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Bad Teacher or Victim? Sarrazin's Wife Under Fire for Discipline and Teaching Methods

Thilo Sarrazin's theories on education in his bestselling, anti-immigrant book are derived in part from the experiences of his school teacher wife Ursula. He even uses her school as an example of education reform gone bad. The teacher has long been criticized for being too strict by parents. Given her controversial role at the school, do his theories really have legs?

The sixth-grade graduation ceremony at the Reinhold Otto Elementary School in Berlin's Westend neighborhood was meant to be a joyous occasion, complete with speeches, music and sketches. It was the summer of 2008, and six children recounted stories from their elementary-school days. The last child to speak, to a packed auditorium, was a girl.

Standing on the stage, she self-confidently took hold of the microphone and said: "I enjoyed school very much, except in German class, because my teacher was very strict. Sometimes I even had to cringe, because she was shouting so loudly that her face would turn light red."

Ursula Sarrazin, a German teacher, was sitting in the audience with a stony expression on her face. A few days earlier, the girl's homeroom teacher, who had read her presentation in advance, had called her parents and urged them to ask her to delete the passage or at least soften it a little. The 13-year-old refused, causing a minor scandal.

Victim or Bully?

Thilo Sarrazin 

Now the previously internal battle over Mrs. Sarrazin and her teaching methods is being waged in public. It revolves around two questions: Does she humiliate and berate children? Or is she being harassed because she is married to ?

For the past week various publications, mainly those owned by the Axel Springer publishing group -- which publishes the national tabloid daily Bild and the conservative quality newspaper Die Welt -- have portrayed the couple as victims of a smear campaign. At the same time, the complaints of many parents are growing louder. For example, the head of the school administration, Günther Kuhring, received a complaint letter from the parent of a student in grade 4B, who wrote that Ursula Sarrazin "shouts at children," and discourages and berates them. According to the letter, her behavior has even caused a few students to "cry several times during class," so that they were "completely distraught when they got home."

It is Thursday evening of last week, and the woman at the center of the controversy is leaning back in an armchair in her living room in Berlin's Charlottenburg district. "No," she says, "I don't shout at any children, and I don't humiliate anyone either." During the three-hour conversation, she will deny the accusations and tell her own version of the story. Her hands are constantly moving as she speaks. Sometimes she rests them on her legs for a moment before dangling them by her side. Then she crosses her arms and puts her hand on her chin. "It's exactly the other way around," she says. "After working as a teacher for more than 30 years, I am now being harassed. Apparently they want me out of the school by the beginning of the second semester in late January."

Parents' complaints about an elementary school teacher would normally not make national headlines. But in this case the prominence of the teacher's husband has taken the dispute to another level. In his book "Germany Does Itself In," Sarrazin refers specifically to his wife's experiences. "She was an important source of information to me for all of the text on education," he writes in the acknowledgements. The politician's book has been a lightning rod of controversy in Germany because of its anti-immigrant theses, including claims that because of their lower levels of education and what he claims are higher birth rates, immigrants are allegedly making the country dumber on average.

For Thilo Sarrazin, German and Math -- which, perhaps coincidentally, are the subjects his wife Ursula teaches -- are the most important core competencies in shaping the success of an individual's education. And it is particularly in these subjects that he also sees the greatest deficits.

A Harsh Opinion of School Reforms

"My wife, as an elementary teacher, has kept all German and math textbooks from 1972 to today," Sarrazin writes in his book. After reviewing the textbooks, the couple recognized a "shocking" trend: The requirements have gradually declined, with dire consequences for students' basic understanding of math ("devastating") and their reading ability ("even more devastating").

Her "three-stream elementary school in Charlottenburg," where many children are from immigrant families, serves the bestselling author as a very concrete and "poor example of reform."

The fact that the school's principal replaced grades 1 and 2 with "multiyear learning" leads to "many deficits," Sarrazin writes, including declines in performance and unrest among the students. Besides, he adds, the "amount of effort that went into preparation was substantially higher for teachers." Parents who had supported the change, Sarrazin writes, "were swimming along with the general trend."

These and other conclusions prompt Sarrazin to form a harsh opinion of school reforms in general. "For a while, they pursue the old leftist, egalitarian ideology, which demands that standards be lowered to a point at which the weaker students can also fulfill them."

But how credible and reliable are such theories if the "poor example reform," the Reinhold Otto School, has apparently been the scene of a controversy over teaching methods, parental complaints and the failures of school administration officials for years -- a controversy with Sarrazin's wife Ursula at its center?

The situation has apparently spun largely out of control at her school. Supporters of the bestselling author feel provoked by the criticism of his wife. It appears as if the entire, chaotic Sarrazin debate were being waged all over again, only that this time it is being condensed and, at the same time, exaggerated in a local affair.

Supporters Call for 'More Sarrazins' and 'Fewer Turks'

Angry and threatening letters against Sarrazin critics were sent to both the school and the parents. Some of the writers state that they want to see "more Sarrazins" and "fewer Turks" in the school. After a threat was made against the principal, who has long criticized his prominent teacher, the police were called in. Two officers examined the computers in the elementary school's office and went through emails "to assess the threat situation." The school administration filed a criminal complaint. Teachers urged the principal to go home early to avoid a possible attack.

Günther Peiritsch, the chairman of the parents' committee for the city-state of Berlin, also felt the ire of Sarrazin supporters. Peiritsch, after having discussed parents' complaints in interviews, was accused of allowing himself to be misused as a "useful idiot" in this "farce." The real controversy, critics claimed, revolved around Thilo Sarrazin, because he is getting so much "popular" support. "One should always consider the effects of one's actions," one threatening letter states. "You too have a family that needs protection."

