Black Hawks and other animals: revolutionary times at the Campus
By Donald Quixote
A Concise German-English Glossary
Gesamtschule - A non-selective secondary school in Germans, constituted by students of all academic abilities being taught together (gesamt).
Der Vorsitzender - The chairman of an organisation, in this case a workers’ council.
Die Verwaltungleitung – The head of school administration, responsible for organising hours, contracts, wages, allocation of resources, and a host of duties imperative to the successful administration of an educational institution.
Der Träger – There is no satisfying direct translation for this position. In the context of a building, the word translates as ‘supporting beam’ or ‘girder’. In the context of a school, possible translations include ‘carrier’, ‘sponsor’, ‘funding provider’, and ‘upholder’. In the absence of clarity and in the facts of the story that follows, it falls on the reader to decide.
IT ALL HAPPENED in a crumbling old building near Maybacherstrasse which Der Träger bought for €1,00, but on one condition: that they couldn’t look at the books.
The occupants before 2016 were an German-Italian bilingual school. What they didn’t tell Der Träger was the landlord who owned the four-storey washed out redbrick building and the playground by the railtracks charged €55,000 pro Monat in rent. So once the school was theirs, almost all their money went on renting the premises. Der Träger bought some second-hand computers, some qualified expat teachers, some unqualified expat teachers, and kept the old German and Italian teachers on the books (who they then gradually released from their contracts). Half the classrooms had nothing but a chalkboard, the other half had interactive whiteboards. There were many textbooks, but only some of them were the correct ones. Then the tap ran dry, or was tightened.
I took the job while the Brexit fracas blew over, but then didn’t. I scattergunned CVs to every English language school in western Germany that I could find, believing in positive thinking and the power of probability. One day I received an email from a headmaster at a bilingual school: The Campus. The headmaster’s name has been changed to late Gregor. I’d receive sporadic emails testing my seriousness about the job and expressing genuine excitement about meeting me. It turned out that The Campus wasn’t just an English language school. It was a secondary school – a Gesamtschule – catering to all academic levels and abilities, with an intake of (1) kids with money, (2) kids with ideas, (3) kids with very little, and (4) kids with problems. It was a bonafide teaching gig, or so I thought, and therefore a secure source of cash for someone whose funds were running low.
I’d been in western Germany for several weeks, but I hadn’t heard anything from Gregor lately. I sent an email and, within a few days, I was sitting in what I thought was a meeting, but what he seemed to think was a job interview. We talked about my experience, qualifications, and the concept. The job, he told me, was mine. I was free to develop my own concepts, in fact, and to help to plan my own schedule, to teach with true freedom. Without even having to teach, I’d been offered the job. For a young backpacker, it was a perfect opportunity for radical experimentation in progressive teaching, building a House of Wisdom from the ground up.
What I didn’t realise then is that I’d have to do this with zero budget. The extreme basics were provided at the start of the year and we were set to task with minimal supervision, minimal support, and minimal advice.
What I didn’t realise then is that the reason I hadn’t heard from Gregor for a period of a month or more is that his grip on reality had weakened. He had, to all intents and purposes lost ‘it’. He was screaming wildly at colleagues, creating crackpot schemes, and straightening notices obsessively in the foyer. He slept in his office and barely left the place.
What I didn’t realise then was that The Campus was a school on the edge, racing against insufficient time to make a success of a broke enterprise. Late Gregor broke countless laws and allowed a lot of kids with parents willing to pay into the school just to keep it afloat. Accounts were awry. Paper trails trailed off into oblivion. Records were missing, incomplete, some from a year or two before. Students came and went at will. Classrooms were left unsupervised. Students’ friends walked in off the street without any identification, sometimes to fight. Students were allowed to skip multiple years ahead without proper certification. Unqualified teachers roamed the hallways – stoned, confused mostly - but Mr Anderson was OK. Under Gregor’s guardianship, anarchy erupted and teaching the kids became a nasty tooth-and-nail business. It was an imperfect opportunity, but also a perfect madness – a dangerous thing for a writer- a cataclysm of paradoxes, a wild community experiment. How could I not stick around and see it out? Some mornings, we just knew that ANYTHING could happen. Within less than a month, the place had entered into my dreams. Everyone dreams about it.
I’ve taught at The Campus for twenty two months. Back in 2018, and with no one stopping me, I started to teach History and Politics without constrictions. I stepped into the phenomenology of the classroom, not having any theory or practice to guide me in teaching students who spoke almost no English. Most had never seen enough consistency from their teachers to know how to respect them. It took me more than a month to get some of the classes to be silent. But, it was underpinned by democracy as a guide for enlightened discussion and critical evaluation of ideas. I quickly had to redefine my notion of what silence and democracy can mean. In 2018-19, I taught English, Geography, History, and Politics on a full-time schedule. Half of my students spoke very little English, or none at all. To communicate, I had to do more than lower my register. I had to completely reinvent it. What emerged was a strange pidgin language - a routine of commands and gestures to try to establish any kind of routine in the lessons. However, under investigation by the Bezirksregierung (the education authority) after late Gregor’s untimely departure, the school were told they were breaking the law by giving responsibility for certain subjects to unqualified teachers. A reshuffle was ordered. In the 2019-20 year, I’ve taught History in the lower and upper sections, with one English class on the side.
