Rohrbach to reality

Fair warning: the week following my return from Munich was a bloody awful week. I knew it was going to happen; I’ve written about this once before, so I was fully expecting things to get difficult at around this time (especially having just returned from three weekends in a row of travelling around with family and friends, savings account be damned) and to recover from it a few days later. Unfortunately, though, knowing things are going to be hard doesn’t make them any easier, and I’d be doing you all a disservice if I only wrote about the fun times (of which there are many) and left out the ‘on-the-phone-to-my-mum-trying-not-to-cry-in-the-staffroom’ times.

As you all know, my official reason for being in Austria is to teach and my personal reason for being here is to learn German. In reality, a more accurate description of how I’m spending my time would be pissing around in Europe (as evident from my last three blog posts) but I promise I am actually doing a lot of work as well – I just don’t write about it often because it’s not my favourite or the most interesting part of being here. I wouldn’t say I actively dislike it but I definitely don’t look forward to going to work as I’d hoped I would. It’s just something I have to get through in order to finance the pissing around in Europe part.


My typical day Monday-Thursday looks like this: I wake up at 6.15am and get ready for school. I leave the house at 7.15 to get to school for around 7.30, waaaaaaay before all the other teachers, giving me time to print and copy the worksheets I need for the day’s lessons (I usually have between 4 or 5 lessons every day). If the computers and photocopiers are all working (which they usually aren’t), I might get this done in time to have a coffee at my desk in the corner staffroom while the rest of the staff awkwardly smile at me or pretty much ignore me – not in a mean way, just in an oh my God what do we say to that weirdly young-looking English girl who we all initially thought was a student kind of way.

The bell goes for the start of the first lesson at 7.55. I awkwardly hang around by the staffroom door while the teachers casually finish their conversations and their coffee before trailing behind one of them to the classroom, making uncomfortable conversation about what I did last weekend or will do next weekend and how I’m finding Rohrbach, making the standard joke about how it’s ‘a little quieter’ than London. More often than not, the teacher won’t have turned up at all or will be extremely late, leaving me to hang around the emptying staffroom, wondering at which point I should leave to find the class on my own. Then I’ll pace around the school until I either find the room or someone takes pity on me and shows me where to go.

The staffroom

I walk into the classroom and the kids stop chatting and stand up, which I hate and can’t get used to, so I blush and hurriedly tell them to sit down. After that, the lesson could go a number of ways. Sometimes I teach entirely alone, sometimes the teacher is present but sits in stony silence at the back, or sometimes the teacher comes to the front and we teach together which is by far my favourite and the least common occurrence. I’ll talk for a bit, interspersed with class discussion, videos and activities I’ve prepared. In the worst cases, the teacher asks me to teach exercises directly from the textbook which is beyond boring, both for the class and for me. Usually the classes are well-behaved but unenthusiastic and shy, so a lot of time is taken up by me standing at the front of the room asking endless questions, trying to get any of them to say anything while they all actively avoid eye contact (like we used to).

If you thought getting blood from a stone was hard, try getting a single word out of Austrian schoolkids when they’re not in the mood. No matter how many funny videos I show, no matter how enthusiastic I am, no matter how many games I play, some kids just aren’t interested – and those lessons drag on and on in a never-ending sea of blank, bored faces and silence. Less often, the class will be excited to talk and eager to answer questions – though they never shout out, not even if I ask them to. Even if I ask someone a direct question, they’ll usually raise their hand before answering.

Arriving at school at the crack of dawn

I have 18 different classes, the majority of whom I only teach once a fortnight, which is a shame because it makes it difficult to get to know the students personally. I’ve started to discern my favourite and least favourite classes though. My favourites aren’t necessarily the ones who are best at English, but the ones who actually try. They are engaged and interested and excited and want to participate. Those lessons are so much fun, even if they students say all the wrong words or use the present continuous all the bloody time (side note, why are Austrians obsessed with the present continuous? No, Florian, you are not going to school every day, you go to school every day, just like I told you three times last week and five times the week before that. It’s the present tense, dude. Don’t make it harder for yourself). Remember when our teachers used to tell us, ‘It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake, just please, say something.’ I get it now and Mrs McDonell, wherever you are, please know that I’m sorry.

I finish school at around 1 or 2pm and head home, back up the hill past the farm (I’m not joking). I spend the rest of the day planning lessons – if the teachers have replied to my emails. The topics they give are almost always to do with work – motivation at work, business travel, customer complaints, writing a CV – and are, to use the technical term, boring as fuck, so my biggest challenge is to somehow find or make up activities that are fun, interesting, relevant, engaging, not too easy and not too hard. It’s difficult, especially when I have no confidence that I’ll actually have to teach the lesson the next day or that I’ll have any support from the teacher, as the chances of either the class or the teacher being inexplicably absent are very high.

Twice a week at 4.15pm I head out for my German class, often being waylaid by Eva asking me ‘how many languages do you speak again? I want to tell my friend about you’ and turning up late. Class is generally a lot of fun, and three hours later I fumble back up the hill in the pitch black to cook dinner, plan another lesson (because one of the teachers will have definitely emailed me at around 9pm asking for something to be prepared for 8am the next day) and fall promptly asleep, exhausted.

I probably should add a little disclaimer here that it’s really not that bad. I hate to feel like I’m whining. Bearing in mind that one of my friends doing Teach First told me that she has a good day if one of her students picks up a pen to write something down and nobody tells her to fuck off, I’ve got it easy. Often, though, I am expected to do things I am neither paid nor trained to do (like, I don’t know, plan and teach whole A-Level standard lessons to a class of thirty 19-year-olds entirely alone).

On a bad day when everything had gone wrong (and not just for me – the Squad chat attested to the fact that everything was going wrong for everyone), I came back to my desk after a terrible lesson to find that Marina had left a cookie, a lollipop and a note saying happy birthday in four languages on my desk, reminding me that I do have friends at the school. My day improved even more when I arrived home to find a copy of the UCL Publishers’ Prize on the table outside my bedroom waiting for me, and got to see my work in print for the first time ever :)

The improvements continued into the evening when, on my way to put my washing on, I bumped into Willig and had a lovely chat. He gave me a ton of apples that he’d grown in his garden, changed my lightbulb, and then gave me two bottles of home-brewed alcohol as a birthday present (of course he brews his own alcohol) which he’s labelled Willy’s Likör. I just… adore him. I showed him the book and he was (or at least, pretended to be) very interested, chuckled and called me JK Rowling in his slow, rumbling, farmer’s accent. Willig is literally bae. Eva was so sweet as well, and gave me a box of chocolates and a pen with my name on it has a birthday gift. Well, it almost had my name on it.

So, I had a bit of a sad/lonely/frustrated week, but this was where things began to pick up again (as I knew they would), and continued to do so over the next days and weeks.

So, until next time, auf Wiederschauen!

2 thoughts on “Rohrbach to reality

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