Zehra Otus: 2011 Teacher of Excellence Award Winner

Zehra Otus Enlarge image (© Zehra Otus) Students at College Park High School in the Bay Area suburb of Pleasant Hill, California, are hard at work in a "Schnitzelfabrik." They are pounding meat patties with mallets, breading them, and frying them up in a turkey frier.

They are having fun. And, they are doing all of it in German.

Schnitzel-making is but one activity within the German Immersion Day of the AATG Northern California Chapter. The event is organized in part by chapter vice president Zehra “Zizi” Otus, who teaches German levels I through AP at College Park High.

For Otus’s 135 German students, the annual field trip to a German immersion school, and the day-long program of German cultural activities with other German-learners from across the region, is a highlight of the year. Says Otus: “It takes it out of just the four walls of the classroom and makes it into much more of a communicative and realistic experience with the language.”

“Everyone can learn in this class”

Learning German in Frau Otus’s class is full of such interactive, hands-on experiences. “Rather than pointing to a board or having us memorize vocabulary, she gets us up and active. We’re doing things that are fun and entertaining,” senior Amanda Taylor told the Pleasant Hill-Martinez Record in an article highlighting Otus’s teaching excellence.

Otus is constantly focused on presenting German in a modern, real-world manner, be it through the Internet, the exchanges of the German-American Partnership Program (GAPP), or the German for Hire program of the Goethe-Institut, bringing German university students into American classrooms.

Another exuberant student gushed about how much she loved learning German with Frau Otus in a video produced for the “My German Program” feature within the “Step into German” campaign of the Goethe-Institut.

See the "My German Program" video

“I just love Frau Otus’s class because she’s really dedicated. She really wants people to succeed and understand the German culture as well as the language,” the student said. “Everyone can learn in this class. No matter what your skill level is, no matter how you learn, you can learn in this class.”

Otus faced a particular challenge over the past two years as budget cuts forced her upper-level classes, spanning three skill levels, into a single class. Still, students continued to progress, notes Ursula Dinter, head of the language department at the Goethe-Institut in San Francisco.

Moreover, demand for German has risen at College Park High such that Otus offered two classes of beginning German this year for the first time: a significant accomplishment in the current context. “This is primarily due to the engagement of Zizi Otus,” says Dinter.

From Medieval Music to Green Tech

That Otus has been able to grow her program can be attributed to her tireless promotion of the benefits of learning German in the modern world. For Otus, who studied Early Music Performance and Music Theory at New England Conservatory before moving to Basel, Switzerland to study medieval and Renaissance music at the world-renowned Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, these benefits are not only academic. They can help one, for example, in the world of music.

Or in the energy field. In California especially, Otus says, it helps to make the connection between Germany’s status as a world leader in green technology and the utility of learning the language. Doing so can open a world of possibility.

Otus herself is a source of teaching energy and inspiration, not only in the classroom but with her teaching colleagues. As an engaged member of the Trainernetzwerk of the Goethe-Institut, she has been educating fellow German teachers for years. Her peers offer copious words of praise for the constant teaching innovation she pursues.

Modern Life in Berlin

As part of her award, Otus headed to Berlin in August 2012 for a week-long course, “Leben in Berlin” (Life in Berlin), offered by the Goethe-Institut.

The seminar provided Otus with a new perspective on the history and also the manifold facets of modern life in Berlin, which she plans to use to enrich her teaching. What impressed her most was a tour through a multicultural neighborhood given by teenagers with immigrant roots. Otus said that her time in Berlin showed her that Germany is a country of diversity and that there are always new and interesting facets to discover.

“Personally, the award means a lot to me to be appreciated and supported,” Otus says. “I feel lucky to be a German teacher.”