Teaching English In Turkey: My Experience As An EFL Teacher

Monday, June 24, 2013


Why should you consider teaching English in Turkey? First off, Istanbul makes for a great place to begin an exploration into Middle Eastern culture. In many respects, it’s a European city, spider-work boroughs of narrow streets, public transportation around the city and wonderful arcades of well-maintained shops. In other ways — the turrets breaking up the skyline, hookah pipes and roasting hunks of meat in restaurant windows — you are most definitely not in Kansas anymore. Istanbul is one of those cities that seems to be on the cusp of everything: continents, religions, seas and cultures.

Due to its location, Istanbul has naturally adopted a comfortable mix. There are bars and cleavage, as well as the call to prayer echoing off the rooftops five times a day and women in hijabs. Market hawkers conjure up a multitude of languages to stop you for a go at the swashbuckling business of import/export negotiations. Even Istanbul’s trademark postcard filler, Aya Sophia, is a church turned mosque, which ultimately became a museum.

Istanbul is a stunning location in its own right, independent of all the converging outside influence. The city is composed of seven hills, bisected by the Bosphorus strait and bordered by sea, all creating some of the most dramatic cityscapes imaginable.

Sitting at a waterside café, staring over the straight at Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, the Golden Horn, Galata Tower and beautiful bridges, it’s easy to understand why so many have stopped to pitch their tent here, and why Constantinople once was the center of the universe. As an English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher, it’s definitely one of those places that makes you ever-thankful to have been raised with a commodity everyone wants: Istanbul has millions of people who are eager to learn English.

Getting Work in Turkey

There are jobs to be found throughout Turkey, mostly in major cities like Adana, Izmir and the country capital Ankara. Undoubtedly, Istanbul, bigger than all three of these combined and with a much more international community, has the lion’s share of the EFL employment opportunities. Not only are private language schools in every neighborhood of the metropolis, but here lies the bulk of the universities, international primary and secondary schools, and a few great NGOs to check into.

In general, the best foot-in-the-door method for working in Istanbul is to go the language academy route, and there are plenty of options to choose from. The ubiquitous Berlitz language school — no surprise — has a location here, as well as home-grown EFL giant English Time, which is where I worked and has several branches throughout the city and country. There are many more employer options, including Wall Street Institute, The English Centre and Just English to name a few.

Still, like many places, the cushiest EFL jobs are university positions, which are plentiful, but more often than not, awarded only to people who are already present. The good news is that I’ve seen people just show up in Istanbul, look for a job and land a sweet university deal. Unlike working at the academies, universities tend to offer salaries rather than hourly pay, and vacation time comes a little more copiously. Good options to start with are Sehir University or Boğaziçi University.

Otherwise, a few more options remain in Turkey. Teaching children in Istanbul often pays a little more than the run-of-the-mill English classes for adults, and many of these options are in international schools like Small Hands. If money isn’t your main concern, Darüşşafaka Association is a fantastic NGO in Istanbul that works to give orphans opportunities. Furthermore, while the biggest, Istanbul isn’t the only city. Ankara and Adana get mixed reviews, but I’ve heard great things about the coastal cities of Izmir and Antalya.


My Working Life in Istanbul

To be completely honest, my personal experience working in Istanbul had its ups and downs. At times, in the spring and fall, the pay was very appealing but the hours, split shifts seven days a week, were too overwhelming. Then, in the summer, things slowed down quite a bit, allowing my wife and I to stay afloat but sometimes forced to dip into our savings from the springtime. During the month of Ramadan, the school more or less shut down. Unfortunately, the schedule and salary fluctuated more than I’d have liked, but English Time did always pay on time and in full.

As for students, English Time caters mostly to adults, often business people who attend three-hour classes in the evening after work. There were also quite a few university students, either supplementing their curriculum classes or trying to get a leg up on standardized tests like TOEFL or IELTS. Classes were equally mixed with women and men, the decorum fairly informal and most courses were beginner or lower level, though there were a few advanced groups. Turkish pupils, even adults, often become very attached to teachers and, in general, were friendly to me.

The aforementioned schedule was the most troublesome issue I had. In the spring and fall, I worked consecutive weeks without a day off (despite a contract that suggested otherwise), and most days were split shifts, meaning I taught from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the day then from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at night. This is a fairly common practice with EFL jobs, but it is nonetheless disappointing when you find yourself overworked, overextended and ultimately unable to enjoy the place you’ve come to experience. Upon leaving, I vowed never to work an hourly job again.

Lastly, Turkey, while less visa-intense than many East Asian countries, does require foreign employees to have appropriate work papers. English Time had just gotten into serious trouble for having illegal workers, so they were quite diligent about getting us the correct documentation in due time and pretty good about arranging the paperwork and transportation. Expect your employer to handle this, including the cost of admission, and unless fluent in Turkish, I wouldn’t advise attempting it yourself. Don’t work illegally as you may be imprisoned.


