ELTABBer of the Month – Thomas Kortsmitt

Thomas Kortsmit is a newly-qualified English teacher! With a background in the financial sector, he wanted to do something that utilised his love of languages and allowed him to take a step back from the spreadsheets. He’s now having a short stay in Berlin before jetting off to Japan to pursue a dream of teaching and living there – we thought we’d catch up with him before he left, and pose ten questions from his fellow ELTABBers…

How do you think doing a CELTA course online was different than if you had been able to do it in person? Did it focus more on online teaching, or did it still teach traditional classroom methods, only over the internet?

There are a lot of differences I think. For the teaching part for example, in a regular classroom if your students are doing exercises you would be able to walk over and look over their shoulders to see what they are doing. On Zoom that’s not possible. It was also quite demanding to get used to Zoom and manage the online classroom while at the same time teaching your class and making sure you pick up on any problems the students are having. Sometimes their sound or video is not working properly, they might have connection problems or I might have these problems myself. However, it was very useful to have this kind of experience. In this day and age especially I think it’s a valuable asset for a teacher to know how to conduct classes online.

As far as the training we received, it was focused on online teaching, but our tutors always mentioned how we would do the same exercises in a real classroom and how we would monitor for example. Even positions were discussed, where to stand (or sit) during different parts of the lesson.

Something that would be really nice if the CELTA course was in person would be just meeting the other trainees for lunch or going for a beer after a long day (on my course we never had time for this! You missed nothing in that regard. – Ed.). I feel like that would be very enjoyable and informative, to share your experiences and the difficulties you are having with your fellow trainees. Of course that was still sort of possible but I think it would have happened organically if we were all in the same building together.


How did the CELTA course change you as a teacher? For example, did it change any preconceptions you had? Any surprises?

I guess I wasn’t much of a teacher before, I’ve only participated in a language exchange program and did some tutoring so the CELTA pretty much shaped me as a teacher. My mother is a teacher so I learnt a few things from her (like the importance of appropriate examples) but I learnt a lot of valuable things from the CELTA and I’m still processing all of them. Observing experienced teachers for example was something I found very useful during the CELTA. I was surprised by how aware a teacher has to be of everything, especially time. I never thought about that when I was sitting in class but the teacher is constantly thinking about the progress of their lesson and if the class is on par or not. It’s also very nice in that way, when you start a lesson you’ll never know how it is going to finish. I like that every lesson is different and it’s about the moment you create together with your students.


Why have you got your sights set on teaching in Japan, what draws you there?

I’ve studied in Korea for half a year and I noticed that when the semester was over, a lot of people stayed in Asia to teach English. I also wanted to stay in Asia to teach but I had to finish my Masters first. Now that I am finished with my studies, saved up some money and got my CELTA diploma, I feel completely prepared to go back to Asia and discover more of this part of the world. Specifically Japan because I have never been there and my girlfriend studied there and speaks the language. She always has the best stories about her life in Japan and she really wants to go back so we might end up moving there together.


Do you have a favourite group of learners (i.e. children)?

I don’t think I have enough experience to know that yet. So far I have only taught adults during the CELTA and I thought that was great but I’m open to anything. I’m up for teaching adults and children in Asia, from my own experience in Asia and from people I know, the Asian students are very respectful of their teachers and work hard. Very different from teenagers in the Netherlands for example (in my own experience).


Are you considering teaching business English in the future? With your background you will have a lot of advantages.

Yes, I definitely am! I remember Helen’s input session on business English from the CELTA and I immediately thought that would be a good idea. From what I’ve heard it pays relatively well and there is a lot of demand for it in Asia as well. I’ve worked in several companies in the financial sector, one of them was an American company (Aon) and I think I have a general sense of how things work in companies like that so that might help me get into that line of work.


In your education/work in the business field, did you encounter any situations in which language played a particular role (eg as a barrier, as a lingua franca, or as something that needed to be taught)?

During my time at Aon, I was working for an American company in the Netherlands, so the language on the floor was Dutch but if you wanted to take part in international meetings or grow further in the company your English had to be good. I guess in that sense it was an opportunity for growth. If you spoke English well and you were aware of all the terminology, you could get higher positions in the company.


It has been argued that a difference between ‘business’ and ‘general’ communication is that business English doesn’t need to be as grammatically ‘correct’ – the emphasis is solely on successful business communication. What are your thoughts on this?

I think I agree with that, up to a certain point of course. You can’t send around messages with horrible grammar to your manager or executives just because your business idea is so good. If you have a good manager though, they will recognize that and put you in a business English course.

From my experience, the most important things were speed and understanding. Be short and concise in your messages, make sure everything that needs to be said is said and nothing more. If you make sure the other person, whether it be your manager or a C-level executive, knows exactly what you are saying and you can get that message across quickly, you’re doing well. This also means that you need to be aware of the terminology in the field.


Is English an additional language for you? How did you learn it – did you have any memorable teachers or interests that helped motivate you?

Yes it is, my first language is Dutch. I started learning English at a young age, I think about 10 years old, at school but even before that I learned just from watching television and listening to music. A lot of interests helped motivate me. I guess the main interest was just language itself, I always loved to read and listen to music and when I got older, English books and English music became way more interesting than all the Dutch stuff. During high school me and my friends also started playing a lot of video games and then you start to make friends online from other countries and play together with them. That also improved my English a lot. By the time I got to university almost everything was in English so I think I had a solid foundation to build on.


How have you found the search for temporary work in Berlin? It can be quite a tough field for new teachers here!

Actually, through the help of several ELTABB members, especially Kit (Aww shucks! – Ed.), I got an interview with Nativa Akademie and they wanted to hire me! I was very new to the field however and I was not completely sure what I was getting into, in terms of freelance work and registering with the tax office etcetera etcetera. I thought about it for a bit but then decided not to work here in Berlin. I will only be here until September and then I would have to register for a Steuernummer and go through a whole bureaucratic process just to work here for two months, and then go through the whole process of deregistering again in September. Luckily I’m in the position that I have saved up money from working so I don’t have to do that. Instead I decided to take up an intensive German course, so now I’m having German classes everyday which I am enjoying a lot; I’m getting to know a lot of people here as well, which was one of the things I was looking forward to when moving here.


A twist on the formula – as a new teacher, do you have any questions you would like to ask our more experienced members?


So many! What is the perfect temperature for serving soup? (Just a bit too hot – Ed.)

Here’s a few I can think of from the top of my head:

– Have you noticed a change in your own style of teaching from when you just started out to now? What were some of the mistakes you made earlier that you don’t make as much anymore now?

– What is something you struggle with as an experienced teacher, even after all these years?

– What made you fall in love with teaching in the first place?

– Can you remember a really good lesson you had as a student (or child or whenever)? What was it about and what made it so good?

– Lastly I just want to thank you all for being teachers 🙂 I think it’s a really great thing you are doing, helping people learn something they want to learn and guiding them throughout that whole process, bringing out the best in them. Maybe sometimes even things they didn’t know they were capable of. At the end of the day I feel like we are all in this together and teachers are so important in making people feel that it’s OK to make mistakes, you don’t have to know everything and there is something to learn from everyone. And I think the classroom is the ideal place for that.