Teaching in Istanbul

Article written for Yabangee.com
English teaching is the most common way for Yabangees to make ends meet in Istanbul. If you are considering a career move to teaching, or are new to the city and need to start somewhere, you might want to start off by asking yourself a few questions. Where are you eligible to work? What kind of hours do you want? And how much money should you be making for your time?

Below, as part of the first of a series of articles on teaching in Istanbul, is some information to help point you in the right direction. Many people find that they could have had a more satisfying working life if they had only looked into things better before signing the contract. After all, the small stresses of everyday life in the city – public transport, daily expenses and a hectic social calendar, make it all the more important that your working life, at least, is not a pain in the ‘arka taraf’.

There are several ways to teach as a native speaker (or someone who has graduated from an English-speaking university). We’ll go through each of these below, complete with their pros, cons and rough pay scales. 

State School
  • Pros: Better behaved kids, informal work environment, health care and insurance benefits, no after-school duties
  • Cons: Usually limited contract work, lower pay ceiling, poor materials, over-crowded classes
  • Pay scale: 1800-2400TL per month
  • You need: A degree, ELF qualification, some experience
State schools are not an option technically, as unions tend to kick up a fuss at any suggestion foreign teachers could enter them, but you can sometimes stumble upon loopholes such as special government projects or the EU-funded Comenius Programme.
As work environments go, state schools are relaxed, as they lack the sometimes cut-throat competitiveness that characterises private school staff and creates extra work duties to cater for fussy parents. The class sizes can be a problem – around 35 children to a class in some places, but this is balanced out by generally much better behaviour and respect for teachers. The state course-books are riddled with minor errors and concentrate on grammar rules, so creativity is key.
Great class in Izmir's Cem Baki Anatolian Highschool

Language Schools
  • Pros: Informal work environment, sociable, no extra duties, no clock-in/clock-out times
  • Cons: Most classes take place on weekends, strange hours in the week, amount of classes varies by the month. No visa arrangements
  • Pay scale: 18-25TL an hour (25-30 hours a week)
  • You need: An EFL qualification
The work is quite easy if you have a personable character and an appreciation of language-learning. Most schools have a good array of materials to help you and, because of the diverse range of students – from middle-aged professionals to school leavers and graduates – English classes can be interesting and dare I say fun. New-comers to the city generally find it a good starting point to work at a language school, as they always need staff and don’t have the same level of commitment required to work in, say, a private school.

There are countless language schools in Taksim, Etiler, Beşiktaş, Bakırköy, Kadıköy and the other main commercial hubs of the city. The main schools have interchangeable search-engine inspired names like “English Time”, “English Council”, “English Now”, “British Culture” etc. You will see them everywhere. This means that the options are wide, so you can probably find a language school within a reasonable distance of where you live.

You will get paid better according to your experience and qualifications, as there is no set wage. You are likely to earn enough to make ends meet, and a lot of teachers make around 2500-2800TL a month. Some places are notoriously bad at paying on time, so make sure to check the bank as soon as your salary is due. A few other things to keep in mind: your time table will change on a weekly basis as some classes start while others finish, so you have to be flexible. It is preferable to work somewhere close to home as you could have, for example, a two-hour class in the morning and a three-hour class at night, leaving the whole day in-between to twiddle your thumbs. Also, be sure not to cherish your weekends so much anymore, as these are the main class days. You will get one day off a week, normally a Friday.
Many schools will hire you without regard for a work visa and pay cash in hand. This is risky if you are stopped by police for any reason during your time in Turkey, and also means that unless you want to pay a heavy fine at the airport on the way home, you will have to arrange all your residence permit issues alone.
  • Pros: Working with small children, fun environment, never boring, steady hours
  • Cons: Working with small children, tiring, never boring, clock-in/clock-out time
  • Pay scale: 2000-4000TL per month
  • You need: An EFL qualification, degree from English language department/university, experience working with children
Kindergarten teaching is not for everyone, and it takes someone with patience and experience to fill the role best. However, it is an enjoyable teaching post as there is no expectation to drill grammar rules and prepare exams. Duties will mostly include thinking up activities, attending schools trips and assuaging pushy parents with homework assignments and school reports. Rest assured, that there are assistants on hand to take the little treasures to the toilet.

