Number one for English language teachers

Turkey: questions and answers

EFL in Turkey

TEFL in Turkey is a still thriving industry, though not quite as big as the boom years of the 1980s. There are of course many new private language courses opening, but the real growth area is private English-medium high schools and universities. There are also positions in state schools and universities, but these are hard to get and, furthermore, do not usually pay well.

So, what kind of qualifications do you need?

A degree is (technically) a minimum requirement for any teaching job, but the subject of the degree is not important. Nearly all schools also require RSA CTEFLA or the equivalent. For the better jobs a few years' experience is necessary, and a DTEFLA or MA is a big advantage/ necessity, particularly for university jobs.

Note of caution: If your potential employer isn’t bothered about qualifications, it probably means that they aren’t going to be worth working for!

Nevertheless, the Turkish middle classes are very keen to learn English, and they really want to learn it from a native speaker of the language. If you speak English as your first language, you are almost guaranteed a job teaching English in Turkey. The number of students wanting to learn English far outweighs the number of English teachers, which means that many schools will hire someone without the proper qualifications.

How about getting a visa?

Visas are something of a problem. In the past, the usual procedure was to get a tourist visa, which you can buy on arrival in Turkey, then the school would get you a work and residence permit. However, the laws have changed, and you now have to apply for a work permit from your home country. Consider this before leaving! The truth of the matter is that most schools want you to stay for one year, but few schools are willing to pay work permit fees, or do the required paperwork. This means that you must leave the country every 3 months to renew your tourist visa. This is crucial, if you try to leave the country with an expired visa; you will be charged a hefty fine. However, without a proper work permit, your contract is not valid and you can leave at any time. It sounds a bit dodgy, but it happens all the time.

Where are you going to live?

Most schools provide furnished accommodation or a living allowance for teachers, in fact you should insist on it, as rents can be very high in the big cities, especially Istanbul. Usually you will be expected to share with other teachers, but some of the better schools provide individual accommodation. All schools have to provide basic health insurance (SSK) which allows you to be treated in State hospitals, however, you'd be better off shelling out for private treatment. Some of the better schools provide private health insurance, which is a definite bonus and something you should ask about.

Where are you going to find a decent job?

A lot of schools advertise in the Guardian and TES, and a few advertise on the internet now. Generally, if applying from home, go for schools which have an English name, and avoid 'Lycees' and 'dersane’s' - some of them are actually OK, but it's impossible to tell if you're in your home country. The names of Lycees usually end in "Lisesi", and dersanes in "dersanesi". Actually there are some very good State Lycees (e.g. Galatasaray Lisesi and the Anadolu Lisesi's) but they tend not to advertise abroad. Dersanes are cramming courses for the university entrance exams - there are some good ones, but the pay is generally low. Schools with names ending in "Kolej" are usually upmarket private lycees - some of them are very good, others so-so. Pay and conditions are generally better than language schools, but the students can be rather bratty. I would suggest looking at the Turkey section of the International job forum on Dave’s ESL Cafe website; this contains input from teachers regarding good and bad places to work. Some of the better schools will also give you a return airfare every one or two years. There are numerous English schools in Istanbul that cater to adult students, and these are definitely easier to find a job in than the primary schools. This means that you will likely work evenings and weekends, but this leaves your day free to explore this diverse city. There are language schools in other cities, such as the capital, Ankara, but Istanbul is the cultural, historical and social centre of the country.

So, are there any cowboy schools?

Yes, though it's not as bad as in some countries. I suggest you check the housing and insurance position before you accept a job, as these are often indicators of the general quality of the school, and ask plenty of questions about the syllabus; if they don't seem to have one, or are just following a textbook uncritically, this is usually a sign of a poor school.

What is the pay like and what's the cost of living?

Generally the pay is not wonderful, but enough to live reasonably well on. About the maximum you can hope for is about 1000 US per month (after tax) in a good private university, going down to about half that for a small language school. A lot depends on your lifestyle -- basically if you spend most of your cash on having a good unhealthy time, your wages will go a long way. Alcohol, cigarettes and eating out are much cheaper than in Britain, Canada, Ireland or the USA. On the other hand, if you are into nest-building, Turkey is not so good – electrical goods are generally more expensive, and even clothes, which used to be dirt cheap, are getting up to Western prices. As for saving money, only the most stingy teachers manage it, since the exchange rate is poor and inflation is high. One thing you must definitely ask about is whether your school gives a mid-year pay rise in line with inflation – if not you will need to convert some of your earlier pay packets into foreign currency to tide you through the lean months later. You can open a foreign currency bank account, which will pay a fairly good rate of interest. Some of the better schools will pay some or all of your salary in foreign currency, which is a definite advantage. In short, don’t go to Turkey to teach English expecting to make a lot of money. The salaries are reasonable, and the cost of living is very low, but you aren’t likely to leave with a huge savings account. Any extra money is usually spent on exploring Istanbul, trips around the country, or maybe on a Turkish carpet!

What are the students like?

For the most part, Turks are a joy to teach - friendly and enthusiastic. In the private high schools and universities you do get some "rich brats", but they're no worse than rich brats from many other countries.

Do I need to be able to speak Turkish? Is it an easy language to learn?

You can get by without learning much Turkish, but the more you learn, the better. A small amount of effort will give you the basics you need for shopping, ordering in restaurants etc., but conversational fluency will take several years to acquire. Turkish is generally considered to be an easy language to learn, but a difficult language to use: the grammar is very simple and logical, but it can be difficult to follow all the suffixes in conversation, especially since Turks have a habit of all speaking at the same time.

How about transport?

