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Teaching English in Istanbul

Live in the Cultural Crossroads in Turkey

Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.
One of the many smaller, but often no less distinguished, mosques in Istanbul dotting the Bosphorous shoreline.

Turkey is a fascinating place with a rich history. Secular in many respects, but with a large, relatively homogeneous and Muslim population, its ongoing quest to develop economically and progress socially, as can be seen by the present round of EU membership negotiations and a more general opening-up to foreign exchanges of all kinds, is bringing inherent political, economic, and social tensions and contradictions to the fore.

I came here several months ago to teach English as a foreign language (EFL) at a private merchant marine academy on Turkey’s rather splendid southeastern Mediterranean coast. I spent an intense month there before moving on to work at a language center in Istanbul, the country’s financial, business, and cultural center. Teaching English is a growing business in Istanbul and throughout Turkey.

English Time

It’s a Tuesday night in mid-March and I’ve been hanging around my language school and office most of the day waiting to teach my first class. It begins around 6:30 p.m. and comes together in piecemeal fashion as five of my scheduled group of eight intermediate English language students assemble first in the kitchen to have a nosh of simit, something of a cross between a sesame seed bagel and a pretzel, and then head over to the small, efficient modern office style classroom.

As I’ve found is typical on the first day or night of a class, the students eye me somewhat warily. I’ve been told by my teacher trainer that they liked their previous teacher, so I expect that they will look to judge me against that standard.

The class turns out to be a mixed and friendly group eager to learn about foreigners and practice their English. Two are engineers from a company that manufactures boiler systems for export, another tough-talking but good-natured middle aged woman is a criminal lawyer, one is a young wife who has traveled abroad and just landed a secretarial job with a Turkish company that also does international business. The group is rounded out by a new father who is the limousine service manager for Shering-Plough’s Turkish subsidiary, two software engineers, and a well-read, middle-aged accountant who has also worked abroad.

Most come here on their employer’s tab and are taking English to help them at work and in their careers. But in class, which begins at 7:30 p.m. and lasts two hours every Tuesday and Thursday night, they mostly want to talk about life in general, their likes and dislikes, popular culture and to share their experiences and opinions.

Three of the five have taken the previous class together while the other two are new to the group. I quickly break the ice and happily find out that their English is better than I had expected and for the most part really is at an intermediate level. Though their comprehension and vocabulary are good, their spoken English lags a bit, particularly their grammar and pronunciation, which is not at all surprising or uncommon given that outside the classroom they don’t communicate orally in English much. This is English as a “foreign language” after all.

At language school franchises you are trained to follow and urged to adhere strictly to a particular method, usually a communicative approach to second language acquisition that involves relying as exclusively as possible on the target language, using dialogues, conversations, role plays, and visual aids that have to do with common situations in order to model, illustrate, learn, and acquire spoken language skills and aural comprehension.

Invariably, teachers wind up meandering from the textbook material a bit, going off on tangents suggested by students and mixing in their own materials that cover more practical aspects of the modern English language.

As the group is small and my students are adults honestly interested in other people, cultures, and the world any barriers quickly collapse. If you really tune in and listen to them, you can tailor the course to fit their needs, get along well, and still cover the material that is required. We hit it off well from the first night of class and as they are quick learners with a good basic foundation, I don’t mind meandering off the textbook path, letting students lead us into topic areas that otherwise would not be covered and using them to illustrate new language skills.

As to why Turks want to learn English, the reasons are numerous and varied. But there are a few common threads. Perhaps the single most important reason Turks are signing up for relatively expensive English language courses is a very practical one: English has become the de facto international language of business, education and diplomacy. Even if you are doing business with a European, German or Japanese person, chances are that your common language will be English. And as is true in a large and growing number of countries, Turks are exposed to English at an early age.

Most Turkish primary schools provide a basic English language course or courses as part of their curriculum. This is even more true at the university level, where most students are either required to do a year’s worth of preparatory English coursework or where a sizable percentage of courses, typically around 30 percent, are taught in English. Most of the 30 percent, however, were given in the first year and a half of their studies and by non-native English speaking Turkish professors.

English Time English language school in Istanbul, Turkey.
Istanbul is filled with many architecture styles. Turn-of-the-century Beaux Arts buildings can be found along the Istiklal Mall. This one is home to English Time, one of the city’s many English language schools.

