The VHS or Volkshochschule are the nationally organised Adult Community College of Germany. They have schools in most towns in Germany or at least in my day, but their influence was diminishing. They were run by the state for the people and although they paid their teachers more and the quality of their classes was thus better in many ways, they had a particularly poor reputation amongst German students more than foreigners in the town who went there for German lessons. They were my other key client that stayed loyal to me in language teaching to the death. In Wuppertal, Bonn (though officially employed there I never got a class there), Frechen and Cologne. My best classes were probably done for the VHS Frechen when I was a really experience teacher after having done my MA. The class sizes and offer of classes was shrinking from its heyday in the nineteen fifties and the VHS Wuppertal was beginning to gradually be administered as the Bergishe VHS from their HQ in Solingen. So their power was diminishing. Because my boss there was an official teaching civil servant they were guaranteed a job for life and couldn’t be fired as were the other colleagues and administrational staff, the whole process of closing the old VHS Wuppertal services down as people ended their careers is still going on to this day sixteen years later. It’s a very German way of doing it.
Frau Brücher-Mohrhenn was a lovely old-fashioned lefty hippie language type I met when I first moved to Wuppertal. I didn’t even cold call her to tout her for business I just dropped into her office in Wuppertal. She warmed to me instantly and said she would be in touch and several weeks later in January or Feburary 2003 she provided me with classes.
My first class was at the Hauptschule in Barmen where I had to teach some people who had learning difficulties and mental health problems. One of them gave me a lift back into Elberfeld once and I had to move her tampons she’d spilled amongst a lot of other rubbish from the front seat before we could get going.
Sorry for this experience, Annalie Brücher-Mohrhenn provided me with a whole string of classes at VHS Wiesenstraße from 2003 to when I left Germany in 2007. These classes were her so called Crash Courses consisting of four to eight hours per week in the evening on a Tuesday and Thursday. It was General English for beginners and intermediates mostly. Pay was eighteen euros per class hour of fourty five minutes bringing in a total of between two-hundred-and-eighty-eight and five-hundred and seventy-six euros per month. Annalie was one of my most loyal clients. She really liked me as a person and we got on. I liked and respected her as well, she was a great linguist with a real passion for language and skills. She also allowed the teachers to play their own game within reason. She said that she wasn’t a methodological freak and that “virtually any methodology the teacher believes in will work” just so long as he or she is convinced of it. She spoke Russian, French, German, English and a few other languages. A real old-fashioned talent who was substance over politics and flair. I liked Annalie. She was a true Socialist. I know that’s why she never fired me. Lovely person.
This class was supposed to be using the Hueber book a Fresh Start which I got used to and quite liked as an ELT textbook. There were some good Irish songs and folk tales, like Finn and Fingal, and a story completion exercise which was one of my all-time favourite classes called The Jogger. It was a jogger who went around the park jogging and realised after he was bumped into in the park had lost his five-pound note for his energy bar and drink. So he holds up his fellow jogger saying “give me the money” and he gives him a fiver and he buys his drink and energy bar thinking he’s a hero and when he gets home he realises he’s left the fiver on the kitchen table, and they had to write a conclusion to the story in English. It always bought up some great ideas. They were not a very nice class though there apart from the Greek guy called Pana who I later found out was the mate of local rapper Meelman. Two of the girls were best mates and had learning difficulties supposedly and just sat at the back of the class refusing to work and taking Michael really two of my worst ever pupils. They’d been told they were dumb since day one and wore it as a badge of honour when really they were intelligent enough to disturb the class almost completely.
The other woman there was really nice but she was totally chaotic. Annalie did say she wasn’t impressed with them and wanted to give me a proper chance.
