Five years ago, I sat nervously in one of IKI’s (Internationale Kulturinstitut) classrooms, slightly nauseated to be back in an academic setting. I wanted to learn German, but I did not want to be back in school. My career as a student was a painfully long struggle, particularly my years in Spanish class. In high school, I took three years of Spanish, barely passed those classes, and left with zero ability to retain all I’d learned. Unfortunately, this memory is what I focused on while Will, our classmates, and I waited for our German teacher to arrive which only intensified my nausea. I assumed certain failure was in my future.
Then, in bounced our teacher.
For a moment, all I saw was hair. Brown, wild, crazy-curly hair atop a petite person who quickly scribbled her self-portrait on the whiteboard. She whipped back around to face us, shot us a huge grin, and said, “So, Leute! Ich heiße Johanna.”
Friends, meet Johanna Pizzera: founder and lead teacher of Pizzera Sprachakademie, precious friend, and the reason I speak German.
Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I am 35 years old and come from Graz, a small town in the south of Austria. It was there I became interested in Romance languages and studied French, Italian, and Spanish. Before I moved to Vienna, I lived in Milan and Paris. I love big cities and places where people come to together to make something happen. I love to travel, which is why back when I worked as a waitress, every single Euro I earned was spent directly on a new trip to a new city.
How did you come to love languages, and how many do you speak?
My passion for communication with people and travel led me to study languages. If I had time, I would learn more than the 5 I already speak. But maybe I can later. Russian and Mandarin would be super interesting.
What led you to become a German teacher?
I started German tutoring in Vienna institutions several years ago, right after university just because I didn’t know what else to do. University doesn’t really prepare you for a specific work aside from maybe law or medicine. You have to find out by yourself, and I thought, Until I find out, I could teach German. It’s my mother tongue. Can’t be too difficult… And pretty fast I found out two things: One, it is difficult, and two, it is great fun! I loved it. It didn’t feel like work even though I had to work for hours to prepare for each course. I had to “learn” the German language; figure out the grammar; explore my language in a completely new way. And if you do something with love, you do it well – automatically! So, I discovered I was really good at this job, even though I never studied German philology or educational science. I am not a “teacher”, but I feel what the students need. And the feedback was great, so I decided to stay.
What’s your language-learning philosophy?
You have to show students that learning a language is not difficult. Or maybe it is difficult, but it’s also difficult to be a doctor, taxi driver, or mother. Everything is a result of your approach. You have to create a space where people like to go; an environment they love, where they feel good and everything feels easy! If you are looking forward to going to this place; if you don’t want to miss one single day or hour; if you have small feelings of success every day, the process of learning German is like a great adventure. I know this might sound cliché, but my language-learning philosophy is love. You learn better when you really want it; when it comes from yourself, from your passion and your curiosity.
What inspired you to open your own school?
I realized that in order to create the kind of environment I’ve described, I had to open my own school. My place is cozy like a living room and the emphasis is on the personality and individuality of the students. You can learn German grammar in millions of places in Vienna, but there are not many places where you can learn to love it; a class you like to be in because you feel like you’re part of a small community rather than “just another student”.
I also developed a lot of teaching methods which are different from the “traditional” learning methods. My methods come from my experiences with alternative school systems, like my years in a Montessori School for example, but also from real life experience learning a foreign language and the knowledge of what you actually need if you live abroad. So, I needed a place where I could teach this way. And, well… it also may be that I have problems with authority… I always wanted to be my own boss.
Okay, I seriously love this story. Could you talk about how kangaroos played a part in your decision to open the Sprachakademie?
When I decided to risk it and take my first steps towards opening the school, I became scared. What if it doesn’t work? What if I lose all the money I’ve invested? Should I stop now and just go back to where everything is safe? Then I took a journey to Australia and for the first time in my life, I met kangaroos. I found out that kangaroos are the only animals on earth that can’t go backward! Because of their long tails where all the weight lies, they can only go forward – always forward! All they need is in their small pouch. I found this concept amazing and decided to adapt it. Yes, Johanna! Go on. Keep on going. Backward is not an option. Don’t be afraid, you don’t need a lot. Just go on! Trust yourself and your instincts will guide you in the right direction.
What sets your school apart from others?
The coffeehouse-ambience, the new feeling of companionship in this foreign environment; the creative, innovative methods that bring success and joy; a feeling of fairness regarding payment since students only have to pay the days they can join. You pay for what you get.
When a person registers for one of your courses, what can they expect? In other words, what is a typical class like with you as the teacher?
Oh, there is no “typical class”. Every day is different. Sometimes I surprise myself. But you will definitely never feel bored. Come find out for yourself!
How do you overcome the discouragements involved in teaching and running a school?
It’s like the kangaroos: I just go on. And I try not to take life too seriously. Tomorrow is another day. There have been times when I didn’t know if I would be able to pay the rent the next month, but somehow it’s always worked out. And I’ve been doing this for two and half years already! I try to never brood too much now about problems that may come in the future. I go on, step by step and treat them when they happen. Most probably won’t even come true. And I always try to believe in myself and trust my decisions. Never doubt, laugh, and go on.
Any advice I could give to others who would like to run their own business?
Never believe that there is just “one right way to do things. In the beginning, I thought I had to do everything a certain way. For example, all schools offer intensive courses. So, I did that too, every month, until I nearly had a breakdown because of work. Then I realized that I could do it ‘my way’. I changed the concept. I offered semi-intensive courses and people liked it. And every five weeks I have a one week break to avoid burnout. And students loved it. They never questioned why I did things another way. Maybe they already realized that I am different. So to others, I would say: Be different, too!
Do you have a favorite teaching moment?
Oh, millions! When my students understand the German articles after just twenty minutes, or when they have this sparkle of enthusiasm in their eyes because they just did their first free dialog. When they tell me, “I can finally gossip with my neighbor!” or “After two years of panic, I finally called my kids’ school for the first time!” I have so many. But one of the biggest encouragements for me to go on is: I never have to do a lot of advertising. Most of my students come by word of mouth from former students who were satisfied. And now nearly all of my groups are booked out and I have waiting lists for upcoming classes. That’s the biggest compliment and I’m just grateful.
What piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to learn a language?
Look for a good teacher apart from the stream. And be patient with yourself. Take your time. Your way and your speed is exactly the right one for you!
Get yourself into one of Johanna’s courses NOW before they book up! She’s currently offering: