This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
Helena* is a 24-year-old kindergarten teacher in southern Germany who’s been taking care of children aged between two and six for the past three years.
Being a pre-school teacher is not always seen as a tough job – some people assume you just sit around and play with toys all day. But besides dealing with disobedient little rascals and extremely high noise levels, kindergarten teachers often face stressful choices, like what to do in child abuse cases or how to handle parents who are even ruder than their kids.
I asked Helena how she does it.
VICE: Hey Helena. Do you like some kids more than others?
Helena: Yes. It's really bad, but you do have favourites. Of course, I’m nice to all the children, but I’m even nicer to some and a little stricter with others.
Which parents are the worst?
The kind of parents who smile at you when you tell them their child has been naughty. In our kindergarten, we have this five-year-old boy who acts up almost every day and attacks other children, and even teachers. I’ve talked to his mum so many times, but she just scoffs when you tell her what he’s done. She mostly just says things like, “The other kids aren’t angels either.” You hope a parent will do their bit in teaching their child manners, but sometimes it’s like talking to a wall.
Do you ever lose your cool when a child acts up?
It happens. The boy with the stubborn mother threw one of his tantrums the other day, and we took him away so he wouldn't hurt the other kids. When we tried to calm him down in the kitchen, he started throwing pens and cups around. I got so mad I kicked a cup in his direction. I don't think I hit him. He laughed at me with such a devilish look, and that only provoked me even more. I felt helpless. I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this child?’
Have you ever seen a child doing inappropriate things?
I have! In my first year, I went to the playroom to call two boys for breakfast. When I entered the room, the two were just about to clip a clothing peg onto their willies. When I asked them what they were doing, they said they were playing doctor. I was fresh out of training and had no idea what to do, so I asked my boss to handle it. But curiosity is normal with kids – it's all very innocent.
Do you ever vent about a kid with your colleagues?
We try to do it on the sly – for example, we spell their names out. If we’re venting and a kid asks who we’re talking about, we usually say, “Oh, my neighbour,” or something like that.
Doesn’t the noise level drive you nuts?
There are good days and bad days. When the kids are loud all day and they don’t listen, you just feel like giving up. Both the children and the teachers end up screaming. After work, I need half an hour to calm down. Sometimes, when my boyfriend is really chatty, I can get snappy and ask him to please give me some peace and quiet.
Have you ever called child protective services?
Unfortunately, yes. Last year, a three-year-old girl joined our group. She was always tense and combative when we tried to change her nappies. A friend of her family told us her father was probably touching her inappropriately, but there was never any concrete evidence. We noticed other weird things – for example, we found two peepholes at eye level in the fence around the kindergarten courtyard. The grass was flattened, as if someone had been standing there regularly and looking in.
Over time, the girl became more and more fearful. Whenever she sat on our laps, she wouldn't let us touch anywhere near her legs. It all got worse last summer. We were told her father was masturbating at our fence in the mornings. A few days later, the girl's neighbour told us she saw her playing on her trampoline, when her father climbed up to her, pulled down his pants and she screamed for help.
We never caught him in the act, but we called child services and the police. They told us the man was already known to them and had a criminal record. He was arrested a few hours after our report.
Since then, he hasn’t been allowed near the kindergarten. Child services have been in regular contact with the family, but the father was released due to lack of evidence. The girl now lives with her grandmother. She’s still with us at the kindergarten and is developing well. However, her dad has moved nearby again. We are super careful, but our hands are tied.
Do people suspect men applying for this job of paedophilia?
I personally don’t, but my manager has become very cautious since the incident with the girl. We had a male teacher last year and she didn’t let him change the kids or be alone with them until she got to know him and was sure he wouldn’t harm them. It was a bit unfair.
Male teachers are in demand, especially with boys. We have a male volunteer [young Germans often apply for a social work gap year after graduating high school] who’s more talented than me. He plays with the kids differently, there’s a lot more action. The work environment also changes when men are on the team. I’d like to see more men in this profession.
Do you think your salary is fair?
Many people are surprised by my salary. I'm a Category 8A educator, so I make about €30,000 before tax. The longer you work, the further up you move in the salary scale.
Still, it's a shame we aren’t considered regular civil servants like primary school teachers, so we don't get their benefits. People think kindergarten teachers play all day, have a coffee and that's it. I play with the kids for maybe an hour a day, the rest of the time I’m talking to parents, filling out paperwork or checking on their development charts.
What do you think about raising kids gender-neutral?
One of our boys loves painting his fingernails. His big sister does it and he thinks it's cool. Another boy has long hair and his mum sometimes braids it. There are always a few comments like, “Only girls have pigtails!” That’s when we step in and teach children not to think in stereotypes.