Istanbul as Home

Now, for some positive thoughts. Istanbul is far and away my favorite city I’ve ever lived in, visited or read about. It bustles. It wakes up late and slow, and at 2 a.m. certain parts of town — Taksim Square and Istiklal Street — are packed, with plenty of cafes and bars still serving. The tourist section of Sultanahmet is stuffed with so many beautiful sights — the Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia, the Grand Bazaar — that exploring it is still fun months into living in Istanbul.

When I did have a chance to play, much of my time was spent walking the city, which is for the most part very safe and has loads of great alleyways and side streets to discover. I also enjoyed taking the ferry to the Princes’ Islands, maybe an hour trip into the Marmara Sea, great for a little relief from the 20 million-plus population. Moreover, the city is just packed with places to linger over cups of tea, have a few games of omnipresent backgammon and enjoy the view. There is always something to do, or not.

Getting around Istanbul is fairly easy as there is public transport going everywhere. Unfortunately, there are five different types — ferry, subway, bus, tram, and funicular — and trips often require using two or more, each calling for a new fare. That said, the price is really reasonable and all of the services quite clean and safe. Taxis, as well, are everywhere and sometimes a little overly interested in giving you a ride. Shuttles to and from the airport(s) leave frequently from Taksim Square and don’t cost much.

Of course, it’s also really cool living in the only major city that resides in two continents. I even got to participate in a marathon that crossed the Bosphorus Strait, allowing me to run from Asia to Europe. It’s also easy enough to get to other great attractions in Turkey, such as Cappadocia, an amazing desert of conical rock formations, and Ephesus with its ancient Greek ruins. Of course, in a country surrounded by three seas, there are also famous beach resort towns like Antalya and Bodrum that offer sand and surf.

Final Thoughts

Istanbul forever remains one of my options for the next place. I’d love to live there again one day, and I recommend it to every traveler I meet. It was a great gateway, as it is often referred to, for learning a little more about religion, for traveling into the Middle East, and for easing from Western culture into something not-so-shockingly different. The food, the tea, the tobacco flavors, the eclectic shops and tremendous views that seem to be hiding around every corner — the place instantly felt like home, or at least, somewhere you wouldn’t mind calling home.

By Jonathon Engels


About the Author

jonathanengelsbiopicJonathon Engels, formerly a patron saint of misadventure, has been stumbling his way across cultural borders since 2005 and is currently back volunteering in the mountains outside of Antigua, Guatemala. For more of his work, visit his website and blog.

  • sid

    Can someone please help on housing side of things. Where has previous ESL teachers lived whilst staying in istanbul ideally Taksim Square.

  • Ceej

    I have worked for two different language schools in Turkey and both of them do not care about education of the students, only that students are “happy” and that the school maximizes their profit, even if that means cutting the quality of education so short that no one learns anything. Most students are seeking the certificates these language schools give out, so students will often refuse to do any work, complain about the slightest things (e.g., the teacher had us talk in pairs rather than directly with him, etc.), and generally lose their money on an investment they shouldn’t have made in the first place.

    Culturally, Turks on the whole have no desire to use English. They might be excited they can speak a few words to a foreigner, but other than that, the nationalism and pride that permeates every layer of society here prevents most Turks from adequately learning something that would benefit them immensely. For instance, my students do not review their English outside the classroom. Why? No one here speaks English, nothing is in English, and so they come to me a few hours a week, hoping to, by osmosis, learn the language. It just can’t happen. Unless your students are highly motivated to learn, teaching at a language school is just awful. DO NOT DO IT.

    Last point – permits. Both of my schools dropped the ball on getting legal papers. My current one knew since last June I was coming… It’s currently March and no paperwork has been filed. Despite my reminders, they don’t want to spend the money. Now they act like they want to, and I’m leaving in a few weeks… It’s all a show. Don’t be fooled – make your employer PROVE TO YOU they are getting the papers filed and everything is being worked on!! Do not trust them. They are lying to you.

    • sid

      Can you please help me on housing side of things. Where have you lived previously whilst teaching in Istanbul ideally I prefer to in Taksim Square.


  • Bobbie

    I see most of the comments here are rather old. I have been here 3 months, and it has been beyond disappointing..I strongly encourage anyone of thinking about teaching here to reconsider, and consider Asia instead. I taught in Thailand before this, and despite Thailand being considered one of the least competitive countries in Asia to teach in, I’d pick it over Turkey any day. The typical workload here is 30 hours a week, as opposed to just 20 a week in Thailand – and for a similar salary no less! Living expenses are also much higher. Anyone considering coming here..please reconsider!

    • Simon

      May be a mute point, but Turkey is in Asia, with only half of Istanbul being in Europe. Just wanted to clear up a common misconception.

  • jenh

    I’d just like to post a comment here so that teachers who are looking into teaching in Turkey will be able to learn from my experience of teaching there and specifically, working for Oxford as Academy, Bursa, Turkey.

