The school and the staff for the next dictatorship
By Paul Pretoria.
I am a teacher at a state secondary school in southern Germany. I was tenured on the condition that I am willing to “stand up at all times for the free democratic Basic Order in the sense of the Basic Law” (§ 7 paragraph 1 number 2 BeamtStG). For this reason, I would like to report what has been happening in my school since March 2020. I anticipate: It has absolutely nothing to do with freedom in the sense of the Basic Law. My school has become a place of relentless coercion, mistrust, strict obedience and denunciation.
I am of course aware that school is a place of coercion anyway and despite all the euphemism-soaked Sunday speeches. You have to live with that if you want to be a teacher, as well as with the selection function you have to fulfil, despite all your sympathy for pupils. But it is possible to exercise appropriate coercion and still act humanely, that is, with a certain degree of empathy. In my experience, many colleagues manage this very well in normal everyday school life. In the crisis, fear, as well as the urge to obey and run along, destroyed empathy for very many.
What I have experienced in the last 12 months at school, so much by way of introduction, has initially taken away my courage to face life. In addition to a feeling of absolute loneliness in the crowd of my carefully masked colleagues who constantly disinfect their hands and seem to be in a very good mood for that very reason, who go along with everything and avoid any political discussion, there was a bewilderment that made me doubt my own sanity at times. And although I have meanwhile learned to resist the pull of despair, I have nevertheless come to a point where I cannot help but agree with Henryk Broder: The personnel for the next dictatorship actually seems to already be in place.
Participation in classes dependent on digital equipment
Now to the report: In March 2020, rumours came to a head that the school would be closed before the Easter holidays. In the weeks since the beginning of January, an above-average number of pupils and teachers had been ill. In hindsight, I think they probably had Corona, except that you weren’t locked up for it then. One Friday, our headmistress went into the staff room and, with a slight irony in her voice, announced the immediate closure of the school. After the holidays we would see what would happen. There was muted excitement, a few jokes were cracked about whether someone with one-year-old triplets at home could still come to school. These were the last moments of a normality that I can no longer imagine returning to school.
So-called distance learning (or distance teaching) now began, a euphemism that, like many others, became established in common parlance frighteningly quickly. What did it mean? Here is a partial list:
• Eye contact between teachers and students was henceforth passé, as the state government’s web conferencing programme shone with server crashes and transmission delays. Commercial programmes were not privacy-compliant. In the end, an agreement was reached on a programme that did not crash if only the teacher switched on the camera and which had been “approved” by the school’s data protection officer. Of course, there was still no joking around when it came to data protection. The fact that we had all been locked up due to a hasty change in the law was shrugged off by everyone.
• Due to the lack of control, at least one main subject teacher that I know of stopped teaching immediately, while others tried hard to cope with the change to purely digital communication with the students. I take my hat off to some of the senior colleagues who faced a very steep learning curve.
• Students were locked at home, their participation in class dependent on their digital equipment. Many did not own a computer besides their mobile phone or it was used by another family member. By no means did every household have a printer to print out a worksheet when needed. So many students read everything that was sent to them, whether text or graphics, exclusively on their small mobile phone screens and worked on their assignments as best they could, just there.
• But many students also disappeared from the radar, often those who had a hard time keeping up anyway. What could you say as a teacher when you were told: I didn’t have internet access to access the assignments or participate in the conference? Talks with parents did not always lead to improvement. Colleagues came up with completely new control mechanisms and reprisals to keep these students in line. It did not always succeed and still does not succeed today. It is these students who will pay a very high price for the school closures. I would like to ask the next politician who utters the word educational justice: what did you do during the crisis?
• Since teachers in my type of school do not like to cooperate, everyone sent his or her assignments when it suited him or her. Students never knew when the next assignment with a short deadline would show up on their screen. They couldn’t plan or organise their workload, but woe betide them if they didn’t hand something in on time. As a class teacher, I got this reported back to me by the students. A minority complied with my request to the class council to send the assignments in bundles at the beginning of the week. I heard nothing from the majority.
All my pupils are afraid of killing their grandparents
This was the situation the students found themselves in overnight: all social contact with peers was forbidden, they were alone with school assignments, their opportunities to exercise were limited to activities in the garden, they sat in front of their screens for hours both before and after school, they could no longer escape family problems. The reason for all this, as we know, was the threat of suffocation everywhere and at all times.
I actually consider children to be robust and at that time I was not ready to complain immediately about their lot. But things are different now. The pupils are in exactly the same situation twelve months later. They are still locked up, cannot do sports, only sit in front of their screens, are not allowed to meet, are alone. And the news is pouring in that everything is even worse than ever before, the danger omnipresent, death even more likely. For some time now, we have been receiving emails via the school email – without any comment from the school administration, of course, because that could be interpreted as an admission – from associations that offer help with suicidal thoughts in children and young people. Well, well.
I have often wondered how parents manage to expose their children to these medieval messages. All my students are afraid, especially of killing their grandparents. Actually, I have had mostly positive experiences with parents and find them mostly reasonable and approachable. I am all the more dismayed by what I experience.
With the majority of my colleagues, I am not dismayed, but simply angry. How often have I heard the term “in the interests of the students”, how often the statement that one should not torment the poor with too much material or pressure to take grades, that one must make use of the “pedagogical leeway” and so on. I am often repelled by these statements because I think they are really about self-promotion as a good person and exemplary teacher. But one can hardly say anything against so much empathy.
Except this: Shortly before the mask requirement was introduced, there was a teachers’ conference at my school. I wrote the following to a friend: “I am sitting in the conference. It’s about compulsory masking. There is a lot of excitement, but all the questions have only one goal: How can we better control, reprimand, punish the students if they resist the mask requirement? Can we kick them out of school? Yes? Is that possible? Nobody, not a single one, asks how the children will actually feel about what we are actually doing here. Nothing but hysterical obedience, control mania, submission. The next dictatorship will come, and Germany will be at the forefront. I am desperate.”
Auto writes under a pseudonym. To be continued.