Interview with ELTABBer of the month: Robert Kirstein


How and why did you get into teaching?

Funnily enough, I’d never wanted to be a teacher as I come from a family of teachers. That’s why I I chose to do a Master’s degree at Potsdam University majoring in English linguistics, choosing Political Science and Political Economy as minor subjects. My idea back then was to go into journalism. Well, that failed for a number of reasons but mainly because I didn’t feel passionate about that kind of work. However, I did start teaching at the VHS Teltow Fläming in 2003. At first, I saw this as a way to combine what I really do feel passionate about (languages) with making a little money. From the first group that I had, I felt this was a very rewarding job. I liked teaching adults and the fact that they were motivated and interested. On top of that, I could make use of the things I’d done at university. When I went to Canada in 2004/05 to do my Master’s in English sociolinguistics, my mind had been made up. Upon my return, I wanted to explore a career in teaching. Once I was in that space of mind, it was rather easy and one thing led to another… teaching adults at the VHS, teaching company courses and face to face classes, writing materials and giving teacher training workshops and seminars.

How have you benefitted from being a member of ELTABB?

Mainly by being able to attend workshops free of charge and having the chance to network. That’s what I really like most about ELTABB. For freelance teachers, things can be quite lonely sometimes, especially if you wanted to discuss, get suggestions or feedback on ideas for new things etc. Though I’ve never had the chance to attend one of the Stammtisch-events, I’d really love to do that some time.

I understand that you have a wide selection of coursebooks. What’s the favourite coursebook in your library?

I don’t really have a favourite. There are many good materials and each of them has its advantages and disadvantages. I think the decision for one or the other depends on a lot of things, such as learning goals, group size, level of learners’ English, own teaching style etc. Naturally, I work a lot with the Great! course book series but I do use materials and books by other publishers as well. For instance, I love ‘World and Press’ as well as ‘World and Press Business’ by Carl Ed. Schünemann KG, Bremen. These are bimonthly and monthly papers with all their contents from English ‘speaking’ papers edited and annotated with vocabulary, so they are suitable for B1 to C2 learners. This is an invaluable source for all kinds of courses but mostly for my conversation and various business classes. Maybe ELTABB was interested in inviting its members for some kind of “conversation class” workshop. I’d be happy to share my experience.

Who inspires you and your teaching practice?

I think my greatest inspiration have been my university lecturers and professors. While there wasn’t one person in particular, there were a few I admired for different things like their ‘edutaining’ teaching style, their ability to boil down complex matters to their essence using everyday language, their open and outgoing personality or for their encouraging nature, especially if one was a little self-conscious about one’s own competencies. I think I’d like for my students to see me that way, too.

I’ve used your book ‘Great!’ with adults at A1 – A2 level. It has a distinctly different approach to other coursebooks. Can you tell us more about this and why you decided to use this ‘approach’?

Developing and writing the Great! coursebooks, we decided to center each unit around a clearly defined communicative goal until we had a catalogue of such goals. Then we defined the language needed to achieve these goals. This is our ‘goal-based lexical approach’ meaning that grammar is only really introduced and practiced in as far as it’s really needed for any particular communicative goal. In the end, we all wanted a coursebook that lives up to the promise of an English course book making you a communicatively competent English user.

When choosing a coursebook to use with students, what should we be looking for?

That depends on your students, their levels, goals and interests and on knowing the structure and underlying methodology of the coursebooks available.

What’s your definition of a good coursebook?

Generally, I don’t like coursebooks that are (over)loaded with different colours, fonts, boxes, illustrations and pictures, and texts. I also believe that authenticity shouldn’t just be a buzzword but should be the basis for any teaching material. Needless to say, the materials, tasks photos etc. in coursebooks must be relevant to our learners. That being said, I like working with books that have an ‘airy’ feel when I open them at any random page. They should provide enough space and opportunity for me as a teacher to expand on things here and there, feed in my own ideas (and materials). I do feel that we’ve been very successful with our Great! series in that arena.

If someone wants to have a career writing material for coursebooks, what advice would you give?

I don’t really know. I think one of the things is to be at the right place at the right time talking to the right people. That’s what it was like for me. I haven’t actively pushed for that part of my career to materialize though I’ve always been open to it; it just happened. At the same time, I’ve met a lot of writers who have made the conscious decision to pursue a career in writing at some point and then applied to various publishers for different projects time and again. So, I guess perseverance is important. It can be frustrating getting one’s ideas and materials rejected. That happened to me too. A lot!

You have a very impressive and funky website, has it been a lucrative investment and what advice would you give to anyone looking to get their own website?

It’s been good to have this page and I would advise anyone thinking about it to be generous budget-wise. Has it been a lucrative investment? I’m not entirely sure. It certainly has with respect to being my digital business card. Well, there have been quite a few students (especially the well paying ‘I’d like to have a face to face course’ kind of student) who have told me at some point in their course that they’d checked out my page prior to working with me. However, I haven’t really had anyone writing to me via my page saying ‘Oh, what a great page! Come and work for me. Here’s a bucket full of money!’ I think that competition can be fierce and through word-of-mouth has really been the most successful way (for me) to get jobs, I’m convinced a professional presentation of yourself online is key.

Who would you like to nominate as ELTABBer of the month for August?

I don’t really know but now that I’m thinking about it… How about Sabrina Bechler? She organizes the Stammtisch-Meetings and I’d meant to go so often but always couldn’t (so far at least). I think any ELTABB person working for the organization should be nominated as a way of all of us members to say: ‘Thank you’! You do all this work and people might tend to take it for granted… Well, that’s not so! So, Thank you and make her the next ELTABBer of the month, and then you yourself!

Edited by Mandy Welfare