Creating A German Immersion Language Program — Barbara Classen

Bryn Bonino
8 min readJun 15, 2021

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After Barbara wrote the below blog post, we followed up in this video interview. In our conversation, we talked more about the creative and forward-thinking businesses practices that Barbara uses to run her profitable schools.

Intro:

My name is Barbara Classen. I am the director of two German language schools, “German Tuition” in London, UK and “Deutsch in Freiburg” in Germany. Freiburg is next door to the Blackforest, as well as to Basel in Switzerland and Straßburg in France. I am also a mature part-time student of “Ibero Cultura” and English (BA) at Freiburg University.

From your introduction, it sounds like you’re a very busy person. Can you tell us a bit of background? How did you first get started teaching German?

My professional background is bookselling and publishing. I moved to London in 1993 with the long-term goal to work as a literary agent or scout. To cut a long story short, I didn’t make it and I was about to go home when I started to teach a little bit of German on the side of my other jobs. My first student was a banker who walked up every Tuesday morning before work to my room on the third floor of a Quaker community on Bethnal Green Road to have his German lesson. I enjoyed it and gave London another chance. Then more students joined. I founded German Tuition in 1995. Our first and long-term classroom was an airy attic in Shoreditch. To read more of what the school was like back then, maybe you’ll want to read a blog post I wrote, Then And Now — 25 Years of German Tuition .

Sometimes life works out that way. When one thing doesn’t take off, you make one last-ditch effort and it works. What does your business look like now?

I believe that the best place to learn a foreign language is to spend some time in the country, in other words full immersion. This is why I started “Deutsch in Freiburg” in 2005. I wanted our students to spend a week or two or longer in beautiful Freiburg and really feel how much more fluently they speak at the end of their stay.

I believe that the best place to learn a foreign language is to spend some time in the country, in other words full immersion.

Together with our students we create a tailor-made unforgettable programme, helping them to prepare for exams, a new professional role or just take them to the next goal they have set themselves to communicate more easily with the new in-laws.

Depending on their interests, we take them to museums and hikes in the Blackforest, we prepare meals with them in my kitchen (at 200 metres from the Freiburg classroom), we arrange for them to go to a local Yoga class or guided walk. The list is endless. The only goal is to create a full immersion language program, not only with us, but also with the local community here in Freiburg.

That’s exactly how I was able to learn 3 languages, by going to a country where each was spoken. It sounds like at Deutsch in Freiburg, you’ve created a really nice experience that also will allow people to fall in love with German and Germany. I know that you have an interesting onboarding process for new students at your school so that you can ensure that they have the best possible experience. Can you talk a bit about that?

I take a lot of time talking to new students when they first come to us to find out their exact needs and aims, past and present positive and negative learning experiences, and general interests. In summary, I try to get a feel for a person. On the basis of this, I choose the best possible teacher. Getting the student-teacher chemistry right right from the start, I think, is one of my strong points, a bit like a match-maker. After all, our niche is German, one language only, but within this niche we love to work with anyone, from teenager to CEO.

Getting the student-teacher chemistry right right from the start, I think, is one of my strong points, a bit like a match-maker.

I agree that getting the student-teacher chemistry right is so important. I also think that’s probably one reason why your schools enjoy long-term relationships. You have an impressive record for having both long-term employees and long-term clients. What do you think is your secret to this success?

When it comes to my team they know that I really value them and that I am 100% behind them. For instance, we are not forever flexible with schedules and tutors are entitled to their pay for lessons cancelled at short notice. We believe that continuity is the next important factor after the above mentioned teacher student chemistry. Continuity is important for the student’s progress as well as for a teacher to make a living. We make that clear right from the start in our terms.

Continuity is important for the student’s progress as well as for a teacher to make a living. We make that clear right from the start in our terms.

Generally I think there is a lot of good will and appreciation for each other’s work when it comes to my team and me. Hierarchies are very flat. They work for me as much as I work for them, in the way that I do all of the boring admin stuff as well as the more interesting, but extremely time consuming marketing, including content marketing, which attracts new students. Saying that, we find a lot of our students by word of mouth. We are quite transparent as an organisation. My team is aware of the costs and the share I take to cover the costs plus my own salary. This share is significantly lower than in other bigger organisations.