There has only recently been an amendment to national education in Turkey, requiring children to begin school at the age of five. That is why until recently parents had to pay for the privilege – hence the many expensive kindergartens for children aged 4-6.

Depending on the school, you may have to stay on premises between certain times. This will definitely be the case if you are a class teacher as opposed to a branch teacher. Class teacher means you will remain in one class throughout the year, and hopefully build up a strong bond with the kids. On the other hand, if you are a branch teacher then, as with art and PE, you will be moving between classes, which can be more difficult if you don’t have a knack for teaching small children, or if the class has the right amount of ‘problem-children’.
The pay is fixed and is higher depending on how well-established the school is.
Elementary/ High Schools
  • Pros: Good work experience, steady hours, more pay for less teaching hours, visa provided, summer holidays
  • Cons: Extra duties, student’s often bad behaviour, clock-in/clock-out times
  • You make: 2500-4000TL month
  • You need: An EFL qualification, degree from English language department/university, experience
My class of third-graders at Birikim. Little geniuses.
Working in one of Istanbul’s many private schools is a different experience depending on where you work, so either look for reviews on the internet from any former employees, or ask around the yabangee community in Istanbul to see if somebody has any recommendations. The extra caution is deserved, and read your contract carefully as there can be many rules and extra duties. The rule that receives the most criticism is probably the one where you have to stay on the school premises from 9:00am to whatever time the boss says, usually 4-5:00pm, even if you have no classes and there is not much work to do. After school hours you may be expected to attend department meetings etc., which may or may not be conducted entirely in Turkish. Many schools also expect you to show up for weekend meetings every couple of months.
The quality of the material and curriculum provided by most schools is normally very good. Classes are also much more manageable in size than state schools. However, discipline is an unsolvable problem in around half of all private schools. You should expect to teach around 25 hours a week.
These schools’ main focus is on pleasing parents, which means there are many cases of stat-fixing (i.e. allowing students to cheat at exams) and a fixation on after-school activities and end-of-year shows. Foreign teachers can expect great help from other members of staff, however.
Pay depends on experience and qualifications, and every successful interview candidate has the right to adapt parts of their contract, or argue for higher pay, before starting. Some schools may not mention pay during the summer, but most can afford to, even if this is a little lower than for work months. The main perks, of course, are the holidays – not so generously given in language schools, and working legally – with your work visa and insurance fully paid for. Most schools provide a service shuttle to get you to and from work, so commuting is not so much of a problem.
  • Pros: Good work experience, better pay, steady hours, visa provided, summer holidays, options for study, English-speaking staff, no parental involvement
  • Cons: Exam-grading, extra duties
  • You make: 2500-4000TL month
  • You need: An EFL qualification, degree from English language department/university, 2-3 years of teaching experience
The duties expected of instructors are the same, whether Turkish or native. This means grading and paperwork are all part of a day’s work, but at least there is a greater sense of solidarity between staff because of this. Co-ordination skills go a long way in this sense.

University hazırlık, or preparatory departments, are where students entering university take a year-long course exclusively in English. Upon graduating from this department they can begin studying for their chosen major.

