I start with a gentle description of my stroll up the hill, something my unruly audience clearly had not expected. The chatter diminishes a notch further and some eyes are now actually on me. I describe the impression the steady passage of the fluffy cumulus clouds had made within me and delineate the circling of the soaring raptors with a swipe of my left hand. I avoid mentioning the butterfly as it would most certainly be discarded as kitsch. But I do relate my realization of the limited importance of everything human, especially our treasured technological and organizational feats. “Then once I had returned,” I continue now with a slight menace underlining my voice, “and as I stand here now in front of all of you, it is really strange, but I cannot help but realize, how very important and crucial our human activities are!” A moment of suspense hangs in the air as all logic looses its luster and incredulous glances flash back and forth. “Everything around us is important”, I desperately try to keep the momentum going, knowing all too well that most likely my effort will be once again in vain, “Language certainly is important and we would do well to study it in detail and very very closely.”

It was a slow but steady decline from there, on the intellectual as well as on the emotional level. “Please open your books now on page 56, we will continue our study of the noun”, I declared with full awareness that at the very least thirty percent of my subjects had reached a premature end of their attention span and their minds where wondering off to some imaginary worlds of cotton candy comfort, “In our German language the noun not only conforms to gender and number, but also undergoes certain formal changes we call declination, it responds to different cases according to its position within the sentence. We distinguish between four cases in German: Nominative, Accusative, Dative and…”