Current ELTABB chair Sherri Williams meets with founder Kristi Decke.
ELTABB chair Sherri Williams talks to Kristi Decke, who founded the association 25 years ago, about the early beginnings and the story behind it.
Kristi Decke: My name is Kristi Decke, I brought the idea of an ELTA to Berlin in 1993, when I moved here. I was a member of ELTAF in Frankfurt.
Sherri Williams: And I’m Sherri Williams. I’m the current chair of ELTABB here in 2018 and I’ve been living and working in Berlin for about 5 years now.
SW: So Kristi, what motivated you to found an ELTA in Berlin?
KD: I was a member of ELTAF and I really needed ELTAF. When I first started out teaching business English, I had no idea what I was doing and I really enjoyed the events and the teacher training and having the colleagues. I moved to Berlin with my husband who had a very demanding job with a lot of traveling. I had teenage children who were in school all day, I was on my own and had nothing to do but find teaching. I had time on my hands, so it was sort of natural that I found an ELTA.
I asked my friends who were in ELTAF if they could give me some names for an ELTA in Berlin, but was told that there wasn’t one in Berlin and that I would have to found it myself. There was a lot of support because in all the big cities – Hamburg, Munich, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Cologne – ELTA’s were up and running. These were founded in the 80’s and were actually fairly young organisations.
SW: And when did you first start getting people together in Berlin?
In 1993, when I came, I became aware of publisher events and went to them and asked the organiser if I could say a few words about an ELTA at these events. So I did that and then I passed a piece of paper around and collected about 93 names in that first year.
I was very lucky that Neil Dean (who was the representative of Cornelsen who travelled to Germany) knew me from Frankfurt and he knew what ELTAs were all over Germany. He really seriously felt that Berlin as the capital city should also have an ELTA. So he helped us to have our very first kick-off event, which was at the Swans’ from Headway, a husband and wife team, and that was a major event. Out of the 93 names, I picked a circle of people who would meet in my living room and we discussed what we were going to do as an ELTA and how we were going to organize.
SW: And then you officially incorporated and then started the organisation in 1994?
KD: Well, we had a founding meeting where the statutes were read on the 11th of December in 1993. We were very lucky that a German English teacher named Jürgen Hudag volunteered to translate the minutes of that first meeting and the statutes because we needed that in order to register ELTABB as a non-profit organisation, which we did in January 1994.
SW: How has your role of chair and founding ELTABB influenced your teaching over the years?
KD: Actually, I wasn’t the first chair, I was the first treasurer – feeling the money organisation was the most important job – and I also functioned as the membership secretary at that time, which was great because I knew everybody’s name and was at every event welcoming people.
I can’t say that ELTABB influenced my teaching directly. I never acquired any clients out of it. What ELTABB has done for me over all these many years is, if I need teachers, it’s one of the first places I look. ELTABB has remained a wonderful source, my first source, for acquiring teachers and I think what has also happened over the years is, through networking, people have been directed my way and I appreciate that.
Around the year 2000, it was mentioned that ELTABB should be run by the younger people…I’m really happy that we have so many young people who are interested in becoming members and of that pool, many have helped in organizing events and participating on the board, and let’s hope that happens for a very long time.
SW: And on the flipside to that, I think it’s very valuable to have a mix of people of all ages and all experience levels, because if it was only the young people running the organisation, then we wouldn‘t have the wealth of knowledge and experience. So it’s great when the older members can come to events and interact with the newer ones, and we have a sort of informal mentoring program going on where people are able to give back and help some people that are just getting started in their careers, because it is a lot easier when you have the advice of people who have been there and done it…mentoring has always been a part of what ELTABB does.
KD: Sherri, now how about you now being chair of ELTABB. Has that influenced your teaching in any way?
SW: I’m not sure it has influenced necessarily how I teach, that would be more the professional development side when I attend workshops and get ideas. But definitely, being on the board of ELTABB has really helped my teaching career.
So, I actually started as vice-chair 4 years ago and that was because that was the position that was needed and I was sitting at the Annual General Meeting and I had been thinking for a few months that I wanted to get involved in ELTABB, because that is the type of person that I am anyway. If I’m going to be a member, I might as well be a member and be actually active. I was on the board as vice-chair for a year and then the chair stepped down and I was invited to take over from there. And at first, I was a little bit unsure, but everyone was very supportive and the previous chair was also around for the first half a year.
