Preparing for life as a foreign language assistant

Introduction

So, I’ve decided to write a blog documenting my experience with the Fremdsprachenassistenz (“FSA”) Program run by the Pädagogischer Austauschdienst (“PAD”). The main reason for this is a lack of any online Aussie voices documenting the experience; the majority of the voices are from Yanks who participate in the program via Fulbright.

For those who do not know, the FSA program allows applicants from various countries and of various mother tongues to work as a foreign language assistant in secondary schools in Germany. For Australians, the assistantship runs from the middle of September to the end of May of the next year. However, not just anyone can apply for the program, a very good degree of proficiency in the German language, as well as the completion of a sufficient number of courses in German Studies at the tertiary level, is required. An official certificate of language proficiency is, fortunately for my sake, not obligatory and a letter from your German professor will suffice, as long as you’ve reached the level of B2 or higher.

Near the end of 2017, I caught wind of the FSA Program by mere happenstance via a Facebook post by the Goethe-Institut, which was very lucky considering that information regarding the program doesn’t seem to be widely promulgated. Seeing as I was nearing the end of my degree in German Studies and Linguistics and needed to fulfill my dream of living and working in a German-speaking country, I was absolutely determined to succeed.

The Application Process

I started the application rather early (around November 2017) as the paperwork required some degree of  preparation (little did I know there would be a lot more paperwork once accepted!). The Goethe-Institut in Australia announced that there would be 12 positions available to Australian citizens, so I devoted myself to becoming part of that special dozen. All of the documents for the application and thereafter must be in German, which includes writing a Lebenslauf (CV) and a Darlegung (cover letter). It’s hard enough doing these things in English, so I spent a disconcerting amount of time researching the appropriate format and linguistic register required to produce adequate professional documents in German. Naturally, I also enlisted the editorial assistance of a few carefully-selected German native speaker friends.

Apart from the Lebenslauf and Darlegung, I needed an academic transcript, a health check from a general practitioner (for insurance reasons) and a Gutachten (expert opinion) from one of my German professors, which served as evidence of language proficiency as well as sort of a character and academic reference.

Applications were due by the end of March 2018, and at that time I was enrolled in a part-time CELTA course (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults), a program overseen by Cambridge University, which I completed not only to acquire some experience in English Language teaching in preparation for the FSA program (if I was accepted) but also to allow me to pursue work in Germany and anywhere else in the world as an ESL teacher (as a backup option if I wasn’t accepted).

Also enrolled in the CELTA course were three professional teachers, a speech pathologist and another recent linguistics graduate from Adelaide University. To be absolutely honest, the CELTA course was the hardest program of study I had experienced in my life at that point. I can imagine it would be extraordinarily brutal for a person without a background in linguistics or teaching, therefore several times during the course the trainers are required ask the trainees about their mental health. We all found it extremely intense, mentally and emotionally exhausting and, nonetheless, acquired many valuable skills and practices. Also noteworthy was that one of my CELTA trainers had worked extensively in Germany and in Europe and therefore a great role model for me.

The Waiting Process

Once I finished the CELTA in May and the tides of relief had settled, I grew increasingly agitated as I still had not heard back about my FSA application. In June, I sent an email to the Goethe-Insitut enquiring as to when I would receive a response, to which I received no response. I went so far as to email the relevant contact person in the PAD, and voila! On the same day, I received an “unofficial” email informing me that I had been accepted and would receive official notice in two weeks.  Those three months of excruciating silence were finally worth it.

Acceptance

Two and a half weeks after I was informed that I would receive official notice, I received official notice and discovered which Bundesland (federal state) I had been assigned to. During the application, we had to choose our three most preferred Bundesländer, which, all things considered, was probably the hardest decision. I selected Bavaria as my first choice, Hesse as second and Schleswig-Holstein as third. I chose Bavaria because it apparently has the best standard of education in all of Germany and also quite good beer; however, Bavaria is also famous for its abstruse dialects, which can be utterly incomprehensible even to other German-speakers, for its (apparently) rude and stuck-up populace and for its religious conservatism. Hesse was an obvious choice as two of my best German friends live there, so I had been there a fair few times already and it is well positioned in the center of Germany facilitating travel within the country; however, Hessian cuisine is a little bit weird. Schleswig-Holstein was a bit of a spontaneous choice; I had never been there and wanted to experience the extreme North of Germany and a significant part of the former Hanseatic League.

