Interview with Maggie Josef, Osnabrück, Germany

This interview was made a couple of years ago for the CETEFL group of which I am joint-owner and moderator. Maggie is a personal friend..

I met Maggie again  last week (August 2005) and  she readily gave her permission for the interview to be posted to EFLTU. She reports that business is going very well - they still don't need to advertise -  and they require more trainers.

I thought and hope the list would find an interview with a private language school owner not uninteresting.

Maggie's firm deals almost exclusively with in-firm teaching.    



Interview with Maggie Josef, Osnabrück, Germany.    

DJN: Maggie, tell me the size and make-up of your company and what it does.  

Maggie: It's owned by two people, myself and another partner, Hans-Jürgen, and although we do a little translation and interpreting and teaching of other subjects, including German, about 85% of our business is the teaching of English - English with a business bias. All of our teaching is in-company, Mohamed goes to the mountain. We have 28 clients, mostly companies, and about the same number of trainers.  

DJN: How do you get contracts? Do you advertise?  

Maggie. No. There are no advertising spots . We are not even in the yellow pages. We rely totally on personal recommendation. We seem to be doing something right. Our turnover has increased year by year. Osnabrück has a population of 160,00. All the firms know each other and they just pass the word around. But one thing is important: we never say no to a request.  

DJN: But your clients don't come solely from Osnabrück, do they?  

Maggie: No. We travel to clients up to 60 kilometres away.  

DJN: How long has your company been running?   Maggie: In effect it has been running since 1989 and some of the companies we started with are still on our books.  

DJN: Do your trainers have fixed contracts?  

Maggie: No. Trainers are paid by the hour with travel costs and they are all free-lance. Because of German insurance regulations they need to have another job as well as working for us.  

DJN: Do your new trainers get training?  

Maggie: Yes. We give them one course. And if we like them and they take to us we may well give them a further course.  

DJN: How do you set about devising courses for clients?  

Maggie: First, we do a needs analysis with the client firm. My partner and I then work out a programme of modules and accompanying material. We then go through this with the trainers.

DJN: How large are the groups your trainers teach?  

Maggie: We never have groups larger than 10. So it can be anything from 1 to 10.  

DJN: What do you look for in a trainer?  

Maggie: They mustn't have a bureaucratic or civil service temperament. They need to be intelligent, reliable, self-confident and, very important, have a good sense of humour. We prefer people who have taught adults. Clearly, they also need to be able to work with our firm's general philosophy, they must fit. Incidentally, I find that former primary school teachers often make very good trainers`.  

DJN: What you think that is?  

Maggie: Primary school teachers are used to teaching in smaller steps. And they are very patient. Patience is very important. Also, they can explain things simply. And, of course - a very useful skill - they have been trained to teach people how to read. People who are used to teaching in grammar schools, or universities, assume more, they find it hard to simplify. Primary school teachers are more practically orientated, more "hand-on", used to employing visual aids. With the others it's all theory and books.  

DJN: What about paper qualifications? How important are they?  

Maggie: Well, paper qualifications are important, but not essential. In fact it turns out that most of the people we have employed over the years have studied, have a degree or a TEFL qualification or have worked in commerce.  

DJN: Do you only employ native speakers of English?  

Maggie: No. On the contrary. We find it very helpful with beginner's courses, for example, to have Germans with a good command of English.  

DJN: What about the age of trainers?  

Maggie: Well, Hans-Jürgen and myself are both in our mid fifties, so we've clearly got nothing against older trainers. But we don't like our trainers to be too young. Remember our clients are frequently older people and sometimes in senior positions. Our youngest trainer at the moment is 24- years-old.   The most important thing about a trainer is that they have character and get results. I don't mean necessarily good results in tests, I mean give their clients the feeling that they are making progress.  

DJN: How important is it that your trainers are up-to-date with modern theories of language and language learning?  

Maggie: General world knowledge and being informed about current affairs is very important, so that they can talk with our clients about their interests and concerns. That's important, but not linguistics.  

DJN: What about ICT skills?   Maggie. Well, we do recommend certain software packages for additional help, but 98% of our clients need rapport with the trainer, they need to be interacting with a person . It's a question of relationship, mutual trust and respect. Trainers must be sensitive to the needs of people. With advanced students, at higher levels, one is often a sort of therapist.  

DJN: And, dare I ask, what about grammar? Are your trainers required to teach traditional grammar?  

Maggie: No. They are not forced to do it. Trainers have to be very flexible and if they see that something technical needs dealing with, they deal with it. But they don't say: "Now we will do grammar." Remember many of our clients, our learners, may have had difficulty with learning at school. They wouldn't be able to distinguish a verb from their elbow.  

DJN: And dress. Do the men have to wear ties?  

Maggie: No. It's not as it used to be in English schools. But trainers need to be presentable and business-like. As with many things, flexibility is important. If I'm going to see the Director of a firm, I dress accordingly.  

DJN: What advice would you give to someone who was thinking of setting up a firm like yours?  

Maggie: You must believe in yourself and be prepared to take a calculated risk. If you are fond of security and lazy Saturdays and Sundays, forget it.  

DJN: How did you get started?   Maggie: Heavens, I started with five courses at the evening adult institute (Volkshochschule). Then I got one private client. And then I got another. And I was off.  

DJN: How much teaching do you personally do?  

Maggie: Well, at times I do 60 hours a week - 60 lessons of 45 minutes. But that is really too much. About 40 hours a week is about right for me, after that I start crashing my car.  

DJN: Have you any further advice to give to people who might want to follow in your steps?  

Maggie: It's different from teaching, say, in a state school. You can't afford to let yourself get stale. You can't regurgitate lessons. You must always be producing new materials.  

DJN: Maggie, I know you used to be school teacher. Do you regret having become freelance?  

Maggie: Definitely not. There are no discipline problems, no school stress. I wouldn't change what I'm doing now for the world.


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