The conflict has already been simmering for years, with Ursula Sarrazin's teaching style being criticized again and again. In 2002, when she was teaching a Berlin Montessori school and her husband was all but unknown, almost all of the parents of children in her class complained about Sarrazin. At the end of one school year, the parents presented the principal with completed forms to remove their children from the school and said: "If Mrs. Sarrazin stays here, our children will leave the school." Soon afterwards the teacher changed schools. "She denied all accusations," one father recalls.

Years later, in March 2009, another collective complaint was filed. "About 50 parents took part," says Ines Zimzinski, who delivered the letter to the school administration, together with a few other parents. "Many children, including my daughter, suffered under the authoritarian teaching style of Mrs. Sarrazin," she says. The complaint mentioned the fear of the children, the excessive pressure to perform, attacks and that the teacher "loses control in class and shouts at the children."

But nothing happened. "We parents had the impression that the school administration files this sort of thing away," says Zimzinski, 42. A parents' representative resigned in protest. Some mothers were only willing to speak with the teacher in the presence of witnesses.

'Our Children Were Afraid of Her'

The parents of a Japanese-German boy complained in writing in 2008 that Sarrazin had repeatedly referred to their son as "Suzuki." His fellow pupils sometimes laughed when she did this, and they promptly started calling him by the same name," the outraged parent wrote. "We are, to put it mildly, astonished that an experienced teacher is apparently having a laugh at the expense of an eight-year-old child."

Responding to the allegations, Sarrazin says, "I remember only one time at which I called this boy 'Suzuki'. There have been so many children with so many names."

But in their letter, the boy's parents claim Sarrazin "repeatedly" called their son "Suzuki" in class, despite the fact that he had properly pronounced his name to her, that his name was correctly listed in the class register and that it was also on the sign the teacher had asked the kids to make.

City of Berlin Kept Problem under Wraps

In the wake of media reports in the last week, dozens of outraged parents contacted SPIEGEL. They recounted many accusations against Sarrazin and their unsuccessful attempts to convince the school administrations to take action.

"My son went to school with his shoulders hanging down, like an old man," says Werner S. Others say: "She exhausted our children," or "Our children were afraid of her." Parents often took their children out of a school where Ursula Sarrazin was teaching, even if it meant enrolling them in a school that was farther away. "Again and again," says one mother, "we parents felt pooh-poohed by a teacher who couldn't handle criticism, denied everything and, to this day, claims that everything was different."

But Jürgen Zöllner, Berlin's senator for education (the city's equivalent to a state minister) and a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), who knows Thilo Sarrazin well from his many years as the city's finance senator, ignored the problem for a long time, even though internal memos used expressions like "upsetting the social harmony" to characterize the conflict. But such memos remained without consequence. In fact, one official who tried to transfer Sarrazin was demoted to a different position.

Principals, teachers and administrators had all been instructed not to comment on the case. Ursula Sarrazin, however, can continue to speak out. Zöllner defends himself by saying that disputes over individual teachers are not unusual, and that the interest in her case stems "solely from the controversial statements of her husband."

'I Am Often Misunderstood'

It is getting late in the Sarrazins' living room. Ursula Sarrazin is tired, after spending hours looking through documents and discussing the accusations and counter-accusations. "I am often misunderstood," she says. Really? At a parents' evening on July 1, 2008, she was being given a send-off after spending three years teaching a third-grade class. The father who gave the speech thanking Sarrazin for her efforts also had a few harsh words for the teacher. "The children," he said, "also earned this change," after "many a tear was shed." While acknowledging the educational successes during her tenure, he also pointed out that there were "a few conflicts."

Some children, the speaker pointed out, were no match for the pressure coming from the teacher. As a result, they left the school, their schoolmates and even their friends during the first two years of school. "A high price for everyone!" the man said.

The next day Sarrazin received a letter from a mother who wrote that she wanted to clarify that the speech had not reflected the opinions of all parents. She and others, she wrote, were personally satisfied and "really appreciated" Mrs. Sarrazin.

Complaints from Principal, Sometimes Daily

Ursula Sarrazin has now gone on the offensive. Through her attorney, she has demanded that Peiritsch retract his criticism. She wants the senior representative of the parents of Berlin schoolchildren to publicly take back charges that students "are being humiliated and shouted at by Mrs. Sarrazin" and, as a result, "are crying" in class. In the past, according to Sarrazin's attorney, there was no evidence of "misconduct in any cases."

Sarrazin also refuses to back down in the conflict with the principal of her school. She has been receiving written complaints from the principal since last November, sometimes every day. The climate is icy. She claims that she was once told to look into her mailbox more often and, on another occasion, criticized for being six minutes late to class. According to Sarrazin, the principal secretly checks her class register, finding fault with the fact that she requires two hours for a practice dictation. Sarrazin has written page after page of responses to her critics.

The conflict is asking too much of everyone involved, especially the children. Sometimes they dance on the tables, even in Mrs. Sarrazin's class -- at least according to her reports.

When that happens she goes to the principal, expecting assistance, but he is apparently a bundle of nerves.

At the end of the interview in her living room, Ursula Sarrazin has a cautionary tale to tell. In the middle of last week, she says, she had her fourth-grade class, the source of the latest complaint, discuss the subject of "rumors" -- in the presence of her principal.

Sarrazin asked five pupils to step into the hallway. One after another, the children were allowed back into the classroom and told a short story by the preceding child. The original content of the story changed more and more from one child to the next.

"You see," she said at the end of the hour, "that's the way it goes with rumors. In the end, hardly anything is true anymore."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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