Carlie: Hey there it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. What can you expect as a foreign teacher working in Germany? And what do you do when your school goes bankrupt? American expat John Siskar wasn’t planning to dive into an international teaching career when he went travelling six years ago. And he certainly wasn’t expecting to later find himself with an almost empty bank account.
Today on the show, John shares his insights into teaching in Germany, and explains how he navigated a really difficult situation.
You have been teaching in Germany in secondary schools for a number of years now. How did that start for you?
John: That is probably one of the most random stories that I have, actually! When I had finished my Master’s degree at the same time as my brother finished his time in the army, and so basically we decided to go backpacking in Europe for 3 months. And during that time when we were in Croatia, in Split, I actually met three teachers, from a kindergarten in Frankfurt, and yeah, we connected for a few days, hung out, had fun, and they were like, we like you! You should come work with us! And I’m like, yeah, why not? I’ve never been to Frankfurt before.
So basically I sent in my resume, cover letter, and whatever to the school, with a nice recommendation from them as well, personal recommendation not professional obviously. Two weeks later the school emailed me back saying hey, we’d love to do a Skype interview. By then I was in Bulgaria, and so I had a Skype interview in Sofia with the school. They hired me at the end of the interview, and said we’d love to have you start on January 1st. This was beginning of November at that time. And so I flew home for a month and a half, so I could pack up some stuff and get ready to move across to Europe, and yeah.
My Master’s degree was in education, and so after about two years in the kindergarten I decided that if I was going to stay in Germany, I should probably actually search for a job teaching what I’m supposed to be teaching, which would have been secondary English.
Carlie: So you did do a degree and you did intend to be a teacher, but possibly not straight off the back of your 3 month trip around Europe?
John: Exactly! I was more thinking the next school year in the US, and so I was planning on actually going back to the US and subbing for the rest of the year, because finding a job in the middle of the school year is not going to happen really.
Carlie: And so what made you decide to take the leap and do this interview and, when you got the offer, move to Germany?
John: Well, in all fairness, I love travelling, and I love seeing new places, and Germany is dead centre of Europe. Frankfurt especially has a huge airport, so I knew that I could basically take weekend trips or vacations anywhere in Europe very easily. And 3 months was just not enough to see as much as I wanted to see. In all fairness, 5 years has not been enough to see as much as I wanted to see.
Carlie: So you started off in a kindergarten, and you’ve moved into teaching in secondary schools, which you said was what your qualification allowed you to do. Did you find it difficult to make that move?
John: Not particularly. It was a long process of applications, but mainly because I wanted to stay in Frankfurt. And there are only about nine or ten international schools in Frankfurt. If I had just been willing to basically go anywhere in Germany, I would’ve almost certainly have found a position much quicker, but since I was basing on what I was able to teach and within a very limited area, it was, yeah, a little bit longer, the search. Still, it didn’t take all that long, I guess after I started searching it took 8 months before I found a position.
Carlie: And what do you teach?
John: Right now I am teaching social studies and English. In the past I have also taught IT and computer science at different levels.
Carlie: So how does that work in a German secondary school when your qualification was attained in the USA? Did you have to go through any additional validation of your qualifications? I’m assuming you’re teaching in English?
John: I am teaching in English, and I am teaching in a private school. And so with a private school, they don’t have to meet the standards that a German school would in recognising a degree. However, before the current school that I’m in, the first one that I had started in was a bilingual school, they were following the German curriculum, and they were only kind of half-private, so they still received state money, and so they still had to meet state standards, and they still had to teach the German curriculum. And so in that situation I was actually teaching history, English, and computer science.
So basically what they had to do to verify that my degree was good enough to teach in a German school, was, you have to a local government office with all of your diplomas, which were then translated into German, and not just the diploma itself but every class that you’ve taken, so that they can like look at how many credits you have in everything to see that you’ve studied that subject enough, in addition to having the education courses that you needed…
Carlie: Not just flunked your way through a year or something.
John: Exactly! And so basically, even though I was certified to teach English in the US, they would still look at my Bachelor’s degree and see oh, OK, you have 35 credits of English classes, and so this shows that you have earned the degree and all of those things, so they just check to make sure that everything’s there. And there’s a lot of seals and stamps of approval, which luckily I didn’t have to deal with any of, because the administration was the one that was turning in all the paperwork, and doing all of the jobs of going to the offices.
Carlie: So what have you noticed are some significant differences between teaching in schools and the curriculum in the USA, compared to Germany?
John: Well, they definitely have a different system of weighing how you pass a year. So, basically you have what are considered like your main subjects, and your secondary subjects. And your main subjects are much more important, and that would be your native language, which in a German school is German, then your first second language, like in most cases that’s English, though you can potentially do it in another language, most schools do have like the first second language being English, as well as math. And those are like the three main subjects.