Those who work at the Campus agree: it’s just not possible to explain what it’s like to anybody. The Campus received an award in the summer of 2019: A school without racism. A school with courage. There was an awards ceremony and a local politician came to present the award. There were fliers, but there was a vital error in the translation from the German to English. A school without racism. A school without courage.
It’s a beautiful aberration: stressful, but somehow always romantically pulling you back in. A multifaceted tale of hypocrites, hysterias, and hyperventilation. There are so many problems to solve that anything you do well is an improvement. It’s fertile ground for a martyr complex. I burned out just before the New Year, shortly before Boris Johnson’s landslide December election victory, and my old dad’s adage makes more sense than ever to me now: the graveyard’s full of heroes. I returned to England for Christmas with my family - pints in pubs with familiar names and old friends - and when I arrived back in Germany I quit. For me, it eventually boiled down to survival and fitness.
THE CAMPUS is one of a growing number of English-German bilingual Gesamtschüle in Germany. A Gesamtschule is comprehensive and accepts students from across a wide spectrum of abilities: there are bright kids whose English is near fluent already; kids with special education needs; kids with histories of mental illness; kids who speak German, but no English or English, but no German, or Italian, but no English, and a little bit of German; kids who are in trouble with the police; kids whose ran away from home; refugees in a new broken home; kids brought up on the streets, tough kids with hard eyes but big hearts; kids who know nothing apart from fighting; and some kids whose unique genius knows no bounds. The Campus community is the most diverse educational environment possible, making it almost impossible to know how to differentiate for the variant needs.
The Campus provides an immersive bilingual education in the English and German languages. As an expat teacher, your job is to speak only in English. This is the pedagogy of immersive instruction. The bilingual package includes: an IWB for each classroom, English-speaking teacher and teaching assistant, tables, chairs, a class logo on the back wall, & off you go. Depending on the family’s income, monthly rates up to €1,000 pro Monat. The bilingual+ package includes: a harder English curriculum and full offering of subjects in German and English from the age of 10. Bilingual parents have to pay for their children’s education. Some parents are fee-paying, but their fees are subsidised by the state. However, almost half of the school do not receive the benefits of the bilingual concept. They are not immersed in a bilingual environment. They are outside the shop window. These students are non-fee-paying, fully state-funded. The non-bilingual package includes: textbooks, a blackboard, some chalk, and a lone teacher with class sizes of up to 30. Every morning and afternoon, they walked in throngs past what they could have, but do not. Two schools on one campus. The private sector very slowly swallowed the public sector. Austerity and apartheid. The most casual of injustices. Under further financial strain since the start of the 2019-20 academic year, Der Träger and their management have decided to drop low-performing students who possess little or no proficiency in English into classes where they understand quite literally nothing. The only relevant clause is that their parents pay. Die Stiftung’s children, also enrolled at the school, receive all the benefits that The Campus has to offer.
So did others, much more gratefully. Hussein is a refugee from war-torn Syria who only recently arrived in Germany. When he arrived, he only spoke Arabic, he was very quiet and withdrawn, but never scared to look you in the eyes. I taught Hussein tenth-grade English, History, and Politics in the English language. We were reading Animal Farm by George Orwell and discussing the nature of totalitarianism, something he knew well being a child under the Assad regime compelled to flee his childhood home Damascus. Hussein wasn’t able to express his ideas so child-like was his grasp of both English and German while, ironically, his understanding of the rise of a tyranny was better even than his teachers. We studied the Russian Revolution and the dictatorships of the 1930s alongside it in History and looked at contemporary global trends in Politics. He did his best to follow, but it was hard for him. I noticed he kept a trilingual glossary English – Arabic – German, so that der Frieden – salaam – peace, and realised how far behind he truly was. The work of teaching and organising kids like Hussein fell naturally upon the teachers. The work of placing the students and then forgetting about them fell to die Verwaltungleitung. The others said of die Verwaltungleitung that she could turn black into white. Who does she work for? Who does anyone work for – the natural born leaders, placed in authority by their superior intelligence, creating commandments: under der Träger, All animals were equal.
At the start of each lesson, I’d greet Hussein with as-Salaam Alaykum and he responded Wa Alaykum Salaam. For months, that was essentially all we could manage, but he soon started to open up, to make jokes in broken English and German, to stay behind after class, to ask questions, to mess around, to want to talk, to assimilate. Here, in the warzone of The Campus, a refugee was surviving, pushing himself, one foot in front of the other, finding time to smile and laugh along the way. It’s for young people in need like Hussein that many of us get into teaching and, if it does happen, you find out if you really meant it. Ms. Moody and I found ourselves working harder than we’d ever worked before for kids like Hussein, draining backbreaking labour of the heart and mind, and we recognised our struggle in Boxer’s maxim: ‘I will work harder’.
