ELTABBer of the Month: Tia Robinson

Contact: tia.robinson@expath.de

Website: www.expath.de


  • For you as an expat living in German society, what do you love most and what’s been the hardest thing to adapt to?

As an American, I love the German social system and the fact that, while I pay a lot of taxes, if I get seriously ill I won’t lose my job, health insurance, home, and savings. Now that I have a child, I also appreciate that she has almost-free childcare and education. I also love Berlin in particular because it is so international, colorful and accepting of many different lifestyles. 

The hardest thing to adapt to is the German mentality you see sometimes of sticking to the rules and not thinking outside the box or being proactive – I hate being told “That’s not my job” or *shrug* “That’s just how it is, I can’t do anything about it.” I also miss stores being open on Sunday, even after 12 years of living here. 

  • If there’s one piece of advice you’d give to anyone moving to Berlin, what would it be?

Do your research and make a thorough list of all the things you will have to do before you move, and come with at least six months of savings. 

  • You’re an expert at helping people learn what they need to settle down in Berlin, but is there anything that expats who’ve been here for a while need to know or remember?

Stay on top of taxes and pension, and keep doing research until you think you understand how it all works, especially if you are on a work permit. For example, many freelance teachers don’t pay into the Rentenversicherung (pension) which is mandatory, and this can come back to bite you five years down the road when you want to apply for permanent residency. 

  • When you founded Expath back in 2012, did you have a clear plan for what it would become, or has it grown organically? Is there any guiding philosophy or idea you’ve kept in mind as the business has expanded?

It has grown organically into something we are quite surprised and happy about – today we are not just a German language school with two locations, but also a full-service relocation company doing immigration and relocation on behalf of many Berlin companies. We’re still helping many individuals with bureaucracy like work permits as well. 

Although now we work with as many companies as we do individuals, we have always stuck to our main mission: To help expats settle in and find their place. 

  • What have been the challenges and benefits of running your own school?

Finding enough (good) German teachers has always been a problem. That’s why we are happy we can train our own. We work with experienced German teachers as well as those who have never taught German before, and we provide them with full teacher training and pedagogical support as they get started. Luckily my business partner Stephan Brenner and I both have many years of experience doing teacher training, and we always say that as long as we can train our own teachers we should be able to have a steady supply.

Now that we have 80+ freelancers and 13 employees on the team, things like checking invoices, paying freelancers, dealing with contracts, managing our taxes, ensuring our GDPR compliance, etc. takes up a crazy amount of time. It takes five of us to manage the school: me, my business partner, our Finance & Operations manager Alexis, our Language School Manager Rosa and our Teacher Trainer Andre! 

  • You’re an experienced teacher and you now employ freelance language teachers. What is the biggest mistake freelance language teachers make?

Not taking the tax and pension stuff seriously and not treating themselves as a business. Over the years we have seen freelancers with a 3000€ tax bill at the end of the year, those having to make five years of back payments to the pension authorities, etc. – I think sometimes because they did not take researching their obligations seriously. Or, I know a freelance teacher who once just didn’t file taxes for four years because they thought they would just wait until someone said something… and then, of course, the authorities caught up to them. It’s Germany, the authorities will always catch up with you in the end. In my experience, if you honestly didn’t know better and you try to fix mistakes or problems as soon as you notice you weren’t doing something correctly, they are much more patient and understanding.

Note: I am leading the Red Tape workshop for ELTABB on March 27th so save the date – it covers taxes, finances and pension for freelance teachers and will explain all the basics in a really clear way. 

  • What does a typical work day look like for you? And/or what’s your favorite part of your job?

Well first of all, I never teach English any longer although I am still happily an ELTABB member. No day looks the same for me. Usually my first task is checking my emails for anything crazy that came in overnight, then updating my To Do list of what five things urgently must get done today and five things I urgently have to do tomorrow – then everything else can wait. I work hard to build in time for larger projects like writing a new online workshop or creating our internal handbook. Since it is my company, I do tons of unsexy things like auditing our contracts, managing our employee payroll, writing data privacy agreements for new company clients, replacing broken toilet seats, etc.

What I really love to do is networking – I’ve joined a women business owner network this year, and I’m attending relocation industry conferences and other events. And I love offering a full-time job and signing the contract with a new employee, that is one of the best feelings in the world.  

  • Do you have any professional development goals for yourself over the next year or a new direction in which you’d like to see Expath grow?

I am giving myself a ‘mini-MBA’ this year (a week-long program in Barcelona in March), so I can better understand the financial and business operations side of managing Expath. I have managed the pedagogical and practical operations side of things for a long time, but I want to understand how to make a balance sheet really speak to me so I can use it to make bigger decisions on things like how to set our prices, where we are making money or just breaking even, etc.

And Expath plans to open a German school in Hamburg in 2020, and hopefully expand to another EU country in 2021 – but that is still in early planning stages. 

  • Question from Sherri: How has your career developed, and what were the key catalysts for getting you to where you are today? Is there anything you would have changed if you had it to do over again?

My main career goal was to be a full-time language school manager and I had done that after my 1st year in Berlin (2008). In 2012 I took a job managing the Course Management and Teacher Recruiting teams at a large online school because I knew that I was strong in pedagogical topics, but weaker at the daily operations of a large-scale school, and I wanted to learn that really well, too. That was the same year I started Expath, which I did on evenings and weekends until 2015 as we built Expath up to the point where I could do just Expath full-time.

The main catalyst for starting Expath was my own experience in my 1st year in Berlin, trying and failing to get a work permit with a part-time job offer at Wall Street and then starting up as a freelancer when that didn’t work. It was a rough year and I used up most of my savings before I started earning money. Nobody could answer any questions I had about anything like work permits, taxes, etc. and I had to make tons of mistakes on my own to figure it out over the years. So, I am very proud that I could help found a company to help solve those problems for others.

There are many small and silly mistakes Expath has made over the years, even though we always try our best to research things and we have an excellent tax advisor! Some things you just have to learn by doing – I can’t really say I would do it differently because we’ve always done the best we could do at any given point. I don’t mind admitting that we definitely still make mistakes, which I think is fine because we also definitely learn from them!   

  • Who would you like to nominate as ELTABBer of the month and what question would you like to ask them?

I’d like to nominate Sandra Roggenkamp and ask her what she sees as the biggest challenge of working in teaching in Berlin, and what solution or change she would like to see (in an ideal world). 

Edited by Stephanie Anderson