Universities can be extremely stimulating or extremely depressing depending on the students and the management at the institution. Many students are either not natural language-learners or are studying majors like law, where English is not a necessity – although they are still forced to pass the year. For this reason, motivation can be a problem. As discussed in the private school section above, behaviour can be an issue at universities, and where most of the intake students are from private schools without a bursary, old habits die hard. However, without constant parental oversight, and the very real risk of having to repeat the year again, university students can be mature enough in the right setting. It actually all depends on the university’s standing and age – the more recently-established universities focusing on the quantity rather than quality of students. Class sizes are 20-30.
Job Agencies
  • Pros: Visa arrangements, paperwork and contract issues can be handled by a third-party, many options for extra work
  • Cons: Some companies can take a cut from your wages, work for schools rather than teachers
  • You make: 2250-2750TL
  • You need: An EFL qualifications, An English-language degree
For schools: There are a number of teaching agencies, whose job it is to hire teaching staff for schools on their behalf. You will still have to attend an interview with the schools themselves, but the agency’s recommendation is a great foot in the door. Agencies are generally language schools which ‘hire out’ teachers, taking a cut of their profits monthly – so if the offered salary is below average for a teaching position in Istanbul, say 2500TL, you can assume this is the case (unless you are desperately under-qualified). However, some charge the school directly and it will not affect your pay.
The services they provide are ones which teachers, and the admin staff at schools, should be happy to have taken off their hands. Going to the police station to get papers stamped, and stamped again, can be a never-ending hell for some. Also useful is having someone else to argue the contract on your behalf, and someone to call if you think there has been a breach later on.
For private classes: Most companies are able to get you evening classes or private students too, if that’s what you are looking for, or if you want the extra cash on top of your full-time job salary. For one-to-one teachers working independently, this means taking less pay than they potentially could, as the school will take a cut (usually around half the pay per hour). However, it does mean more reliable students who won’t make excuses and stop coming to class after a couple of weeks, as they have a contract and will have probably pre-paid for a certain amount of lessons. This is very useful if you rely solely on private students to get by, as having just a handful of no-shows in a week can make a significant dent in your wallet.
Private Lessons
  • Pros: Manage your own time/money, be your own boss, no extra duties
  • Cons: Unreliable source of income, students frequently cancel lessons
  • You need: Experience, advertising know-how
  • You make: 50-150TL per hour
A teacher working independently can make it in the city so long as they have 1) savings to live off while setting up and getting initial students, 2) a know-how for promoting themselves using the web, 3) a willingness to travel and 4) good organisational skills.
As highlighted above, in the Job Agency section, the main risk is having no-shows for your lessons. All of Turkey is learning English right now, so the market is full of people desiring to be able to practice with a native speaker, but some are more dedicated than others. The first lesson might be too much for some, while others might find that they are not learning fast enough. This is all part-and-parcel of teaching privates, but it does make it difficult to plan finances for the month. A good strategy is to charge higher, rather than lower, for your time. Keep in mind that while you may think 70-100TL is a lot of money for one hour-and-a-half session, it is actually what many would pay to attend an average language school. The lower you charge, the less a student will feel committed to the class and it might even cast doubt over the quality of your teaching, by the logic that the higher the price, the greater the quality.


