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France is running short on German teachers

Andreas Noll
January 23, 2022

Bilingual schools across France are struggling to find people who can teach in German as English becomes more popular. A group of parents have set up a recruiting agency to help the government.

A child sticks pictures on a blackboard with French and German words
There are a number of bilingual programs in French schoolsImage: JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN /AFP via Getty Images

Maurice Umbdenstock, 61, used to have everything under control. The former auditor had a sharp eye for numbers. But his new job entails a certain loss of control. When he opens the door to his primary school in Munster in France's Alsace region, he is surrounded by 24 small children aged 3 to 5 and he can never really know what the day will bring. He came a little late to his vocation. "I am an educator at heart," he said with a smile. "But I must admit that, in my day in the 1960s, children had more respect."

Umbdenstock is one of the 30 teachers of the German language who were found positions with the help an Alsace parents' association over the past 12 months. "The state has a huge problem recruiting German teachers, so we thought we could help," Claude Froehlicher, the president of the association Eltern Alsace (Alsace Parents), told DW.

A village in Alsace
German is more popular in the regions that border Germany than in southern FranceImage: Renardeau - sa

A year ago, the association started searching for teachers of German to complement the efforts of the authorities and ultimately set up its own headhunting agency, RecrutoRRS, with three full-time employees. "We do it in a modern way," Froehlicher said, using Facebook, Instagram and other social networks, as well as job portals. Funded by the region and the European Union, RecrutoRRS searches for suitable candidates; if it can find 50 to 100 teachers per year, the region will be able to overcome the shortage of German teachers.

Within a year, the recruiters interviewed about 300 applicants and placed 70 of them in schools. Thirty of them received contracts, including Umbdenstock, who only spoke Alsatian at home with his parents, and can now teach German to French children. However, he will retire at the end of the school year.

From language teaching to cultural institute

Promoting German, Alsatian

Teaching is bilingual in at least one-third of schools in Alsace. This too is thanks to Eltern Alsace, which was founded in 1995 to strengthen German and Alsatian in the region and promote bilingualism in schools. But, as the number of students has grown continually, the number of teachers has stagnated.

Lorenz Herbst said the situation was better in Alsace than in other parts of France. He teaches history and geography in German at the Jeanne d'Arc high school in Clermont-Ferrand in Auvergne, but he, too, is soon to retire and he worries that it will be difficult to find a successor. There are three high schools in the greater Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region where students can take the French-German high school certificate (Abibac). Herbst said teaching was an increasingly unpopular career in France; one of the reasons is pay, which is over 30% less than the average teacher's salary in Germany.

The Sorbonne University in Paris
There are fewer people studying German at universities in ParisImage: Julie Sebadelha/abaca/picture alliance

Peter Steck, who is responsible for German instruction at the Education Ministry, said German had been the international language of choice for stronger students for decades. "German in France had a similar reputation to that of Latin in Germany," he said. But this changed by the late 1990s as English became increasingly popular.

In 2005, the French government established bilingual classes in secondary schools where German and English are offered in parallel. "That saved us," Steck said. Today 15% of French students learn German. In Alsace, there are 30,000 students learning German today.

In the "privileged capital region," 18% of students take German and about 80% of Paris schools offer bilingual classes. But at university, the number of people studying German is decreasing. Steck says that there is too much competition from other paths of study.

German idioms you really shouldn't take literally

Franziska Katharina Bauer studied journalism in Germany. She worked in the media for about five years, but, after moving to Mulhouse in southern Alsace, she decided to change profession. She found a job as a teacher with RecrutoRRS and she now teaches on the two days a week when classes take place entirely in German.

"It was quite a challenge considering there were only six introductory days," the 33-year-old said, but she has no regrets. She said both the students and parents welcomed her. "They were reassured when I said that I had taught German as a foreign language for a year in China," she said.

There are various long-term options for people who join the teaching profession a little later in life, but, for now, Bauer just wants to get through her first school year.

This article has been translated from German.