Ms Moody and I happily inflated Hussein’s grades and gave him an easier time than the rest of the kids. Sometimes differentiating means differentiating for social disadvantages - injustices – too. It didn’t really matter in the end. Some of the fee-paying parents were very insistent and, with a management unprepared to address the provocation, as a teacher you eventually give in and do the wrong thing, if only for self-preservation. It isn’t the only school where buying a place can, with enough consumer displeasure, be equivalent to buying the grade you think your kid deserves. Some school administrations don’t seem to want to care if this is happening or not anyway, as long as the Geld continues to flow. In some bureaucracies, kids are left to silently wander through the system. To stay in Germany, Hussein has to become fluent in German. Along the way, he’s learning English too. A refugee in Germany, in Europe, a world of hardening borders erected against people like him. If affluent German families can buy their kids grades, a Syrian kid can have a life for almost nothing.
MY HISTORY TEACHING ASSISTANT was an American war veteran we liked to call Black Hawk Down. In the vacuum of professionalism, he was permitted to carve out a position of unusual authority. He was, de facto, in charge of behaviour management. His boot camp style, a leftover of his days in the US military, was employed with mutually assured destruction and plausible deniability.
He called kids fat, forced them to do press-ups as punishment, talked inappropriately about girls’ periods, spoke in inappropriate sexual innuendo to male students and female teachers, and intimated colleagues. If you heard screaming in the classroom, it was likely to be Black Hawk Down. In my first week, I took over from him in an independent-study session. He was playing Risk. We began to talk and almost immediately, it swerved onto army stories. He asked if I’d seen Black Hawk Down. With Ethan Hawke? That was his unit, apparently. A couple of months later in the Lehrerzimmer, he told me he was an expert in History. In his expertise, antisemitism is a catch-all term for racism. I disagreed and he accused me of being wrong. I tried to explain the etymology, the history of the Semitic people, the long and well-documented history of antisemitism, my own Jewish and Semitic roots, and he backed down and said he’d find the book where he’d read it (written by another expert).
In eighth grade History, we taught about the American Revolution together. He morphed into the perpetual freedom fighter, torch held aloft, bastion of freedom and I was the imperialist tyrant. To be very honest, I relished the role and found in its opportunity for fork-tongued cynicism a healthy valve for my frustrations over Brexit etc. On the first day of Karneval 2019, he came to school dressed as an American revolutionary, garters and all brother. I was dressed as a gardener. In one lesson, we were learning about Jamestown, the first British colony in Virginia. ‘The first winter in 1619 was deadly and the crops failed,’ Black Hawk lectured. ‘They should have learned from the Native Americans. Later, they did. But in 1619, some of the settlers had to resort to cannibalism. But, you all know that many cultures in history ate human flesh and a lot of them in Asia still do.’ It was snuff-show teaching. ‘I once tried human flesh.’ It really did get that deranged.
But the most deranged was yet to come. The lesson started with a slide of Osama Bin Laden. Black Hawk Down reacted viscerally, stayed for a little while, but seemed uncomfortable and left the room. We’d just been learning about the crusades and it seemed like a progressive thing to do to relate what they had learned to terrorism and, to bring it back into relevance with their own lifetime, talk about the revival of the word ‘crusade’ in how the warring sides speak about each other: Bush, Blair, and Bin Laden alike. I planned the lesson so that he students could research and discuss 9/11, al-Qaida, how the western media portrays Muslims and try to figure out why the wars between different groups in the Middle East today had been called crusades by some of those involved. It was then that the door opened and he returned, just as I’d started to talk about the difference between Islam and Islamism. It didn’t take long for him to speak out. ‘ISIS want the whole world to be Muslim.’ Already, I felt like my good work was undone. ‘But, it isn’t only Muslims who are fundamentalists.’ More hopeful. ‘Christians can be fundamentalists as well.’ Objectivity. It was going surprisingly well. ‘One of the popes was a fundamentalist. Do you know all of those naked statues in the Vatican city? Well, one day one of the popes went crazy and went around each statue and chopped the [genitals] off.’ Terrorism takes many forms.
In the end Black Hawk Down was fired for an act so depraved in what it reveals about how unhinged he truly became in that place that I won’t mention it here. All I will respectfully say is that war veterans should not work with live grenades. He was friends with the old school administrator and it was said that the owners liked him well. Black Hawk Down, like many teachers who have disappeared from the school overnight, is now suing the school for unfair dismissal.