You also asked about long-term clients. It is rare that students do not renew after their first course. They usually go on a long journey with us, some of them for 10 years or longer. Having lessons with us is something they really value, something they look forward to.

I can imagine that the flat hierarchy leads to a culture that makes people want to stay with you for a while, both as students and teachers. You rather recently joined Facebook and have found some success with videos on German Tuition’s Facebook page. Can you talk about what you’re doing and what the effects of this have been?

I was really very reluctant with social media, and was not on any of the channels, except for a bit of Linkedin. Our 25th anniversary coincided with Covid last year and I realised, if I wanted to do the job for another 10 years, I needed to start embracing social media. This is when I started a project called “Das deutsche Wort der Woche” (The German Word of The Week) on Facebook. We recorded a short video daily around a topic, for instance, “dental care” or “fruit salad”.

I realised, if I wanted to do the job for another 10 years, I needed to start embracing social media.

In those videos you can see me, friends, family and members of the local community in Freiburg. We invited students to comment below the video using the vocab they had just learnt. We invested the money (not spent on a party) in free German lessons. For about 8 weeks we had a drawing every Sunday night (with a mini ceremony on Facebook) giving away a free lesson among the participants. We currently post a new video weekly, with tutors contributing too. The videos are getting a little longer, 3–4 minutes, and we are experimenting with new formats like grammar and interviews. Each video has German subtitles, explanations in English and Spanish and glossaries, also in English and Spanish.

I am currently starting an Instagram account for my school. I am spending many hours per week on or with social media, learning new stuff all the time. So far I would call this my professional hobby, as it hasn’t translated into many new students. However, slowly the trend is changing and with the help of social media, I would like to revive our small groups again, which were very popular in the 90es and early 2000.

With online lessons being the new normal, we hope to have a renaissance for small groups. For instance, we have currently a complete beginners group on Zoom Pro, meeting twice a week for an hour before work. Five women from 5 different countries, living in London (two of them), Reading, Essen and München. This would not have been possible in our London classroom, obviously. We are planning more groups at various levels starting after Easter, another beginners group, a B1-bookclub and B2/C1 discussion group with more ideas for later in the year. This is all whilst our main one-to-one work continues obviously.

Wow! For someone who wasn’t a big social media user, you seem to be doing a lot of it these days. From what I saw of your videos, I can see how they’d be popular with your students. Well, If you could go back in time, is there anything that you wished you’d known about earlier when it comes to your language teaching career?

Not that I can think of. Obviously, 25 years is a long time and there were difficult times too. Interestingly the school started to grow in 1998 when I was pregnant with twins. I had a bad experience with the woman covering for me during my maternity leave. That was the only time I had a seriously bad experience with someone I initially trusted and liked. A financially difficult year was 2011 when we moved from Shoreditch to Blackfriars. The moving and legal costs for our new lease were excruciating for a small business.

It’s true that in 25 years, you are bound to have ups and downs. Is there anything else that you’d like to share about yourself?

I started to learn Spanish from A1 onwards around my 50th birthday. I am now a part-time student at Freiburg University, enrolled in a BA called Ibero Cultura. This BA is about language, literature and culture from Spain and Latin America. Being a learner (of a foreign) language again has been an asset in understanding our students better. I am also very grateful for a split sabbatical I had, the second part was an Erasmus semester in Oviedo in northern Spain, just before the beginning of Covid. Being able to spend 5 months in full immersion made me very happy and made me experience again the importance of full immersion.

That’s so impressive that you are still learning languages. Okay, so if others want to connect with you online, how can they do that?

Website: www.germantuition.com, www.deutsch-in-freiburg.de

Email: barbara [ at ] germantuition [ dot ] com, barbara [ at ] deutsch-in-freiburg [ dot ] de

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/germantuitionlondon

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/barbara-classen-61852946/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/germantuitionlondon/

Telephone: Freiburg — 0049 761 457538 / London — 0044 7399632799 (mobile/whatsapp)

Originally published at https://makealeap.co/ on June 15, 2021.

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