I was born in the abandoned countryside, in a village of 400 inhabitants in Bavaria in Southern Germany. There never was much of a choice which school I could go to. We had only one primary school which covered all villages in the region. Classes were made up of 20 pupils and neither were much of a challenge nor inspiring. Questions about what dreams we had, what we were interested in, or what we would love to become one day weren’t asked as the presumption was that we would walk the same path as our parents. Encouragement to follow a path that would better match the individual skills we had didn’t happen. It seemed like everyone’s life was predetermined.
Yet, I was lucky as I was the only child in our class with an academic parent. Thus, it was predetermined that I would go to grammar school. Another girl, a farmer’s daughter, also was encouraged to try grammar school, because she was best in class. I was second best. All other pupils went to middle schools where potential jobs include carpenter, hairdresser, car mechanic or similar. I am convinced that more children could have made it to grammar school with a bit of encouragement. I blame it on this lack of inspiration that kids were being stuck in the region from the beginning. Except for me, nobody from my primary school classmates has left our region until today.
I wish grammar school would have taught me life skills
The excitement about grammar school was huge. I went to the nearby town of 16,000 people - into the unknown big world. Unfortunately, my excitement turned to fear pretty quickly. My grammar school was a private convent school; our teachers were Franciscan nuns. The school had a special focus on music and art, playing an instrument – piano, violin or cello – was mandatory. I had already started playing the piano a couple of years before, so just continued with it.
Music class with Sister D was the worst that could happen to a 5th grade student at this school. We had to learn all existing scales, notes, triads, hexa-, hepta-, doric-, lydic scales, and everything else that has been invented in music since the 10th century by heart. To check our knowledge, Sister D would shout tones at us and randomly pick one student who then had to recite the corresponding major and minor scale, the triads and if she was in the mood for singing, to sing it. The more mistakes you made, the more she would pick on you. Embarrassment was a common instrument to motivate pupils to study harder. Alas, it didn’t quite work that way. We just became indifferent. If anything, I can say that until today, I have no issue speaking in front of an audience of hundreds.
Besides this one life skill, my education wasn’t the most pragmatic. I learned Latin for 10 years, English only for four. In 10th grade, we would have been able to stop with the dead language, but teachers recommended continuing it promising that it’d be helpful in the future. In all fairness, Latin might have helped me to learn Spanish easily later on. If 10 years would have been necessary though, I’m not sure.
School always appeared to me as a shoe that didn’t quite fit. When talking to my parents, they now admit regretfully that convent school probably wasn’t the right choice for me. But since the Bavarian countryside doesn’t offer many alternatives, they went for the least bad option. It’s not that I wasn’t clever enough, I picked up things easily enough, but I never really understood the concept of studying. And since school didn’t teach me that we are all different and not everyone learns the same way, I had difficulties in my last years at grammar school. It wasn’t until university 10 years later, that I understood what my own best ways of learning are.
Being able to present and rhetorical skills, how to discuss, getting to know your strengths and weaknesses, learning to reflect on yourself, pragmatic thinking and many other skills that would be useful in life were completely left out. Languages, economics, where to study what, inspiration about what we could do with our life, would have been helpful. I dare say that due to a lack of inspiration, one third of the class became a teacher and another third studied law.
After school: in search of what I want to do in life
Because I didn’t know what to study, I spent some months in Argentina after school to do voluntary work. Then I started an apprenticeship to become a Trade and Retail Assistant, which was pretty much only selling clothes in a department store. Quarterly I would have classes about relevant subjects like accounting, business administration and how to dress for success (while selling fashion, looking like a winner is apparently essential). Again, the method to motivate staff wasn’t through inspiration; it wasn’t fear this time though, but criticism. I have been criticized for my look (not success-like), for my selling skills, my grades, my visual merchandising and lots more. But even though I endured three painful years in training, I built up self-confidence, learned how to talk to people in various situations, got to know the importance of looks and ultimately was able to define a direction I wanted to continue in: fashion.
It wasn’t university but my interpersonal skills which helped me build my career
To do so, I went to study Textile and Clothing Management. I learned everything from fiber to fashion to retailing to recycling of garments. I arranged to study in China for a semester and to do an internship in Bangladesh, where I worked in a garment production. These two experiences taught me a lot about resilience, but looking back now, I realise that what was the most important for my future success was continuing to improve my communication and interpersonal skills. I learned to build networks across the world, which since then have gotten me new jobs twice.
In 2017 I started to study for a MBA. Over 18 months, I spend every weekend in class and once again, transversal skills that would be useful in life weren’t covered. Even though these skills are a prerequisite for success, throughout my entire educational career, I haven’t been taught any of them. I now have taken it into my own hands to continue to improve myself outside of the formal education sector, I enrolled for rhetorical courses where I will learn to speak in a structured manner and how to lead target-oriented discussions.
My next goal is to learn more about managing people in the 21st century, as it appears to be a neglected topic in companies. Having worked under some untrained supervisors myself, I would like to enable my future staff to enjoy their work while using their full capacity and enable them to develop their individual skills.
Janna Dietrich, MBA, is 32 and looks back on an international career across Europe and Asia.
Since she figured out her best way of learning, she reads and listens to anything on sustainability, psychology, economics, and other topics, and hopes for an education that focuses on building skills that help learners navigate a changing world rather than teaching dead languages for a decade.