Tom Heaven, Picture

ELTABBer of the Month – Tom Heaven

Due to  [NOTE TO SELF – think of a good excuse here before publication], the ELTABBer-of-the-Month interview for October is in a fight-to-the-death with its deadline. To help it out, I have skipped the normal time-consuming procedure of posting a  biography and call for questions on the ELTABB forums.

Here is the biography I would have posted, in a perfect world:

Tom Heaven

I teach English in Berlin at a Volkshochschule for adult students and a university for law students. I hold language teaching qualifications for English (DELTA) and German (Goethe Institut). I hold an LLB in Law and German as well as an MA in Histories of Art and Design.

I have spoken at various online and offline TEFL conferences.



Tom is also responsible for the brilliant-sounding ‘Law Jaw’ workshop/lesson, which connects students from around the world to learn English through discussing their specialist subject. Read all about that over on the ELTABB Journal!

How long have you lived in Germany – and how long in Berlin?
Well, I lived in Trier, the birthplace of Karl Marx and Guildo Horn , for a year as a student and studied the intricacies of German civil law there, among other things. But I’d already fallen in love with Berlin and so moved here 10 years ago (without much of a plan).


You have snazzy and varied qualifications, have you ever worked in a different field than English teaching?
I’d driven vans round West Wales, worked with young unaccompanied refugees and overseen copyright at Birmingham’s (UK) main museum before I moved to Berlin.


I’ll get around to achieving multiple LLBs, teaching-qualifications in other languages and an MA one day… But until then… what, in your opinion, is the most useful qualification to have as an English teacher?
For starters, I’d say a CELTA or something similar. It’s a qualification that I don’t have, but it would have helped a lot when I started teaching. I had to play catch up. Joining ELTABB and listening to other teachers talk about their work helped me realise that, yes, teaching English is a real job and that you can strive to do that job well and that can be really rewarding. Completing the DELTA was really important for me – it’s a slog, so you shouldn’t decide to do it on a whim. But I now feel more confident about my teaching and can take more pride in my work.

Part of the problem is the industry that we work in. Teaching agencies can and do take native speakers on without teaching qualifications and then pay them poorly. In that situation it’s difficult for teachers to find the time, motivation and money to pay for teaching qualifications.


I’m possibly taking a job in a Volkshochschule (VHS) next year. What exactly is a Volkshochschule? Is it like a community college?
The VHS is like a community college. It’s run by the state and there’s one for each of the 12 boroughs of Berlin. You can learn English there or a load of other languages. If you want to get your German up to scratch with some good, but reasonably priced intensive
language classes, it’s the place to go. And then there’s a load of other courses from Pilates to painting to mushroom picking. Interestingly for language teachers, they pay increasingly well and the conditions are improving.


Are your students in the VHS and university of similar levels? What are the differences that distinguish the groups?

University students are generally younger than VHS students. The VHS students have chosen to take courses, whereas often the university students haven’t. Kids going to university nowadays usually have a very decent level of English – B2 upwards – whereas the VHS students are at different levels and so are sorted into groups depending on their levels. Some VHS students are learning for fun, some for social reasons, some for work or study. It makes for an interesting mix of people and courses. I’ve taught all sorts there, from A1 to a reading group with stories from Berlin. I also do the advice sessions at VHS Tempelhof-Schöneberg. Part of my job is to make sure that students find a group that meets their needs.


What’s the biggest challenge about teaching Legal English?
It really depends on what aspects of Legal English you teach. If you think about Legal English as a variety of English for Specific Purposes, you have to assess the needs of the students. Most of my students won’t need to be proficient enough in English to write contracts or draft legislation. They might need to be able to read and understand contracts and legislation though, so they need to know how to break down long sentences into noun phrases, for example, or know how to successfully use online tools to better understand the meaning of words and phrases in such legal texts. Or students might also need to know how to talk to a client when they meet them for the first time. Perhaps identifying those various needs and finding a good range of approaches to meet those needs are the biggest challenges.


The first incarnation of ‘Law Jaw’ was ‘Lesson Jam’? Can you tell us what this was about?
Law Jaw and Lesson Jamming are a bit different. Lesson Jamming was about bringing teachers together to work on lesson planning and to swap ideas. Law Jaw is about bringing students together to talk about law in English… but you could apply it to other subjects or common interests as well.

On a more abstract level, what they share is that it is the participants who generate most of the content for the sessions and that, through collaboration, teaching and learning become more fun and rewarding. Teachers are brought out of the isolation of freelance work contracts in the case of Lesson Jamming; students are given the chance to chat with international peers (after 18 months of travel restrictions) in the case of Jaw. But Jaw isn’t just about the students. If you organise one, you’ll have to get in touch and work with an international colleague. I found that hugely rewarding!

How could teachers use the principles behind ‘Law Jaw’ for their students?
Generally, make the most of the opportunities that online teaching offers up. There are a lot of downsides for sure, but through video conference platforms such as Zoom or BigBlueButton, you can bring other English speakers into your virtual classrooms and get your students talking. Suddenly your students realise that it’s show time, that it’s time to sit up straight and show off their English skills! There’s the cultural exchange that is involved in the conversations and there’s also the possibility of integrating other tasks in the build up to the exchange, such as swapping emails or making contact on social media or recording short video presentations.


How do you create such eye-catching graphics? [For examples, see that article on the ELTABB Journal!]
They’re my own! Old-fashioned pen and paper then some very basic editing software with a simple drawing pad.

What topics did you speak about at the conferences?

I spoke about lesson jamming. To begin with I talked about the classroom-based version and then I met Maha Hassan from Cairo at IATEFL and we put on the first online lesson jam. That was great fun! It’s important to tell other teachers when you do good stuff in the classroom. Of course this helps other teachers, but then perhaps their questions or feedback can help you develop your ideas further.