Mechthild Vogt, my dear friend and colleague, and the person who taught me how to teach language, passed away this past weekend.
I taught with Mechtie in Fayette County from 1991-1995. She and I had met at a German teacher meeting in the spring, hit it off, and the next thing I knew, I was applying to teach German with her the next year.
She was a veteran teacher who had a clear picture of what the students needed to know and be able to do, the sequence they needed to learn things in, and what skills they would need to practice the most. I was a young teacher trying very hard to learn how to teach German well. Every week, I would meet her in her classroom before school on Monday morning and pretty much rewrite my lesson plans as she and I previewed the week ahead.
Later in the day, I would spend most of my planning period observing her class. It was like watching a master conductor coax music out of amateur musicians. Mechtie conducted every class in German, unless she deliberately inserted a short mini-lesson on a cultural topic or current event of interest. She knew her students, and her pedagogy was flawless. She seated her students exactly where she wanted them based on their personality, strengths, and weaknesses, modeled explicitly how to complete different tasks working in different flexible groupings, so that the students knew what was expected of them and could concentrate on learning the language.
She lost no time to transitions; her students moved seamlessly from working on a text with small group to interviewing a partner, then to whole group instruction. Activities progressed naturally from structured and supported activities students working creatively and independently. Every student was engaged listening, speaking, reading, and writing German, and she knew exactly who was making good progress and who was struggling because she was watching and listening as they were learning.
Our good friend David Jahner, who taught German at Brookwood High School and later went on to become the Foreign Language Director for Gwinnett County and the Executive Director of the Southern Conference of Language Teaching, says Mechtie was the only colleague he ever knew who “tore up the textbook and taught the material the way she thought it should be taught to make instruction better for the kids.” When we were teaching together, we used a skinny textbook and completely rearranged the order of the chapters.
Mechtie loved music and integrated dozens of songs into her classes. It’s hard to imagine in this day of students constantly connected to their cell phones, but she and her students sang all sorts of songs—songs by Herbert Groenemeyer, die Prinzen, traditional Volkslieder, rounds. I did not have her beautiful voice, but inspired by her example, I sang with my students, too. Singing is a wonderful way to explore the culture, learn idioms, and develop a feeling for the poetry and rhythm of a language.
A highlight of each school year was the annual State German Convention, sponsored by the Georgia chapter of the American Association of Teachers of German, which still takes place at the state FFA Camp each February. One of my favorite memories is Mechthild leading the singing. We would have hundreds of teenagers who were learning German at high schools big and small, urban and rural, from all over the state, and they would come together to sing. Mechtie led the singing for many years, accompanied by Dr. John Austin, German professor at Georgia State, on guitar.
I left Fayette County to work the Goethe-Institut for a few years, then became the Foreign Language Coordinator for Georgia. Today, my work focuses on supporting English to Speakers of Other Languages teachers. I have used the lessons I learned from Mechthild in every context. Teaching well requires deep knowledge of your content, careful, purposeful planning, and an ongoing focus on your students. At its best, it is done with artistry and passion, working in close collaboration with other teachers, learning from one another, and nurturing the learning of your students together.