And then you have the secondary subjects which would be the three sciences that they teach, which would be physics, biology, and chemistry, and history and geography, politics, ethics, all of these are secondary subjects. Physical education as well. And basically what happens at the end of the year is you don’t necessarily have to pass every subject to pass the year. But the subjects balance against each other.
So they grade on a 1-6 system. If you have, for instance, a 6 in German but a 1 in English and math, then the 1 in English and math could be balanced against that 6. So like even though you completely bombed one class you could still pass the year. And so you just kind of like compare all of the classes and see, like sometimes you’re just like, OK, well you got, in a main subject this, and in a secondary subject this, but the main subject is more important so it over-balances.
It’s a very complicated system, and the teachers all vote on anything that happens. So like, if somebody is about to fail the year, the teachers vote to think if, that the student should fail the year. If parents are going to be informed about something, and it’s something important like you think their kid might have a, like disability or impairment of some kind, then the teachers would again vote just to make sure that the parents should be approached, and so it’s an interestingly democratic system of teaching.
Carlie: That sounds very supportive too as a teaching community, that your peers get involved in decision-making.
John: Absolutely. It’s, every teacher that teaches that student is involved in these votes. And so it would be all the subject teachers for every subject they’re in.
Carlie: And how do students take to having international teachers, or non-native German teachers?
John: My current school, it’s an international school, I would say 90% of the students are international. My first school, which I said was a German school, bilingual school, was 90% German. For the most part I think they were very supportive in the first school. They really enjoyed the novelty of having a foreign teacher, I was, well, outside of the Spanish teacher I was the only foreign teacher on staff. They really got into the idea of speaking English, at first they were petrified! They were like, oh no, we are not speaking English with a native speaker! There is no possible way this is happening!
Carlie: Aah! (laughs)
John: Two or three weeks in, like pretty much everybody had broken down and gotten into the whole group of things.
Carlie: And how’s your German, John, especially after a number of years now in Germany?
John: I would say my German is relatively conversational. I don’t wanna go to the point of saying fluent, because German is ridiculous, like, there’s a, like whole level you reach before you get to fluency, I believe. Yes, I understand 95% of what people are saying, and yes I can express 90% of what I want to express. But it’s that extra 10% or 5% that really makes you fluent in a language, and so, if I need to spend the whole night talking in German, or if I’m just out with a group of people who don’t speak English for whatever reason, that is not a problem. But, it still takes time I think to become truly fluent.
Carlie: For sure, and I guess now you’re in an international school, you may not be using it as much as when you were in your first school?
John: Well in the first school as well, I was told not to tell the kids that I spoke any German. Because then they had no recourse…
John: … in English.
John: And it works pretty well, and, but it’s really hard to keep a straight face sometimes in the classroom when they’re saying things, and …
Carlie: You have to pretend you don’t understand (laughs).
John: It’s really bad, like, sometimes they’ll be insulting each other, or insulting other teachers, or something like that, and then you have to just like, I have no idea what’s going on!
Carlie: (laughs) Have a good poker face!
John: Yeah, exactly!
Carlie: So you had this amazing fateful moment of meeting some people while travelling that led to your first teaching job in Germany. How difficult is it normally for expats looking for teaching work in Germany?
John: Normally I would say, especially if you aren’t just trying to find one city, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult. There are a ridiculous amount of international schools here, where they are looking to hire non-natives, without German qualifications, and they want native English speakers for these schools. So especially if you are a native English, or if you are a teacher of Spanish, French, etc, where they can use you as a native speaker for that as well, these schools are absolutely searching for people all the time. Especially if you’re in the sciences or maths, they are always searching for science and math teachers, because even in the US, science and maths teachers are a precious commodity.
Carlie: And how did you go with getting permission to remain in Germany? Is your school sponsoring you for a visa?
John: Germany is actually one of the best countries in Europe for this. You actually do not need a visa upon arrival in Germany. Once you are here and you have gainful employment, you can actually go and apply for a visa. So once you have the contract. So you do not need to even have a visa coming into Germany, and so you just basically go and wait in line at the Ausländerbehörde, the foreign office basically, and yeah, you can get the visa.
The only things that you need to prove, which is very easy with an international school, are that you make a certain amount of money, and if you’re not making that amount of money then you really shouldn’t be accepting the job in the first place from whatever school you are at. And that you are not taking the job from a European citizen, which again, because it is an international school, Britain has a teacher shortage as well, it is not a problem for you to grab a teaching position in Germany.
Carlie: You said that particularly international schools are a little bit more lax in that they don’t need, you know, specifically German qualifications. Are there any red flags when it comes to looking for teaching positions in Germany and, and schools that might try and do things in a not-OK way?
