Top Chamblee grad: Bring back teacher who made me love learning

Kavi Pandian is a 2015 graduate of Chamblee High School and a current student at the University of Georgia. The valedictorian of the Chamblee academic magnet program, Pandian turned down a full scholarship to Princeton University to attend UGA, where he holds a prestigious Foundation Fellowship.

Pandian says he owes his success to Chamblee High German teacher Uwe Neuhaus, reassigned last week by DeKalb Schools to the International Welcome Center for the fall.

The news has alarmed many parents and students. In this open letter to DeKalb Schools Superintendent Steve Green, Pandian addresses Neuhaus' reassignment from a classroom at Chamblee High to a job in student support and intervention at the district's International Welcome Center.

According to AJC reports, Neuhaus assigned skits to his fifth-year German students that some complained included vulgar material. Emails obtained by Channel 2 showed the teacher gave students the option to change the material.

The transfer of Neuhaus comes amid growing parental unrest over the leadership and direction of Chamblee High School. I have received many emails from teachers and parents about low morale at the school noted for its academic achievement. A survey of both parents and staff suggest the new leadership Green installed at Chamblee is a poor fit.

With that background, here is Kavi Pandian’s open letter to Superintendent Green:

Excellent education means many things. Preparing students to excel in their studies. Making students feel valued and respected. Preparing students to be good citizens. Most importantly, it means equipping students with the skills needed to achieve their goals in life, whatever those goals may be. The halls (and trailers) of Chamblee have long been full of such education — nowhere is this more evident than in the German classroom.

By any commonly used metric of effectiveness, Herr Neuhaus is an extraordinary teacher. For 17 years, every AP German student has passed the exam. That’s right — out of the 562 students who have taken the AP German exam since 2000, not one has failed. Twice, he has had 100 percent of his students pass the Deutsches Sprachdiplom II, a fluency exam certifying possession of German skills advanced enough to study at a German-language university. He has been recognized by the German government as one of the top German educators in the world.

As astounding as these accomplishments and accolades are, test scores are not what make Herr Neuhaus so exceptional. Nor is it some secret pedagogy or teaching methodology — were that the case, Herr Neuhaus would surely be a very wealthy man by now, enjoying himself at the World Cup this week. What makes Herr Neuhaus so incredible is something deceptively simple: a deep Lernfreude (German for “love of learning”) and a commitment to ensuring that same Lernfreude is instilled in all his students.

I learned a great deal of German during my two years in his classes, but rarely did I learn through rote memorization or by completing worksheets. Instead, I learned by writing essays on topics from “should students be paid for good grades?” and “what is the role of education in society” to “should plastic surgery be forbidden for minors?” I learned by creating and presenting PowerPoints about the financial crisis in the European Union and an imaginary class trip to the city of Weimar. I learned through skits, speeches, essays, newspaper articles, debates, dialogues, games, and more. But for the constant use of German, a stranger could easily mistake any of Herr Neuhaus’ classes for a wide-ranging social studies, civics, or current events class.

This is the genius of Herr Neuhaus — rather than focusing solely on exam preparation or drilling grammar, he made it so there was always an interesting and engaging way to learn, use, and become more comfortable with the German language while learning more about the world around us. His pedagogy went well beyond rote memorization, building important skills while making language learning almost an afterthought. Officially, he is one of the most effective German teachers in the nation. Unofficially, he is also a debate, public speaking, drama, history, philosophy, writing, economics, and civics teacher.

His efforts are easily seen in the classroom, but they do not end there. Herr Neuhaus goes above and beyond in his commitment to his students — he makes himself available before school, during planning periods, during lunch, and after school to provide additional assistance to students. He set up an exchange program for German students to live in Chamblee and Chamblee students to live in Germany for part of the summer, allowing for cultural exchange and language practice. He created and coordinated an internship program so that advanced students could work with a German company during the summer, obtaining valuable professional experience while further developing their German abilities. Herr Neuhaus is dedicated to the success of his students, both in German and in life, and throughout his storied career, he has gone the extra mile to guarantee that success.

