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Next stop: Turkey!

Trying to choose the best destination for your skills? Teacher Jonathan Smith asks: why not consider Turkey?

As a novice teacher, I first came to Turkey with a single suitcase and a return ticket (just in case) more than 30 years ago. At that time, the country seemed frontier territory, whereas Italy, Greece and Spain were already well-trodden paths for the EFL teacher. Turkey was in the grip of another economic crisis, which meant that, in lira terms, I was already a millionaire on receiving my first wage packet!

I’ve spent much of my time here in Izmir, although my first job was in the neighbouring town of Aydin. On reflection, I’m glad I was never tempted by the bright lights of the metropolis that is Istanbul, although most EFL teachers inevitably end up there. Salaries outside Istanbul have always been somewhat lower, but then living costs there were considerably greater, and remain so. If you’re working at an international school, you can expect to be paid in dollars or euros, or receive a salary pegged to one of these, which will protect you from fluctuations in the local currency. Otherwise, you’ll be paid in Turkish lira, but, if so – with inflation running at over 60% even by conservative estimates – your employer may well provide regular increments. Accommodation and flights may be part of your package, but this is very much at the discretion of the individual school. As the economy in Turkey has been highly volatile, especially in the last year or so, it’s hard to generalise on financial matters. Suffice it to say, rents for apartments have risen sharply, and the price of some basic foodstuffs – once much cheaper – are now comparable with the UK.

The school must also provide a work permit for the foreign teacher, which can take some time to process. When I was new to Turkey, this largely seemed to consist of my being registered with the Turkish Social Security and sipping tea with the local Chief of Police in a rather plush office. It has become more complicated over the years, but the basic requirement has always been a university degree and CELTA or similar.

In the past, there was a certain amount of flexibility regarding this, but the authorities have tightened up quite considerably and the regulations seem to be subject to change. You may, for instance, be expected to provide extra documentation proving the equivalency of your qualifications to those available at Turkish universities. Because of these changes, many schools have unfortunately given up on employing non-Turkish teachers altogether. However, once you receive your work permit, you’ll also receive a TC (Republic of Turkey) number, which enables you to receive treatment at state hospitals and some other benefits, such as a reduction in the cost of prescription medicines. Some employers, as an added perk, may supply private health insurance, which is otherwise quite costly.

In the classroom, the EFL – especially the ‘foreign’, native-speaking – teacher is likely to be given skills-based material designed to be communicative in approach. ‘Make them talk,’ I was instructed all those years ago, and I suppose that remains the case now too. In many schools, ‘grammar’ tends to be the preserve of the Turkish English teacher and one challenge has always been to encourage students to apply the structures that they have acquired in these lessons to the communicative tasks that I’m implementing in mine. Of course, the results are variable, but Turkey is far more globalised and Turks far better-travelled than 30 years ago, so students have far more exposure to English than they once did. An English derived from Netflix and social media is, though, perhaps a mixed blessing!

Turkey has changed enormously in the 30 years that I’ve been here. As in most countries, it has undergone a revolution in consumerism. When I arrived, it was sometimes difficult to find anything other than traditional Turkish coffee on sale – the thick, dark beverage that leaves a residue in the bottom of your cup. Now, my flat is probably closer to a branch of Starbucks than anywhere I lived in England would be. Three decades ago, most people drove around in locally-maunufactured Renaults – which were almost always white – whereas now you’ll find the same range of cars on the roads as in any European country, despite the tax that has to be paid on imported vehicles.

However, some things remain unchanged, especially when you leave the big cities and usual holiday destinations. Instead of gigantic American-style shopping malls, it’s still possible to find narrow streets of small artisan shops and lokantas, the restaurants serving traditional Turkish dishes which cater for the local working population. I can say that some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in this country have been in these modest-looking eateries. And despite being an old-timer here, another constant is the way in which I’m still treated as a guest. Provided you behave in a courteous manner, this will almost certainly be reciprocated and in some of the less touristy towns and villages, I’ve been invited to drink a glass of tea or even share a family meal. Turkish people are often curious to find out about your background, country of origin, as well as your perspective on their country.

One of the principal rewards of living and working in Turkey is the opportunities for travel, and one of the reasons for my preferring Izmir over Istanbul is the relative ease with which you can escape the city for a day or weekend away. Being such a huge country, there’s a wide diversity of landscapes to explore, from the alpine pastures of the Black Sea region to the pine-covered shores of the Mediterranean. There are countless historical sites worth seeing too, and you may recognise the names of many from the Bible or classical mythology.

Of course, everyone’s experience will vary, but the novice teacher who arrived here 30 years ago with a return ticket just in case is, as of last year, officially a Turkish pensioner!

Image courtesy of Library
Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith is a graduate of Cardiff University, who has been an EFL teacher in Turkey since 1993. His students have included both adults and children, although he is currently teaching teens in a high school in Izmir. He has also delivered teacher training sessions in various cities in Turkey.
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