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Ursula Karsten shares a lunchtime laugh with Isha Sumah, 10, a fifth-grader at Würzburg Middle School, Germany. The school honored Karsten on Friday for her 40 years as a Department of Defense Dependents Schools teacher of German language and culture.
Ursula Karsten shares a lunchtime laugh with Isha Sumah, 10, a fifth-grader at Würzburg Middle School, Germany. The school honored Karsten on Friday for her 40 years as a Department of Defense Dependents Schools teacher of German language and culture. (Steve Liewer / S&S)
Ursula Karsten shares a lunchtime laugh with Isha Sumah, 10, a fifth-grader at Würzburg Middle School, Germany. The school honored Karsten on Friday for her 40 years as a Department of Defense Dependents Schools teacher of German language and culture.
Ursula Karsten shares a lunchtime laugh with Isha Sumah, 10, a fifth-grader at Würzburg Middle School, Germany. The school honored Karsten on Friday for her 40 years as a Department of Defense Dependents Schools teacher of German language and culture. (Steve Liewer / S&S)
Posters and tributes plaster the walls Friday at Würzburg Middle School, Germany, for "Frau Karsten Tag." The school had prepared a surprise daylong tribute to Ursula Karsten, the school's German culture and language teacher, in honor of her 40 years of teaching for Department of Defense Dependents Schools.
Posters and tributes plaster the walls Friday at Würzburg Middle School, Germany, for "Frau Karsten Tag." The school had prepared a surprise daylong tribute to Ursula Karsten, the school's German culture and language teacher, in honor of her 40 years of teaching for Department of Defense Dependents Schools. (Steve Liewer / S&S)
Ursula Karsten waves to cheering pupils at Würzburg Middle School, Germany, after being introduced by principal Denise Leach during the school's lunch period.
Ursula Karsten waves to cheering pupils at Würzburg Middle School, Germany, after being introduced by principal Denise Leach during the school's lunch period. (Steve Liewer / S&S)
Her desk teeming with flowers from children, Ursula Karsten teaches German to seventh- and eighth-graders at Würzburg Middle School, Germany. The school declared Friday "Frau Karsten Tag" in honor of her 40 years as a Department of Defense Dependents Schools teacher of German language and culture.
Her desk teeming with flowers from children, Ursula Karsten teaches German to seventh- and eighth-graders at Würzburg Middle School, Germany. The school declared Friday "Frau Karsten Tag" in honor of her 40 years as a Department of Defense Dependents Schools teacher of German language and culture. (Steve Liewer / S&S)

WüRZBURG, Germany — When Ursula Karsten walked through the doors of Würzburg Middle School Friday morning, she got the biggest shock of her 40 years as a teacher.

Tributes from her pupils and fellow teachers plastered the walls of the school. Paper banners in the red, black and yellow of the German flag decorated her door. Giant posters proclaimed “Frau Karsten Tag” in honor of her 40th anniversary teaching German language and culture for the Department of Defense Dependents Schools.

Dozens of teachers and hundreds of pupils had been in on the surprise, planned for weeks by close friends on the faculty, including Nancy Muzatko and Bob Voce. No one gave away the secret.

“To walk into the school this morning, unprepared as I was, was overwhelming,” she said. “Part of me just wanted to turn and run!”

All day long, she could hardly take a step without a child hugging her or thanking her or handing her a bouquet of flowers. Sometimes she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

“Phenomenal. Overwhelming. Moving. Touching,” Karsten said of the tribute, over a specially prepared lunch of bratwurst and french fries. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service donated two gigantic sheet cakes for dessert.

Karsten wanted to be a teacher since her childhood in the northern Bavarian town of Fulda, once a U.S. Army hub in Germany. She stuck with her English studies, despite a rebuke from a childhood English teacher that she would never master the language. The insult still burns.

Karsten studied in England in the early 1960s. She decided to teach in a DODDS school in her hometown, preferring the warmth and closeness of American education to the authoritarian German system.

She started at Fulda American High School and taught there for 33 years, until the school and the base were closed in 1997.

“I thought the world would come to an end, because it had been such a big part of my life. To see everyone scattering was really sad,” Karsten said. “But when I had the opportunity to transfer down here [to Würzburg], they made me feel right at home.”

It’s not been easy. Fulda is an hour away; most days she commutes by train. She is unmarried and has no children, so no one is waiting while she’s away.

“Maybe the kids in school are my substitute family,” Karsten said.

Students and faculty alike describe her classroom as light and full of fun. She gives points for exceptional performance and behavior. Kids can exchange the points for “bravos,” which can be redeemed for gummi-bear candies.

“She’s one of the most kid-friendly teachers I’ve ever met,” said Muzatko, whose room is next door to Karsten’s. “She’s always fun with kids, always loving. I’ve never seen her lose her cool.”

The kids, too, give their teacher high marks.

“She’s really funny. She makes jokes,” said Emma Dusterhoff, 10.

“She’s a cool teacher,” added Kris Cunanan. “She’s nice. She did a lot for me.”

The celebration confused some kids into thinking Karsten was retiring. But she says she has not given quitting a thought. She loves her kids too much.

“No,” she said, answering one girl’s question. “Not until they kick me out.”

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