Our Top German School Culture Shocks as Americans

From kids walking to school by themselves, to choosing whether or not they want to attend college at the age of ten, we have had many German school culture shocks as Americans living in Germany.

As you know, we have four children, and we’ve experienced many culture shocks since moving from the USA to Germany in February 2021. The biggest and probably most significant changes have been from our kids attending school in a foreign country. In this video, we share our top 10 biggest German school culture shocks.

top german school culture shocks as americans

School is Surprisingly Different between the USA & Germany

Our four American kids have gone through a year and a half in German public schools, and now we are sharing our top school culture shocks! There are quite a few differences, many of which we didn’t expect before arriving. Things like how lunchtime is done, different teaching methods, school supplies, desks and lockers, and more!

Here are Our Top 10 German School Culture Shocks as Americans

1 – Totally Different School Supplies & Gear Needed

We have a whole video just on this topic as it’s a big one! See it here. This section also includes, Hauschuhe (house shoes), outdoor gear, Federmäppchen, Brotzeiten (snack time) and the use of fountain pens.

2 – Neatness in Handwriting and Cursive

It is much stronger in Germany than the USA. Kids are still learning cursive here while many American kids stopped learning ten or more years ago.

3 – Kids Go to School On their Own

This is a HUGE culture shock for Americans! Most German kids walk, ride their scooters or bicycles, or take public transport to get to school. In the US, most kids either take the school bus or their parents drive them to school.

German School Culture Shocks - German school supplies are very different than American ones!

4. The German School System – Kids Choose their Future Path in 4th Grade

Germany’s secondary school system is divided into different types of schools that students can attend after completing their four years of primary education (Grundschule). The system varies across different German states, but generally, students attend secondary school from ages 10 to 18.

In some German states, there are three main types of secondary schools: Gymnasium, Realschule, and Hauptschule (also known as Mittelschule or Regionalschule). The type of school a student attends is determined by their academic ability and interests, as well as their grades and test scores.

It took us many months and a lot of research to understand the system and to help our sons find their place in it. We struggled to get our two oldest sons into Gymnasium and to find one that was a good fit. See more on that here.

German School Culture Shocks as Americans - this was the hardest part of moving abroad!

5. Pedagogical Differences in Kindergarten

There are differently pedagogical approaches between German and American kindergartens that we had to learn. For instance, there is not much focus on academics until the last year when they become Vorschulkinder (ages 5-6). We have another separate video just on this topic as well! See it here.

6 – Stronger Emphasis on Engineering and Math

One can really how they’re raising engineers in Germany by the way math is taught from Grundschule (elementary school) and on. The engineering concepts begin early! We have a video on this topic as well – see it here.

7 – Different Teaching Methods

We have noticed that in Grundschule, our kids do a lot more coloring to learn new concepts.

8 – Many German Schools do not Have a Cafeteria for Lunch

Kids have to bring a snack (called a Brotzeit in Bavaria) and only eat lunch at the school if they stay in the after school program (Hort). This does depend on the school, but for the most part, German schools do not have cafeterias.

Our Top German School Culture Shocks as Americans | My Merry Messy German Life
We had to buy cursive writing books to catch our kids up. They were behind German kids in learning cursive!

9 – Our Kids Can’t Leave Books in their Desks at School

In our local grundschule, and I’m sure this varies around the country, the kids must bring home most of their books and school supplies each day. In some schools, you can rent lockers, but in the US, it’s common for all middle & high schoolers to have lockers and you don’t have to rent them or pay extra for them. This is a bigger issue here in Germany since children are expected to do a lot of walking to get to school and back. They struggle with back problems and the long walks with heavy book bags.

10 – The Entire Process Has Been INTIMIDATING

We knew this was going to be the toughest part of moving abroad. However, we really weren’t prepared for just how challenging the first eight months of integrating our kids in German schools would be. It definitely would’ve helped had we known more German, which is totally understandable. It took time and actual experience to understand the culture and system. We also experienced some strict teachers and intimidating school staff, which is hard for any parent. We are very happy the hardest part is over.

I think it would’ve been easier had we moved to a big city or at least, closer to a big city. There are typically many more international people living in and near big cities. Out in the smaller villages, they have fewer resources to help foreigners. However, this helped us to learn German faster. Also, Bavaria is known for having THE toughest school system in all of Germany. It’s possible that foreigners might have an easier time moving to a different German state.

Did You Know…

We have an entire section here on the blog dedicated to the German school system and school cultural differences? Check it out here.

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