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News Why I became a languages teacher: to make my subject relevant to students
Head of languages Bertram Richter tell Emily Drabble how using Twitter and Skype has revolutionised his teaching and why he teaches in the UK rather than his native Germany
My parents are teachers in Germany, as were my grandparents and my great grandparents on both sides. My brother and sister are also teachers. So it just seemed obvious I would be a teacher too. I did a teaching degree specialising in German and English literature at Wurzburg University, where I'm from. It seems strange to say this after living in England since 2004, but in Germany a teaching degree takes six or seven years to complete. Under the German system you have to choose which kind of school to specialise in from the outset of the course and I choose to teach in the academic grammar schools.
When I decided to move to England, after meeting my wife who is Welsh, I actually had a place to do a PhD in comparative literature in the UK but I changed my mind. I realised I didn't want to spend even more years studying and not earning any money so I did a PGCE at Canterbury University as even after all this training I was really only academically qualified. In Germany I would have had to do a further two year PGCE in order to teach. I could have applied for jobs here without doing that PGCE but I don't think I would have survived culturally without the teaching practice it offered.
I got my first job at Chipping Norton School in Oxfordshire teaching French and German. The first year of teaching was really hard, but my mentor gave me some brilliant advice: to spend three years in teaching before making any decisions. Teaching gets a lot easier after a few years. I can say I love teaching now, but I wouldn't necessarily have said that in my first year or two.
What I really appreciate about teaching is that the kids don't just accept things just because you've said it. They challenge all the time, in a nice way. You've got to explain things all the time and that gives you a fresh perspective on things and keeps you questioning things yourself. I think that education is so important and it's really a privilege to be involved and deeply worthy as a profession.
I think being a native German has helped me as a German teacher. It's wonderful to use your own story, and stories from your family. For example one of the activities I do with my year 7s is on the German tradition of the Schultüte, which is a big cone which children bring to school on their first day full of sweets and nice stationery. I can bring photographs of myself as child in Germany wearing some awful bright yellow jumper and give some cultural context.
Schools are more language focused in Germany where children start learning English in the last two years of primary. They start secondary school at 10 years old and will have five lessons a week in English, reaching GCSE level by the age of 12. It's massively important in Germany to learn English, there is no question about it. Every time you switch on the TV or go online you are are bombarded with English language pop music and culture.
In England it's different of course, the external motivator isn't naturally there as it is in other countries. There is no obvious language you need to learn and that's a challenge for language teachers. So we've got to work with reality. The best thing we can do in schools is to give our pupils a positive attitude to learning languages, to learn the rules and to explore other cultures. The challenge is to show it how it is relevant to their lives so that's why I really push social media in my school, particularly Skype.
Now I am head of languages at Tile Hill Wood school and language college in Coventry. This year my year 7 class has hooked up with a class in Germany online. The students spoke German and English and I was lucky enough to find a class in Germany who had learnt French as their main second language so their language levels in English were similar to my class's language levels in German. If you put a group of kids of a certain age together in a room then they will be desperate to communicate. They will want to ask that pretty girl how old she is. That's what you need to keep students motivated. We will keep in regular contact with the class through Skype and then extend that with email exchange to deepen the relationship.
Languages are all about connecting with people. School visits are wonderful but there's a financial barrier – the glorious thing about Skype is it's free. It's technology that everyone can do and I'm really excited about it.
Twitter is also a great place for me and I get a lot of my ideas and share inspiration there, particularly using #mfltwitterati which has unlocked a very supportive community of language teachers. I'd say Twitter has had a real impact on my teaching life and helps me stay informed on what's happening in language teaching plus I've made some great contacts and friendships. As head of department sometimes questions come up that only other heads of department can help you with. Through social media I'm able to talk to my direct peers, and it's great to be able to share ideas and expertise.
I don't think I'd want to go back and teach in Germany where schools are selective with academic grammar schools and vocational technical schools. Pupils and teachers go down one route or another and there isn't much room for swapping between the two. I like the comprehensive system in the UK too much. I'm really passionate about it and I do love teaching here where there is much more flexibility.
Bertram's language teaching resources on the Guardian Teacher Network
Fashion and happiness Karl Lagerfeld
Schnappi das kleine krokodil
School in Germany (Making a Schultüte)
Learning log (French KS3)
Learning log (German KS3)
AS and A2 resources for AQA German specification for nearly all topics
Bertram Richter is head of languages at Tile Hill Wood school and language college in Coventry. You can find out about what they are up to on their languages blog site. Bertram is also organising an MFL Show and Tell at his school on 5 October 2013 which will see innovative language teachers presenting their ideas from all over the country together in the same place for free. To sign up click here and also check out on Twitter #mflsatcov.