Stories


Teaching English in Germany – Top 10 things I learned
Kristi Fuoco
2014-01-01

 

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As a freelance Business English Teacher in Germany you spend a lot of your time on public transportation.
It becomes as much a part of your routine as the teaching itself.

 

Sometimes I think that my students in Germany taught me more than I taught them. Teaching is a funny thing and demands your all. You can’t have an off day as a teacher. You are always on, and you have to give intense amounts of energy in every moment. It is utterly exhausting and wonderful all at once. As a language teacher in Hamburg, Germany, some days I felt like I was a complete and utter failure, and that no matter what I did in a certain class I couldn’t get my students engaged. Other days I felt like the entire class was energized and we were all inspired. Every day brings new challenges, new people and a whole lot of learning on both sides. So, in no particular order here are the top 10 things things I learned from my 18 months as a Business English Teacher in Hamburg, Germany, and incidentally, many of them can really be applied to life in general too.


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Good thing I understand what these words mean
in German (thick, crunchy beans)… but they
still make me laugh. Asian-German-English
mash up for the win!

 

1. You will learn more from teaching English to foreigners about their own language, than from any language class you will ever take. This one really surprised me the most. When I first started teaching English in Germany my level of German was very basic, but each day, as students asked me what a word was in English, and I was forced to look them up or figure it out, I learned an endless amount of new vocabulary. My students always asked me how they could learn new vocab and really, the best way they could do it is to teach German to English speakers! You also learn so much about the structure of a foreign language by the mistakes that your students make in English. I can’t count how many times I made mental notes as my students placed verbs or other words in strange orders, and I realized, “oh, so that’s how you must say that in German.” It’s seriously the best kept secret to being an English as a foreign language teacher.

 

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Yep, even if it meant showing up to class
in these sunglasses to get my students to
remember the word “sunglasses” I would
do it. After a while, you get used to
looking and feeling silly as a teacher.

 

 

 

2. Laughter is the best medicine, and the best teacher. Whenever possible, discover your students’ humour and make them laugh. Learning is always better when it’s fun and when I can make any serious German laugh, I consider that a successful day. I was lucky enough to have some students who were always ready for a laugh, who had fabulous senses of humour and some days we would almost be crying with laughter. I tried to tell my German teacher once that I learn better when it’s fun and she just said to me, “Okay, a little fun is okay but not too much. Not too much laughter.” I couldn’t believe my ears. The funniest classes are the most memorable, which means students won’t forget what they learned that day. But of course, never, ever laugh at a student. Unless of course it is incredibly funny, such as when my student kept on insisting to the class he was born in 1886 instead of 1986. No one could keep from giggling that day.

 

 

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What happens when you burn yourself
out? That’s right, you got nothin’ left
but an empty lamp.

 

 

3. Don’t burn yourself out. I am pretty sure all first year teachers learn this one the hard way. All my teacher friends warned me and yet I still did it, partly because you kind of have to in order to find the right balance. As a freelancer your income tends to be a bit “feast or famine” and so often you take what you can get and overload yourself with classes before you know it. Most freelance teachers I know in Hamburg work for multiple language schools and also teach private lessons and if they are like me, also write a blog, freelance articles and run all their own social media in addition to being their own accountant and you know, having a life too. Before you know it you are getting up at 5am to teach in another city, coming home in the afternoon and then going out again to teach for five hours in the evening, getting home and getting up again at 6am to teach all day. I don’t recommend that, and I did it for months. Germany has a much lower cost of living and you can get by on less than 20 teaching hours a week. It’s not easy, but being happy and healthy and not over worked is more important. As with everything in life, balance is key.

 

 

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I had great teaching material coming out my
ears… and all over my floor at times!