THE WHEEL OF REVOLUTION first turned because of a petition for a school counsellor. When I started at The Campus, I was hired as a teaching assistant and for the first three months that I worked there, I was with the kids for ninety-minute blocks, often on my own. There was no real curriculum. There were no textbooks. A blackboard and chalk and, if we were lucky, enough paper to write down some ideas.
Many of the kids spoke no English. I spoke no German. There were tears. There were scraps and screams, it was total war. The culture in the classrooms was brutalist: walls empty, the atmosphere dull and febrile, the style out-dated and catered to old-school instructive teaching – Paolo Freire’s nightmare. In the absence of an ethos, there was nothing to do but deal with the issues the students were exhibiting, some of which were taking a nasty turn – furniture was thrown, desks and walls defaced with cocks and swastikas, fires started, racist slurs thrown about, mobbing of the weak, idolisation of the strong, and zero respect for teachers.
Most of the classes responded extremely badly to someone trying to teach them. After six months with the students, I’d discovered why they were so hard to teach and how deep the vein of injustice ran. Some were self-harming, suicidal, taking drugs and drinking alcohol, smoking in the toilets, smearing faeces on the wall (Poogate lasted an entire spring and summer), adolescent male students squaring up to female teachers, fighting in the street outside the gates (the police were called twice in my first month, and an ambulance too), parents beating their children, children fistfighting with their parents, parents institutionalised, students admitted to psych wards, students leaving messages to teachers asking how to kill themselves, sexual harassment, underage sex tapes on social media, involvement with gangs, and more. This is what happens when a school accepts any student and provides next to no support for their needs. This is what happens when the government insists it is the current school’s obligation to find the next one for any ‘undesirable’ student who is expelled. Knives smuggled into school. Statutory rape. Young white boys cheering for Hitler and sending anti-Semitic smut on social media because they can. Young Turks chanting for Erdogan and screaming Inshallah because they believe in something they don’t understand. There was such a disregard for the school rules and such a breathtaking scale of systemic weakness that, sometimes, the teachers had to acquiesce to what was happening. Other times, they had no choice. When young male students disrespected young female teachers, the management’s reply was curt and emphatic: it’s just puberty.
When the kids did misbehave, there was a concept: they were sent downstairs to fill out a reflection form with a range of questions which, when completed, would be returned to the teacher, who would place the form into the classbook from where it would be collected and deposited in a folder by the class teacher who then monitored how many reflection forms the offending students had accrued. Only after passing a certain number of these forms would the school be able to consider exclusions and expulsions. It made tentative sense, but was useless in practice. The usual suspects were sent downstairs, some daily, some more. However, the school was so understaffed that there were no teachers there to keep a record of who was sent down, or to monitor what they did when they were down there, or lead them in filling out their reflection forms. OK – Mr Anderson tried, sitting there with his book on theoretical Mathematics. In the end, being sent downstairs became a ritual and the same kids formed something like their own utopia down there. It took so long for anybody with influence to act that a whole angry counter-culture started to emerge. The management was mostly disconnected from the nasty looking reality. They walked past and said nothing. They saw and yet failed to see the kids getting out of their minds. In the classroom, some students completely disbanded with the idea of a teacher’s authority. The situation was bleak.
In the meantime, Der Träger released an order that all students must wear The Campus’s official uniform – a choice of T-shirt, hoodie, or baseball jacket, all hand-made in Bangladesh. Not wearing uniform, they informed us, was a big reason for the misbehaviour. Absurdity is a nosedive from the unbelievable into the unpredictable. We tried to speak to der Träger about change and reform and made a case for a school counsellor to support us in dealing with a long list of serious cases. The teaching assistants can do it, they replied - the same teaching assistants with no teaching qualifications who are sold on the website as “co-teachers”; the same co-teachers made to serve the kids food each lunchtime and clean the Mensa (canteen). It seemed we’d reached the edge of each of our positions. To go further into the discussion would mean inevitably reaching the point at which the current circumstances were blamed on late Gregor’s miscalculations, as they often were. It reminded us in so many ways of one of the pigs in Animal Farm, Squealer, who, to hide what was happening to the apples and milk, projected fear into the group: ‘Jones would come back! Yes, Jones would come back!’
To be honest, we’d also recognised something in the inner machinations of the place that we could no longer deny, so evidently was it reproduced in Orwell’s own words: “It was always the pigs who put forward the resolutions. The other animals understood how to vote, but could never think of any resolutions of their own.” With nothing to lose, we leaned on them and why not? Their ideology was transactional, ours transformational. So, a core group of three of us drafted a petition, two in fact, one in English and the other in German, and submitted it with the tacit support of the Lehrerrat - the teachers’ council tasked with improving teaching and learning. It helped that every member of the teaching staff bar approx. four who were absent or unwell signed their support also. The five of us delivered the petition to Der Träger in Solidaritat. Several meetings to discuss their concerns that only served to prove that we had put Der Träger in check mate – proving Sun Tzu’s principle: ‘when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away’.
