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When An Army Trainer Changes Careers To Teach Kindergarten

In Germany, efforts are on to increase the number of male teachers. Here's the tale of a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who wound up on very different terrain.

Sgt. Potato Head
Sgt. Potato Head
Miriam Hollstein

BERLIN - Dirk Friedrich used to play war: the trainer for the German armed forces was responsible for preparing young soldiers for what they would face in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Today, the 34-year-old plays peace, as a teacher at the Kleine Schlaufüchse (Sly Little Foxes) kindergarten and day-care facility in the Berlin district of Pankow. Friedrich says the two activities have more in common than you might think.

He taught soldiers how to evade booby-traps. Now he teaches children ways of navigating the world.

It’s been three years since German Minister for Family Affairs Kristina Schröder launched the "Mehr Männer in Kitas" (More Men in Day Care) program to increase the number of men working with young children. According to Schröder, it’s good for children to have both male and female role models.

The initiative has so far raised the number of men in the sector by nearly one-third, but that still only brings it to 3.2% of the total. Because the job still has the reputation of being “women’s work,” there were only 13,246 male kindergarten teachers in all of Germany last year. The relatively poor pay is also a deterrent for many men: the average gross monthly income is 2,195 euros.

Friedrich never imagined he would one day end up working with kids. Yes, he says, he always liked kids, and was happy to play with them at family get-togethers and when visiting friends but "I never had any particular bond with them."

In 1995, when he got his secondary school diploma, he had “no idea” of what he wanted to do with his life. An apprenticeship as a mason didn’t work out, and he stopped training in logistical sales in 1999. Being called up for military duty when he was 21 came “as something of a relief.” He signed up for six years, and was sent to Afghanistan twice.

Despite a few intense and scary situations, “most of the time in Afghanistan I felt either bored or frustrated.” So when he returned from his second tour of duty he decided to leave the armed forces. His girlfriend told him about the "Mehr Männer in Kitas."

Kerstin Schmolla remembers how easily he got along with the kids from the start, and how seriously he took his work. At the end of a trial period, she offered him the possibility of working at the kindergarten while completing a three-year course of study to become a qualified teacher.

Nervous parents

Since then the former soldier has been attending a specialized school two days a week, where he takes courses psychology, psycho motorics, environmental pedagogy and music. On the other three days, he’s at Kleine Schlaufüchsen Kindergarten, wiping runny noses, romping with energetic little boys and girls, reading to them, helping with snacks – in short, doing all the things a teacher at that level does.

At first, Friedrich says, his friends had to get used to his new line of work – which meant changing the image they had of him. One asked him: “Are you gay, or what?” he recalls. But with time they’ve come to accept what he does, "nobody thinks of it as unmanly any more. There are more sides to men than being either a tough guy or a softie."

It took some getting used to at the kindergarten too. The school’s 150 kids, aged from under one to 6 years of age, are under the care of 25 staffers, and while many of his all-female colleagues were happy about a man joining the ranks, Friedrich says he sensed that some wondered whether a man could handle it.

But he’s dealt with the doubts with his usual mix of laidback unflappability and confidence -- even when one dad asked that he not be allowed to change his child’s diaper. With all the abuse stories going around, you couldn’t be too careful, the father said.

The head of the school stood up for Friedrich, telling the father that if that was the way he felt he was free to look for another school for his child.

He also stands clichés on their heads. Just because he’s a guy doesn’t mean he has to do sporty games with the kids all the time. He also sets the line at being a kind of handyman for female colleagues. He notes that his working style is different albeit complementary to theirs. He has a more matter of fact, solutions-oriented approach to the kids; when they climb trees, he lets them go a little higher. He says his army past stands him in good stead, for example recently when he was shocked to discover that most of the kids in his group were allowed to watch "Star Wars – The Clone Wars" on TV at home. In the series, the “bad guys” are regularly wiped out.

He decided to talk to his 5 and 6-year-olds about it. "How do you know when somebody’s a bad guy?" he asked them. They were clueless. So he explained that you can’t recognize the bad guy by his looks -- you can know only from his actions.

When Friedrich finishes his three-year course, Schmolla wants him on board full-time. As a play partner, he offers "a different style" to the kids, and has also otherwise brought some “fresh air” to the establishment. Schmolla also says that he’s a positive addition at staff meetings.

But Friedrich isn’t going to be the only man on the staff for long. Schmolla plans to hire another male teacher, "so that Dirk also has some male support."

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For Seniors, Friendship May Be More Important Than Family

Even if the aging and elderly tend to wind up confined to family circles, Argentine academics Laura Belli and Danila Suárez explore the often untapped benefits of friendship in our later years.

Photograph of two elderly women and an elderly man walking arm in arm. Behind the, there are adverts for famous football players.

Two elderly women and a man walk arm in arm

Philippe Leone/Unsplash
Laura F. Belli and Danila Suárez Tomé

Updated Dec. 10, 2023 at 10:10 p.m.

BUENOS AIRES — What kind of friendship do people most talk about? Most often it is childhood or teenage friendships, while friendships between men and women are repeatedly analyzed. What about friendships among the elderly? How are they affected when friends disappear, at a stage when grieving is already more frequent?

Argentines Laura Belli and Danila Suárez Tomé, two friends with PhDs in philosophy, explore the challenges and benefits of friendship in their book Filosofía de la amistad (Friendship Philosophy).

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They consider how friendships can emerge later in life, in profoundly altered circumstances from those of our youth, with people living through events like retirement, widowhood, reduced autonomy or to a greater or lesser degree, personal deterioration. All these can affect older people's ability to form and keep friendships, even if changes happen at any stage in life.

Filosofía de la amistadexplores the place of friendships amid daunting changes. These are not just the result of ageing itself but also of how one is perceived, nor will they affect everyone exactly the same way. Aging has firstly become a far more diverse experience, with increasing lifespans and better healthcare everywhere, and despite an inevitable restriction in life opportunities, a good many seniors enjoy far greater freedom and life choices than before.

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