From now on, when Gudrun Sickert teaches her East German students about life in America, she will be teaching them lessons she has learned herself.
Until a month ago, the 34-year-old teacher's impressions of the United States were limited to the movies and to what she had been taught in school. But now, after spending a month in Orange County along with 10 other East German teachers, those impressions have changed forever.
As she prepared to return home on Friday, Sickert expressed her excitement over no longer being limited to showing her students slides provided to her by the government, which she said depicted a slanted view of the United States.
"Half of the slides were of the homeless," Sickert said in fluent English. "The other slides consisted of workers in factories who appeared extremely exploited. These did not present a very good view of America. Now I can tell my pupils much more about the United States, and I think they will believe me."
During their monthlong stay, the teachers were matched with host families throughout the county. They participated in several forums at local colleges and visited typical tourist attractions such as Disneyland, Sea World, Palm Springs and Hollywood.
Their trip was arranged by the American Host Foundation, a Garden Grove-based organization which has brought more than 16,000 teachers to the United States from overseas since 1962.
These teachers were selected by the foundation because of their stand against Marxist-Leninist teachings. Shortly before political reforms took place in the country, the teachers had formed the Union of Independent Teachers for Democracy, which was opposed to teaching children communism as a way of life.
"The only places we were allowed to speak was in churches," said Sickert, who serves as spokeswoman for the group. "We met with parents who were having trouble with the education system and with all people interested in changing education."
In October, several teachers in the group were in danger of being dismissed from their jobs when they backed a colleague who refused to continue with traditional teachings. But in the midst of the controversy, the opening of the Berlin Wall and other changes took place in the country and the controversy faded.
"When we formed the organization, we just wanted to improve things," Sickert said. "We didn't think there would be such changes. It took us some time to understand it all.
"I think only a person who has been to prison for many years could understand how we felt," Sickert said. "We were treated like small children and told how to do things and what to do. Now, we use our brains and can be human beings."
Although they are experiencing freedom for the first time, the teachers said their country is still struggling through great economic problems.
"We are glad to be free, but there are many troubles," said Heidemarie Schoeler, who teaches engineering. "The factories don't know how to stand the competition of the Western world. They have old technology and machinery."
But the euphoria of freedom has yet to wear off.
"We feel as if we were born again," said Monika Beul, who teaches Russian and music. "It's a new life."