Number one for English language teachers

Hungary: 'I've no plans to move'

Sze Foong is in it for the long haul in Budapest, and explains why …

I’ve worked in Budapest for two years in a private language school. When I first came here I thought I would stay for a year, but now have no plans to move. Budapest is a very easy city to live in, with lots to do, whether you like clubbing, classical music or going for walks in the hills. Though the money is far from lucrative, my salary and private teaching has been enough to live on comfortably, as well as fund a few long-haul trips since I’ve been here. It’s not, however, enough to be anywhere close to buying a car or property.

In the beginning of this academic year, the teachers in my school were deeply unhappy, primarily because of the number of teaching hours, split shifts, and the unpredictability of their timetables from one week to the next. Previous places where I had worked had very stable timetables, like 9-month courses or very limited types of courses. Because the English teaching market has become extremely competitive in Budapest, schools are forced to offer a wide variety of courses at all levels, which results in some classes starting at 7.30am, and some ending at 8.00pm, with the possibility that a teacher might have a day that stretches out for that long, with pockets of free time in between. Inevitably, many teachers end up spending 10 to 12 hours a day at work, which is a drain, not only physically and mentally, but in terms of morale, because of the comparative pittance earned for the number of hours put in for preparation, teaching and marking. Now that hours are down, teachers have more breathing space, but on the flip side, the school isn’t doing as well as it had hoped.

When I joined this school, there were teachers from all the standard English-speaking countries and a couple of non-standard ones. Now, most of the teachers are British, because since Hungary joined the EU in May of 2004, the school hasn’t wanted to risk hiring someone non-EU and finding out the paperwork will be difficult. This is a shame, not only because students get less of a variety of accents and cultures, but also because the staffroom and work culture is therefore more homogenous. Having worked in schools with a more mixed staff, I miss the diversity.

Most of the students are middle-class to affluent, and their reasons for studying English can generally be divided into three. The first is to pass a language exam: for secondary school students, in lieu of the English exam in their final year; for university students, as a compulsory part of their diploma. The second group study for work-related reasons, for example, having to communicate with non-Hungarian colleagues and customers, or to improve job prospects. The third general group learn English as a hobby, for travel purposes, or to prepare for an impending move to an English-speaking country, or one in which English will serve as the most probable lingua franca.

Hungarian students are communicative and active participants in class. Here in Budapest, they get a lot of exposure to English through films, music and contact with tourists, so there are very few absolute beginners. They tend to be quite opinionated, with wide-ranging interests (synchronized swimming, gallery shooting, astrology), so classrooms are usually lively, and a pleasure to teach after the reticence of students in Asia. I do, however, avoid two topics that bring about impassioned diatribes: Hungarian gypsies and Triannon, when Hungary was carved up. These discussions tend to dissolve into very long lectures or rants which take on a xenophobic tone, and I think are best to avoid in a classroom.

The school I work for advocates communicative learning and accommodating students’ needs, which on the whole produces positive results, though some prefer to follow more traditional grammar-translation approaches. They generally expect and are even happy to be evaluated, coming from an education system that heavily features intensive testing. They are also quite disciplined in class: a colleague who taught kids in Portugal couldn’t believe how well-behaved the Hungarian kids are in comparison. And while you may have an occasionally raucous class of personalities, classroom management is rarely a problem.

Having taught in China, it really struck me when I first came here that while in China, English is viewed as a prestige language pronounced to be useful and important, whether it features in the students’ daily lives or not, here it is viewed primarily as a tool with which the business of everyday life is increasingly being conducted. Students therefore consider the acquisition of English as a serious investment of time and money, which in my opinion exposes the inexperienced or uninterested teacher much more easily than in places where the mere presence of a foreign teacher with an amiable personality is enough to please students. As a result, students may come across as quite demanding; when asked for feedback on the class they are quick to make specific lists of what they are getting or not out of the class.

Occasionally, we get students of other nationalities, such as the Chinese and Libyans, and a smattering of non-English-speaking Europeans such as the French, Spanish and Russians. The two biggest groups are the Chinese and Libyans. The former tend to be younger, in their mid-teens to early-twenties, and are recent immigrants whose parents run fast food restaurants or wholesale outfits; while the Libyan students are Master’s or PhD scholarship holders who need to acquire enough English to begin their course of study in Hungary. As there are usually no more than two non-Hungarians in any given class, there can be some initial discomfort in dynamics, but they are gradually integrated into the classroom.

Working freelance here has the usual pros and cons of higher hourly rates and freedom of choice versus the lack of holiday or sick pay and the vagaries of relying on private students who sometimes cancel simultaneously. In Hungary, anyone who works part-time for a school has to be able to provide an invoice, which you can only do if you form a company. This is achievable but complicated, especially considering the mountain of bureaucracy that is commonplace here. Without being able to invoice, it is difficult to get work at a school, though there are a couple of schools who can pay their non-Hungarian teachers in cash, thanks to deft accountants.

Most of my ex-colleagues loved teaching and living Budapest for all of the reasons I have mentioned, but almost all of them left because of the difficulty in saving any significant amount of money. I think it is possible, but requires a great deal of discipline because of the cost of living here is quite high. It is the nature of TEFL, I suppose, that continues to make it an underpaid profession for those who want to pursue it seriously in a non-corporate setting.

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