BIRGIT GRILLE was not exactly pleased at having to take over a colleague's eighth-grade German literature class with no advance warning.
But she jumped in with a smile anyway, and drawing on her 22 years of teaching, thought quickly of an assignment that would engage all the students.
They were to pretend they were putting on a German television talk show, with moderators, guests, and an audience pitching questions. The selection of panelists and theme were up to the students.
After a close vote, they chose "foreigners" as a discussion topic. Dresden, the eastern German city where Mrs. Grille teaches German, has been the scene of several serious attacks on foreigners in the last year.
For the most part, the idea worked, and a majority of the eighth-graders responded well to Grille's encouraging enthusiasm - a quality that can almost make you forget the Spartan furnishings, faded walls, and dented tin pails that serve as wastepaper baskets here in the classrooms at Oberschule 69.
This last-minute change in Grille's teaching schedule illustrates the two most important aspects of this teacher's life right now. First, she works for a school system in a state of flux. Educators are turning it upside down, shaking out the communist past.
For Grille and other teachers here, this means regular surprises - often unpleasant ones: several months without textbooks, because the new ones from the West haven't arrived; no tape player, because it broke and there's no money to fix or replace it; pink slips to weed out a surplus of teachers hired in the bygone era of full employment. (See boxed story.)
To put it bluntly, says Grille during a break, "This year has been a catastrophe."
But it's how she deals with these surprises, or "catastrophes," that says the other crucial thing about Grille as a teacher. As when she pinch-hit for her colleague, she may not feel good about the chaos, but she can work her way through it. She also makes maximum use of what she does have - the most important being a freedom in the classroom previously unknown to teachers in the former East Germany.
"I have much more freedom, though some teachers complain about this," she says. She uses that freedom to bring subjects into the classroom that relate to students, and she pushes pupils to think for themselves. This approach is a novelty for her teenagers, who were brought up with rote learning and were used to a system where there was only one right answer - the canned socialist response.
"I have no problem with my students," says Grille, and it's obvious that her students have no problem with her. Student representatives from the 5th to 10th grades elected her "confidant teacher a new position created so that students can have a trusted partner among the teachers in whom they can confide their problems.
"She's a good teacher. She asks us what our opinion is," says Sandy, one of Grille's eighth-grade students.
It was never Grille's intention to be a teacher. She wanted to study medicine, but in the course of practical training discovered that the physical treatment of patients made her squeamish. She liked reading and painting, however, and so settled on a program in Dresden that trained teachers in these areas - both of which she now teaches at her school.
"I was myself a complicated student. I never did what others did," says Grille, elaborating on her reasons for going into teaching. "I was an individualist. I decided we must have more teachers who are also individualists."
This was especially true for the communist system, which entrusted teachers with the ideological indoctrination of young East Germans. Grille spent 14 difficult years in a particularly strict school, a small one in which every action was noticed.
"The worst," she recalls, "is that you were watched all the time." One of her students, the son of a Stasi (secret police) official, reported her to his Stasi parent because she allowed another student to play Western rock music on the radio in her classroom.
Grille says she was forced to go constantly to seminars , always covering the same themes, all loaded with communist ideology. Not being a party member, she didn't reap the benefits of fast promotions, pay increases, or titles that party members received. Now she's attending a seminar series for teachers in western Germany but they're my seminars!" she says.
TODAY, in a different school, she has gotten a fresh start. "It's good, because I don't know [my fellow teachers'] history." The reverse is also true: No one knows her history, "and so everyone is friendly to me."
One might doubt that a revolution overthrowing communism in East Germany would do much to change the content of a German literature teacher's class. After all, classic German writers such as Goethe and Schiller were just as revered in East Germany as in West. But, Grille says, before the revolution, a fourth to a third of the course material was anti-fascist literature. "That's a lot, and it wasn't very special writing, either," she adds.
That part of class work has dropped away, and new work and books have replaced it. For instance, there's the western German book with a chapter on foreign words - English, Latin, and French - commonly used in Germany (western Germany, that is). These words, such as "makeup,after-shave," and "eau de toilette" fell on virgin ears in Grille's class.
The western German books have been received with some criticism from Grille and her students.
Grille regrets that the books take no account of the present-day transition going on in eastern Germany.
"The books don't provide the context kids need to get on with life here," she says. She supplements her material with newspaper articles and ideas from the theater, movies, books, and television.
For Grille, part of her mission in the classroom is to help her students through a trying transition. School is much more demanding for them, and right at a time when their family lives are being upset by joblessness. "You have to pay attention to their feelings," she says.
In the days of communism, school was practically a substitute parent for children, explains Grille. From kindergarten to the fifth grade, kids were at school from 6 a.m. until 4 p.m.
"For many parents, it hasn't yet clicked that the state is no longer bringing up their children," says Grille. The next three years, she reckons, will be difficult ones at school.
During this time, she wants to help her students become independent thinkers. "They are too helpless. They were always told exactly what to do in school."
For their part, her students definitely sense the change in approach. Eighth-grader Stephan describes school as "very stressful." For the first time in his life, he says, everyone is telling him he has to do well at school in order to "make it."
* Other articles in this series ran Nov. 4 and 18; Dec. 2, 16, and 30; Jan. 21; Feb. 3 and 18.Ninth in a biweekly series of visits to education's front lines: teachers in classrooms around the world.