© Mirela Kimbrough
Ms. Kimbrough, tell us about your background: Where, when, and why did you learn German?
I’m originally from Bosnia. Before I was born, my mother had previously lived in Germany for about 20 years. So, in 1992, when war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina, my family decided to move to Germany, because my mother already spoke the language. I went through middle school in Germany and, in 1999, moved to the United States, where my mother thought it would be a great idea to enroll me in high school German classes. I took German for 4 years, and even though I spoke it, I didn’t know the grammar that well. I fell in love with the language through a particular teacher at my high school, who helped me a lot; ultimately, I decided that I wanted to teach German.
What in particular do you like about the German language?
What I like about it is that it’s so literal. It always spells out and means exactly what it says. Of course, it’s an old language, it has a lot of different cases and grammatical conventions that make perfect sense to me. It is also a lot easier to write than English. So German just works for me.
Tell me about the point when you decided to take your German to the next level and become a German teacher.
Around my junior year in high school in the US, my mother told me that I would have to choose a major, and stick with it, so I decided to teach German. I took to the idea since it would allow me to do what I love and speak German every day in the classroom. Of course, a German teacher in the US gets more than 4 months off a year, which was really appealing to me.
When did you have your first actual teaching experience?
That was in 2009, at Georgia State University where I was a teaching assistant and taught a [second semester] class – and absolutely loved it. Later, I taught other [first] and [second semester] classes, so I had some experience before I went off into the ‘real world’.
Was teaching in an actual classroom setting outside of a university different from what you had expected?
Yes, definitely. When you teach, you always base your approach on how you yourself understand [the material] and what makes sense to you. But then you realize that you often have between 20 and 30, or even more, students who don’t understand things the same way you do. So you have to find different ways to teach those students, some of which might not even understand things like the majority of students in class.
So it was during your graduate studies that you decided to become a public school German teacher. What made you decide that you wanted to teach in public school and not just stay, say, at a university?
Honestly, it’s much more difficult to get a full-time job at the university level. I knew at that point that I would not be getting a PhD anytime soon and that opportunities were very limited with a Master’s Degree. And since I lived in the suburbs, I figured why not try teaching at a high school. So I gave it a try and absolutely fell in love with it.
How did you get your teaching certification?
After I completed my Master’s [Degree] in 2011, I interviewed for a position as a German teacher at a local high school. They asked me if I already had my teaching certificate and I said no. Still, they gave me a chance, hired me and allowed me three years to get the certificate. I immediately enrolled in a one-year program called “Teach Gwinnett” with a majority of the cost being paid for by the county. Classes met once a week, and the majority of the work was done online. I was able to complete the program in 10 months and got my teaching certificate through what they call the “alternative route”. This was also a lot cheaper than going back to a university.
Now that you’ve been a teacher for a couple of years, what’s been the most challenging part of teaching in general, and German in particular?
Generally speaking, it is a challenge having up to 30 kids in the class and having to find ways to teach to all of them. Also, you can’t just teach a concept and then immediately move on. And when you test the students, you may find out that 30 or 40 percent of the students didn’t really understand what you had taught them. So I would have to come up with a new approach and do something differently to make things stick, such as show them a video, for example. Finding the time to apply all the different teaching techniques and to cater to all the different learning styles has probably been the most challenging part. As far as teaching German is concerned, the challenge is that many students in the United States don’t understand their own language. So all too often, before teaching a certain concept in German, I first need to go over equivalent structures in English. Students need to realize that German is not English; it’s a different language with different grammar and sentence structure, and requires you to think German.
Interesting. How do you accomplish that, ‘thinking German’?
Honestly, that’s something I’m still working on. I remind them all the time that what they are doing is think in English and that they need to take a step back and approach things again from a German angle. I still haven’t mastered this yet, of course.
In terms of the teaching methodology, what has and hasn’t worked for you? Are there things that you expected to work while planning your lessons but then did not once you were in class?
I had always been taught that group work was a great tool that allows kids to collaborate and learn from each other. Unfortunately, that has not worked in my class. In school, kids want to talk about random things and don’t necessarily want to stay on-topic, so group work has almost never been successful. I have not yet reached my goal of having them speak in the target language as much as I would like when I put them in a group. What has worked, however, is the language lab. A letter was written to the county on my behalf requesting a language lab, and one was installed in my classroom just last month. Now, I’m able to pair up my students across the classroom so that they can converse in German. At the same time, I can listen in on their conversation and record them. Before, in a standard classroom with more than 30 kids, I could check only part the class to see if they’re on task and speak German while the other part often did something non-related to German.
Looking at the student body, do you see a particular “type” of German learner here in the US? Or in other words: Do those students have anything in common?
On the first day of class, I always ask my student to tell me honestly why they are taking German; and some are just there because an administrator put them in my class. The majority of the kids, though, are either of German descent, or they have someone in their family who is German, speaks German, or lives in Germany. Also, I find that the majority of the kids in my class share similar interest: They like German music, culture, and many of my German 3 and German 4 students want to go either into business or engineering.
So, let’s say that you have questions on methodology or need ideas, materials, etc. How do you get support? What resources have you been utilizing?
There are about 20 German teachers in my county, many of whom have taught for 20 or even 30 years and who get together for a voluntary 2- to 3-hour meeting every month at a local school. There we share ideas, different teaching methods, worksheets, exercises, games – basically anything that can make the students learn better. I’m an active participant in that group. Also, the county requires us [teachers] to have a certain number of technology training hours and to incorporate more technology [in class] to help these 21st century learners to become better students. These weekly training sessions help me find better ways to teach my students and to appeal to all the learners in my class. Of course, I’ve had many great colleagues over the years who have helped and supported me throughout the process.
Is there any additional support that you would like to have or need?
One thing that I would love to do is involve my students more with German culture. Right now, there are not too many opportunities where kids can learn about German culture outside the classroom. I discovered rather recently that the Goethe-Zentrum Atlanta offers all these different events and ways for students to be exposed more to German culture. This is something I definitely want to take better advantage of in the future. I run a huge German club with over one hundred students enrolled. And through Goethe, I can now do many other things than the ones we’ve been doing and allow my students to learn more about German culture.
Finally, how do you see the prospects that your students have with using their German skills past graduation?
Last time I looked at statistics, I read that one in four students go into business or plan to major in business in college. According to an article I recently read, Germany is among the top five leading exporters to the United States, so I believe that kids who want to go into the business world will benefit tremendously from learning German and from continuing to learn after graduating from high school.
The interview was conducted by Tim Jansa.