The VHS Wiesenstraße was at 103a Wiesenstraße Wuppertal. To get there, was quite a trek in the winter months when the bendy bus sometimes didn’t get up the hill in the snow ice and bad weather and you had to get out half way up and walk the rest of the way past the Ölberg on the left and drop down the top of the hill to the school about 1/3 of the way down Wiesenstaße a long steeply descending road that came out onto Gathe near the old fire station. The old building had always been a school since time immemorial I would imagine. The heating was sensational if not a trifle over the top in the cold. It had massive cast iron pipes and big cast iron radiators that made you sweat like a Sauna and then plunge into the frozen cold for a fag in the breaks. My room was on the first floor on the right. I think it was room two. It was a big classroom. We couldn’t afford interactive whiteboard’s or anything in those days it was a huge chalky fold out blackboard which was actually a greenboard because it was green. It was on runners at the back so you could move it up for the people at the back of the class to see and down for you to write on. The disadvantage of course is that chalk gets on everyone and in every orafice. Wearing anything black was a big no, no. We didn’t have proper wooden blackboard rubbers either we just had a damp cloth, which smudges the chalk all over the blackboard and paints it in a white hue so no one can ever read anything. The colour of the blackboard being the same colour as the chalk and when the chalk gets wet it first smudges and then falls apart completely. It was a beautiful classroom that was a time capsule to the late 1970s and they hay day of modern Wuppertal. On the walls were various maps and there were some high windows that opened with a hook and pole I think and a really high ceiling but they were such lovely old socialist workhorses the other teachers in there. They really loved you and loved teaching. I had many classes there.
Downstairs was a lovely student café where you could buy coffee and choccy before class and at the break. It was quite a sizable but very old-fashioned café in décor. It had orange walls and the budget was obviously so low for the building maintenance that it hadn’t seen a lick of paint since 1981 but the coffee lady was always nice to you. Though she closed up after the break so if you wanted to get anything to stop the chalk chocking up your throat you had to nip to the loo whilst setting a task up until half an hour after the break. Wuppertal was one of the biggest donners in terms of East Tax to East Germany and the former DDR after the wall came down because they were one of the cradles of communism being Engels birthplace. In fact, they gave them nearly all the money they should have spent on regenerating their own city and a lot of Wuppertal was very run down even then. Whereas in the 1970s they were one of the richest cities in Germany with Bayer at its height being a major employer in the town.
The Big Communal Ashtray
Always full of sand and a thousand fag butts the big architectural communal ashtray adorned the entrance as it’s only piece of street furniture. We all huddled round it in the winter months for a chat and fag in the breaks. It was here that I struck up a friendship with a Canadian born teacher that had spent most of his life in France and taught English because it was officially his native language even though he had spoken French most of his life from a young age. We did the crash courses together. It was the only work he had and he was on benefits and they were so hard on him for years. He wanted to join the free masons to have some friends because the poor chap was so hard up he didn’t have any. No-one cared about him at all except me but he seemed not to care and just to want to look after himself. I did try to invite him to things but he politely declined. I did give him an address of an agency in Holland where I found work when I was thinking of moving there, but he didn’t get anything poor thing. He had no woman no family nothing. He was just wasting away. Annalie was just about keeping him going.
Pupils at VHS Wuppertal of note
Klaus was a lovely older man who was a caretaker whose hobby it was to broadcast himself as an amateur radio ham. He had his own studios in his home and the idea was that he would improve his English in order to broadcast in English. Unfortunately, his language had fossilised to a certain extent. He was very enthusiastic and lovely to teach but he showed little sign of making any real progress with his grammar or vocabulary. He did tend to interrupt you as well to get me to explain everything which I did religiously to him. I loved him though he was fun. Although I don’t believe in fossilisation of language to one-hundred percent. I don’t think he was serious enough about making progress by religiously adhering to standards in his homework and trying new things out. He was my favourite pupil though. He even lost his job due to a seventy-five percent increase in the price of materials since the introduction of the Euro at his firm and got another one straight away. It was a really cool hobby I thought and he was so ambitious with it buying a new transmitter and so on. An established working man and a real character. Full marks to Klaus.
The older lady in Klaus’s class was impressed with the structure of the Headway course book. She did her homework religiously and was very talented at English. She was retired. Unfortunately, I had to take some time off that semester because I was away in England and eventually had to pass that course onto someone else.
There was another good looking younger German guy who didn’t like me very much. He was into the stereotypes of how a class like that worked and he didn’t understand that I was using the latest methods available. When I explained this to him he said that he was ‘reassured’ because he ‘wasn’t so sure about my teaching’, but I feel that had more to do with the reputation of the school as a whole. He soon left that class and I finished that course and was all right with them. We did a lot of work with case studies and working together as a class rather than with the book and it was successful for the majority of people.