Then and now - 25 years of German Tuition

by Barbara Classen

How we worked then and how we work now

I arrived in London in 1993 with the aim to work in my desired field within the book trade: literary agency, scouting, foreign rights. After two years of precarious jobs starting as a German tutor was in my eyes not a very glamourous decision to either make it in London or go home.

25 years ago there was an abundance of office/classroom space. Half of my team still remembers fondly our beautiful attic near Old Street. Our initial rent was GBP 200 a month and the contract was a 2-page “license”. Now we pay six times as much for half the space. The contract is a 70 (!) pages lease. Please don't ask me about the solicitor's cost to get this document checked when we moved to Temple Chambers in 2011.

25 years ago I painted our classroom myself and bartered German lessons for electrical work. Now we can afford a decorator.

25 years ago we had enough space to run a German Film and Conversation Club on a bulky telly, first with VHS cassettes and later with DVDs. We had drinks, salmon sandwiches, fun, and only one rule: No English allowed on that night. My strong believe then and now: full immersion if one of the keys to learning a foreign language.

25 years ago we had lots of groups and lots of levels every evening, and a Friday morning breakfast conversation group with croissants bought by me at the Brick Lane Bagel Shop as I lived next door to it back then. Now we still love working with groups, but our main work is one-to-one. It has become increasingly difficult to find 3-5 people with the same level of German and willing to commit to 7.45 pm on Wednesdays. Has the world become more individualistic?

25 years ago we had a proper blackboard, now we have a whiteboard. However, since March we have used a shared screen for our classes.

25 years ago we introduced a German Tuition Module system based on a textbook called "Themen". I will never forget the smoking hitchhiker in Chapter 1 asking: "Hallo, hast du Feuer?". Hitchhiking is illegal now in many countries and modern textbooks are full of "working nomads", sitting with their tablets in beautiful landscapes...Are they really working? Approximately 25 years ago the European Framework of Languages (A1-C2) was introduced and it remains a powerful tool for structuring classes, and measuring progress. Students feel empowered by climbing the steps one by one, some of them sitting the exams (Zertifikat A1-C2) which gives them something to show to themselves and potential new employers.

25 years ago the Yellow Pages, the Business Pages, Time Out, and the Big Issue were places for advertising. And of course, a good flyer was important. I put them up in local libraries and shops. One lonely afternoon I walked up and down most streets between Shoreditch High Street and Liverpool Street station, knocked at the door of offices, told people about my work, and left a flyer. I was rewarded! As a result of doing this around 100 times, I found our first corporate client called COLT communications. Today nothing is more important than a good website and being high up on Google. We were early to have a website in 1998 but late in embracing Social Media. I really only started to use Facebook since lockdown. And as I don't do anything in half measures I started to post a daily clip on German vocabulary.

25 years ago no one knew us and now we get a large chunk of our work, private and corporate, by word of mouth.

25 years ago talking to (potential) clients on the phone was usually the first step and remains important to me today. Email is good, but talking on the phone or in a video conference is much better in order to brainstorm German language training solutions.

25 years ago I started on my own. Now we are nine and most of us have worked together for many many years. Only two people of the oldest team pic I could find (2009) have left the team, and more wonderful tutors have joined and stayed since. I will dedicate another article to all of them soon. Equally loyal have our students been, some of them staying for years, even decades, and becoming family. These wonderful people, colleagues, and students have kept me going for 25 years. A big thank you to all of them.

On a final note: Do you remember the times before the internet? Any other "then and now" story to share? I look forward to reading/hearing yours... And of course, for any German language training needs let's arrange a first chat on the phone!


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