    I would strongly discourage teachers from working for Oxford as Academy, Bursa, Turkey. While this agency is not a complete scam and that they actually send their teachers to work in schools, they lie to their teachers about being able to work legally in the country in order to get the teachers there, only to put them at a disadvantaged position when problems arise.

    The company would tell potential teachers that they would receive a residency permit which would allow them to work. That’s a lie. Residency permits DO NOT allow foreigners to work in Turkey. You
    need a separate work permit.

    One reason the company lies is so they can save money while still getting teachers to go work for them. Teachers will only realize that they have been tricked if one of the following situation arises: 1.
    When they read the Turkish words in their residency permit, clearly stating that the holder is not permitted to work. 2. When a Turkish friend or colleague inform them that. 3. When they go to the police for help and get told/caught by the police.

    Some other problems with this agency is that they put money over their teachers’ well-being and interests. They pay lower than average wage and never on time (you can get much higher wage and better benefits with many other companies). Their apartments are extremely small and they never fix your apartment when there is a problem.

    Additionally, if you ever quit work with Oxford as Academy, they will threaten you for money (I have proof if you’d like me to show you and I have no reason to slander this company). They will say that they have connection with the police and they are going to catch you unless you pay them
    a lot of money. They will also turn you out of your apartment, cut off your phone and internet, and steal your things. And you will have no one to turn to because you are an illegal worker.

    Do not work for Oxford as Academy. They are not honest people.

    • Yesmine

      Thanks ! They just emailed me the job description and I felt something going on.

      • sarah

        i am sorry that you had a difficult time but I struggle to believe hat this is the whole story. I have been working with them for two years and have had no problems at all!

  • Hossein Saremi

    I am in istanbul and ready for teaching english here.
    How can help me?

  • MaryLou

    I have a question for you. How long before the start of the academic year does the school require you in the country?

    Thank you!

  • dibbzy

    ygfamily…a lot of foreigners do that and some even do that intentionally…jonathon engels danish or swedish ethnic u.s or u.k citizen doesnt sound that bad..turks are not arabs or middle easterners, they are not even a nationality or race..they are the human race …..

  • ygfamilyfamily

    Seriously? I stopped reading at Middle Eastern. Mind you, we are in no way Arabic, Turks come from Mongols which happen to be Asian..

    • fact_checker_armen

      Woah, woah, woah! Turkey is within the region we refer to as the Middle East. Hence, it can be called Middle Eastern: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_East

      Also, studies have shown that there was very little genetic mixing between Mongols and Turks. Modern Turks are in fact descended from Anatolian tribes.

      Has Erdoğan been messing with your history books as well?

      • hamza

        The reason we are not Mongolian is because we where two separate people’s living in the same area (Steppe). Middle East is still Asian, modern Turks are still descended from ancient Turks… from the Steppe. last but not least, Erdogan is busy improving the country’s economic and moral situation. everyone crying that he banned alcohol late at night, like every other western country…

    • Simon

      Indeed, Turkey is not in the Middle East. It straddles Europe and Asian.

  • Lou Cappelletti

    Excellent summary! Thanks…in Beyoglu today!

    • MattStabile

      Nice, hope you enjoy it there.

  • ElizabeastLauraSouthwood

    @Chris This is very interesting to me! I have been to Turkey, and would love to teach there in a year or two. At this time, I am preparing to depart for a year teaching in Chengdu, China, but I will consult your site after a few months about the next gig :)

  • This is a good article, thanks for sharing your experiences.

    @ShamYes you do need a university degree in order to get a work permit and work legally.  Unless your degree is in education or something like that you will also need some form of TEFL certificate (120hours minimum) as well as your degree.  There are a few places that will still take you on for cash but I don’t recommend going down that route at all if you intend staying any more than a couple of months.

    Its a booming market at the moment and anyone with the right paperwork, some experience and a good work ethic can do pretty well http://englishjobsturkey.com.  You can definitely save money and its a good base to do some traveling from as well.

    I have built up a little network of teachers and schools during my 4 years here and I can help newcomers get a job and get settled.  I post all the info on http://englishjobsturkey.com if anyone is interested.  Its all free :)

  • Sham

    Hi, Jonathan. Do you know if a University degree is a requirement to TEFL in Turkey?

    • Kiki

      Hi Jonathan, I am a South African lady wanting to teach English in Turkey. I have a Degree in Public Relations Management. Having worked for more than 20 years. I want to enroll to train as a teacher in Istanbul. What are the requirements?

  • kris

    Hi Jonathan, great post. I can see what you mean about the private language institutes in Turkey. They are renown for working their teachers very hard! I’ve been in Istanbul for some time and recently launched an online start-up focused on getting Turks to speak English, come check us out at http://www.turkslearnenglish.com/tr. Would love to hear your thoughts (or anyone’s who has experience teaching here!).


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