After hitchhiking around Europe for a few months, I had an unfortunate realization: I had no money. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely don’t regret the countless nights out and massive meals that I cooked for my friends along the way. That being said, it would have been easier if I had saved more before departing. As I was not ready to go home, I began exploring options to work abroad. Teaching English in a foreign country is an easy way to make a decent living with a minimal time commitment (usually one year, but I got a contract for six months). Originally, I was interested in working in Europe, preferably in Spain or Budapest. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get that type of job as an American because we are required to get a sponsored work visa; obviously, if the companies/schools have the option to hire a British person visa-free, they will (not always, but generally). After my attempts in Europe proved futile, I had to brainstorm. Asia? Good money, but do I have the money to get there? No. Around this time, I found myself having an awesome time couchsurfing and eating amazing new foods in Istanbul. My friends told me that there were loads of English teaching jobs available and that it would be simple to be granted permission to stay in the country. I wasn’t very interested, but decided to apply to several preschools anyway. I continued my travels, traversing the length of Europe to the UK, where I stopped and tried to come up with a new game plan. I hadn’t received any responses to my emails, and it was then that I really started to think, “Shit”.
One month after leaving Istanbul, I received an email from one of the preschools that I had contacted. A Kiwi teacher had to leave the country unexpectedly, so a position was available immediately. After a brief phone interview, I accepted the position and found myself getting excited. A few days later, I flew out to Istanbul, ready for whatever was coming my way…or so I thought.
The pay in Turkey is not great. The cost of living is pretty low, but wages aren’t very high (especially if you have to convert it back to U.S. dollars to pay your student loans). I made $1080 per month, working 45 hours each week. If you look hard and get lucky, you might land a job at a university or one of the private schools (i.e. Fatih Koleji) and get paid more. Although I worked at a private international preschool and my students all came from affluent families, I didn’t get paid much by Western standards. If you speak perfect English, but are not from a native English-speaking country, your pay will be much lower. By living a very frugal lifestyle for 6 months, I was only able to save a thousand dollars. Again, it may be different for you if you don’t have debts to pay in other countries, and you might be able to have a more enjoyable standard of living.
I had to find my own place to live, and I didn’t receive an extra stipend for living costs. In some countries, you are given a free apartment as part of your contract. I heard of one person getting this in Istanbul and, again, he was quite lucky. I had another friend who’s school assisted him in finding an apartment, but at his own cost. Finding a place to live in a country with such a low level of English can be difficult and certainly stressful. Thankfully, my friend from couchsurfing agreed to help me.
Unfortunately, standards of cleanliness differ across the world. I viewed the apartment with my friend, and was appalled at its state. The landlord assured me that it would be completely cleaned after the current tenant left and before I moved in. Imagine my shock and subsequent rage when I arrived to move in a few weeks later and found the following: dishes with weeks-old food caked to them, a front door that wouldn’t lock, a broken heater (in December), no light in the living room, mold all over the bathtub and bathroom walls, cigarette butts scattered about, and (my personal favorite) used condoms. Fighting the urge to scream obscenities, I looked at my new landlord and said, “Clean?”. “No, no, I no say clean. In Turkey no need clean. You no need clean when you leave, yeah? Ok, my friend?”. This last phrase, “my friend” would turn out to be his most used phrase, typically utilized when he was repeatedly trying to screw us out of money. For the next 6 months, I had endless problems with this man, whom I can firmly and without hesitation call a horrible human being, too many problems to even detail here without sounding like I’m ranting (changing payment days, falsely increasing bills, trying to charge us for having a friend visit, and going back on everything we originally agreed to, to name a few). The overall message is this: there are horrible people everywhere; there are also wonderful people everywhere. In business dealings in Turkey, I found more horrible people than wonderful. If you do choose to move there, be prepared to be screwed because you are a foreigner, but stick to your guns no matter how many threats people make. And always, always, always get things in writing and save them for the inevitable future disputes.