The school hired a school counsellor. They accepted it and we moved on. Our pincer movement was an irrefutable success. It was when the staff unionised in response to having not been paid for their countless hours of overtime that the counter-revolution began. It was then that the mask of power fell for long enough for us to see what we were really making money for.
OUR LENIN WAS A GERMAN GUY with a long orange shock of a pony tail. A Politics and Philosophy teacher. A champion rollerblader. In this telling of his role in what transpired, he’ll be referred to as the finch. The finch too had tasted enough of the bitter fruit of injustice.
The finch advocated for the German and Italian teachers and, when he recognised that the ‘privatised’ bilingual teachers were also oppressed, us too. He contacted the GEW, the German teachers’ union. We’d been talking about unionising for a while, but this was radical. One of our longer-standing colleagues, Black Hawk Down, told us that Der Träger didn’t really want a union at their school so naturally, it was then that my interest began. Under the finch’s direction, the wheel of revolution rotated quite a lot further and before we knew what was happening, it was happening. In the afterglow of our successful petition, the Wahl (election) for a Betriebsrat (workers’ council) began. The first thing we did was create a Betriebsratwahlvorstand (a workers’ council election committee). C. Page was a deputy Vorsitzender while the finch took responsibility as Vorsitzender. What did I do? I translated into English, sat in silent solidarity in official meetings, and made election posters. The finch was the archetypal revolutionary and he knew the GEW union book to a tee, clause by clause, hard-won right by hard-won right. Around this time, an unfortunate stroke of luck meant that there was a new Verwaltungleitung (head of administration). She controlled the finances. She filed paperwork. A bureaucrat. A bully. She had been recruited to stifle dissent and restore calm.
On 06-05-19, the finch sent an email to the Verwaltungleitung: a Wahlvorstand (election committee) had been created and he was the chairman (Der Vorsitzender). In a 636-word email, the new Vorsitzender set conditions for the establishment of an electoral roll and a timetable for the Wahl (election). He threw the rule book at them and revealed his strategy of attack. He ended it with a clear statement of intent:
In order to ensure that the forthcoming works council election is conducted in an orderly manner, we rely on you to provide us with all requested information by Friday, May 10, 19 at the latest.
The Verwaltungleitung’s reply came on 10-05-19. She provided a full list of employees who were eligible to be placed on the electoral roll, including specified members of staff who weren’t able to understand the information in German (my name was included), and executive positions which were not permitted franchise in an election for a workers’ council. The email ended:
Unlawful actions will be punished by immediate dismissal.
The Verwaltungleitung’s response was firm but accommodating, but the atmosphere was anything but that. The two factions dug in, flashing recriminating glances at each other across no man’s land. In one email, we didn’t address her as Frau Frau Seidl and her response spoke volumes of the enmity simmering just under the surface:
Respect is not a one-way street, and I would be pleased if a formal address were given in future correspondence.
On 16th May, the three of us on the Wahlvorstand met and set a date for the election – 8th July, 2019. We also had to create
- an election notice,
- a list of candidates,
- an electoral roll (51 eligible voters in total, later reduced to 48 after three teachers didn’t have their contracts renewed or were fired),
- an official notice to the administration,
- an official invitation to all eligible staff,
- Wahl Ordnung (election rules),
and all within four days in order that the election could happen before the summer break. On 27-05-19, The finch sent an email which officially announced the election, but there was something lurking deeper in the tone, a direct challenge to who in fact was in control:
I would like to take this opportunity to inform you that the electoral committee is actually entitled to an exemption from duty for the amount of work it has to do, but we have decided to waive our right to do the work in our free time for the good of the school.
The next day, the finch was fired. Our Trotsky suffered the ice-pick. Snowball was chased from Animal Farm. Ché’s smiling corpse was left in an unmarked grave. Our Jimmy Hoffa was proverbially ‘whacked’. All staff received an email on 01-06-19:
Ladies and gentlemen,
I was released from all official duties on Tuesday without giving reasons, on Wednesday I was handed a notice of termination on 30.06.19 and I had to hand over all school keys. Nevertheless, I will continue to hold my office as chairman of the electoral board (after all, the management and the school management do not have the authority to issue instructions regarding this activity).
As my Bilingo mail account is already inactive since Tuesday evening, I ask you to send email etc. to my private email address and to the business address of the other members of the election board:
On this occasion, I would like to remind you that regular data backups including the external archiving of emails are very important and send you a summary regarding employee rights in relation to staff interviews.
With best regards
The finch wasn’t the only colleague to be fired so acrimoniously. A sports teacher who was serving on the Betriebsrat was let go. A janitor received a final warning (and therefore grounds for dismissal) for not following the formal procedure of informing the school of absence while he was lying in a hospital bed. An English teacher who worked at another of their schools was told she had a choice: reduce her hours so significantly that she would not be able to financially support herself or agree to terminate her contract. She terminated her contract. An expat Italian teacher’s contract wasn’t renewed, only weeks after they had informed her she would be getting a contract extension for two or more years. There were rumours that it was all designed to manipulate the numbers on the electoral roll and dispute the quorum. It never became fully clear what their rationale was.