Kavi Pandian
Kavi Pandian

Earlier, you may have noticed that I said I spent two years in his class. That is not entirely true. After taking AP German, a schedule conflict prevented me from fitting German V into my schedule as a junior. I spoke to Herr Neuhaus about the issue and expressed my strong desire to continue taking German. He listened to me, warned me about how difficult it would be to skip German V and go straight to German VI as a junior, and then allowed me to choose. When I said I wanted to do it, he took a chance and allowed me to be the first junior to skip German V and go straight to German VI. This allowed me to continue my German studies and eventually achieve the DSD II at the C1 Level.

My senior year, I was disappointed to no longer have a German class. After expressing this to Herr Neuhaus, he arranged for us to have regular meetings after school where I could continue practicing my skills through interaction with him and students who needed additional practice. By doing so, he gave me the opportunity to not only maintain and sharpen my own language abilities but also to assist other students and develop teaching and tutoring skills. So, while I may have only spent two years as an official student of his, he continued being my teacher on his own time for an extra year.

I owe many of my successes to Herr Neuhaus. When I applied to college, I wrote about this experience as well as how the concept of Lernfreude became so important to me thanks to the assignments, discussions, and debates we had in AP German and German VI. I also asked for and received letters of recommendation from Herr Neuhaus. When I was accepted early admission with a full scholarship to Princeton University, I knew it was only possible thanks to my time in Herr Neuhaus’ classes. He was one of the very first people I told. When I interviewed for and eventually received the Foundation Fellowship at UGA, I spoke almost exclusively about concepts and lessons I first learned in his classes. When I was struggling to make a college decision, Herr Neuhaus listened patiently and encouraged me to do what was best for me.

I eventually chose to attend UGA, and thanks to my time in German VI, I was allowed to place into the highest level of German as a freshman. Despite UGA having one of the best undergraduate German programs in the nation, the classes simply did not measure up to the quality of Herr Neuhaus’ and I eventually decided to stop taking further German classes.

Nevertheless, when I visited Berlin and Munich the summer after my freshman year, I was able to seamlessly transition back into speaking German. A year later, I ran into a few Germans while interning in D.C. Despite not having taken a German class for a year and a half at that point, I spoke with them for five minutes in German before they realized that I was not a native speaker. I share these stories not to brag but to show just how meaningful Herr Neuhaus’ tutelage has been. The longevity and resilience of my language abilities are a testament to the rigor of his courses and the excellence of his instruction.

After college, I plan to enter a career in public education. I have been inspired by many of the excellent teachers I had at Chamblee as well as numerous experiences I have had during college, but the single most important influence remains Herr Neuhaus. His was the class that first introduced me to the concept of Lernfreude, his was the class that first taught me about how complex and varied systems of educations can be, and his was the class that truly opened my eyes to how transformative excellent education can be.

My story about how Herr Neuhaus has impacted me is far from unique. He is a great man and an even greater teacher. He has spent decades building a world-renowned German program at Chamblee and has positively impacted the lives of hundreds of students. He pushes students to excel and accomplish more than they ever believed themselves capable of, all while equipping them with the skills to achieve success no matter what they pursue in life. He is thoughtful, dedicated, supportive, and willing to go above and beyond to meet the needs of students.

And he deserves better than this.

Dr. Green, I urge you to reinstate Herr Neuhaus immediately. When you left Kansas City to come to DeKalb, you said you were not worried about the success of schools because “the infrastructure and the system and the way in which that system is anchored into the culture of this school district, that's where the real stability is.” Herr Neuhaus is an irreplaceable part of the infrastructure, system, and culture of Chamblee Charter High School, and his removal threatens our successes while only exacerbating the instability and worries currently plaguing Chamblee.

Furthermore, I urge you to listen to the community and take steps to address the crisis of leadership at Chamblee that has allowed this situation to develop. Mayor Sly James spoke highly of you when you left Kansas City, saying that “we have learned a lot in recent years about how strong and steady leadership can change the course of an institution.” In the case of Kansas City, that change of course was positive. At Chamblee, I fear the opposite is true.


Kavi Pandian

CHHS Class of 2015

Magnet Valedictorian

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