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Zeitreise: Living in Berlin as an English Teacher in the 90s

in Berlin/History
Photo: Sandra Roggenkamp

What was life like in post-wall Berlin for an English teacher from abroad, in a time before the internet and social media? How have things changed since then? Does British politeness go with Berliner Schnauze? Paul has the answers.

It’s a crisp winter evening, and I’m meeting Paul Hewitson at Café Bleibtreu near Savignyplatz, where he hosts his weekly English Stammtisch. He’s a bubbly, cheerful guy in his 60s. When I asked him for an interview about the old Berlin for the history section, he immediately said yes. Actually, what he said was, “Old? I can do old!”

So we take a dive back in time, as he paints a picture in front of my eyes. How he came to Berlin with his wife in 1990, just one year after the wall came down. That he stayed for two years, living in the East, but working in both parts of the city, mainly near Ku’damm. About his students from East Berlin, who were incredibly sociable and great writers – but terrible at pronunciation, due to a lack of exposure to British radio and television.

And how things had changed when he came back after spending 14 years in other parts of Germany and abroad. He winks, “Es war alles besser damals!” That’s such a German thing to say! His mischievous smile tells me that he doesn’t mean it, though. But it’s safe to assume that life was way different back in the 1990s.

Steady jobs instead of freelancing

For one thing, freelancing was considered the exception. Working as a teacher normally meant full-time employment, so that 80 per cent of English trainers held steady jobs at companies. That did not rule out flexibility, though. While working for Linguarama, Paul took his job with him from Düsseldorf to Stuttgart before settling down in Berlin.

He still rhapsodises about this, and I can see why. The job came with the opportunity to teach at fancy summer schools in England every year, all expenses paid for by the company, followed by rooftop dinner parties at Christmas time. The nostalgia is palpable as he wallows in memories of custom-tailored one-to-one lessons and gourmet buffets in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Meeting fellow teachers and other expats

But now, on one of the bigger questions of our time: was there social life before social media? The answer is: Yes, definitely! There was just no tweeting about it. Rather, English trainers would meet up casually after work and gather in groups to go to pubs and restaurants together. Companies actively promoted this, so that there was an established culture of after-work-socialising among teachers.

To liven things up, there was another group of expats, namely gasworkers from Northern England who had been invited by the German government to harmonise the gas systems between the East and the West. After work, they would go to Irish pubs. Maybe to meet teachers and brush up their language skills, but more probably to watch footy on telly and have a pint or two.

It would have been funny if there had been a Berlin Association of English Teachers and Gasworkers. Only that the gasworkers were done working at some point and headed back home.

Much if not all of the above had changed when Paul returned to Berlin in 2006. This time, he came without work and soon realised that full-time employment had given way to freelancing. Thus, job security had not only vanished, but taken with it the old social networks as well.

Finding ELTABB

Luckily, Paul found ELTABB and became a member. “That was a smart move! I didn’t know then how smart it was,” he laughs. He got his first job by word-of-mouth recommendation from another member, doing level tests of English on the phone for a small company. Gradually, more freelance work followed. After some time, he was put in touch with the manager of a major oil company in Schwedt. Being then hired as an in-house trainer for two full days a week turned out to be a stroke of luck, and he hasn’t looked back.

One thing Paul highlights is that his success was a two-way street. He’s always been very happy to be able to return the favours he received and support his colleagues as well. Having been part of ELTABB for twelve years now, he especially likes the regular social events and, in recent years, the increasingly younger average age of the members.

What about Berliners?

Finally, I ask him what he thinks about living in Berlin – a place that is full of notoriously grumpy Berliners. Funnily, he has never had reason to complain about the locals. That’s because he appreciates their directness. Like the taxi driver he described his destination to because he did not know the exact address. The man interrupted his empurpled soliloquy mid-sentence, muttering, “You wanna talk or you wanna go?”
Or the woman in the line at the post office replying to the lady in front of her, who had just apologised for stepping on her foot, “I still have another one.”

There is only one thing that bothers him about Berlin, he says. “The inability to queue! If I ever get into an argument, it’ll be because of queuing!”

Paul has been teaching and travelling  across three continents over the last 30 years. He loves a good story and always has one more to tell, just in case you thought you’d heard them all. You can read an interview with Paul as ELTABBer of the month here.

Find more stories from yesteryear with one of ELTABB’s first members here.

A Portrait of ELTABB Then and Now: Current Chair Meets Founder

in ELTABB/History

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.

This Is My Life: Looking Back with John O’Dwyer

in ELTABB/History
John (right) in 1986

A flashback with member of the first hour John O’Dwyer about his story with ELTABB, teaching and the often peculiar ways things turned out for him.

Early Years and Travels

I was born in a small town in West Yorkshire. At 16 I went to Leeds Technical College, then found a job at 18, bought a car, saved some money, left for Nottingham and lived near the football stadium. Then, I moved to Leicester where I bought a house, got married and worked for a trade union.

Part of the work brought me into contact with workers from India and Pakistan. I made many friends and learnt Hindi for two years. From 1976, I was allowed to move to north India to support local unions in expanding social projects, particularly for children and women, financed by the UK union movement. This work also took me into Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I returned to the UK in 1988, because my institute was closed and I became unemployed. I sold my house, got divorced and was told by two doctors that I only had two years to live and should do something new. So I registered for a course to teach English and worked for two schools in Brighton. I contacted old friends from the German union movement and was offered a two year contract to work in the library at Bremen University. After that I was surprised to still be alive and was offered a teaching position by the British Council in Madrid.

Moving to Berlin and Founding ELTABB

A university friend was the correspondent for The Independent in Berlin and invited me to visit and meet his baby daughter. I did that and he told me that the British Council was looking for teachers for a new school in Treptower Park, and he also had a friend with an empty flat in Marzahn. Two weeks later I moved into the flat and started teaching at the British Council school.

I later moved to a flat in Judith Auer Straße near to Landsberger Allee in Lichtenberg. Before that I had got to know Kristi Decke. She had moved to Berlin from Frankfurt am Main where she had been a member of the local teachers’ association. She looked for the equivalent in Berlin, but there wasn’t one. We decided to invite teachers to my flat to discuss setting up a teachers’ association based on the Frankfurter model.

Two meetings later we had registered ELTABB and that was how we started. The rest is history! I was and still am surprised at the talented people who join ELTABB and make positive contributions. It has also helped many people to expand their skills and careers. In those early days we produced a magazine and for the first edition we needed a slogan. I came up with ‘ELTABB: Teachers helping Teachers’. Simple, but it says a lot and is still true.

Current Projects

After becoming a pensioner in 2008, I was still asked to teach in mainly pensioner groups who wanted to improve English for holidays. I met some interesting people and was able to help them. I was very pleased to be contacted by the ELTABB Board to offer me Honorary Membership. Being the first member to be offered this honour, I immediately accepted. It also means I don’t have to pay annual membership!

I am a member of the SPD, Berlin Labour Party and AWO. Supporting their activities now takes up most of my time. I have also ‘adopted’ a refugee family from Afghanistan and organize support for them, such as warm clothes in winter, books for school and help with homework by using my internet connection and computer.

Looking back on my life, we can note a series of social activities to help socio-economically disadvantaged people in different countries. It is a pity that after so many years there is still so much work to be done.


Liked this story? Find out more about John here.



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