In a subsequent email at 08:52 on 01-06-19, the finch responded to his email account being deactivated and announced that he would continue in his role as chairman of the election committee.
Since the business email address is a central communication channel in the process of the works council election, we consider this an attempt to disrupt the works council election. If the email address is not active again by 04.06., we will apply for a temporary injunction in accordance with § 23.3 BetrVG.
"§23.3 The works council or a trade union represented in the company can apply to the labour court in the case of gross violations of the employer's obligations under this law to order the employer to refrain from acting, to tolerate the performance of an act or to carry out an act [...] The maximum fine and penalty payment is 10,000 euros.”
In this context, I would like to point out that although you have explicitly and indefinitely released me "from all official duties" towards BilinGO Campus Gesamtschule and its function as managing director, my position and function as elected chairman of the election committee for the works council election does not fall within this official duty and you are not authorized to give me instructions in this function.
On behalf of the election committee and all employees, I would urge you to refrain from further disruptions to the works council election.
Three days later, the administration stood down. They set up a special [email protected] email account on The Campus network but we never used it. The war of words continued, cold in the first instance but now rapidly heating, and it was clear which side had seized the initiative. The king and queen clearly didn’t like it much that their pawns were trying to reorder the chessboard, but the finch was the inexhaustible agitator extraordinaire.
The argument revolved around a proposed Betriebsversammlung – an election committee’ meeting to provide formal information about the Wahl beforehand for anyone who had questions. According to the union book, all employees listed on the electoral roll were entitled to attend, meaning that ordinary school operations would have to be briefly terminated. The Vorzensistzer arranged for it to happen at lunchtime, paid, and on school-time. The Verwaltungleitung said it couldn’t happen as it would disrupt school operations. The election, however, could go ahead. It was then that the war of words escalated. The Verwaltungleitung’s tone changed and she began to address us as “the Esteemed Election Committee”. The finch responded:
… you do not have the right to prohibit the electoral board from answering questions from colleagues during the set-up.
Furthermore, in recent weeks, you have hung up notices without consultation or comment on the tendency operation and its "restriction of participation rights", which has unsettled colleagues and raised central questions which we must clarify before the works council election. In doing so, you have given us a reason which would also justify an official works meeting which is obligatory for all employees, but which we have voluntarily dispensed with.
Furthermore, you have failed to respond to our offer to voluntarily organise teaching and supervisory representation for the colleagues deployed. As we are not aware that you have organised this as required by law, you are responsible for any disruptions to the teaching process. I repeat once again that you must make it possible for all employees to take part in the works council elections!
What the finch was alluding to in the second paragraph is notices which had been found in the school announcing the conditions necessary to legitimately restrict participation rights in the upcoming election. As they were in German, I never read them and they were never translated. It was clear, however, that their response was to be one of resisting the election is whichever ways they could. We could expect conniving and criminality. Through die Verwaltungleitung, der Träger defended themselves against the accusation of hanging notices around the school:
Please refrain in future from making any claims or insinuations that we are not cooperative and are trying to disrupt the election process. You as an election executive committee must co-operate trustingly with the management, § 2 exp. 1 BetrVG. Such assertions and insinuations certainly do not serve this purpose.
On a hot July day, hotter than it should have been, with the grass in the parks already sun-scorched and turned golden and yellow, marble blue skies, long evenings in the grass and a short night of sleep, the election went ahead on 8th July 2019. 48 teachers turned out from a total electoral roll of 51. Five colleagues were elected to the Betriebsrat, which was officially recognised by the GEW, and after long months of agitation and warped dreams, finally, we could celebrate. However, our triumph was soon put into perspective with signs of what was to come. One of the Leitung (leadership team) who had stepped down from her position addressed some of the serious issues in the final full staff meeting before the start of summer. She received a stone wall of applause, but not from the management or the administration at the front who were a stone wall of their own. A week into the summer holiday, she received a warning for “disturbing the peace”.
What disturbed me the most about what I lived through in that late spring and summer of 2019 was the way in which the warriors so quickly forgot about who we truly represented. In a battle against injustice, it’s undeniable that some of the students suffered because of our stress. What was going on was so subtle and so all-embracing that it is hard to know what really happened, so fierce were the wills of those involved and so belligerent the rhetoric. Before they went to war, the mafia dons of the Five Families in New York would ‘sit down’, a last effort to save them all from war. I wonder. I wonder whether the argument over the Betriesversammlung was all a diversionary tactic, to slip the noose of their narrative, and confuse them with smoke and a mirror. Whether they could have shut it down or not, they didn’t and, in the sense that our way was such, we prevailed. Their retaliation was, however, swift and punitive. One of the Betriebsrat, a Maths teacher, an elected representatives recognised by union law, was threatened with being fired and, to preserve his career, acquiesced to whatever their demands were; classic intimidation. The chairman had already been fired, and a third had not had his contract renewed during the timetabled election period but, in line with GEW law, had still been elected. Out of five Betriebsrat members, three were already called into question by Der Träger’s strategy. Nevertheless, on 15-07-19 we received our first email from our elected Betriebsrat. Finally, we felt we could breathe a little.
