There are a ton of amazing German teachers out there. I had some fantastic ones in my German classes and I think I am a decent one now thanks to those teachers. There are, however, some things that they, other teachers I have met, and even I do that we really shouldn’t be allowing students to do in German class. Here are my top 5 things your German teacher should stop doing.
#1: Calling the teacher “Frau” or “Herr”
In the United States, it is pretty common for German students to refer to their teacher as “Herr” or “Frau”. Not with their last name, like you would anyone you address with Mr. or Mrs. Not “Herr Antrim” or “Frau Antrim”. Just simply “Herr” or “Frau”.
“Hey, Herr. I have a question.”– Well-Meaning, but Incorrect Student
This is impolite and is basically the equivalent of calling your teacher “woman” or “man”. You really should be addressing the teacher with Herr or Frau and their last name, but a ton of teachers including me in the United States allow their students to simply address them as “Frau” or “Herr”.
Why do students in America call their German teachers “Herr” or “Frau”?
This actually stems from convenience and the fact that the German teacher is the only one in the school that the students call “Frau” or “Herr” So-and-so instead of Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so. The students want to get the teacher’s attention to ask a question, but those extra syllables of a last name are just too strenuous sometimes. We teachers get it and we allow students to form the bad habit of addressing people as “Herr” or “Frau”, but no German speaker would allow this unless they teach German to English native speakers.
In most German classes that allow this, it is a term of endearment. The students often say that “Herr” or “Frau” is their favorite teacher. When German classes from different schools get together you will hear a cacophony of calls for “Herr” and “Frau” as students from various schools address their respective teachers. Students will talk about their teachers as “my Herr is pretty laid back.” or “my Frau is really funny.” This interpretation of the title “Herr” or “Frau” for German teachers is therefore, usually seen as a nickname and not necessarily an impolite address.
So what do people call you?
There are also some people who simply have no idea that “Herr” and “Frau” mean “Mr.” and “Mrs.” I get emails all of the time addressed to “Herr Antrim”. Throughout the email they call me “Herr” instead of “Levi” or “Herr Antrim” or even “Mr. Antrim”. I just find these emails entertaining. If it is an email that merits a response, I gently correct the person, so they don’t make this mistake again. Sometimes I will just make sure that my signature block says something like “Levi Antrim (AKA Herr Antrim)”.
To be fair, however, I have had parents every year since I started teaching that address me as Mr. Lantrim in emails. My school email address is my first initial, L, and my last name, Antrim followed by our school district URL. When they see the email lantrim, they assume my last name is all of that and not just the letters after the first.
Bottom line: No one really knows how to address me in an email. Some people just send emails without a salutation at all.
#2: Using “du” with the teacher
As you are probably aware, there are three versions of “you” in German. There are two informal ones, du for singular and ihr for plural. There is one formal “you”, Sie, which is used for both singular and plural. If you want a full lesson about those three pronouns click here.
Short Version: Teachers should be addressed as “Sie” and students up until the 10th grade should be addressed as “du”. In the 10th grade some teachers will “upgrade” them to “Sie”, but the teacher usually still uses their first name when talking to them. Some students will request that the teacher stick with the “du” form, however, as they have known each other since 5th grade.
This is generally how things work in Germany. In the USA, however, a lot of German teachers will allow their students to use the “du” form with them.
“Hey, Frau, was hast du am Wochenende gemacht?”– That one kid who always tries to get you off topic.
Honestly, to me this is just a situation in which I just pick my battles. Do I really want to push the issue of the students addressing me with “Sie” instead of “du” or do I want to focus on getting them to speak more German? I choose to not care. My students use “du” with me in class all of the time.
While studying at Humboldt University in Berlin for a summer course, on the first day of class, my professors told us that we should use the “du” form with them, because this was Berlin. So, even some Germans are getting into this habit, but technically, we shouldn’t.
#3: Listening to music (even German music) while doing in-class assignments or studying
Listening to music during an in-class assignment or studying is a distraction. Most students who want to listen to music while studying will tell you that it helps them focus. That is great for math, but we are trying to learn a foreign language here and you can’t do that while being auditorily assaulted by Nikki Minaj.
I’m guilty of this. I always play German music while the students are working on something in class. I personally do it, because I don’t want complete silence in my class. I hate the sound that is emitted by the fluorescent light bulbs in the classroom and if it is 100% quiet in the room, I can hear them. That and the ticking sound of the clock really gets on my nerves. If I have some background music, I get less angry and let’s be honest, a happy Herr Antrim is a better Herr Antrim. You won’t like me when I’m angry. (Hulk Transformation)
But seriously, you will retain the information better if you are concentrating on the work. There has been research done on this. No matter how many students will tell you that they study better when they are listening to music, they are wrong. You may study longer. You might even feel better about the studying you do. In the end, however, you won’t retain as much of the information, which is the intent of the study session.
#4: Good Students Translate for the Slackers
One of the first things we learn in German 1 is how to count. We learn numbers up to 1000 before the end of the first chapter. That covers every page in the book. I expect you to know these things, which is why I don’t say them in English. Once the students have made it past chapter 1, I no longer say numbers in English for anything.
If you don’t know the numbers, you should be forced to look up the numbers from the first chapter, where we learned them or awkwardly wait while the person next to you finds the correct page and then you look at their page to find yours. If you don’t want to do that every time, you should just learn the numbers like everyone else in the class did. Instead, I have students every year who insist on translating numbers in class for the slackers who won’t learn the German numbers.
I have yelled at students for doing this in class. I say the page number in German and some kid yells out what the English number is. It drives me insane. If you want to help them, say the number again in German. Say the parts slowly for them. Instead of “fünfundzwanzig” say “fünf… und… zwanzig”. Hold up fingers for the “fünf” and “zwanzig”. There are ways you can help your fellow students without taking away from their learning process.
#5: “I don’t know”
“I don’t know” should never be accepted as an answer to a question in a foreign language. The student should be allowed time to look up the answer to the question, but they should never be allowed to bypass the educational system by claiming ignorance.
I know you may not recall, but I’m sure I am not asking you a question to which we have not covered the answer in a previous class. This means that somewhere in your notes, there should be something that answers the question at hand. If it isn’t in your notes, it should be in your book. If it isn’t in either of those places, you should have been paying more attention or taking better notes in class, because I know you should know the answer, which is why I am asking the question. You don’t know? FIGURE IT OUT!
I will usually ask secondary questions that help the student along. I will ask questions that help them to recall each of the parts of their answer, so they can put them together.
“Oh, you don’t know how to say ‘I like potatoes.’ in German? Do you remember the word for ‘I’?”– Actual Conversation from Herr Antrim’s Class
“That’s correct. How about the verb ‘to like’?”
“Uhm. I don’t know.”
“It was one of the modal verbs from chapter 6.”
“I don’t know.”
“There are seven that we covered. müssen means must or to have to. dürfen is may or to be allowed to…”
“Oh, right. Mögen. So… ich mag.”
“Correct. Now we just need the word for potatoes.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, we talked about a lot of vegetables in chapter 6, too. Lots of them were cognates, but this isn’t one. It starts with a K.”
“That’s a tie.”
“That’s a waiter. The word for potato pancakes is ‘Kartoffelpuffer’.”
“Does that start with a K?”
“Great, but that is the singular form. What’s the plural?”
“How about adding an N instead of an E?”
“So what is the whole sentence?”
“Ich mag Kartoffeln.”
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