A Mutual Split: Turkey and the EU

 Written for International Political Forum (image courtesy of Today's Zaman).
Orhan Pamuk’s article, “Europe is turning away from Turkey, and the rest of the world”, pleas for a Europe which engages with Turkey on the basis of enlightenment principles, rather than old-fashioned notions of Islamic encroachment of the “civilised” west. But as crisis-hit Europe veers to the political right, Turkey’s interest in EU accession reverts to a lip service cliché, with the country equally losing interest in membership.
The charge that Europe has betrayed its secular, enlightened principles in dealing with its Muslim minorities is almost a truism. Be it the niqab ban in France or discussion in several countries on the outlawing of halal meat andcircumcision, Europe does not at all represent the beacon of social and political liberalism it was when political talks with Turkey began many years ago. Angela Merkel’s self-fulfilling prophecy that “multiculturalism has utterly failed” allowed for a more robust centre-right, which has been overt in barely-concealed nationalist vote-buying. Accusations of double-standards or discrimination are side-lined as a matter of immigration or, with a nod to the recent extradition debacle in Britain, the judiciary – and are thus falsely present as being above politics.
Pamuk makes the easy jump between the domestic abandonment of liberal values to the way Europe deals with Turkey. In fact, in the time of the Euro-crisis, politicians have played-up to fears of the Westward immigration of Turkey’s young, non-Christian population, described by President Sarkozy as “neither geographically, nor culturally, ‘Europe’”.
"Shall we save him?" Erdoğan to
 Gül, the drowning man is the EU.
On Pamuk’s prediction that the right is turning Europe into “an increasingly conservative place dominated by religious and ethnic identities” one Guardian reader represented the product of such fear tactics by commenting, “And adding 75 million Muslims would help this?”.
New Turkish Ambivilance
From the Turkish perspective, views such as these have their own resonance in history that harken back to the European divide-and-conquer strategies of 1918, as the victorious Entente Powers sought to carve up the defunct Ottoman State.
This view of Machiavellian Europe is arguably more deep-set in Turkey than the Orientalist view in Europe, as it forms the basis of the fiercely defensive, Republican ideology taught at schools, revered by pulp historians and exploited by politicians. Istanbul-based Sociology professor Tarih Abbas explains that “for last 100 years or so, the Turkish power-holders have managed to convince the nation that it is under constant threat from without and within”.
Thus, any statements from Europe regarding Turkey are greeted by a public already sceptical of its hidden agenda, thus trivialising the many logical arguments against Turkey’s membership that exist. Pamuk should be aware of that more than most.
Many in Turkey interpret European disapproval with its denial of the Armenian genocide or human rights violations as simply ‘politics by other means’ to hinder Turkey’s power. Pamuk avoids discussing this, I suspect, because he is widely considered a “traitor” in Turkey, following a court case in which he was charged with Insulting Turkishness’ for discussing the Armenian genocide in print. Pamuk is a living example of how genuine calls for democratic values in Turkey are interpreted by not only the public, but by the state, as an attack on the country when accompanied by European harassment.
As an example of where this spills over, a few years ago, I deplored Turkey’s vast mosque restorations, compared to its abandonment of ancient churches, and was promptly rebuked by a friend’s older relative, in colourful-language rightly pointed out that “the Greeks leave Turkish mosques to rot and get EU hand-outs, so why should we!?”.
Back then, it seemed like a great injustice that the Greeks were part of the ‘Christian club’.
Coincidentally, around the same time, Turkey’s greater involvement in regional politics to the East became quite the dinner party discussion. In the opinion of Turkey’s ambassador to the EU, Europe had simply “lost its leverage” on Turkey, as currently only 30% of Turks support membership. An economically exhuberent Turkey has increased its influence in the East, rather than “wait at the door like a docile supplicant” in the words of Prime Minister Erdoğan.
Turkey is now the second-fastest-growing economy in the world, and duly, Pamuk admits, the debate on membership in Turkey is dead. With 80% of investment in Turkey coming from the EU, Turks have not allowed themselves the luxury of being smug, but one market-stall owner I spoke to surmised it for the nation – “It would be nice to join, but if they don’t want us, they can go to hell”.


Muhteşem Yüzyıl and the Neo-Ottoman Style

Suleiman and Hürrem Sultan get busy Ottoman-style in Muhteşem Yüzıl.

The last ten years have seen Turkey transform itself from a rather insular, little-reported state fond of kebabs and economic recessions, to a powerhouse influencing trade and politics in Europe and the Middle-East. The transformation has come with many new features, but perhaps the most logical, if least predictable, has been the burst of romanticism for the long-defunct Ottoman Empire.

When historians talk of the foundation of the Republic after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the trend is to talk of a wall between the past and new future. In its execution, this was almost total. With the importation of new laws, political frameworks, fashion, vocabulary and even architecture, the generation that grew up in the time of the Republic was unaware of any past but for the Turks’ original pre-Ottoman glory days as nomads in Central Asia, from where they founded many of the world’s great civilizations.