However, in the quiet heat of the summer vacation when everyone was trying to forget about it for a while, we received an email from the Die Verwaltungleitung:
The election of the works council is an extremely complex process that requires some knowledge of the Works Constitution Act - especially if it is being held for the first time. The election committee did not ask for our cooperation during the establishment phase, which we found regrettable.
We still consider good and goal-oriented communication to be indispensable in a school and will continue to maintain this offer to all employees and also the co-determination bodies.
The entire process of the works council election, from the election notice to the election, shows considerable deficiencies and deviations from mandatory legal norms.
Like you, we are also very interested in ensuring that the elections were absolutely in accordance with the law and that the works council can work in an unambiguous and legitimate manner, strengthened in its office.
We have asked the competent court to give legal consideration to the concerns arising from the violations of the Works Constitution Act.
Until a decision is made by the competent court, we are in a "limbo" with regard to the legally valid establishment of the works council.
We are very interested in ending this limbo as soon as possible - but are forced to wait for the result of the legal review by the competent court.
We are sure that a corresponding works council will be able to take up its active work quite quickly - we are happy to be available as a discussion and cooperation partner.
They signed off: Bis dahin verbleiben wir; until then we remain. The union guidelines met with a countervailing force: a different interpretation of the Works Constitution Act. Der Träger and die Verwaltungleitung saw things differently to the Vorsitzender and the Betriebsrat. Not that it mattered. They had discovered their official line and applied it mercilessly. The workers’ council - our windmill, the hope of a beleaguered work force - was in doubt.
With the finch out of the picture, it was clear that Der Träger and Die Verwaltungleitung’s strategy was to strangle the Betriebsrat in a long, drawn-out legal tussle. We all knew how to understand the permutations when the head teacher barred Betriebsrat representatives from meetings concerning contracts, hours and wages. The writing was on the wall. In December, the Betriebsrat tried to organise a Betriebsammlung (a works meeting for all staff) in the Old Fire Station, not far from The Campus. The meeting was cancelled by the Verwaltungleitung on 3rd December, who demonstrated just how little traction the Betriebsrat had with the school administration. The Betriebsrat, she wrote:
…may not make any promises to the workforce regarding possible overtime compensation for participation in works meetings. Especially not if the date and place of the meeting have not been agreed with the employer.
A final email on 4th December officially brought an end to even the faintest hope of a meeting of the Betriebsrat. It revealed the depth of the enmity that had been brewing and the futility of collective action when personality politics take centre stage:
Previously offered discussions with the members of the [Betriebsrat] were vehemently rejected. One could almost get the impression when reading the e-mails from [Betriebsrat] that it is not about the welfare of the staff or the company - there is no other way to explain these conflicts… In the end, it is always about the members themselves - and this with an incredible roar. Even a works meeting, which takes place thousands of times in companies and basically offers no potential for conflict, becomes a "show stage" in which all employees are involved. As already mentioned - everyone can form their own opinion.
Everyone can form their own opinion. In six words, it was clear enough that the struggle for worker representation had come undone. Yes - everyone can form their own opinion, but only now that der Träger and die Verwaltungleitung had done enough to ensure that the Betriebsrat would never properly function or become a forum for everyone’s opinion to be heard, then acknowledged and addressed. The coup de grace, however, were three points of justification which, in their totality, can be seen to contain all the evidence necessary to understand their strategy – deselect, deflect, delegitimise:
We stand by our legal opinion that …
1. You are certainly aware that two members [including the chairman] are legally prevented from attending, so the works council does not have a quorum. This means that there can be no effective resolution that could lead to a works meeting.
2. Works meetings are generally held during working hours and on the company premises. Of course, we would have made this possible - unfortunately, nobody has spoken to us or asked for anything. Which we also regret. Here too, everyone can ask why the works council does not simply speak, ask questions and together we will find a good solution. We have no interest whatsoever in these conflicts.
3. [It] has not yet been decided on the regularity of the works council elections, so we are still in a position of "limbo".
In the courts, the finch and his GEW-appointed lawyer did their best to outmanoeuvre Der Träger, to beat them with the rule book, but after close to nine months, they settled and dropped the case. Certainty, it seems, escaped “limbo”. By the start of 2020, our Lenin’s train had broken down somewhere between Finland and nowhere.
