Differences between German and American high schools

Something you won't see in Germany. Image credit: http://rocksetproductions.com/photography/img_0160/

A few months ago, I posted about my take on the German school system and how it differs from the U.S., with an emphasis on each system's approach to preparing students for their post-high school lives.

 With this post, I wanted to highlight more specifically the differences between German high schools and U.S. high schools based on how the schools actually function day-to-day. This list is based on my experiences at a Realschule, so people who are more familiar with the Gymnasium system will probably make different comparisons, but this is what has been striking to me (and if the terms "Realschule" and "Gymnasium" mean nothing to you, reference the post linked above for more information).

 1) Religion

America is frequently portrayed in the foreign media as being an extremely religious country (at least in certain pockets of the country), yet I have found the prevalence of religion in school to be far more striking in Germany than in the U.S.

In the U.S., despite stereotypes of our religiosity, we are actually very concerned (in general) with the concept of separation of church and state as well as political correctness. Separation of church and state comes into play when it comes to public schools taking any action that could be construed as supporting religion, such as sponsoring a Christmas pageant, or a Bible club, or starting assemblies with a prayer. Since public schools are funded by government money, and the government cannot support one religion over another, instances like these become very controversial in the U.S. With regards to political correctness, some schools avoid celebrating overtly religious holidays like Christmas, and instead focusing on more general themes like the "holidays" and celebrating winter. The idea here is that since not all students are Christian, it doesn't seem appropriate to force all students to celebrate Christian holidays.

This is a non-issue at my school here in Germany. I work at a public school, but there are crucifixes in most classrooms. It's worth mentioning that Fulda is a very Catholic town in comparison to much of Germany, so it's not as though this is typical of Germany in general, but it's definitely not uncommon. Apparently there had been discussions in my school in the last few years as to whether the crosses should be taken down, but nobody really cared enough about it to protest, so the crosses remained. Just think for a second how a discussion like that would go in the U.S.

Additionally, religion is a core subject at pretty much all German high schools -- it's something you're required to take. Usually how it goes is that students who are Catholic attend a class on Catholicism, students who are protestant (Evangelisch in German, not to be confused with evangelical Christianity in the U.S.) attend a class on protestantism, and students who don't fit into either of those boxes attend an ethics class of some kind.

I find this to be quite bizarre. I just don't understand why this is considered to be a core subject alongside history and math. If students want to learn about their faith, that should be facilitated by the church, in my opinion, not the state government. It would make more sense to me if all students were simply required to take an ethics class. But every time I talk with Germans about how strange this system seems to me, it doesn't seem to faze them at all -- in fact, I get the distinct impression they think I'm the odd one for caring so much about students being taught about religion in a public school.

2) The Structure of the School Day

In this case, I can only speak to my experience teaching at a Realschule -- the structure, especially length of the school day will differ at the other types of school, but the overall idea is essentially the same.

At my school, the school day begins just before 8 a.m. and typically ends between 12:30 and 2 p.m. The time it ends is not consistent because students have different classes in different orders each day of the week. For example, they might have English for two hours Monday morning, but they won't have it at all on Tuesdays, when they start their day with history instead. Maybe they have five classes on Wednesdays, but six on Thursdays. This has made building my work schedule quite the puzzle, especially when the class schedules change school-wide, leaving me to scramble to see how I can fit the same classes in the same three days in completely different time slots.

There is a 5 minute period between classes like we have at U.S. high schools, but it's more for the benefit of the teachers than the students. This is because teachers are the ones who change classrooms for each class, not the students. Each individual class (e.g., 7b, 9a, 10e) has a classroom that the teachers rotate through.

When I tell my teachers that we do it differently in the U.S. and that every American teacher has his or her own room, it's usually met by a wistful sigh and a comment on how nice that would be. I tend to agree, because one thing I have noticed is that American classrooms are usually much more lively with posters, pictures decorations, etc. In the U.S., a French teacher might have a room covered in pictures of France, French flags and posters explaining key grammatical rules or conjugations. Here, since a room is for the whole class and thus cannot be appropriated entirely by one teacher or subject, they're lucky if they can post one grammar-related poster in the classroom, which I think is a shame.

Since students usually stay in their assigned classroom, lockers aren't really a thing at German high schools. I know my school has some small ones tucked away in a corner, but I've never seen anyone use them -- usually they just keep everything in their backpacks and keep their backpacks by their desks. A long hallway full of lockers for every student is a decidedly stereotypical American image for them.

3) Teacher-Student Rapport

This one is a little harder for me to articulate, because there haven't necessarily been clear-cut examples of this in my experience; it's more of a general feeling. But overall I have found that there is a much more relaxed and trusting relationship between students and their teachers, particularly in the higher grades.

For one, there's really no set dress code for teachers. Most I know wear jeans and a normal mildly dressy shirt; I usually just wear jeans and a t-shirt. I've even seen male teachers come to school in jean shorts, something that would never fly in the U.S. I think this helps set a mood in the classroom that is more social and open, as opposed in the U.S. where teachers often dress professionally and thus clearly set themselves apart from their students.

