English Schools in Istanbul – the Bad, the Worse, and the Ugly

There are probably as many English schools in Istanbul as there are Starbucks in New York. Depending on whether you work for a private English school, public or private university, high school, or primary school, or in the corporate world, you will have a different experience as a teacher. For first-time teachers or even experienced ones, I hope to shed some light on the Istanbul teaching scene. In this post, we will look at the normal everyday run-of-the-mill English school.

It’s true. No matter where English teachers go in the world, they will probably get exploited. The trick is to get exploited the least amount possible. For those of you interested in teaching in Turkey, you’re in for a high level of exploitation. In my opinion, the main reason for this is the abundance of teachers. Turkey (Istanbul in particular) has become a hotbed for English teachers since the 2000s. The laws of supply and demand have allowed English school owners to lower their wages and raise tuition, making more money than ever without facing any consequences.

An English class in May 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey

An English class in May 2011

You can find one of the several English schools on just about every corner in Istanbul. They’re everywhere, like a cockroach infestation. Unfortunately, the owners of most of these schools have less integrity than a cockroach.

In most cases, these schools will not offer a work visa, meaning you are working illegally and have zero rights as an employee. From a business point of view, there are good reasons for not offering work visas – they are expensive, sometimes a teacher will up and leave with no warning, and several teachers just don’t have the qualifications required by the government to get a visa.

An English class in July 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey

An English class in July 2011

Some people have great experiences with these schools, others literally get robbed for their time. Everyone’s experience varies, but my advice is to be on guard at all times. Here are some problems I’ve seen:

  • Schools do not pay on time (or at all). Most schools will pay monthly. Sometimes, payday comes and goes with no explanation, or they tell you “next week”. “Next week” never seems to come. You can’t exactly go to the authorities to complain about this without a work visa.
  • Discrimination and racism. I’ve experienced this personally. If you are American or British or Canadian or Australian and don’t fit the “description” of a person from these countries, you could possibly get lowballed for hourly wages or rejected for a job altogether. A friend of mine was making 25TL at an American Time branch and told me they were hiring. I went in with him to meet the owner who claimed I “didn’t look American” and offered me 14TL with my friend sitting right next to me. Sorry, but what does an American look like? He kept insisting that I was Turkish and then offered 17TL based on my experience. I laughed and walked out.
  • Not giving hours promised. If they promise 25 hours a week and give you 12, leave. It won’t get better.
  • Teachers sign contracts in Turkish and are not allowed to have a copy. This is wrong. Insist on taking a copy of the contract home before you sign it. Have a friend translate it for you. There’s a reason they don’t give you contracts in English or even let you take a copy home. You might be surprised at what you find.
  • Private lessons. A school might charge 80-100TL for their students, then turn around and pay you something like 30TL. If that’s not exploitation, I don’t know what is. If you look hard enough, you can find good private lessons on your own, but don’t undersell yourself.
  • It can turn into a popularity contest. You might be a great teacher, but if your students don’t like you, your school will treat you like a leper. I think I’m a good teacher, but I was successful at my school because the students liked me. I knew very good qualified teachers with much more experience than me who got bad feedback from students and were shown the door.

I worked for Alta Eğitim – 5 Günde İngilizce for two years and had a great experience for the first six months. The environment was positive, staff was great to work with, I got fed twice a day, bonuses were good, and I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted in the classroom. Because classes only lasted five days, I was also able to choose whatever weeks I wanted off (for the most part), allowing me to travel a lot more than I had expected.

An English class in September 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey

An English class in September 2011

The drawbacks were that I had to be with the students nine hours a day for five days a week without a break. The pay was low but the perks made up for it. After that six month honeymoon, things started to change. Bonuses were taken away, cameras were added in the classroom, and students started getting sold on unreal expectations. The owner started to fire teachers who made suggestions on how to improve the curriculum and program, or for complaining about lack of supplies and resources. Staff members who had no teaching experience started to tell teachers how to do their jobs. Selling more weeks to the students became more important than their education. Policies got harsher and harsher, so I decided to quit once my contract was up. I still love the staff, but it’s a shame things got as bad as they did.

An English class in September 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey

An English class in September 2011

Thankfully, there are good resources for teachers in Istanbul to weed out the bad schools and find a reputable one. While searching for schools, you should consult the “Istanbul English School Blacklist” and the “Istanbul English Teaching Green List” on Facebook. These have been very helpful for many teachers because you can see both positive and negative experiences for schools that you inquire about. It also helps to talk to the teachers working at a school you are applying to. If they’re happy, it’s a good sign. If they aren’t, they will not hesitate to tell you.

Before thinking about teaching in Istanbul, since this is the only city I’ve taught in so far, I will tell you something that almost every teacher who has experience teaching in several countries has told me: Teachers are treated worse in Turkey than at schools in many other countries in the world. This assessment came to me from people who have taught in China, South Korea, Russia, Chile, Thailand, Viet Nam, Nepal, Argentina, Poland, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from working at an English school in Istanbul, there are good ones out there, but you should always watch your back.

If you have any more questions, please contact me and I’ll do my best to help.

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