The Business of English in Turkey

The Istiklal mall is home to around numerous English language schools, including other international franchises, as well as homegrown competitors, such as Dilko. Make no mistake about it, when you work for a language school franchise like the Wall Street Institute, you’ll quickly learn that English language teaching is a business. Sales and student satisfaction take precedence over everything else and the demands on teachers can be tough and rigid. Favored teachers were logging an excessive 40-plus class hours per week while those out of favor struggled to get 20. And don’t plan on saving up a nice nest egg.

Istanbul is an expensive city, and while the pay at language schools in Istanbul can be fair to middling, EFL teachers are in large part viewed as rather expendable and easily replaceable. In some respects, this attitude is justified and pragmatic as EFL teachers are a transient and, in too many cases, impulsive lot. There is no shortage of stories about teachers breaking their contracts and taking off without notice because they didn’t like one particular aspect of an organization, had an argument with someone or another in management, or just decided they would rather be somewhere else.

All things considered, I would recommend journeying to Istanbul and Turkey to teach English. If you have an M.A. in education or a related field and some experience, you will have a good shot at landing a position at a public or private university where conditions are better and more stable and where you will earn more money. If you have an undergraduate degree or have decided to try your hand at teaching after working in another field, I would recommend getting a TEFL or TESOL certification and gaining some teaching experience.

Turkey is a modern secular yet Islamic country with an amazingly rich cultural and natural heritage that is opening its gates to the world once again. Its people are for the most part proud, open, and friendly. The rewards of living and working in Istanbul — a beautiful, fascinating, and diverse city at the crossroads of East and West — although not monetary, are there to be had. Just be sure you know the whys and whatfors underlying your travel plans; and prepare yourself a bit by reading some good, timely, accurate, and diverse sources of information before setting out.

More Information on Teaching English in Istanbul

Colleges and Universities

If you have an MA and some teaching experience, you should be able to land a relatively well-paying teaching job at a private, or even a state-run public university in Turkey. These are considered the plum jobs by Turkish educators and are much sought after. One advantage, of course, is the yearly salary offered. Here are a few universities that have posted job opportunities for native speaking EFL teachers.

Işik University, Şile Campus

The university looks for EFL instructors for its programs. Preferred qualifications are an M.A. or Diploma in EFL and two years relevant teaching experience. Preference is being given to candidates that are able to interview locally. To apply, send a cover letter, CV and three references.

Sehir University and Boğaziçi University are options to find work.

Language Schools

There are a host of language schools large and small in Istanbul. You can walk up and down the Istiklal avenue and find them; fill out an application and leave your resume/CV, a letter of introduction, copies of your academic qualifications and letters of recommendation if you have them. Here are contact details for a few.

Via Lingua Istanbul

Provides international TEFL certificate courses in many of the world's most popular teaching destinations, including Istanbul. During and after your TEFL course, you will receive extensive job guidance and assistance from Via Lingua.

International Training Institute (ITI)

CELTA and DELTA training center that is also an excellent place to find jobs teaching English in Istanbul.

Wall Street Institute

One of the vast network of English training schools with placements.

English Time

One of the bigger EFL schools in Istanbul.

Dilko English

Dilko English is a chain of language schools that has been operating in Istanbul since 1977. They offer classes in English and German for adults and children. Teachers will be expected to attend and participate in monthly workshops designed to continue teachers training, as well as the normal administrative duties of class management. Dilko teaches a syllabus that is designed to the criteria of the Common European Framework (CEF) and geared towards Standard English. North American teachers should be aware of the differences that separate the common language. Students are generally adults, but there is a children´s program as well. Competitive wages (US$1,250 - US$1,750 per month), housing allowance bonus, accommodation upon arrival, travel bonus, end of contract completion bonus and private health insurance are provided.

Living in Istanbul

Istanbul is a relatively expensive city and, as in any sprawling metropolis, finding housing can be difficult and time-consuming. My advice: don't spend too much time searching for an abode. If you find something that fits your needs, preferences, and budget, take it and start settling in. But check the neighborhood, the apartment, and the landlord out as best you can. And don't expect the standard you would typically find in a newer, more modern city in the U.S. 

I was fortunate in that my employer offered me a subsidized room in a shared apartment with two other teachers in Cihangir, a very nice, if expensive neighborhood within walking distance from the Istiklal mall and the school. 

It's definitely worth inquiring about such a possibility with your employer, and anyone else at the office who seems open, friendly and willing to lend a new foreign teacher a hand. Tapping into the knowledge and experience of other teachers is also recommended. And then there's always the standard practices of browsing the bulletin boards at popular cafes, restaurants, bars and pubs where English-speaking are known to frequent.

Related Topics
Living in Turkey: Articles and Resources

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