There are victims of bullying and there are schools that have become victims in the fight against bullying. This is what happened at the Vincent van Gogh high school in Berlin. Like other schools, he hired Carsten Stahl, who became known as an anti-bullying coach. And this had consequences.
Stahl, born in Köpenick, was an unsportsmanlike boy who was teased and beaten by his classmates. As a teenager, he practiced strength training and martial arts, earned respect by beating people, and later became the leader of a criminal gang in Neukölln. As a father of a family, he turned his back on the demimonde, became a private investigator and later a serial actor. After his son was beaten in school, Stahl devised the plan to work as an anti-bullying coach in schools. This could be observed from 2018 in the RTL docu-soap “Stahl: hart gegen Mobbing”.
The series was discontinued in 2021, presumably due to poor ratings. From the beginning, Stahl’s methods had been controversial because he exposed the struggles and sufferings of young people. Therefore, in March 2019 the Neukölln Youth Welfare Committee decided not to cooperate with “Camp Stahl”. Anti-bullying trainer visited Vincent van Gogh school in late 2017; as contractually agreed, his visit led to a television recording that was broadcast in April 2018. He promised that he would return and continue to accompany the students. “But he broke some of those promises and the students were very disappointed,” says Vice Principal Tatjana Fitzer.
The dubious reputation seems to latch on as bad luck to the schools that were involved in “Camp Steel”. “Even if it’s not true: Carsten Stahl’s images and rhetoric are fixed in people’s minds: violence reigns in this school. In this school, the teachers are not in control,” says Florian Hackmann. For a year he was principal of Vincent van Gogh High School. And he’s determined to change the infamous Hohenschoenhausen secondary school. He fights for a better future. Not alone, but with a group of motivated teachers who want to make the school a welcoming place again.
The doors of the Van Gogh School have been repainted – light green
Along the way, the school has already come a long way in the past few months. In order to tell this, you need to know that the main school building is not a beauty, a 1984 gray prefab that has seen little love and renovations until recently. In some classrooms there is still the old linoleum from the GDR era on the floor.
Hackmann only had the prospect of a core restructuring by 2028. But the principal didn’t want to wait that long. Now, with the money he won from the district office, he has the walls and doors repainted a promising light green. Palm trees can be found in the atrium and a likeness of the painter Vincent van Gogh, painted by a 10th grade pupil, is emblazoned at the entrance to the school. An advertising agency has now developed a logo from this similarity: a van Gogh with sunglasses, which will soon also look down on young people’s t-shirts and ensure greater identification.
Friday noon, the principal is waiting in his office. Flowers on the meeting table, a plate of sweets, here too you feel the effort of creating a new type of hospitality. Florian Hackmann, a teacher of German and history, taught for many years at the Robert Jungk School, a popular European school in Charlottenburg that welcomes children from German-Polish families. For a while he was in charge of quality management and felt that “school development” might be his true calling.
After a year of additional training, he assumed his first position as principal at the Vincent van Gogh School. Hackmann, who is well connected to the Berlin education scene, managed to get 14 outside teachers excited about his project despite the dramatic shortage in the city. and to bring them to Hohenschönhausen in August 2021.
The great conference of the future in the Van Gogh school
In September there was a big “future conference” in the school. Pupils, parents and teachers spent three days discussing what the school’s strengths are and where the weaknesses lie. And what everyone wants to change and improve together. For example, a support association must be founded with the beautiful name: “Wir für Vincent”.
What are the strengths of the school? A career guidance program, for example, which has consistently received top marks in the rather poor school inspection reports of recent years.
Then there is an evocative outdoor space with a large lawn and a football field, as well as a team of physical education teachers who know how to challenge students through competitions and increase their self-confidence. On the school website you can see many photos of boys and girls happily holding their medals for the camera. The peculiarity of the Van Gogh School is that you can learn Russian as a second foreign language. Because there are many students from Russian-speaking countries who can also learn their native language as a written language in this way, which has a positive effect on their German language skills.
And the weaknesses? One of the main shortcomings was that the school did not have comfortable rooms where teachers and students could go out or have a bite to eat. As a result, opening a cafeteria in the school’s yellow extension is now perceived as a triumph. A couple sells food and drinks there until the early afternoon. And like every time at the weekend, the extended management of the school gathered there, six teachers, who exchange ideas on successes and challenges over a cup of cappuccino.
The so-called Break Lounge, a large relaxation room that hasn’t been used for years due to the horrible smell of old linoleum, is slowly taking shape. There are now new floors, a few sofas and, at the request of the student body, a foosball table has been ordered. The shelves will be built by the young people themselves, there are two workshops in the school. And a large school kitchen, which is also slowly coming back to life. Hackmann hopes students don’t feel the need to destroy furniture if they’ve designed and built it themselves. “We have many students who are very practical and who thrive when they see what they can create with their own hands.”
Congratulations to students who feel excluded
One might think that in the beginning it is all a matter of exterior, renovation and interior design. “But this is an important token of appreciation for our students,” says Hackmann. “They should feel accepted and safe here.”
So far a good half of the students are assigned to school, while the other half have indicated school as second or third choice. This means that the young people are here because they have not been accepted into other schools. They feel excluded. “We have to get that feeling out of them first,” says Hackmann. Furthermore, since the school structure reform, secondary schools in Berlin without a higher level of the gymnasium have been considered as losing schools. “And we have to reverse the situation by opening up good career prospects for our students beyond a course of study.”
Currently, 60 per cent of students have a migration background, coming from a total of 23 countries. There are many Russians, Poles, but also Vietnamese and refugees from Syria. 60 percent of the students are “free of teaching material”. This strange word means that the state pays for the books and notebooks, not the parents who receive Hartz IV or do underpaid jobs.
It is estimated that about 50 percent of young people have separated parents, single parents. “And that’s why there are two or three students in each class who need attention. Attention at any cost,” says Tatjana Fitzer, the vice principal. students have all sorts of problems in their heads that keep them from real lessons ”.
Traumatized students receive help from a psychologist
Sophie Schütte, who came to the school as a new teacher last year, agrees. “A few days ago, a student told me about her escape across the Mediterranean during the break. And today a student told me she couldn’t write the work in German because her boyfriend just left her. Then I went out in the corridor and comforted her: luckily we’re doing a double in German class right now, and then she agreed to write the job after all.
Experiences such as these have motivated staff to reassign a teaching position to a school psychologist position. Together with the school’s three social workers, she should help students cope with the trauma caused by their families’ escape or breakup, and then clear their minds to learn again. And the chances are good.
Another novelty of the school is the so-called crisis team: a dozen members of the faculty who are called alone or in groups when conflicts arise in a class. With SchoolFox, the school’s new messenger, team members can radio each other in seconds and help each other. Students who exaggerate quickly feel they are violating a moral consensus among adults. It’s more effective than just one teacher saying, “Hey, that’s not possible.”
Van Gogh School teachers are now more united
How do students feel about what has happened in their school in the last year? “Teachers are now closer together when our kids go crazy,” says Naja Darwisch, 16, who has five siblings and lives with her mother. After the tenth grade, she wants to go to a high school center in August. It’s a “shame that the school is only changing now in this way, just before I leave. But of course I’m happy: it’s okay for the other students too.”
On the sidewalk there are a couple of boys, maybe 13, who smoke and half have cigarettes behind their backs. “Yes,” says one. “I live nearby, but I don’t go to Vincent van Gogh because the students are on the wrong path there.” It will probably be a while before the new school spirit spreads to the neighborhood.