John: Health insurance should be provided by your school, make sure that’s happening, because you should be on the state system. If they’re trying to make you work freelance at a school-school [unclear – 00:13:33], then you should be saying no to that immediately. So if you’re going freelance that means that you’re gonna be filing your own taxes, that means that you’re going to be paying for your own insurance, those kind of things would not be OK. Most of the big international schools would never even think about doing that.
On the other side of things, though, there are teachers in Germany that are obviously ESL teachers, which is not in a proper German school, but is an English academy basically. And that’s the other option that would be open to a lot more people, ‘cause even teaching in an international school, you need to be a fully certified teacher. You’re going to have to show your teaching credentials from your home country, and prove that you actually are a certified teacher.
Carlie: You’ve got the proper degree.
John: Exactly. In the US, or whatever, you would also have to show your teacher certification which involves three state exams after you do your degree. But, the language academies would be open to anybody who would have a TEFL or TESL certification. And this would be the other side of things. And here it would not be unusual for you to be working freelance, so you would be paying your own insurance, and you would have to file your own taxes, and you would be paid hourly. Because you wouldn’t be there with a contract.
Carlie: John, what challenges have you experienced since you started your teaching career in Germany?
John: Well, there is a relatively big one in there, if you want a story that’s going to take way too long to tell right now!
Carlie: Hit me with it!
John: Alright. So, October, my last school went bankrupt.
Carlie: Oh wow!
John: Basically it, it seems like the boss has been taking money from the company for a very very long time, the owner of the school, not the principal. And so basically at the end of September we got our pay checks like normal. End of October, our pay checks don’t come. And, we get an email from the admin saying, oh there’s a problem with the office that is cutting the checks, it should be fixed in about a week, and we’ll have it all resolved. Two weeks later, the teachers start getting nervous, because we still haven’t been paid. And so we start emailing the owner asking for explanations, and we have no more communication with him any more, he is not responding to anything, he is basically ignoring everything, phone calls, texts, emails, everything. About the fourth week of the month, I guess it was the 22nd or the 23rd, the power at the school goes out in the middle of the day.
Carlie: Wow, that’s dramatic!
John: Yeah. This is when we realised he hadn’t been paying the electricity bill. Yeah, and so, basically at the end of the month, we all had to stop working, because you know the school had no power any more, it had no heat, it was November, like, this was a problem! And so the students all went off to search new places, the boss kept saying oh, it’s not my fault, it’s not my fault. There were a lot of newspaper stories, and while he wasn’t responding to us, apparently he was more than willing to respond to reporters.
We all found ourselves without a job, but technically we weren’t without a job because we still had contracts with the school, and the school was still obligated to pay us obviously, especially for the two months that we had worked without pay.
And so we’re all going to all of these [ 00:17:04] which is like the German government buildings. Everybody was getting like different things when they went there, like, because one person at the building would be telling one of my colleagues one thing, would be telling me another thing, would be telling a third colleague another thing, because none of them really had any idea how to deal with this either. Because it’s not really often that the boss just sort of cuts all contact, stops paying everybody, and like doesn’t declare bankruptcy, or something like that, where there’s a system in place to deal with a bankruptcy, or to deal with if you had been fired, or if you had quit, or if the school just closed.
Like, all of these had systems in place. But there was no real system in place for, technically the school is still open because the boss hasn’t said anything, and so you shouldn’t quit because technically he’s paying you for this, but you really do need to be getting money from the government because yeah you’re really unemployed sort of at the same time.
Carlie: Your situation really didn’t fit into the, one of these pre-determined work flows.
John: Exactly. And so, we’re going through this whole process, and three weeks in I requested, by one of the government agencies for unemployment, to just give them a copy of a letter from my insurance, my health insurance company, saying that yes, he has health insurance, and you should pay us, basically, because when you go on unemployment the government pays the health insurance during that time. The boss, he had claimed that we were kind of acting as government employees, because teachers in Germany can be government employees, and so we actually would get like tax breaks and things like that if we signed up for this special insurance thing, which turned out to be totally illegal, because I went to the company I basically handed the guy my insurance card, he like held it up, took one look at it and he’s like, nah this isn’t right!
Carlie: It was, it was a fake, or …?