 

4. When you find great material, use it as much as possible, and share it. This one is invaluable. Talk to other teachers on a regular basis and ask them for material that is great. If you can use things in different classes for a whole week (or multiple weeks), you will be a happy camper. Remember that crazy schedule above? Don’t forget that you have to include prep time in there and if you can minimize it you will make your life a whole lot easier. Also, teachers with more experience will have that knowledge and the resources that you really do need to and should draw on regularly. As a teacher some things you only learn from experience, but the rest you can learn from people who have already been through it. Teaching present perfect this week? I am sure ten teachers you know will have material to suggest. If you are at a language school that makes you teach from a particular book don’t assume that book is good or that students will enjoy it. Most of my classes were taught from supplementary material. And of course, there is always the internet. So, once you’ve found that great material pay it forward and pass it along.

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Maybe you can’t please everyone in your
teaching materials, but when all else
fails, have food in class! It’s always a hit.

 

 

5. You can’t please everyone. For a people pleaser like me, this one really hits home. It’s a tough situation, but you simply can’t make every one of your students in every class happy every day. It’s not going to happen so resign yourself to that now. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to find what makes each student tick, and change it up in order to appeal to different students, but don’t make this your goal or you will always feel like a failure. Too often I asked my students what they wanted to learn and they would give me six different answers. And sometimes the answers they gave weren’t actually what they needed to learn. Yes, do interview your students at the beginning of a new class. Do see where their needs are, what their weaknesses and strengths are, but at some point you have to realize that you are the teacher and you need to take charge. Be open, but confident and don’t be scared to take charge of the class. Students look to you for this and want some kind of structure and direction. It is a fine balance, but keep this point always in the back of your mind.

 

 

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When I was coming back from Sweden this
summer I saw this sign for what I could only
deduce was organic pancakes, but I realized
the Swedes must use the word “eco” for
“organic”. You learn more from mistakes
than anything else!

 

6. Never stop learning. The more you know… as they say. Every new tool, every new piece of information on teaching, every word in German you learn, or in English, will help you be a better teacher. Getting together regularly with other teachers, going to information and training sessions, researching online, taking more courses in English teaching – all of this will make you a kick ass teacher. So keep on plugging away at German (or whatever foreign language you may be learning), and learn as much as you can about your own language. I can’t believe the things I know about English now, that I never knew before. I don’t think I even learned English grammar this well in school (does anyone remember learning English grammar properly in school???) and the more I learned as a teacher, the more confident I felt in class. But remember, you can’t know everything, and there is no shame in telling your students you will look something up and get back to them. I did it almost every single day, or we looked it up together in class.

 

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Even the most in-depth planning doesn’t
always prepare you for how things will
actually turn out. (Photo from
Wikimedia Commons)

 

7. The best laid plans….The tricky thing about teaching is that you need to plan for each lesson, but you also need to realize that your perfectly thought out lesson plan may fall completely flat on its face and you need to come up with something on the spot. Some of us are better improvisers than others, and if you know you aren’t a great one, always, always bring a lot of back up material with you in the form of activities and games that you know are a hit and will get people engaged and talking. Always go in with a strong idea of how the class will go, but don’t get upset when it doesn’t work, or you need to change it. If you see it is going nowhere mid-way through, subtly try and change the direction. I’ll never forget a lesson I tried to teach on phobias one week. I thought this would be such a fun class! I had a list of the top 10 phobias in America, along with a whole variety of other interesting activities to do with fears. Then, after I asked my class to tell me some of their fears and phobias, and a deathly silence fell over the class, I realized with some surprise that Germans did not like to admit any weaknesses. One student eventually tentatively offered an answer, that she didn’t really like going to get her hair cut. I realized in that moment that this lesson wouldn’t work, so instead tried the other side of the lesson which had to do with stress and that was a hit. Germans LOVE talking about stress, so from then on I used that as a regular lesson in any new class. You live and learn!

 

silly-hat.jpg
After a while you learn to wear many
different cultural hats as a language
teacher, and after a time, they all
look pretty good.

