Myth VS Fact
“It used to be that Turks would migrate to Germany to find work. Now we see people migrating from poorer surrounding nations to make a living in Turkey.” Thus observed (astutely and at long last) Education Minister Nimet Çubukçu just over a month ago.
Of this increasing number of immigrants, it is estimated that there are over 2 million unregistered foreign workers in Turkey, yet one group consistently lost in the newsworthy bag of refugees and job-seekers has been the undeniably large number of native English speakers, often semi-legally employed in schools, universities and course centers all around this country. That is, until now.
Last month, the Education Ministry launched a TL 1.5 billion project that involves the employment of 40,000 Anglophones over a four-year period, with the aim of helping whip Turkey's English skills into shape. Upon hearing this, my immediate concern was yet more droves of backpacking beatniks filling up Taksim with their “awesome” travel yarns and opinions -- so help me God. Though I overcame this inner arrogance quite quickly; for having worked in state and private schools with many teachers here, I can say with no doubt that this sort of government-led initiative has been a long time coming. Learning English with the extra help of native speakers is extremely vital to ensuring Turkish students can be confident in international communications and awareness.
However, the response was not unanimous. The Education Personnel Labor Union (Eğitim Bir-Sen), for example, staged a protest last month against the move. The union's criticisms came threefold: 1) Turkish teaching jobs would be going straight to foreigners, 2) foreigners would be earning the same as experienced Turkish teachers and 3) (most shockingly) foreigners could come with the “ulterior motive” of “importing their own culture.”
Eğitim Bir-Sen did not mention the benefits this move would bring to Turkish teachers or Turkish students, nor, surprisingly, did they return any of my emails. And if I could be so shamelessly crass as to bring personal reasons into the debate, the union also failed to think about the much-needed benefits it would bring to native English teachers -- so much for professional solidarity. So just for the record, let's address their concerns here.
1) A win for Turkish teachers of English. The plan outlines, first of all, that a Turkish teacher is to remain present in the classroom at the same time as a native speaker -- thus the annual demand for Turkish English teachers will stay the same. That argument put to rest, this is a great opportunity for Turkish teachers to keep their English skills up-to-speed at school with daily usage and interaction. Although Eğitim Bir-Sen General Manager Mrs. Zübeyde Kılıç claims to be defending teachers' professions, I can say without exception that my Turkish colleagues find our presence a great resource to have at hand, as long as the imported teachers do a good job in promoting practical English and resolve the problems arising from a focus on grammar, which has been the case for decades.
2) Greater fairness to teachers and students. I (and a good number of foreigners here in Turkey) have worked voluntarily, below minimum wage, minimum wage and on equal pay with Turkish teachers, and I can tell you that the latter is by far the most desirable. In a place where one is far from home, with no friends or family contacts to help you get set up and with a job helping a country's youth gain access to university, greater learning and a generally broader perspective of the world, one feels entitled to make ends meet. In any case, according to the head of the project, foreigner teachers will be paid around TL 2,000 a month, TL 200 less than the average Turkish teacher.
Of course, I support Eğitim Bir-Sen's arguments that Turkish teachers' pay should be raised above current levels, regardless, but I ask them that we might have enough money to live here, too. This especially, given that the current generation of native speakers in Turkey has been forced to avoid the whopping costs of work visas and residence permits by dodging the law and sneaking out to Bulgaria/Greece/Syria every three months to restamp their visas in return for illegal working status. This has been done on the orders of cost-cutting language centers and companies whose profits depend on hyping up native speakers to private schools, but has not been so much fun for anyone who has had to deal with a whole string of problems from not having legal status here and not least for those who have encountered random ID checks by civil police.
With this new scheme, we have the chance to work within the law, with the support of the state, and most importantly in the service of greater numbers of Turkish students in a broader range of social classes. We can also reach outside the main cities, thereby enriching our experience of the country and giving greater nobility to our work.
Breaking private schools' monopoly on English-speaking levels the playing field for the vast majority of Turkish students wishing to go to a good university. Therefore, by defending the current system (as in, no system) unions are defending the idea of educational resources as a luxury.
3) Lowering the impact of cheap-shot nationalism. I have very rarely been on the end of racist abuse in Turkey, which is one of the reasons I like living here. However, when discussing international affairs and foreigners from the safety of the third-person narrative, nationalism and xenophobia do tend to rear their ugly heads.
Mahfuz Yalçınkaya, Egitim Bir-Sen's press secretary, stated in Hürriyet that “there could be missionaries among the teachers, or they may have other goals like promoting their own culture.” The first claim has absolutely no basis, and if any Turkish student was receiving an alternative religious education, it would definitely not escape their, their classroom teacher's nor their parent's notice. This is not a concern.
As for “promoting their own culture,” well, I am not even sure what this means, but I imagine that from the union's perspective, this means our very presence in Turkey, in the service of Turkey, demonstrating that Westerners are real people who have no apparent innate desire to divide and weaken the republic (as appose to what Turkish textbooks aimed for 6-18-year-olds would have us believe).
If students graduating from Turkish high schools in the future do not live in a constant state of suspicion of foreigners' ulterior motives for being here, then perhaps they will realize all the more quickly that all of Eğitim Bir-Sen's previous arguments were ill-researched at best and posturing nationalist tripe at worst. Furthermore, these students will hopefully be offended by the assumption that they will run to the union's side just by being told that the foreigners are “back to their old tricks again.”
The very fact that this project requires public spending means it demands public scrutiny, but this plan will no doubt mean that students will gain a standard of English that won't leave those who desire it lacking education and job opportunities in the future. In the long run, this will serve Turkey's economic interests and improve its image in the world. It is also a chance for Turkish state education to make a massive leap forward in terms of language skills.
Maybe once that happens Egitim Bir-Sen can hire someone to email me back.
This was my second published article for Today's Zaman. Published 06/05/11