As part of this more open atmosphere, teachers put up with a lot more misbehavior from students than an American teacher would. If a student walks in a minute after the bell has rung, in most cases they can just walk in and say "Entschuldigung für die Verspätung" ("Sorry for being late"), offer a lame excuse ("Ich habe verschlafen!") and sit down. The teacher rolls their eyes, maybe makes a comment, and then continues with the lesson. Meanwhile in the U.S., many teachers lock their doors after the bell has rung, forcing students to knock if they want to enter the classroom; moreover, that student is likely to receive a detention of some kind, a concept that just doesn't exist here in Germany.

If a teacher gives students an assignment they're not excited about, it's common for one or more students to complain loudly about it, which often leads to a playful banter between the student at the teacher about why they don't want to do it. In my experience in the U.S., teachers are far less willing to tolerate such interruptions and arguments and far more likely to tell students not to complain or they'll get even more work.

I have also found that teachers in Germany give their students a lot more freedom to decide what and how they would like to learn. Teachers regularly ask for feedback from their students about what they do and don't like, and what they would prefer to be done differently in the future -- and they listen. I don't think this happens nearly often enough in the U.S., or at least not when I was a student.

This attitude carries over on class trips as well. When my 10th graders took a class trip to Berlin, I can guarantee you no one knocked on their doors at 12 a.m. to make sure everyone was in bed, nor were there any eyes batted about letting them wander around Berlin at night, nor were there count-offs and buddy checks before heading to various destinations in the city. They were 16 years old, and the general assumption is any trouble they got in would be their own fault -- the teachers aren't there to baby them.

4) Grades and Feedback

 The longer you spend time in Germany, the more you realize where certain stereotypes about Germans come from. One such stereotype is that of Germans being overly direct and pointed in their speech -- something I have definitely noticed at play during the school day.

A simple scenario: A teacher asks a question with a specific answer in mind. A student raises their hand and offers an answer that you could understand how they got there, but ultimately it's far off the mark.

In the U.S., a teacher might say something like, "No, that's not quite it, though I see where you're coming from. Why don't you think of it this way..."

In Germany, the teacher simply says, "No, that's wrong. Someone else?"

It's not a huge difference, but it has been striking to me how frequently I see teachers willing to point-blank tell students they're completely wrong, that the teacher has no idea what the student is trying to say, etc. Whereas I feel like American teachers usually try to be more encouraging, for fear of silencing students not entirely confident in their answers.

On the same note, grading is much harsher in Germany. It's far less common for students to get the highest mark possible, and not at all uncommon for students to fail tests. If several students fail a test, the assumption is usually that the students simply didn't study, rather than that something might have been wrong with how the teacher presented the material.

Teachers are also more likely to give very frank feedback on whether or not a student is performing well enough to get into Gymnasium, for example, or for a certain career track they're interested in. German teachers tell it like it is and don't care whose feelings get hurt in the process.

5) Rules governing student behavior

As previously alluded to, there are far fewer rules and regulations governing student behavior in German schools. One prime example is the lack of a dress code. Most German schools have no rules dictating what students can and can't wear to school, and the idea that this is a common thing in the U.S. is strange and interesting to most students (I did lessons on this topic with several of my classes by going through my old high school's dress code with them). I am sure if a student was wearing something genuinely inappropriate or offensive the teachers would have no problem sending a student home, but generally, teachers accept that students can wear whatever they want (and for the record, I have never see a student dress in a way that I thought was wholly inappropriate for school).

There is also a lot of leniency toward students who swear in class; teachers might chastise a student for doing it, but it generally doesn't lead to any consequences, especially since teachers themselves will swear in front of students on occasion.

The attitude toward alcohol and students is strikingly different in Germany since the drinking age is lower. Youths can legally consume beer at age 16, meaning most of my 10th graders can already drink. This means that at my students' Abschlussball in July (basically the closest Germany gets to a graduation ceremony), my students will be able to purchase beer and drink as much as they like, even with all of their teachers present. Additionally, when one of my 10th grade classes was trying to decide what their class T-shirt would look like, they decided they wanted the shirts to say "Absch(l)uss." This is a play on the words "Abschluss," meaning a completion, i.e. graduating from school, and "Abschuss" which in this context basically means to get drunk. Though the teacher didn't necessarily think it was in the best taste, he made no effort to stop them from choosing this design, since it's their shirt. Meanwhile, such references to alcohol use among high school students would be absolutely verboten in American schools.  

6) Student life

On a final note, student life is far less rich at German schools than at American schools. There are some sports teams, but they are very small and receive little fanfare (I actually have no idea how this works at my school, but I know there are some teams). Students are far more likely to join a local team comprised of youth from various schools in their community and play against other similarly formed teams.

There are also fewer clubs. At my school, there are some musical organizations (a band and a choir, for example) and some students participate in debate or research competitions. But there's no art club, no French club, no newspaper or yearbook. In general there's not a lot of what we would refer to as "school spirit" -- students tend to leave school as soon as their last class is over and pursue any extracurricular activities outside of the auspices of the school. That said, I wouldn't necessarily say my school is lacking in community or cohesiveness. I just think these bonds are solidified differently, and often through the students' own efforts rather than the school's.