Teachers Talking Shop: Make the Most of Being a Freelancer in Germany with these Insider Tips

in Professional Development

Being a freelance English teacher or trainer in Germany has its ups and downs. Shaun Trezise shares his tips on how to navigate and circumvent some of these. He also explains how you can have the best of both worlds – freelancing and permanent employment at the same time.

Teaching is – or should be – fun. New people, new conversations, new classes and even long-running ones that have stood the test of time…all of these lend a lot of variety to our day to day work lives. When it comes to the actual teaching I think most people reading this blog are pretty happy with their lot.

It’s a good job. But is it really a “job”? How many of us are employed by someone other than ourselves? I have to admit this is deeply unscientific but anecdotally it seems that in Berlin today, most English as a Foreign Language teachers are self-employed. Now is this through choice?

The Dreaded Red Tape

In some countries, working for yourself can mean lower tax bills and lower health insurance costs but I think most would agree that Germany is an outlier here. The German Pension Insurance office has hit too many English teachers here with large bills of two, three or four years of backdated payments to catch up on.

No holiday pay, no sick pay and limited government support in general if you end up with no clients for whatever reason. Not to mention the difficulty in tracking down a reliable tax advisor, which took me personally over two years.

Naturally, as educated, professional and informed workers, most of you know the pitfalls and costs and price your worth accordingly, but I’ll be honest and say I learned most of it the hard way. The three things that helped me the most, as a worker were:

  1. Getting a reliable tax advisor, who knows how to use email
  2. Joining a union, in my case GEW, for support, info and some specific employment insurances
  3. Signing up to a workers’ cooperative for invoicing, payment guarantees and no more letters from the myriad German state insurances

The third point is the most recent, but I wish I had done it so much earlier. Last year was eventful to put it mildly, and my monthly income varied wildly. Trying to pay the correct amount to each office took time, effort and multiple phone calls, not to mention written correspondence. I did not particularly enjoy this period…

Becoming a Freelance Employee: Joining a Cooperative

…Then I remembered a talk given at an earlier ELTABB event from SmartDE, a workers’ cooperative. I booked an appointment and headed off to a seminar, before deciding that I thought it would be a good fit for me. Essentially, the cooperative employ you, and pay you based on your invoices.

In this case, you get a regular monthly salary, minus all your deductions for health, pension, social security etc. It means that the money that shows up in your bank account is yours to keep, and you don’t have to worry about who needs paying and when. They even manage your income tax.

Clearly there must be a catch. In this case that is a 7% fee to the non-profit organisation which essentially goes to keeping the lights on and everything running. It also funds your salary, in the case of late payment of invoices. They invoice your clients for you, and pay you at the end of the month regardless of whether the client has come through in time.

So what do you think? I’d like to hear about your experiences as a worker in ELT. Are you employed or self employed? Is that your choice? Would you change if you had the choice? Do you have any other suggestions for dealing with red tape and general work life as a teacher? Please feel free to leave a comment below if you have anything to add!

Also, you can find some more Berlin-specific tips for English teachers here.

Shaun Trezise

A Berlin based corporate English trainer who has been working in Germany for the past eight years. Freelance for a long time, I have just recently been employed by a language based non-profit. Writing about English related topics in a variety of places but most of it ends up at www.englishonline.training


  1. Interesting, thanks! A good reminder that I need to join a union.

    I can second the risks of German pension insurance (two year’s back payments here, as well as a Hell of a lot of trouble even getting them to calculate the correct sum I owe them).

    Thankfully, Smart are dealing with that from now on, so another recommendation for them!
    Also, Smart get a discount on your health insurance/pension contributions. This is particularly useful for lower-earners. When I first joined, although I was paying a 7% fee I was saving 100€ a month on my health insurance & pension.

  2. Thanks for this article, Shaun and ELTABB Journal!!

    This van be helpful for the newcomers to Berlin, maybe there is a list of the articles that could helpful to those teachers who recently relocated to Germany?

  3. Hello! I didn’t know about it! I would say, let‘s talk over a coffee… but we can‘t, I will do some research and I am sure I will have questions!

  4. Hi Shaun

    This is such a helpful post, thank you! Just a question: it would seem as if joining the GEW could make the services of a tax advisor redundant. Could please confirm that this is not the case?

    And, because I rather feel that the answer is going to be in the negative, would you be so kind as to contact me offline for a recommendation?

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