John: No. The card was real, but I wasn’t a government employee, and he had signed us up as government employees with the insurance company. And normally what would happen is the government would pay 50% of your insurance and you would, then you would be signed up for a private insurance for 50%. Instead what the former boss had done was sign us up for two private companies for 50% of our insurance each, but the government wasn’t paying anything, and so it was just like totally illegal, and so my insurance for the past two years had been totally illegal. [Unclear 00:19:39] then went to another round of disasters, as everybody figures out this, and we all have illegal insurances, and now what do we do, we have to fix our insurance before we can go on unemployment. Now …
Carlie: And you’re trying to figure this out in a foreign country, where you’re not even up to speed with processes normally, let alone this very mixed situation! (laughs)
John: Exactly! And this is also you have to realise, now towards the middle to end of December, and we still haven’t been paid since Sep-, still haven’t been paid since September. And so now we’re going on three months without pay. And so obviously many of us are going very broke right now, I was very lucky that I have always been sure to keep a certain reserve in my bank account, but even mine was almost gone at that point. And, yeah it wasn’t until the 17th of January that I finally got unemployment, and then I also got insolvency money which paid my full salary for the first two months and then the two months that I had actually worked, the government paid my full salary, and then the next two months they just gave me unemployment, and I have found a job at a new school, starting on January 22nd, and so then I also got a pay check again for that month, a relatively small one, it’s still a pay check!
Carlie: But what an awful thing to go through, especially over Christmas as well.
John: Yeah. It was a little bit disturbing. I think when I finally got paid I had 117 euros left in my bank account.
Carlie: Cutting it a little bit fine! (laughs)
John: And within a week I had the insolvency money, and the unemployment money had, and I went from 117 [unclear 00:21:27] 8,000 euros in my bank account, and it was just a crazy change.
Carlie: Wow! So when I asked you what sort of challenges you’d faced, that’s definitely a challenge and a half! (laughs)
John: Yeah. Like I said, it was a much longer story than you were probably expecting!
Carlie: At any point there did you think about packing up and moving home?
John: Not until the government paid me that money!
John: No. In all fairness, like, I knew that I could find a job somewhere else, and up until the point I found a job somewhere else, I also knew the government would pay, because they would pay me for a year of unemployment. And so, if I needed to be unemployed for a year I would have had 60% of my net income for the next year, which would have been a low amount of money to live on perhaps, but it is liveable, and I could spend that time searching for new jobs, and writing and reading and playing video games and all the things that you do when you’re unemployed.
Carlie: It sounds like Germany has a really good system for supporting citizens and, and those resident in the country, when it comes to that sort of thing.
John: That is absolutely and 100% true. Despite the fact that it was very very difficult for all of us to go on unemployment, that is not the normal way this happens in Germany. Like, this was just a ridiculous situation that nobody really knew how to deal with correctly, and it just happened to be that we got stuck in the middle of it.
Carlie: So what was the end result? Did the school have to close, and, and was the owner held to account?
John: The school had to close, and I’ve heard many rumours on where the owner is. I have heard that he has moved to Greece with his family. I have heard that he is in jail right now. I have heard many things, and so I trust very little of what those rumours say.
Carlie: John, you said that when you were looking for your new job, you were specifically looking in Frankfurt and you were happy for it to take longer because you wanted to stay in that city. What is it about the city that you live in that you love so much?
John: I think it’s a group of different things. First of all, when I first came here I made quite a few really close friends very quickly, and then also a whole bunch of not-so-close friends that I really enjoyed hanging out with. And that was mainly through couchsurfing. Frankfurt had weekly couchsurfing meetings, I would go every week, and every week I would collect fifteen more people that I actually liked!
But the city itself I’ve learned over the years is almost the perfect size for me. It’s about half a million people, but it’s not so spread out, and so to get from one side of it to the other is only about a half hour of travel, and so wherever anybody is, or whatever’s going on, I can always get there very very easily with public transport, and with very little time.
On top of that, Frankfurt has the European Central Bank here, and because of that it has like, every other bank in the world has a branch that they’ve opened up to do business with the European Central Bank, and with all the banks comes all the lawyers, and the advertising companies, and etc etc. Frankfurt is a very rich city, which sounds like a detrimental thing, until you realise it means that they put on festivals, like every three days over the summer, and like there are often four or five street festivals going on over the summer, and there are fireworks five times a year, and things like that, that, just, the city has the money and so they can blow on doing things like that.
Carlie: John, what parting advice would you give others looking for teaching jobs in Frankfurt, and in Germany in general?
John: I would say, Germany is a great place to live. The social systems protect you, you have insurance, you have everything that you need, you’re in central Europe and you can get to anywhere in Europe easily from Frankfurt, I think it’s an 8-hour drive to something like ten countries. Like, it’s a wonderful place to live, definitely, keep trying, keep looking, you’ll find something eventually, don’t give up!
Carlie: Well that’s it for today. If you want to discuss this episode, or ask John any questions, head over to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our forums and facebook groups. Remember to check out our other episodes on all aspects of expat life, from learning languages to starting your own business abroad, even the difficulties that can come with moving back home. They’re at expatfocus.com/podcast, or you can listen via your favourite podcasting app. And I’ll catch you next time!
You can find John Siskar on his website, or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.