Eltabber of the month: Robert Nisbet

September 3, 2018

1. Question from Sarah: What advice would you give to a new freelance teacher breaking away from language schools and finding their own clients? Also what advice would you give to people wanting to change their career and become a freelance English teacher?

If you’re looking to find your own clients, I’d recommend setting up a good quality website with a professional photo and using Google Ads to get it noticed. Use the website to tell your potential clients who you are, what your background is and what you offer. It’s not the only route but one that I’ve found works. Describe your experience but don’t limit your offer too much – it’s often a surprise who actually contacts you.

If you’re changing career and becoming a freelance teacher, I would recommend initially doing as much research as you can and talking to as many people as you can, in order to find our how the industry works, where you might fit into it and what you might earn. Then, depending on your existing experience, do an initial training course such as the CELTA course and join a supportive organisation such as ELTABB!

2. What are the differences between being an architect and an English teacher?

There are many different ways of doing both jobs. Having said that, I think the biggest difference between the two fields is the much smaller number of statutory laws, rules and regulations governing English Language Teaching. In my experience, you’re also more free to follow your own path as a teacher, to experiment and test things and use your creativity within your day to day work. Alongside sometimes being very enjoyable and rewarding, the construction industry can be pressurized, risk averse and bureaucratic, all of which reduce your scope for experimentation. I was used to working on very large, long-duration construction projects with a great number of consultants and client figures, so it’s very refreshing to have a direct relationship with my clients and to get rapid feedback as to what works for them. Language teaching also gives you and your students more opportunities to stop and remark on life experiences.

3. How important is it for a teacher to have previous experience in the industry in which they are teaching English?

It’s definitely very helpful as you can go into a lot of detail with your clients very quickly and you understand where they’re coming from. It can save you a lot of time and can help to build trust at the beginning of a relationship. Clients are sometimes interested to hear about your experience of how things work in their industry in another country, and such comparisons can be a useful conversation topic. That said, I don’t think it’s essential as there are general principles applicable to most industries and you can obviously do the research and learn. I think the most important thing is that you have an interest in the work that your clients are doing, otherwise lessons can be a hard slog!

4. What does your (previous) experience as an architect bring to your teaching?

Probably much more than I consciously realise! I was lucky to be able to closely observe how directors and partners in my previous firm managed the ups and downs of client relationships, and how they responded to client requests, and this has held me in good stead. Communication, both face-to-face and over email plays a huge part in construction, so when teaching Business English it’s been very useful to have first hand experience of how misunderstandings can creep in, or of how using the wrong tone can upset a meeting or a relationship.

5. Any general advice to someone trying to bridge their former career with their current ELT work?

Be open about your experience and what you can offer, but also be flexible regarding the kind of work you will take on. In the end it comes down to the market – the people who need your skills and experience may not be exactly the ones you expect on day one. You can target certain clients directly but I’ve found having a website and letting them find you has brought in most of my work, together with some lucky personal contacts in the industry.

6. Do you find your clients want to focus on technical language or more general business communication?

My clients in the construction industry tend to need both, depending on an individual’s role, level of knowledge and the particular needs of a project. It’s nice to be able to work on both, it keeps things interesting.

7. Our industry is quite special in that teachers range from novice CELTA trainees to veteran trainers. What is your view of professionalism in the freelance ELT industry?

In terms of training and examination requirements, ELT is a much easier profession to enter than say architecture, requiring less experience and training. As a result, teaching standards probably do vary a lot. However, what I notice when I go to ELTABB events and speak to other teachers is how much attention the ELT industry pays to how teaching is done, determining goals, designing courses and writing lesson plans etc. A lot of focus is put into the process and how to achieve results, and as long as this is not followed too dogmatically I think that’s a great strength. When teaching Business English to people who are in work, you’re very connected to your ‘end-users’ and their needs which is not always the case in other professions such as architecture. You can therefore respond to their needs in a very direct and personal way. If being professional is meeting people’s needs in the best way possible then I think the ELT industry is capable of doing this very well. I’m sure there’s scope to raise the level of teaching quality throughout the industry. How to do that is probably for another day!

8. How has being a German learner impacted your English teaching?

Firstly it’s obviously good to know something of your learners’ L1 as it just transforms how you can relate to them and help them, and also spot why they’re making certain mistakes. The fact that I’m going through the process of learning a second language is also useful due to the insight it gives me. For example, I’ve realised how you need to practise as much as possible, have some real-world success with the language and keep it alive in your mind through speaking, reading, writing, listening etc. These are all things I can share with my students. It also brings me closer to some students as they realise I’m going through something of what they’re going through.

9. How has being on the ELTABB board helped you develop personally and/or professionally?

It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve got to know a great bunch of people. I’d never worked with a professional organisation or as a volunteer before, so it’s been an interesting eye-opener to see how a group such as the ELTABB board functions day to day. It also provides a great insight into the breadth of the ELT world in Berlin and Brandenburg. Like any group activity, it tests your communication skills and forces you to see things from others’ points of view, so it’s been very useful and satisfying.

10. Who would you like to nominate as Eltabber of the month and what question would you like to ask them?

I’d like to nominate Phoebe Blackburn and I’d like to ask her how doing her Neurolanguage Coach training has changed the way she teaches English.

Edited by Mandy Welfare