ELTABBer of the Month – Sarah E. Bernhardt

Contact: – sarah@sebenglish.net


Originally from Ohio in the USA, Sarah Moved to Dortmund in 1994. She was learning German through intensive 5-hour-a-day, 5-day-a-week courses when a fellow student suggested she teach English at Berlitz to earn a little money. From there, it wasn’t long until she was running her own English consultation service! She moved to Berlin in November 2020, and finds herself as one of our newer ELTABB members!

You were a language student before being a language teacher – can you share any insights from being on the other side of the desk?
In my case I was part of a mixed group of foreigners who were all complete beginners. I know that some language trainers aren’t proponents of target language only instruction, but this was the most feasible option for us, and I believed we all thrived and became closer because of it. I’ve also taken a number of courses in Japanese and recognized that the trainer who let us speak German and ask in German “what is the German name of xyz” was much less effective than the one who forced us to ask the same question in Japanese. Additionally, our German instructor never laughed at our mistakes (for example Arschenbecher instead of Aschenbecher), and took our most trivial questions seriously. We felt like we were equals with him.

How did you find out about ELTABB? What were your expectations and first impressions?
I was already a member of the ELTA Rhein-Ruhr group before coming to Berlin, and the shared events opened my eyes to all of you ; )I was expecting to meet more people than in the previous group which is quite spread out, and I’m definitely looking forward to finding some folks to play some games with when the corona situation allows it (Exploding Kittens anyone?) (Yes!! – Ed).
I was and am still impressed by the excellent website and Ning platform.

Have you noticed any changes in clients’ needs and requirements since you started teaching?
I would say that so many students are now looking for a “quick fix,” whereas in the past they accepted and even expected a longer process. I’m often asked about the magical app that will save time, make them learn faster with less effort.Also interesting for me was this wave of interest in cross-cultural topics which picked up about 10 years ago and has now, in my experience, significantly waned. Of course the ways in which students in various cultures learn and interact is still important for us as trainers to be aware of, but students rarely show interest in these topics from a business aspect anymore.

What advice would you give for creating courses and teaching students when you are full time in-company?
In my experience, falling back on the “same department, same group” principle is not always ideal. The most productive learning environments and discussions have come about when different departments are mixed. It isn’t only less monotonous for everyone, but some students meet their own colleagues for the first time face-to-face. They can talk about a common project or customer from different aspects.Another “small” but significant thing that I try to keep in mind while teaching is the seating arrangement. I usually try to sit in a different seat each time, not just close to the board, to keep the atmosphere a bit more dynamic. If this is not possible, I try to make sure that I am facing the windows. Corporate students can be so wrapped-up in their own thoughts that a window just draws them away from what is happening, and they need to focus on me and the group.

What were the biggest hurdles in starting your own company – and were these specific to English-Teaching, or would they be the same for any company?
The biggest hurdle was definitely finding clients, and I think this is true in most industries. I am (imho) an excellent trainer, but a horrible sales person. All of the companies I ended up working with either knew me personally, or I was recommended to them by former students. I tried all of the usual mailings, offering free trial lessons, flexible times, etc, but nothing came from all of that. The annoying topics like Umsatzsteuervoranmeldung or figuring out how to get your freelancer to accurately fill out a signature list can take time at the beginning, but become routine eventually as well.

Has studying psychology helped your teaching practice?
Definitely, however I do believe that good and dedicated trainers all become therapists in some sense with time. Students recognize that someone is actively listening to them and encouraging them to speak, and they often open up about professional and personal issues. They are getting attention they have been missing somewhere in their lives, and are improving their English at the same time – a win-win for them. 

It sounds like you are still transitioning to teaching here in Berlin, but I am curious what differences you have seen to the kinds of businesses that are located here and Brandenburg compared to your experiences in Dortmund and Sauerland, the stereotype being that Berlin is dominated by startups and tech industry rather than the auto industry and all the Mittelstand companies that Germany is famous for.
Is it really as drastically different as people say and if so, what kind of changes does that mean for your own teaching practice?

Unfortunately the only real experiences I have made with businesses in my new area are mostly limited to what I see on Indeed while looking for full-time employment, and often these companies fit the stereotype you mentioned. In the Sauerland area, where I had been working for over a decade, you come across these Mittelstand companies again and again. Someone invented a cool screw, everyone needs this screw, and the company producing the screw becomes a market leader for that screw, employs a lot of the local population, and nobody has ever heard of them. If you get a teaching contract with one of those companies, you are set.

Now that we’re so deep into lockdown, have you noticed any changes in people’s approach to online-teaching; are people warming to the idea, or are your clients eager for face-to-face interaction?
I think everyone would prefer face-to-face (especially when I’m ready to bite the table waiting for the Zoom lag to clear, not knowing if it is on my side or theirs), but we have all seen some major advantages to having lessons online: no travel time, no reserving conference rooms, sharing screens, live drag-and-drops of documents, online activities for groups, that TikTok video that someone just sent you and you *have* to share with your students, optional shoes (and pants!). . .

What do you find are the biggest advantages/disadvantages of teaching online?
One of the biggest advantages is definitely the travel time. Another is the amount of time I save by working with pdfs and not having to make copies for the students. Oh, by far the biggest advantage for me personally is that I can eat garlic all the time and don’t have to worry about teaching later or in the morning. If my students only knew ; )A huge disadvantage for me is not being able to see where the students actually are, how their offices are set up, or taking tours through the production. I miss being able to actually pick up their tools or products, examining them myself. Another disadvantage which has just recently become apparent to me is the lack of writing I see from my students. It’s my own fault that I have not been paying attention to that skill or encouraging them to write more. It didn’t occur to me to check it really until I noticed some major errors from my students in the chat window, things that are easy to correct (capitalization), but that you don’t hear in simple speaking. I ask them three questions about what they are doing right now, they ask me three questions, we talk about the answers. Now their answers (and mine) are going into the chat!

And finally, it’s nice to have you on board as a member! How are you going to contribute to the English Language Association in Berlin – Brandenburg, and what do you hope we can do for you?
Thank you so much! I’m happy to be here. I would like to take part in as many events as possible although I’m often in Munich or back in Sauerland on the weekends. Academically I’ve recognized that I’m not quite on par with a number of the members, but I will gladly share my experiences and mistakes with the others, for example I’m finally building a decent repertoire of activities for online-teaching : )