In the new decade, the Betriebsrat no longer has a chairman, meaning a new Wahl will have to be organised, meaning that the workers at The Campus still have no collective bargaining rights. So it seems, as die Verwaltungleitung promised, that for now the administration remain. Der Träger und die Verwaltungleitung bleiben. Der Vorsitzender nicht. The pigs remain in the Manor House. Mr Bernard and Late Gregor’s ghost. The pay-off because they were a day late. There’s a story about late Gregor when he still reigned as head. In an official statement to all staff, he lambasted der Träger in a litany of maritime metaphors and concluded with a proverb: Der Fisch stinkt immer vom Kopf. The fish stinks from the head. This, it seems, is our only reward: to know we weren’t the only ones who tried and failed.
FOR EACH ALUMNUS THE CAMPUS PRODUCES, it produces innumerable survivors. On The Campus’s homepage, photographs paint an impression of a cutting edge institution with smiling students and modern technology. None of these particular photographs were taken at the school. Like many of its better ideas, they are stolen, misappropriated, and missold. Simply told, the window dressing doesn’t reflect the brute reality of cracked windows, rodent-infested corridors, under-resourced classrooms, defective technology, demoralised workers, managers who are either abusive or apathetic, and children who teeter on the brink of anarchy. In the academic year 2018-19, multiple teachers were fired or had their contracts terminated. In the academic year 2019-20, the school is suffering chronic shortages of teaching staff, meaning those who remain are overworked, burning out, and blamed for not properly managing their stress and workload. On top of this, the fees for students were just increased.
There are multiple court cases in motion. One teacher nearing retirement who sued the school when they attempted to fire her recently lost her appeal. Now, she must work at the school, teaching subjects that she haven’t agreed to, most of which are extra courses scheduled for before and after the school day. The onus is now on her to quit. The owners threatened to sue ex-staff members who left coruscating but candid Google reviews about the conditions in the school and their mistreatment by their employers. They have all been taken down. Sometimes, it seems those in control of the narrative always find a way to avoid the difficult questions and prioritise self-promote over self-reflection. However, it is left to those of us at the chalk face to remind, to revolt, and to remember. The Campus, after all, is a microcosm and the world is not free of suffering. What we learn in classrooms mustn’t stop there. What happens in a school is a mirror to the world.
Oftentimes I find it hard to sleep. In the early hours of the morning, something keeps awaking me. I can never pin-point the exact cause of this insomnia, but at the elusive edge of dreams replaced by shadows and silence, I sense a continuing discomfort. It is in the quietude of these early hours, when even the familiar comfort of a pillow can’t soothe the restlessness without meaning, that I realise that none of us who were there will ever be completely untouched by what has happened.
Questions abound. What was the purpose of our struggle? What was the purpose of theirs? Is it possible to forget or must be always remember? How can some people stand by, say nothing, do nothing, and satisfy themselves with their salary? Where is justice in a world that allows perpetrators of injustice to continue to perpetrate the same injustices and pretend to be professionally expedient rather than, dare I say it, unethical? Does a long series of similar mistakes amount to accident or intention? Why, in the end, must some fight for what is right while others make excuses for malpractice and blame others for the annoyance of their voice, their bearing witness tom something fundamentally gone wrong?
In the absence of sleep, I remember what the new head and the new deputy head told me when I quit: the students will all feel my absence and so will the school. They thank me for my creativity and my passion, but the reason I’m leaving, the ultimate problem, is that I’ve worked too hard for the school. Had I worked less hard, like some of the other long-serving teachers, perhaps I’d have survived and I’d still be working there. Recalling this, I shudder and realise that sleep won’t come for a little longer and I’m left to inquire from the darkness. Will anyone of us ever escape what happened? Will we continue to speak about when we’re gone or try to forget, knowing that we tried and failed to change something that cannot be changed? Can anyone who wasn’t there really understand what it was like to seethe at the sight of what they, in their wisdom, wealth, and authority, had failed to create? I wonder if it is really possible to communicate what it is like to be there, authentically in solidarity with the kids and the colleagues, suffering with those who are suffering?
To the independent observer, it might all seem fabricated, a fiction and conspiracy. They might rightly ask: Why did any of us continue to work for people who claimed to provide an education, charged for it, but then underfunded many of the students’ futures? Why did we believe them when they told us that they wanted things to get better even as their actions made things objectively worse? Why did so many of the teachers walk out over such a short space of time? Was it that we didn’t care enough or that we worked too hard? Does it sound too fanciful or excessively Orwellian to talk about doublethink? Does it sound caustic or embittered to allude to the banality of evil?
The search for a fitting ending or epitaph brings me to a discomforting realisation: this story isn’t really over. The school will open on Monday and each day after that for as long as what happens just beyond the underpass down the cobbled stone street past the fading graffiti that says simply ‘STOP KINDER ARBEIT’ remains conveniently inconspicuous. Those who were there, those who still are, and this author must remember, because if we don’t the past will be erased, the erasure will very soon be forgotten, and their lies will become the truth.