Commute and Travel Costs
Istanbul’s public transportation is hit or miss: it can be doable, but also the worst nightmare of your life. They have a reliable new metro system, which runs every few minutes, but it only has a few lines. They also have the metrobus, a high speed bus that runs for about 50 miles and has it’s own lane on the highways. Although the metrobus goes far, it’s like World War III trying to get on: all social etiquette goes out the window, and it’s a fight to the death. It’s the same on the dolmush- a minibus that stays in a general area, but stops where you want it to; for these, you pay depending on how far you’re going. The worst part of the transportation network, however, is the bus system, but it’s not entirely their fault. Most roads are old, narrow, and winding, and are always filled with cars from the 30 million residents of Istanbul province. One time, it took me 2.5 hours to go a few miles. The city is enormous, and it takes quite a long time to get from one place to another.
To be honest, I should have lived closer to my work, but I wanted to live near the center instead of the family-oriented suburbs. Each morning, I walked for 15 minutes, took the metro for 25, waited for a bus (one minute to one hour, depending on how many times the driver chose to stop and smoke a cigarette), took a 15 minute bus ride, then walked five minutes to work; nine hours later, I repeated the process. At my school, we were not given travel cards or reimbursed for our travel costs, but I do know some people who taught small adult classes at various academies who were reimbursed. The cost of public transport is pretty low, and your most economical bet is to buy a MaviKart (blue travel card) at a station kiosk and request the unlimited monthly plan. You will need a photo and passport for this, because they make the card personalized so that you can’t let anyone else use it. To qualify for the Istanbul teacher discount, you must teach at one of the registered public schools or universities.
Work Visa/ Residence Permit
Turkey loves to pretend to be bureaucratic, so technically you are supposed to have a sponsored work visa. To acquire one, you must have a degree in the subject that you want to teach or a degree in education. However, almost everything done in Turkey is done under the table, illegally. After exhausting my tourist visa, my employers told me that they knew a man who helped foreigners get resident permits. Trusting their judgement and assuming they’d worked with him previously, I agreed. The next three months of my life were hell. This man was a cheat and a coward, although it took me a while to figure that out. I unknowingly entered into a contract with this man who would charge me six times the price of the document. I waited for months after having my initial meeting with the police to start the process. In the course of these few months, this man “forgot” to do my paperwork, and I was officially an illegal alien in Turkey. Outraged and frustrated beyond words, I repeatedly asked my co-worker to call him and demand answers, since this man did not speak a word of English. Usually, he either didn’t answer the calls or furnished some completely untrue excuses. My main boss ended up having to verbally threaten him- how I’m not sure, since it was all in rapid Turkish, but the tone of voice and facial expressions spoke for themselves. A few weeks before my contract ended, he finally followed through and got me the document that I had needed five months earlier. All it took for me to not be arrested was a little bribe to the police- guess that’s where my excessive charges went. Obviously, you can complete this process on your own, without the assistance of a middle man. However, all of the documents are in Turkish and it’s difficult to know where to go and what’s going on in the police stations. You wait with a few hundred other people for several hours, until a man appears and yells something in Turkish, at which point there is a stampede and whoever gets there first gets to meet with an officer. Your choice, but having someone reliable to help you is best (keyword is reliable).
Not necessary, most of the time. I have a Bachelors in Psychology and a Minor in Sociology, and was able to find a fairly good job at a private international school. However, if you want to do things the official way, you’ll need a degree in Education or in the specific subject that you will teach. It never hurts to have a TEFL or CELTA (I don’t), as it will surely give you more options in other countries, but it’s mostly useless in Turkey. Some of the adult language academies in Turkey require a TEFL, and you can quickly obtain one of these online or in a classroom.
Although I had a plethora of unpleasant experiences during my time in Istanbul, I didn’t hate all of it. I had some amazing co-workers who I still keep in contact with, and my kids were some of the most clever, fun, enthusiastic, and loving children that I’ve ever worked with. Be prepared for the bad, but appreciate the good.
Finding a job: http://www.teachtotravel.co.uk/
* Also search craigslist for job listings for private lessons, but use your best judgement to make sure that the client doesn’t expect a “happy ending”.
Finding an apartment: http://www.hurriyetemlak.com/
*You can also use craigslist or inquire at realty agencies that you walk by- they always have photos with prices on the windows.