Mr. Partenheimer, tell us about your background: Where, when, and why did you learn German?
I started learning German at the William Penn Charter School in the seventh grade when we all had to pick a language. I switched to a public school in New Jersey the following year and continued learning German until AP with Chris Gwin. I then spent my senior year of high school in the Bavarian Alps as a Congress-Bundestag exchange student, and went on to spend 3 semesters of college in Berlin.
I chose German because several members of my family had studied it in their day, and my family heritage is primarily German. I stuck with it because I loved being able to communicate in another language, however poorly at first. Once I got over to Germany after three years of learning the language, I fell in love with the country and its culture and there was no looking back.
Where, when, and why did you decide to become a German teacher?
Though I had majored in German as a college student, I hadn’t necessarily planned on becoming a German teacher. I had originally planned on becoming an elementary school teacher because I enjoyed that age group, but when the German position at my school opened up, I decided to apply to keep my options open. I was offered the job and ultimately accepted, and now I can’t imagine teaching anything else.
What is the most challenging part in teaching German? What is the most rewarding?
The most challenging part of being a teaching German is being a one-man-show, so to speak. I’m the only German teacher in the district, and with six classes over five levels, with well over a hundred students from 8th to 12th grades, I sometimes feel like I’m spread too thin. This is also the most rewarding part, however, because of the work I put into the program. The growth I have seen over the last four years, and the rapport I have developed with my students are all a result of the hard work I put in, the attention I give to all levels, and the creative activities I implement.
Is there anything like a “special profile” to those students who take learn German?
I don't think there is a special profile for the German students in my school. I have them all: the jocks, the band kids, the loners, the artistic misfits, the language enthusiasts and the ones who are just there to fulfill a requirement.
Where did/do you get support, guidance as a yet relatively inexperienced German teacher?
I get the majority of my support from the teachers in the world language department at my school. We all get along very well, and whether it is a formal in-service day or just having lunch together, we are constantly commiserating/brainstorming/sharing/helping/laughing with each other. They are my work family, and I truly enjoy spending time with them. Additionally, I get help from other German teachers in the area as well as teachers I have met at workshops over the years that I still stay in contact with.
In your opinion: What are the prospects for German as a foreign language in the US?
German as a foreign language faces an uphill battle in the US. The average American sees no need to learn a foreign language, because English is everywhere and people get by just fine without acquiring a second language. The importance placed upon foreign languages just isn't enmeshed in our culture like it is in Europe. If forced to learn a foreign language, Spanish is often the default choice given its prevalence in America and its reputation for being "easy". German will always face the stigma of being an "ugly" and "harsh" language, for starters, because the average person's exposure to German comes from World War II movies or Rammstein. German also has a reputation for being "hard", a challenge which brings in some students while turning away many more.
Students need to realize that the culture and country behind the language are so much more than Oktoberfest and Nazis. Germany is a country with a fascinating history beyond the Holocaust. And history and culture aside, Germany is also a modern, cutting-edge, powerhouse leader in business and industry, and students need to know the advantage they can gain with companies if they learn the German language. These are the things that need to be included when promoting a German program.
Germany definitely hit the PR jackpot by winning the World Cup last summer. When my students returned in September, there was almost a sense of pride that they were taking the language of the World Cup Champions. The win certainly helped Germany's image internationally, and no doubt made more than one American student excited to take German.
The interview was conducted by Christoph Veldhues and Olga Liamkina.