ELTABBer of the Month: Kath Robinson

Kath Robinson teaches adults both privately and in-house in companies in Berlin. She started her teaching career in Spain in 2008, somewhat accidentally, but soon fell in love with the job and realised she had finally found the right career for her. Kath also had short stints in Japan and Indonesia before starting to work here in Berlin in 2020. Having previously worked for language schools, since working in Berlin she has been completely independent. Her classes focus on speaking and listening skills (though not exclusively) and use a combination of techniques learnt on her Celta course and the drilling style she worked with in Spain.

Kath works with small groups – of a maximum of four students – and currently eight of her ten classes are one-to-one. Establishing herself independently in a country where she hadn’t taught before, particularly during a pandemic, has proved challenging but she is slowly and steadily building up her client base. Her only regret since starting work here in Berlin is not discovering Eltabb until this summer!

Website: www.kath-robinson-english.com

Contact: kath.robinson.english@gmail.com

  • How did you discover ELTABB and what do you hope to get from your membership?

I posted on a Berlin Facebook group I’m a member of to ask about advertising ideas for a freelance teacher; someone said ELTABB has a jobs board and I thought “What’s ELTABB?”. I couldn’t believe that there was this amazing organisation with so much that could help me and that I hadn’t known anything about.

For me there are four aspects of ELTABB that I particularly like: the opportunity to ask fellow teachers questions, the professional development opportunities, the jobs board and the social aspect.

  • What were your first impressions of Eltabb events?

I think my first event was a talk about using music in business classes by MC Fluency. I just remember being really impressed at all these people voluntarily giving up two hours of their Saturday mornings to get new ideas for their classes.

  • What did you learn from the IATEFL BESIG conference?

So much I could write an essay! I got something from every one of the many talks I went to – from how much we should be correcting students to dealing with students who don’t want to be there. However, the really big takeaway for me was just how much students should be doing outside of the classroom – and the many amazing resources for this that were generously shared by everyone. It was also a great chance to meet other people in the industry and just like with ELTABB, I was blown away by how welcoming and supportive everyone there was. Finally, a big shout out to Evan Frendo, Mandy Welfare and Galina Chinchuk who so kindly let me gate crash their road trip despite not having a clue who I was!

  • What sparked your interest in the English language and teaching? 

Like so many people I started teaching as a means to live in a foreign country, in my case Spain. However by the second day of the training, I already realised how interesting I found it and how satisfying teaching could be. When I started teaching I was getting this amazing buzz after almost every class which was entirely different to how I felt in my previous role in marketing, where my soul was slowly dying!

  • Could you tell us a bit more about the drilling style you learned in Spain?

Drilling tends to have a bad reputation but I love it, and more importantly my students love it, as it really helps them master and be able to actually use the grammar we have studied.

The key points are:

  • it is all spoken (so also great listening practice)
  • you are always looking for a specific answer so it’s not an open-ended question
  • every mistake is corrected immediately

To give a couple of examples:

Practising irregular verbs. I will ask 20 questions set in the simple past and the students have to give the full sentence answer: How many meetings did you have last week? How many emails did you write yesterday? etc

Or to consolidate work on the passive, I will say lots of awkward sounding active sentences and the students have to change them into the passive. Eg ‘Someone has stolen my car’ changes to ‘My car has been stolen.’

There are limitations with drilling as it has to be done in small classes – I would say maximum of five students, preferably less – and it only works on speaking and listening skills. Also, the higher the English level of the student, the less I use it.

  • Teaching in those four countries (Spain, Japan, Indonesia, Germany) sounds super interesting. Was there anything in common when you compare teaching English in these different places? And did you take anything with you from these earlier teaching experiences?

They were all really different, not just due to the different cultures and L1 differences but also because I was teaching different types of students. Japan was university students, 45-minute classes, five times per week for 10 weeks and just focusing on speaking. If anyone is looking for a short-term adventure, I can highly recommend the program.

In Indonesia I was working for an EF language school and taught mostly children, some as young as four years old, which was definitely not my forte!

Spain was mostly business people with a few months of intensive week-long university courses thrown in. As mentioned above, the work I did in Spain still has a huge influence on the work I do now. Japan and Indonesia less so, although certain things – like the importance of having good classroom dynamics and never underestimating how stressful speaking a foreign language can be – have stayed with me.

  • As far as I understand, you don’t work for any language schools, but have your own clients. What have been the challenges of going that route?

It has been a massive challenge and one that, if I’m honest, I completely underestimated. I assumed it would be similar to working at language schools, just that I would have to find my own clients and write my own invoices. What I hadn’t realised was that it would basically be like running my own business; all the admin, negotiating, scheduling, writing a contract, feedback forms, working out what training I need to do, checking I’ve been paid etc etc.

Plus finding clients, especially at the beginning, turned out to almost be a job in itself. The other big issue I have had is it turns out I’m really uncomfortable talking about money which is not ideal when you have to constantly negotiate your own pay! For any of you who are freelancers and struggling with any of the above, I can highly recommend Rachel Roberts EarnLearnThrive business which specialises in helping ELT freelancers.

  • What are your best tips for working with individuals?

Make it all about the client. What do they need their English for and where are their weak points? Those two things should form the basis of everything you do. Also, all your material/exercises should be personalised to them, and especially with business clients, use as much authentic material as possible. For example, using the freshly released quarterly financial statement from their company or that of a competitor is going to go down far better than using a random example from a five-year-old text book.

  • Which issues are most frequently cited by your students as being most problematic for them?

Something that has become really apparent since I started working in Germany is how much confidence, or lack thereof, can affect people. How confident people are in their English seems to be completely unrelated to their actual level and, in my experience at least, it is always the women who are far too hard on themselves. Then it becomes a vicious cycle: They don’t say anything in a meeting because they aren’t sure if they can express themselves correctly, then after the meeting they are super frustrated and they feel their English has let them down again, which makes them even less likely to say something next time, and so it goes on. Part of my job is convincing people it’s not about being perfect, it’s about being understandable. No-one is there to judge their English, particularly native English speakers. The other people in the meeting are interested in their point, not whether they conjugate a verb correctly. If anyone is interested in reading more about how mindset can affect fluency, Steven Hobson has written lots of good stuff on it.

  • At ELTABB’s recent AGM, you were appointed Recording Secretary for the coming year! We look forward to working with you. What do you hope to get from your time on the board?

Thank you. I’m also looking forward to getting involved and working with all the current board members. I mainly volunteered as I have already got so much out of ELTABB I thought it was only fair that I put something back in. However, it would be great to get some input into what talks there will be, as I already have one or two ideas on that front. And finally, if the increased exposure brought a bit more work my way, then I wouldn’t be complaining. 😊

Edited by Eleanor Johnston and Kit Flemons