A fuss has been made recently regarding the new tone of Turkish textbooks, whose role was traditionally to promote a kind of dispassion towards the Ottomans, whose decline in the 19th century brought all the horror of defeat and occupation which, like one who has suffered a recent trauma, was soothed temporarily by denial laced with disassociation. Regarding multi-faceted and complex reformations, such as the change from Arabic script to the Latin alphabet, tick-box responses have been taught as universal truths: ‘Arabic script was too difficult’, the loan-words ‘polluted Turkish’, the prevalence of Islamic culture in all its manifestations had ‘hindered progress’.

Fatih Günü - Conquest Day, has gained popularity in recently
But now Turkey’s Ottoman past is being looked to with a new enthusiasm, and much has been made in the media here and abroad, regarding that old, new-fangled Ottoman craze sweeping the imagination. Turkey is now wielding the kind of power it has not had since the high point of the Empire, with much debate over neo-Ottomanism as a political view-point. A new class of conservative bourgeoisie have risen in society too, challenging the monopoly of traditionally Western-leaning upper classes in the country, with their tastes too now being catered for. Most significantly, the death of the last heir to the Ottoman throne, Osman Ertuğrul Osmanoğlu, in 2009, also brought about kind of relief that with the symbolic closure of the period, with the end of the royal line it could be approached without guilty feelings.

Ottoman TV

The success of the TV series, Muhteşem Yüzyıl, (or “Magnificent Century”) provides an exquisite example of the new nostalgia. The New York Times describes Muhteşem Yüzyıl as “a sort of Sex in the City, set during the 46-year reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.” The series is mostly set within the confines of Topkapı Palace, and joins the scandal and rivalry of the Hareem with political intrigue, war planning and genuinely fascinating matters of governance such as the conquest of Rhodes, in the first season, and the reform of the legal code focused more in the second.

Suleiman is better-known in the East as “Kanuni” or ‘the Law-maker’, as his legal reforms provided the backbone of Ottoman law for centuries after his death. He was also a talented man, fluent in five languages and well-versed in poetry. Although all this is shown in the series, it’s easy to view the lead character, played by Halit Ergenç, as a slightly cocky crooner whose eyebrows evoke more Johnny Bravo than an Ottoman philosopher-king. More distracting still, is that for all his wisdom, Muhteşem Yüzyıl presents a sultan blissfully ignorant of the bitchery his short attention-span for women causes as it rips apart the corridors of the palace.
For the creators, Durul and Yağmur Taylan, this does not represent one of the show’s short-comings, but rather Suleiman’s short-comings represent him rather better than the usual immaculate hero typical of Turkish historical dramas. Speaking to Haber Türk, they commented that in Turkey “they teach a very idealized version of history. But our sultan is absolutely human – someone everybody can relate to”.

The most talked-about character of the series is Hürrem – Suleiman’s third wife, and former slave-girl whose intrigues were infamous at the time. Her role, performed by Meryem Uzerli, provides the key to many of the palace rivalries that give Muhteşem Yüzyıl the advantage over other historical dramas, that tend to neglect strong-female characters.
Philosopher-King Suleiman

The Muhteşem Effect

According to Ergenç, after the TV series gained popularity “people started reading history books and visiting historical places.” It has spurned an industry in Turkish historical dramas and movies, although arguably the series merely set the bar higher, with previous attempts at looking at the Ottomans, such as the movies Ottoman Republic and The Last Ottoman, being more tongue-in-cheek efforts.

It is not only Turkey that has contracted Ottoman fever, however, as the first series of Muhteşem Yüzyıl received record ratings in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and is doing well all over the Balkans, the Middle East and Greece, suggesting that Turkey’s enthusiasm for the Ottoman’s is not simply related to domestic changes. Ergenç comments that “the Ottomans’ biggest expansion was under Suleiman. Everyone in those borders watches Turkish [tv] series. For instance, Croatia watches it – yet, Austria doesn’t, Serbia watches it, but Italy doesn’t. We share the same heritage.” According to one Greek, commenting on Hürriyet, “people are watching the series and then saying ‘ah! My grandmother used to say that!’,” speaking of the families of Greeks who fled from Anatolia in the last century.