In any case, I discovered that I had been allocated to Bavaria, which I was very pleased with. About a week after that, I received information about the induction course. The induction course is held in a monastery on the outskirts of Cologne. It serves as a general guide to the position as well as a pedagogical crash course in English teaching as the majority of applicants have never taught English. For me, it will be an excellent opportunity to network with other FSAs, particularly the ones who will be working in the same area as me.

Untitled-1
The administrative regions of Bavaria

More Waiting

I continued playing the waiting game for news regarding the city or town in which I would be teaching. Bavaria is quite a large federal state and consists of three main regions, Swabia, Franconia and Old Bavaria, which all have distinct identities, dialects, cuisines and cultures. I was hoping that I would be allocated to Franconia for one main reason: the amazing beer. In early 2017, when I was studying in Stuttgart, I ventured into Upper Franconia, a region known to “beer enthusiasts” as having the best beer in Germany (if not the world), and spent two days in Bamberg literally imbibing as much beer as gastronomically achievable whilst simultaneously appreciating it.

An Onslaught of Paperwork

By the middle of July, I received a torrent of governmental paperwork in which I unearthed out that I had been allocated to a Wirtschaftsschule in the city of Erlangen in Middle Franconia. I was absolutely elated with this news. Erlangen is a small university town 30 mins south of Bamberg and 20 mins north of Nuremberg. Some brief research on the city revealed that roughly a third of the population are uni students, another third work for the Siemens conglomerate and that one of Germany’s oldest folk festivals is held there. A Wirtschaftsschule is a specialised type of secondary school exclusive to Bavaria; it is essentially a Realschule (I guess this is the equivalent to a public secondary school in the USA, UK or Australia) with a focus on business and economics. A large number of business-related courses are compulsory and there’s a strong focus on German, English and maths.

The government official responsible for the paperwork also informed me very explicitly that suitable accommodation was incredibly difficult to find in Erlangen. This was echoed by my supervising teacher after I had got in contact with the school, who claimed that finding accommodation was easily the most challenging aspect of the entire assistantship.

At this point I was overwhelmed by the amount of things I had to read, print, sign, scan, email and read again, but threw myself into the next mission of finding a place to live for the duration of my assistantship.

Erlangen
View over Erlangen (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erlangen)

Finding a Wohnung

My ideal place to live was in a WG (sharehouse or shared apartment) with other 20-somethings since I really enjoy living with other people, especially people from other cultures. But I wanted to avoid living with Erstis (recent school graduates) and I definitely wanted to avoid Studentenverbindungen (fraternities) which are, surprisingly, a thing in Germany.

The search for a suitable WG was definitely challenging; many WGs were looking for long-term German citizens and not short-term internationals so many of my emails went unanswered. Additionally, rental prices were highly variable and I, along with every other person searching for a WG in the town, wanted something reasonably-priced. What made finding a suitable place to live even more difficult was that I had to simultaneously work out what was going to happen to my current home and begin the process of getting rid of everything I didn’t need.

In any case, I managed to find the perfect WG, which consists of three master students studying medical engineering, one of who will be overseas from September till the end of May and is only 20 min from my allocated school by bike. They responded to my email and we set up a Skype interview, which I thought was a horrible failure as I had never used Skype before and wasted 10 mins trying to get the microphone to work. I was 90% sure that they would reject me after that interview, which I did in English because the poor audio quality would’ve made conversing in German a nightmare. In any case, they told me they would inform me of their decision within a week, amazingly, I got a yes and shortly after we organised and signed the rental contract. So basically the biggest challenge was dealt with and with it my unease disapparated.

 

The Countdown Begins

Right now, I’m just over a month away from departing Australia and have been steadily selling and packing all of my possessions and making all the necessary arrangements. It’s not that easy to disassemble your entire life and squeeze it into a backpack and suitcase. In any case, the most daunting things lie ahead of me, which are registering my address, opening a bank account and the infamously stressful Aufenthaltserlaubnis (residence permit), all things I can only do once I get to Germany and require an absurd amount of paperwork and bureaucracy. I guess I should be relieved that I already have a German phone number from when I studied in Stuttgart and, now, a German address. This is a good place to be since I’ve read some online horror stories of FSAs who arrived in Germany without having a place to live and without making any contact with their school.

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