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German teachers bullied from school receive prize

November 22, 2023

Two teachers who left their schools after writing an open letter about far-right structures among students are to receive civil courage prizes. But major changes are needed to tackle the problem of racism at school.

Deutschland Cottbus | Max Teske und Laura Nickel
Max Teske and Laura NickelImage: Markus Schreiber/AP/picture alliance

Max Teske would rather not say where he's working now, which is understandable. In July this year, the teacher and his colleague Laura Nickel were effectively hounded out of their school by far-right bullies in the town of Burg, in the eastern state of Brandenburg, after writing an open letter about the far-right structures they faced at school.

In the letter that caused a nationwide stir, they said were confronted every day with "far-right extremism, sexism, and homophobia."

"School furniture is smeared with swastikas, right-wing extremist music is heard in class and the shouting of anti-democratic slogans fills the school hallways," Teske and Nickel wrote.

"Teachers and students who openly oppose right-wing student and parent groups fear for their safety," the two teachers wrote, after criticizing the "wall of silence and the lack of support from the school directors, school authorities, and politicians."

Once the letter was out, the two teachers' lives essentially became unlivable: Flyers appeared on lampposts around the town calling on them to "f*ck off to Berlin."

students throwing objects at their teacher
Germany has seen a rise in attacks on teachersImage: Imago Images/imagebroker

Standing up for equality

Now, four months after the ugly episode, the teachers are to be honored with a civil courage prize in Berlin, presented jointly by the Holocaust Memorial organization and the Jewish Community of Berlin.

Teske and Nickel have rebuilt their lives in the meantime, not only with new jobs in unnamed towns but as public figures regularly sought for interviews and panel discussions.

"A lot has changed," Teske told DW. "On the one hand, moving out of Cottbus, the home where I lived for 31 years, meeting new colleagues and students; on the other hand, of course with the media presence we have from trying to make these issues public."

They have also found themselves with new work as "value ambassadors" for German Dream, which means leading seminars in schools where they discuss their experiences and talk to both teachers and students about how to stand up to extremism. "That has become really important for us," said Teske. "We noticed that we weren't alone and that what we did was right."

"I would describe ourselves as mouthpieces, and that's a role that I value a lot because there are many people stuck in situations that are even more difficult than the one I was in," he added.

Leaving teachers in the lurch

The head of German Dream is Düzen Tekkal, who launched the initiative in 2019. "Basically this is about the fact that we are abandoning teachers in the fight against far-right populism, against antisemitism," she told DW. "The world has changed, but the curricula are still stuck in past decades."

Düzen Tekkal
Activist Düzen Tekkal heads the schools initiative German DreamImage: Jens Kalaene/dpa/picture alliance

German Dream works to fill that gap and tries to tailor their seminars — which are led by people from all walks of life — to real requests they get from teachers, whether it's to discuss issues like the Middle East, Islamophobia, or homosexuality.

"We get a lot of teachers writing to us," Tekkal added. "They're overwhelmed by what is happening in the world. The children come to school with a certain mindset, which they've got from their parents or the internet, and teachers can't deal with all that on their own, no matter how well-meaning they are."

Statistics do show that Teske and Nickel's experiences are not unique. Brandenburg police released new figures in October that showed 159 cases of so-called "propaganda crimes" in schools in 2022 — mostly related to Nazi graffiti. That is more than the 136 reported in the pre-pandemic year of 2018.

"We knew before we wrote the letter that this wasn't just our school," said Teske. "I experienced it myself when I visited a school in Spremberg, a small town in southern Brandenburg, and I was threatened and attacked by right-wing students."

Breaking the 'wall of silence'

Politicians did react to the storm that Teske and Nickel created. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was "deeply shocked" by the letter and the fact that teachers felt they had to write it.

The government of Brandenburg promised to investigate the incidents that Teske and Nickel reported, while Education Minister Steffen Freiberg denied the teachers' accusations that they had not been offered any support. "We have done everything the state apparatus can do and more to protect these two colleagues," he told the Tagesspiegel newspaper in August.

Freiberg, a Social Democrat, also promised that the government would improve action plans for dealing with violence at schools by the start of next year.

Nevertheless, he admitted that society as a whole has a problem with far-right extremism. "It has an effect when there is now a second generation with right-wing extremist attitudes in individual families," Freiberg told the newspaper. "And the fact that there are some regionally entrenched Nazi structures is a major social drama that I have never played down."

Max Teske and Laura Nickel speaking at a demonstration in Cottbus in May of 2023
Teske(l) and Tekkal think there need to be structural changes within schools such as mandatory training for teachers on democracy educationImage: Patrick Pleul/dpa/picture alliance

Changes in schools

But Teske and Tekkal think there need to be deeper changes within schools. "I think subjects like political education need to get much more space in classes. It needs to be more than once a week," said Teske. "I also think there need to be mandatory courses for teachers on the subject of democracy education."

In Germany, education policy is administered by states, not by the federal government, and each determines its own level of "political education," which, when and how to teach the tenets of a democratic constitution.

The concerns about young people are not confined to eastern Germany. The Bavarian government is also worried about the rise of far-right attitudes in schools: A recent mock election for under-18s in the state of Bavaria had the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in second place, with 14.9% of the vote — about the same as in the actual state election, where the AfD got 14.7%. In reaction, the Bavarian state premier, Markus Söder, has floated the idea of introducing a weekly "constitutional quarter-hour," in which classes discuss an aspect of the German constitution.

Such ideas might be a good start, says Tekkal, but they could go further. "We need new school subjects, we need the recognition that this is a society of immigration. We have completely new problems, completely new issues, and completely new opportunities."

Edited by Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight