Ruhr area, we have to talk!: Principal in Altendorf – “Why are you doing this to yourself?”

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In the “WAZ-Talk” Julia Gajewski talks about the shocking everyday life at her focal point school, about growing up in poverty – and what is really missing.

The new building of the “Bockmühle”, for which Julia Gajewski fought so hard for so long – it will probably only be completed when she retires. “And my job,” says the Essen general school head, “is by no means finished.” In the third episode of the WAZ talk with editor-in-chief Andreas Tyrock (“Ruhr area, we have to talk!”), the 59-year-old found clear words the criticism of the system – and many loving ones for their students and for their 160 employees. She called for more financial support for the unloved, “forgotten” comprehensive schools, but above all more appreciation “for this part of society” – for children who live in poverty and who must be given the opportunity to participate. “And by that I don’t mean that everyone gets a cell phone,” Gajewski clarified.

The numbers speak for themselves: 1,450 students attend the “Bockmühle”; 80 to 90 percent come with a secondary school recommendation, 70 to 80 percent have a migration background, 60 percent live in “precarious” family circumstances, in poverty. The district of Altendorf, in which the “Bockmühle” was built in 1972 as Essen’s first comprehensive school, is considered a social hot spot. Violence in the schoolyard is part of everyday life, and many children here have never learned how to resolve conflicts peacefully. “Why,” Andreas Tyrock wants to know at the beginning of Julia Gajewski, “are you doing this to yourself?”

“These children belong to us”

She came to the “Bockmühle” 23 years ago – and she still likes to go there, “almost every day,” she says. Her job is a strenuous but deeply fulfilling one. “These children belong to us, and we can do something for them every day.” Each lesson begins with conflict resolution, but ends “hopefully” with a gain in knowledge. Each class decides for itself what is currently being worked on, this is part of the recipe for success. At the Altendorf Comprehensive School, 15 percent of every 10th year graduate from high school – and many more finish far better than predicted.




But some leave without any qualifications at all, and the headmistress, who used to be a successful basketball coach, calls this experience “bitter”: These children were lost to a society that was also bringing in skilled workers from abroad. “But even if we give everything, there is a lot missing.” Gajewski feels “left hanging” by a school policy that does not look closely, which – historically grown – still regards the grammar school as the best form of school, with comprehensive schools as “outstanding type of school for all children”. “The financial support depends on the possibilities of a municipality, I can see that – and I’m on my way there. But we need so much more.” A “mixture” in society and more positive role models at your school, for example, not just difficult clientele including “completed” high school students.


176 of the 1450 students have “special needs”

She calls her “single parent” school “the largest special needs school in Essen”, 176 students have special needs. “There are two children in a class with mental disabilities and two with learning disabilities, all four of whom also have emotional and social problems, and 24 others” – a few of whom are beaten or abused at home, have to starve, are traumatized refugees. “And then we have to deal with this whole block, do justice to each individual.” Small classes and double occupations of teachers, for example.

Because when only half of the students in a class were allowed to be taught in person at the same time due to Corona, it became clear that the group size did make a difference. “Teaching 14 children for 60 minutes, being able to perceive each individual student without having to solve conflicts – that was a real aha experience for me.”

“Teachers don’t need more money…”

But there is already a shortage of 35,000 teachers nationwide. And of those who are still aspiring, not many aspire to a flashpoint school in the Revier. Gajewski doesn’t see a way out of luring them to Altendorf, Gelsenkirchen or Duisburg with financial incentives alone. “The A13 alignment is good, but teachers don’t need more money…”. “Incredible amounts” have to be invested in the schools themselves.

Julia Gajewski dreads autumn when the corona crisis is followed by exploding prices. “Everything is getting more expensive, but people don’t earn more,” and in the classrooms, which have to be ventilated constantly because of the virus, may have to be taught at nine degrees again. Last year, the “Bockmühle” took second place in a competition for the coldest schools in the country. “But: Cold school, cold at home – that quickly becomes difficult, reduces frustration tolerance, makes you aggressive.” Closing the schools again is not an alternative. “We sat there back then,” recalls Gajewski, “with migrant children who didn’t speak a word of German after the lockdown, in high school!”

More courage, more solidarity

In 2018, Julia Gajewski (“for my whole team”) received the “Talent Award” from the Initiativkreis Ruhr. Even beyond such awards, there is no lack of recognition for her work, she says. But in appreciation for their students. They should notice that they are taken care of, that they are taken seriously, that they “belong”. She would like more social solidarity, but also more courage from other colleagues to address grievances openly – and she does so without hesitation.

“Aren’t you afraid of any legal consequences?” Andreas Tyrock asks at the end of the interview. “Yes, of course,” says the argumentative headmistress, laughing. “But there has never been.”

The waiting list for those who want to take the job is not very long.


More articles from this category can be found here: Rhine and Ruhr


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