Belgium: Opportunities for teaching English
Colin Barnett’s expectations of teaching purely Business English in Belgium were confounded in his first week – in a good way.
Chocolate I knew about, as well as fries and good beer but what about the teaching situation? "Brush up on your grammar and prepare to teach advanced learners...You'd better get an extra qualification to teach Business English. I would have thought Belgium's quite a saturated market" was what my director of studies advised me before I left for Belgium. Not quite what I wanted to hear pre-departure.
A pre-intermediate Vietnamese clairvoyant; two upper intermediate French engineers, an elementary Italian MEP; two Greek teenagers; an intermediate group made up of Japanese housewives, a Libyan expert on water management and some Belgians, were on the menu for my first week of teaching - a far cry from what I had imagined. In actual fact, just the Belgian and European capital has so much teaching work available that you need never be without work regardless of your qualifications.
As the European commission, European parliament and associated organisations, multi-nationals are based here, there is an international clientele demanding tuition if not for themselves then for their bosses, colleagues, children... Quite a few teachers are here because of their partners' careers so there tends to be a high turnover of teachers and offers of students when it's time for them to move on.
Word of mouth is generally the way I've been gaining clients. The British Council have a list of English teachers which goes out to people looking for language teachers - no teaching centre in Belgium however. Other networks such as BETTA (Belgian English Teachers and Trainers Association) can give leads and up to date contacts for work. Language schools are generally looking for teachers throughout the year. In Brussels the largest are CLL, Fondation 9 but there are many other respectable organisations each with varied client profiles. A useful publication is the Bulletin. A few days after arriving, I replied to an ad I found in the magazine. I had the interview the next day and was working by the following Monday.
Having clients of your own brings in the best bread. Even at language schools you can earn €18 - €38 depending on your experience, qualifications and the type of classes you teach. While there are scare stories that tax in Belgium is high, once a good accountant has deducted all you're entitled to and probably a few things that you're not (Belgians say that playing with the tax system is a national sport) it works out to more like 20 - 25%. Also in your first year of working you pay very little tax. Speaking to an accountant is the best way to get the low down on the nitty-gritty for your situation and you even get to deduct the accountant's fees!
Salaried employment can be come by but you'd best come with a fair whack of experience and ideally a Master's - neither DELTA nor CELTA carry much weight in Belgium indeed for some freelance work teaching qualifications aren't always necessary. Occasionally there are openings in Higher Education Institutions and some language schools and secondary but you may also have to speak Dutch and/ or French. BETTA or BAAHE (Belgian Association of Anglicists in Higher Education) may be able to offer leads.
Outside of the capital, the main cities in the Flemish speaking area are Ghent, Antwerp, Brugges, Leuven, Ostend. In the French speaking part of the country there's Liege, Mons and Charleroi. Being a small country with excellent and inexpensive transport you could base yourself in one of these cities and commute to Brussels if you couldn't get work locally.
You will at some stage have Belgian students. Even more so if you base yourself outside of Brussels. These come in four varieties Dutch speaking, French speaking, German speaking or a combination of any of those three.
As a general rule, the Dutch speakers have great fluency and good listening skills. This is mostly due to similarities between Dutch and English but also TV and radio. Most of the American, Australian, British programmes are subtitled and most of their music is British or American. Lessons can often turn into singing sessions when they make the connection between a new word and a song. There are lots of Flemish who have acquired English rather than learnt it. Ilke Jense's approach to grammar works well as most older learners have never studied grammar and can be a little allergic to it. Also writing can be quite traumatic for learners who have never officially studied English. Unlike the Dutch, The Flemish tend to be slightly less forthcoming.
French speaking Belgians on the other hand tend not to have the oral/aural ability but are more at home in grammar books and the written language. Most English language TV programmes become French language programmes and given the strength of French speaking culture there are fewer pop songs in English so listening is more difficult for them. French speaking Belgians must study Dutch at school so Dutch syntax and vocabulary often comes out to play in their English. The French speaking Belgians see themselves as being more open and Mediterranean than their Flemish counterparts but still they need a bit of coaxing if you're to get some genuine feedback on your classes.
The German speakers I've worked with have been the jolliest of all the Belgians. With the German speaking population being able to fill Wembley stadium or approximately 9% of the Belgian population (around 10 million) you don't get to meet them that often particularly if you work outside the German speaking region in the east of Belgium. You're more likely to work with Belgians of Arabic, Italian, Turkish background than German.
Visitors sometimes notice that in the evenings Belgium can seem a little quiet. Seeing as you get over 45 channels on cable (nearly everyone has it) including BBC 1 and BBC2 even ITV in some regions there's no better way of getting hold of material to use with learners. Printed material such as British and American newspapers/ magazines is just as easy to get wherever you are in the country - even more so in the Flemish speaking part of the country. If however you need published EFL material there are specialist English language bookshops in Liege, Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp. Waterstones has a branch in Brussels. With inexpensive boat, train and plane connections to the UK I've been able to take groups of learners on day trips.
You may want to want upgrade yourself as a teacher at some stage. It's fairly easy given that the British Council organise various events throughout the year, as do BETTA and BAAHE. As Belgium isn't the typical destination for TEFLers the competition for interesting work and openings in areas such as materials trialing, examining is more available. For experienced and committed teachers there are opportunities to get into IELTS and Cambridge ESOL examining. Most language schools allow you to create your own materials and with some of the clients available such as in the European Parliament or Commission you could find yourself designing some niche teaching material. I've found that most professional development you do is to satisfy your own desire rather than career progression within the country.
If you are looking to earn a fairly decent wage, teach a wide variety of learners, have a good standard of living, fast track your career in EFL then you could do a lot worse than work in Belgium. Oh and perk to working in a country that has chocolate as part of it's culture is that you often get chocolates as a reward for the good job you've done - particularly if your students are Belgians.