Buying cars in Turkey is expensive unless, as a foreigner, you buy a car from another foreigner. However, the bureaucracy, as in most aspects of Turkish life, is a nightmare. Unless you speak fluent Turkish and are extremely patient, you should get an agent to sort it out for you. You also need to deposit a bond in a bank, which you will get back when you sell the car or leave the country permanently. Unless you feel naked without a car, though, you'd be best off using taxis, which are reasonably cheap, or public transport, since the traffic is truly horrific, especially in Istanbul. Apparently (and I can well believe this) Turkey has more accidents per kilometre of road than any country in the world. Public transport in cities is cheap, but crowded and uncomfortable. For travelling around Turkey, there are plenty of good bus companies. It's worth paying a bit more to travel with a reputable company, since you will have a more comfortable ride and are more likely to arrive in one piece. Apart from the Istanbul-Ankara line, trains are very slow. Domestic flights are good but a bit expensive, although the situation is improving.

Will I be able to give private lessons?

Many teachers supplement their incomes by giving private lessons, but a lot of schools forbid this. Look at your contract, and pay close attention to how serious any clause about private teaching is (some schools ban it in theory, but don't mind if it's done discreetly). The going rate for private lessons is flexible, but is usually about 15 US per hour. It's best to arrange money in advance -- see if you can get your student to cough up for several lessons at a time. You cannot get a work permit if you are only giving private lessons.

What are the government rules/regulations?

Turkish bureaucracy is nightmarish, so insist the school handle anything to do with work/ residence permits etc. There are hundreds of regulations pertaining to schools, but that's their problem, not yours. Customs can be complicated; they will allow resident foreigners to take electrical goods etc. without paying duty, but you need to have them stamped in your passport to make sure you take them out again. The same goes for cars, and if you leave the country without your car you need to get half a dozen different people to stamp the appropriate forms. Most bureaucratic regulations can be got round with large quantities of charm and "consideration". I guarantee that you will need more passport photos in one year in Turkey than you have used in the rest of your life.

Is religion a problem?

Not at all. Islamic fundamentalism has increased somewhat over the last decade, but in general the Turkish version of Islam is very liberal and tolerant, most urban Turks are not very religious, and the government is militantly secular (Turkey has only ever had one religious party in power, and that was in a coalition government which collapsed fairly quickly). The basic position is "you respect our religion, and we'll respect yours." In general, expect the same social mores as you would find in a rather conservative European country. You can even buy bacon in some supermarkets! Note: attempting to convert people to another religion is technically illegal in Turkey, and doesn't work in practice anyway.

Is there anything I might do that would be considered really rude?

One thing which could catch the Westerner unaware is going onto the street with wet hair! Muslims are supposed to bathe after sex, so going out of the house with your hair still wet implies you've just had a quickie. Other than that, there's not much in the way of completely unexpected social pitfalls. Turkish society is pretty easy going, and in general European standards of politeness will do fine in Turkey. Blowing your nose in public is considered rude, and belching and farting are a social disaster. Being clean and presentable is important, especially at work or when visiting someone's home. Stinginess is considered reprehensible, so when the bill comes in a bar or restaurant, you should insist on paying. In practice, Turks usually won't let you pay anyhow, but you are obliged to put up a fight. A few other things which are considered unseemly: eating bananas or ice cream in the street; smoking in the street if you're female; in some areas, eating, drinking or smoking publicly during the Ramadan fast; excessive kissing and cuddling in public places; wearing revealing clothing in a mosque. There are a few rude gestures which are not found elsewhere e.g. placing the thumb between the first two fingers, or slapping one hand down on the other fist, both of which have sexual connotations.

Do women get hassled a lot?

It depends on where you are, how you dress and how you behave. If you walk into a poor, conservative area wearing shorts and a bikini top, then expect the worst; otherwise you may get some unwelcome attention, but no serious hassle. Avoid magandas -- men with moustaches, open shirts and lots of gold jewellery -- as they consider it a point of honour to sexually harass as many women as possible. Generally, though, harassment is purely verbal, and most women I have talked to say they feel safer here than back home. Basically, it's like Italy, but with less bottom-pinching. Remember that if a man is staring at you, it's probably as much because you're foreign as because you're female, and remember that Turkish culture is very "touchy-feely" - not all physical contact has sexual intentions.

What about food and drink? Is the food and water safe?

Turkish food is excellent, unless you're a vegetarian. It’s not all kebabs, though; there's a wide variety of good meat, fish and, occasionally, vegetable dishes. Basically it's very similar to Greek food. Beer is limited to rather bland lager (though a few bars sell imported beers), but the national drink is raki, an aniseed spirit like ouzo but with a smoother taste. Raki is a part of the culture as much as a drink. As for safety, you can expect to get mild diarrhoea shortly after you arrive, as your system tries to adjust to novel intestinal flora. Apart from that, avoid eating any food from street stalls until you are well used to Turkish micro-organisms, avoid cig kofte (raw meatballs - actually delicious!) unless you're totally confident about the cleanliness of the establishment, and never, ever eat kokorec (intestines). Tap water is safe in most places, but still upsets some people's stomachs because of its high mineral and chlorine content; most people drink bottled water or have drinking water delivered to their homes.

What's the nightlife like?

Again, it depends on where you are. Istanbul has excellent nightlife, with plenty of good bars, clubs and concerts. Izmir is also pretty good, though tends to slow down in the winter. Ankara is somewhat duller, though there are still some reasonable bars and discos. In smaller places the best you'll get are cinemas, restaurants and the occasional pavyon - a Turkish nightclub where you will be charged exorbitant amounts of money. 

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