 

8. You are not just teaching language, you are teaching culture and learning it at the same time. This is one of the most fascinating parts of teaching English in a foreign language. We assume when we start off that we are simply teaching English grammar, vocabulary, speaking skills etc., but it is so much more than that. This was by far the most demanding career I have had so far in my life. It demanded my all, every single day. The rewards were great, but it was no picnic, I can tell you. You realize early on that every student in your class comes with a history of how they learned a language, baggage from those experiences (most of my students talked about how much they hated their language learning experiences in German schools), and of course their own cultural context. You might try teaching idioms in class one day (which incidentally is a fabulous idea and students love it), and you may come to a realization with your students that you simply can’t make them understand an idiom, not because they don’t understand the words, but because they don’t understand the culture behind the words. It is utterly fascinating and frustrating, and will challenge you each and every day as a language teacher. But it is one of the most wonderful things I experienced this last 18 months.

 

discouragement.jpg
Feel like you are banging your head against
a wall, week after week? Maybe it’s time
to switch it up… (Photo from
Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

9. If a class is making you miserable after months of teaching it, give it up. This could come in multiple forms, it doesn’t just have to mean you don’t click with a particular class. It could mean the class is at a terrible time, at a terrible location (i.e. on a bad transit route), or anything else. If you commit to a class, give it a proper try, but know it’s okay to hand it off to someone else. If you aren’t jiving with the students, chances are, they aren’t jiving with you, and maybe they would do better with a different teacher anyway. Do yourself and them a favour and let someone else take over. There will always be other classes and you are not always going to be the right fit for every class. Life is too short to be miserable in a situation that is easy to change. Some companies don’t like it when their Business English Teacher changes a lot, but that’s kind of the nature of this business. Give a class a fair try, but know when to get out.

 

 

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Positive reinforcement can also come in
the form of chocolate! This jar was
actually kindly given to me by a student
as a going away gift! Hey, teachers need
encouragement too!


 

10. Shut up already! But really, try not to talk so much. This is a tough one, since sometimes classes are extremely quiet and you feel the need to fill the silences. Of course as the teacher you are always going to talk more than your students. You need to teach a concept before throwing anything back at your students (well not always, often you can start with a brainstorming session), but one thing I learned about teaching in Germany is that my students needed time to process and think things through sometimes before they were ready to respond. Let them do some quiet work (or work with other students) and give them time to process before you put them on the spot, particularly with larger classes. Also, encourage them to talk as much as possible. I know what it’s like to sit quietly in a big language class and listen and process but only talk when I have to. This doesn’t mean putting students on the spot and embarrassing them, but for the shy ones, give them small speaking tasks and group work. Students often feel better speaking with their fellow language learners. Get them to read out loud to practice their pronunciation but try and get them to have natural conversations that are not forced. This is usually the biggest weakness with anyone learning a foreign language and they want to practice, they just need a little (or a lot) of encouragement. Tell them every day, it’s okay to make mistakes – Germans are perfectionists and need to hear this. Give constructive suggestions for improvement and positive feedback, and once again… remember to laugh together.

 

I feel so lucky to have had this challenging and incredible experience as a language teacher in a foreign country. It brought so much richness to my life, so many hilarious stories, and deep connections with my students. I want to thank my students for letting me teach them, and for everything they taught me, and my fellow teachers for sharing along this bumpy and interesting ride. I will never forget it!

 

 

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Kristi Fuoco

 KRISTI FUOCO – Social media enthusiast, English teacher, writer, marketer, traveler, music lover. West Coast Canadian gal living and working in Germany and traveling around Europe. Current city – Hamburg.

Twitter: @kristifuoco
Email: kristi.fuoco@gmail.com


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My experience in Germany has been invaluable. In addition to learning German and taking part in another culture, I have learned so much about myself. I am confident that I can thrive away from the comforts of home and that I am dynamic and flexible. This is exactly what today’s employers are looking for – giving me a competitive advantage in the working world.
Kate from British Columbia – working for an international not-for-profit organisation.