It is clear that the revival has been a long-time coming and will no doubt lead to more and more questions being asked about Turkish history as it has formerly been presented. Culture, in the form of books and entertainment, by humanizing history, can help break down the wall with the past in the country’s search for how to view itself in the present.


Journalistic Resources for Turkey: Dragoman

Whether due to the economy, its political strength, or cultural influence, is not my concern in this article. I am simply stating a fact made crystal clear to me at the cinema this week: Turkey is a big deal.

Taking a seat during the trailers, I watched with amazment as an advertisment for the new Ben Affleck movie, Argo, flashed before my eyes to include several scenes set against the Blue Mosque, followed no less, by another trailor for Taken 2, the Liam Neeson spy thriller entirely filmed in Istanbul. Finally, the opening scene of Skyfall, the new James Bond movie began – a twenty minute car chase through Sultan Ahmet. And it is not just Hollywood that has suddenly discovered the beauty of the city, the BBC home page is now regularly bombarded with photo features, video clips and news on Turkish affairs. The Guardian and the New York Times having kept it a secret as best they can with their more regular commentary.

With the country in the lime-light, information is being sought-after. For foreign observers and journalists alike, turning to Turkish politcal affairs can feel like tuning into the seven-hundredth episode of the most complicated Byzantine political drama on Earth. This is not helped by the terminology used by the sharp divisions amongst the Turkish press, or generalizations favoured by the foreign media. As Emre Kızılkaya notes, "Seculars vs. Islamists" generalization is a popular cliché for many outsiders who seek to understand Turkey. Clichés are convenient but they tend to deprive us of genuine details because of the nature of overgeneralization.”

This is where good, varied and up-to-date English-language resources come into play.


Joel Thomas is a man with a “foot in both cultures”, and has been interpreting and translating between peoples and cultures all his life. Anyone who lives in a foreign country long enough will tell you this extends far beyond mere occupations.

Joel has put his talents to good use by providing a service, Dragoman, for those looking to keep up-to-date and learn about Turkish affairs through regular observation. Subscribers get a regular update, every morning, of several big headlines from Turkish-language newspapers and magazines on a variety of issues, with the opening paragraphs and important information translated and summarised, with links also provided.

It is definitely preferable to flicking through various news sites at the risk of distraction or disappointment, so I was happy to tell Joel I’d rave about the service on my blog.

Those who sign up may refine their criteria to specific areas of interest. In his own words “my general areas are current affairs and the economy, since my clientele is made up of journalists and business people. But for example I have a customer who's specifically interested in the energy sector, so I make sure to cover energy headlines. I had someone say they were specifically interested in editorials, so I told them to suggest some specific outlets whose editorials they found interesting and on which subjects”.

But there are a plethora of sources that can give a more in-depth picture, I’ve listed a few below and will talk about their merits in further articles.

Other English-Language Resources on Turkey
Dragoman – Daily summary of the day’s headlines. Subscription required for best results.

HürriyetDaily News – Hürriyet is a good resource for observing opposition opinion and debate. Op-eds vary in quality.

Today’s Zaman – Pro-government newspaper with good coverage of affairs, especially good for keen observers to analyse trends and debate within the government.

SETimes - American state-funded new site aimed at coverage of the Balkan- Eurasian region.

SilkroadStudies – Really insightful, university-based analysis. Good observations and very accessible.

FrederikeGeerdink – Wonderful, Dutch journalist resident in Turkey. Great hard-hitting articles and interviews covering a variety of issues.

İstanbulian – Emre Kızılkaya’s wonderfully thought-out observations as a journalist in one of Turkey’s most popular newspapers, Hürriyet. Intelligent and thoughtful government critiques.

The WhitePath – Mustafa Akyol is a generally pro-government writer for Hürriyet. Good for discussing state abuse issues, and also social-religious trends.