NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- Although he had to spend Valentine’s Day apart from his wife, Heiko Benzin may observe that holiday differently now because of his visit to the United States. Benzin teaches English, Russian and computer science to students at the Gymnasium Carolinum, a university track secondary school (grades 5-13) in Neustrelitz, in the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The Eastern German Teachers Visitor Program brought him to the United States for the first two weeks of February, including a week visiting teachers and students at Newton High School and Bethel College in North Newton.
Daniel Coats, former U.S. ambassador to Germany, initiated the program in 2004. It sends 10 public school teachers, from a different eastern German state each time, to the United States to get to know the country better. One requirement for eligibility is that the teachers never have visited the United States before.
For the first week of the program, Benzin said, the nine teachers (one had to drop out of the 2006 group) were all together in Washington, D.C., being hosted by the U.S. State Department and Department of Education. "We went sightseeing and did the typical tourist activities," he said. "We heard a lecture on ‘No Child Left Behind’ [the Bush administration’s public education policy] and visited area high schools."
They also went to an African American Baptist church, which he said he enjoyed very much. The date was February 5, right before the funeral of Coretta Scott King, which he said made the experience even more notable because that event was an important topic for the morning.
A highlight for Benzin, he said, was attending a Washington Wizards-Orlando Magic basketball game. "Basketball is very popular at our school," he said. "Two of my students are on the team. I went to the game for them, to ‘bring back the spirit.’"
He laughed and added, "I have a friend in St. Louis who has lived in the United States 40 years and says he has never been to a professional basketball game, and I got to go after being here less than a week!"
For the second week of the program, the group split up to visit different locations around the country. Benzin came to Newton because Bethel College professor of German Merle Schlabaugh had read about the Eastern German Teachers Visitor Program in a newsletter for teachers of German in the United States. He contacted Nan Goering Bergen, the German teacher at Newton High School, and they decided to apply together to host one of the teachers.
In Newton, Benzin visited Shalom Mennonite Church (where Schlabaugh is a member) and called the atmosphere "brilliant." It was his first time in a Mennonite worship service or enjoying a Mennonite potluck meal, he said.
At Newton High School, he went to German, English and history classes. "I made a presentation on our Müritz Nationalpark, and had question-and-answer with the students. They were very friendly, very open-minded and pro-German," he said. "Some had spent time in Germany."
At Bethel, he also visited classes to practice German (for the students) and English (for him). One of the benefits of this trip, he said, was having "14 days of intensive English practice." Although he encountered few native speakers of German outside of other members of the teachers’ group, he said he very much enjoyed being hosted by Merle Schlabaugh and his wife, Karen (professor of music at Bethel College), as well as Nan Bergen and her husband, Dietrich.
Other highlights of the visit to Kansas included a visit to Maxwell Game Refuge and Coronado Heights near Lindsborg, and the Bethel-Southwestern basketball game on Feb. 11, a nail-biter the Threshers lost by only two points.
Another was being at Newton High School on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. "It was amazing to see a room with piles of gifts--roses, stuffed animals," he said. "It’s amazing how people show affection for each other." He was also very intrigued, he said, with "singing Valentines."
"I ordered flowers for my wife [for Valentine’s Day] before I left," he said. "She liked that very much. I think I will take the idea of the singing Valentines back to my school."
Benzin’s travels aren’t over. Near the end of his time in Kansas, he got an e-mail informing him that he and one of his classes had won a competition for producing an English-language web page, which means the whole class gets an all-expense-paid trip to Scotland later this year.
"I want to thank my principal, Henry Tesch, who has given me time to work on these different programs and has encouraged me," Benzin said.
He also noted one more "American custom" he wants to take home to Germany. "American teachers don’t enter a classroom without a mug of coffee," he said. "I think I’ll try that."
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.