Interview with Bára Kratochvílová
By Lucie Horáková
In the spring issue of Re:Views we present you with another inspiring story of a KAA student who has made it in the professional world and managed to use the knowledge and skills acquired at KAA to make a career. Barbora Kratochvílová, a perspective owner of a language school and a passionate teacher, proves that language teaching does not have to be something KAA students do only to pay the bills, but something that can become a real career and a vocation too.
When did it first occur to you to found a language school and why?
I don’t think it ever “occurred” to me. I started thinking about opening the place where we are now last year and then we opened up in September. But it was more of a natural development of things to me. I first started teaching when I was 15 in a language school where I also studied English. Then I was teaching privately at home or at my students’ places, as everyone does. During my first year at university I started teaching courses in our house as well, as we had an extra room which I could change into a classroom for up to 6 students. Then there were more and more people, I started to need some more teachers and for some 2 years it was me and two girls helping me teaching children. But it wasn’t manageable in only 1 classroom in my house anymore and I started thinking about moving to a bigger place. I found the place we are now in and it worked. I’m not saying it was easy, especially the opening and reconstruction of the place itself. But I never think of it as “planning to open a business”. I was lucky that my students seem to like me a lot and spread the information.
What were the biggest problems when setting up your school?
The most difficult was the actual hard work preparing the classrooms, looking for people, making a new web page and logo, advertisement and also managing all the paperwork. But paperwork is a different story. The thing is that I was gone last spring semester, studying in Stockholm. I came back to the Czech Republic in middle of July, so I had 2 months to sign the contract, and start doing everything. We opened on 12th September, but 4 weeks before that we were still taking down and building walls. As I’ve said it was all a bit crazy because of the limited time I had to do everything and I was rather stubborn and wanted everything to be perfect. It was a lot of hard work and stress to get everything done in time.
Was there anything unexpected that occurred while you were setting up the school?
Most people didn’t believe it could be done, so maybe the most surprising thing is that we managed to finish everything in time and it mostly worked out well and without problems. I got the wrong colour and then size of tables in one of the classrooms, but those things just happen.
Now I am going to ask you about what you actually face when you go independent as a teacher of English.
I think the beginnings are most difficult as you need to learn a lot of things, for example about the market of English textbooks, the format of different tests that your students are preparing for and so on. You have a lot of people coming in with completely different needs or ideas and sometimes it takes a lot of knowledge and experience to help them find the right way.
Could you describe what running a language school actually looks like in everyday life?
It mainly takes communication with the students and the teachers. I sometimes find it difficult to divide my time and energy between communicating with students, answering emails, solving their requests, working with the teachers, managing the websites, preparing classes, teaching and doing the paperwork; even though I am not completely alone in the papers, I carry most of the details about students in my head, so nobody can really do it all without me. Any changes in the schedules are quite complicated. I have people calling, emailing and texting me all the time that someone is ill, someone is on a business trip and wants to come at a different time or double the classes next week … That is probably the most difficult and stressful, because if I made a mistake I could have a student coming to the language school with no teacher there or 2 students coming to one teacher’s class at the same time. That is my everyday nightmare. Then it is ordering books and everyday things – running out of coffee is bad! It is a million little things I check every day in the classrooms. If I am not in the school for 2 days, it is like forever.
While studying at KAA, you also participated in the Erasmus study programme. How did you manage to keep up your brand during that time?
I have actually spent 2 semesters abroad, one in Germany on Erasmus and one in Stockholm as a freemover. But I was coming home every 6 weeks at least and always teaching for the few days I was in CZ. So I gave out homework for 6 weeks and my 2 teachers went on teaching children. But my students were really nice and waited for me to come back.
What is actually your methodology? Do you use any of the special methods? Is your teaching team following any set of methodological rules or is it up to the teachers themselves to use their own teaching styles?
I do not believe in any extreme or “magical” methods and L2 only teaching. That was also what I studied in my bachelor thesis and loved the topic. So we DO use some L1 (of course only as needed and depending on the students’ level, but that is a topic for a whole study) and even translations to English for practice. I am also a big fan of graded readers, I have had students who read extensively and you could see how much faster they were moving on. I want my students to work quite a lot and do a lot of homework. In my experience, the more homework, the more students actually do them. For most of my regular students English has become an everyday activity and I think it is the best you can ask. Of course there are exceptions with people who really don’t have the time, but that’s not the majority. And as for teachers, I usually ask them to see at least one of my own classes at the beginning to give them an idea what the people are used to and what they expect. I check a bit what homework they give, so they follow the same structure that I do. But everybody is different and their teaching styles are different as well. I can’t make a teacher a copy of me and wouldn’t even want to, of course. It seems to me now that the teaching styles of my best and most popular teachers vary greatly. But that’s fine because the students also prefer different kinds of teaching. Thus I want my teachers to follow the structure that I have set, but otherwise, as long as the students are happy with their classes and they have good results, I let them have some freedom. I am glad that they come and ask me quite often whether I agree with doing this and that or what I think about it, so it works well. I am happy to say that we cooperate as a team, share activities that have worked well in the classes or ask each other for help and advice. I believe the most important thing is having a team of good teachers which is also not an easy thing.
What actually makes you decide for one applicant or the other?
That’s difficult. It is all together, experience, education (university / language certificates), but also how I feel about the person. I need them to be reliable, quite independent and mainly nice to the students. But it is hard to say beforehand whom the students are going to love and whom not. I have had a good hand choosing people by now, luckily, but we are always looking for good English teachers! Also, I have noticed during my job interviews that when you ask good and experienced teachers about the textbook they like to use, you usually get a long and passionate monologues about what they like and hate about this and that particular textbook…
Do you use textbooks in your courses? If so, which ones are your favourites?
For teaching adults I love English Files. We have switched to the new ones – English File Third Edition. I have to say they have improved them in some parts, made them more modern, but there are things that were better in the older ones, called New English Files. Nothing is ever perfect, but it is a really nice textbook. With the older kids we use English Plus, it is a book meant for language schools and grammar schools specialising in English. Small kids use Superminds; we started with them this year, and like them. But with the small children it is a slightly different story. I have found out that their tastes change very suddenly as they mature! What was cute and amazing 2 months ago suddenly becomes stupid. We like the Superminds books as they are interesting for the more and less mature ones altogether. You see – a teacher could talk about textbooks forever.
What are your plans for the future? Do you plan to keep on teaching at your language school after you graduate? Do you like to be your own mistress or would you consider working as an employee one day?
I am planning to keep on working on ‘Jazyková škola s Bárou’ of course. It is hard work, but I do like being my own mistress and there are still many things I would like to do and improve for my students.
What do you enjoy most about being a teacher? And do you have any kind of motto, something you try to stick to and pass to your students as well?
I like helping my students, seeing them move on. I like to see that being able to understand and speak English changes their lives. I want them to like English, enjoy the work and be proud of how much they have learned and how good they are! That is probably the best thing about it all.