I found actually that the biggest influence for me has been getting clients. I got and still get about 90% of my work from ELTABB, through the network, and it’s usually going to the events, talking to the teachers, getting to know them and then some of them say to me there’s an extra course, or teachers that I have known very well who are leaving Berlin give me their clients, that means also getting in touch with the wider ELT community.
As a board member, I go to the inter-ELTA meeting which is the meeting every year where all the different board members from around Germany get together. That’s really nice because you get to talk to them about what teaching is like in Munich or in Hamburg or in Stuttgart in these different areas and then you can expand beyond that.
When you go to conferences, if you have a role then people know you and introduce you to other people and then you get to know people from other European countries or even further abroad. And that’s just really expanded my horizons and I’ve learned a tonne, have gotten work through that and just think I have become a better trainer and also a better freelancer because of that.
KD: Sherri, ELTABB has been running for 25 years. What is ELTABB like now in 2018?
SW: So ELTABB is a very dynamic and vibrant organisation. It still is, it sounds like it was like that from the very beginning, with passionate people. In 2018, we have close to 200 members, most of them are freelance English teachers, working mostly in Berlin. We have a few people in Brandenburg, but I think the majority definitely live in the city.
We have at least one workshop per month, so we have a professional development event. Most of those, we have a speaker coming from somewhere in Europe or somewhere in Germany and we have a workshop on Saturday mornings where we get together and get some good developmental training on a certain topic. We also have coffee and networking time, that’s always important.
And every month, we have a stammtisch. I know that was something that had started early on and we’ve revived it in the past couple years and it’s still going strong. That’s a great opportunity for the members to get together and just talk shop. What we do right now is meet in different Irish Pubs around Berlin, because there are a lot of great ones. In the summer, maybe in a Biergarten, so just to enjoy the city and enjoy being here and also be able to just talk and network and socialize.
We have a lot of younger members as well, a lot of people are flocking to Berlin, as you know, and a lot of the members are either young in age or young in their careers, so they need a lot of help and support and we have been really trying to provide other services for them as well. So we have had several events where we partner with different organizations that help them: a red tape workshop a couple of times a year, where we help them get new tax numbers and health insurance questions, all the stuff you need to survive in Germany, especially as an expat or international person. Different solutions really for dealing with bureaucratic details.
SW: So Kristi, how many years were you actively organizing ELTABB and involved in the board?
KD: I was only on the board for 3 years because I was doing too much for ELTABB. I ended up in hospital with a near heartattack and that happened in November. I had handpicked my vice-chair in November 1996, and I knew that I wanted to step down as chair in ’97. In preparation for that, Wolfgang and I had set up a board meeting that would be more informal, to talk about the future of ELTABB, and I envisioned that we put on a wall everything that ELTABB was offering and through that it was noted that my name was beside a lot of the tasks.
I didn’t know at the time that it had taken Frankfurt 10 years to build up their different activities and what they were offering, the monthly events, the newsletter, which are sort of mainstays. So I thought, okay, we are going to have an ELTA, we need to have that in our first year. I got that up and running and found people to do these different jobs, and I had a hard time getting enough people to do this. At the beginning, we had no money, so we met at the British Council, which was great, for free, but they closed at one point. We were meeting at VHS’s, there was no coffee so I brought the coffee in two big thermos and cups and organized.
Later, in 2012, I was events coordinator because no one wanted the job and I happened to be at the AGM. I took it on because it is a mainstay, you have to have events. Evan was also instrumental in getting the internet for organizing purposes, he extended that there were a lot more people involved in these different areas. That needed to be done. My management was a bit too autocratic. That (getting sent to the hospital) was actually a blessing in disguise…because it forced people to realize that if they wanted the organization, they were going to have to come forward and do something for the organization.
SW: So when you look back on it, what would you say is the accomplishment that you’re most proud of?
KD: That it still exists (laughter)…and you’re sitting here talking to me. It’s fantastic! Absolutely fantastic.
This interview was transcribed by Barbara Goulet and edited by Sandra Roggenkamp.