10 survival points I wish I’d known when I arrived.
If teaching English online, or indeed face-to-face, is your dream job, you’ll need to know how to survive the times when half your students cancel and you don’t get paid enough to both eat and heat your flat in temperatures below zero.
This also works for any low paid work that is self-employed, freelance or entrepreneurial.
1. Train yourself to not want stuff
This is pretty easy to do when you have an income that’s been reduced by more than half and have no credit cards. This may not be so easy at first.
Persevere though and you might find you can work fewer hours and use the time to do the things you enjoy. Or, work all the hours available and splurge on trips to places near and far.
2. Take a good look at what you enjoy
It doesn’t have to be teaching. It turned out that reading, writing, listening and speaking — all things I love — could be used to make a living.
You might have other transferable skills that will help get you off of the treadmill of blinkered mainstream employment and into a state of awareness.
Of course, training and retraining are not gratis endeavours. It costs over £1000 to become qualified as a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). You might consider becoming a personal trainer — you could even get a government loan to do this. However, do think hard about whether or not the early mornings and late nights in the gym would suit you.
3. Raid your Individual Savings Account
Or any other type of savings you have. If you don’t have any of your own, get down on your knees, plead with or cajole your family and friends to loan you the funds to start your new life.
Personally, I had an ISA that was supposed to pay off my mortgage in about a hundred years or so. I reckoned I would have either sold my flat or been dead by then. So, what the hell did it matter if I used it to kick off my reincarnation as an EFL teacher?
4. Find a country with a low cost of living
Which country to choose? Where do you fancy? For reasons unknown, I whittled my list down to three: China, Brazil, and the Czech Republic.
Then you need to ask yourself some serious questions like, “are there mosquitos?” And “is there plenty of clean water and decent coffee?” These are jolly good questions to ask yourself if you’ve ever lived on an island that:
a) runs out of mosquito repellent during the first rainy period in eleven years;
b) has to desalinate seawater to use for household running water and often cannot cope with the influx of tourists at Christmas — resulting in three days without water; and
c) if the country didn’t have a Starbucks or a Costa Coffee, I was not interested. These things might not be specific to you, but I think you get my drift.
After further research I decided China would be too controlling for my liking and, of course, mosquitos might be a problem. Brazil would have been excellent for coffee but again mosquitos were likely. Plus, both of these countries were so far away from Europe and my family.
Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic won. It was hands down, the best place to do my four-week TEFL qualification course.
Where will you go? I’d love to hear from you.
5. If it feels good, why not stay?
Once in Prague, the course organisers provided a list of language schools for all of its’ trainee teachers. Start applying the same day, or in between sightseeing with your flatmate or fellow trainees.
If you are a Texan, you will, no doubt, appreciate the centuries-old architecture and demonstrate your adoration by stroking and patting many of your favourite buildings.
Try to find someone you get on with like a dumpling in goulash. There may be the odd misunderstanding, for instance, “shall we have a lie in tomorrow before venturing out?” I asked my flatmate one Saturday evening. The Texan looked at me in a perplexed manner and said, “a lion?” Beware of language barriers even between native English speakers.
On the day of the interview, the Director of Studies for the language school will probably ask you to do their standard seventy-two-question grammar test.
In the third week of the course, you’ll sit a mock test. If you struggle to even get fifty per cent, you’ll find yourself cramming like crazy before the final test. Have you heard of phonetics? Can you tell an adjective from a noun or a verb for that matter? Don’t laugh, I was not taught grammar at school. If you were, you’ll breeze through the test like a seasoned catwalk model strutting in six-inch stilettos.
Are you a prolific reader? Can you blag your way out of a situation where you don’t know the answer? Useful lines for people who are not au fait with grammar are:
1. It’s an exception. There are always exceptions and I’ll bring some examples next week.
2. It is possible to get away with a confident attitude that includes you saying: “I’m the native speaker, and that’s how I say it.“
If you do choose to educate yourself, you’ll find your job is a lot more satisfying. You might develop the power to recognise an adjective that could easily have been called a verb, but because it came after ‘to be’ it was indeed an adjective. I wasn’t confused. Please, do look it up if you don’t believe me.
Everyone on the course passed. Even the guy who lectured the students, and whose accent made it almost impossible to understand most of what he was saying.
6. Be prepared to work unsociable hours
Getting up at six in the morning is not for night owls.
Having to be at a lesson an hour and a half later is twice as unpleasant. Especially if the office you are going to takes an hour to travel to on a violent bus which slingshots standing passengers from one side of the standing area to the other!
Being able to go for a delicious cup of coffee in one of the many coffee shops in Prague when you get a last-minute cancellation (and you get paid for it), is a perk of the job. Pun intended.
Too many cancellations, though, can be pricey, if you pop into a few shops …
The good news is that after your first year when you’ve demonstrated that you are reliable and your students like you, you can choose one or two that were a bit creepy and ask the coordinators to find another teacher for them. Or, the students might be fine, but travelling to them takes over an hour and you could really use that time to sleep. Especially if your last lesson of the day finishes at eight and you don’t get home till nine. I’m sure you get the picture.
Importantly, bear in mind that native speakers are valuable to language schools. If you have a degree, negotiate a higher rate of pay.
7. Make friends
The language school that hires you might assign a mentor. My mentor was a seventy-two-year-old woman who took me out to lunch in a nearby café and gave me some tips, none of which I remember and invited me to a gourmet get together with some of the other female teachers at the school. Three of the women I met that Saturday afternoon became my closest friends.
So, if you get invited to meet other teachers, make sure you go. Friends are your lifeline in a foreign city.
8. Make sure you secure several side gigs
Side gigs as an English as a foreign language teacher are essential to keeping afloat and even for luxuries if you are popular.
- Check out the rates that other teachers are charging and don’t undersell yourself. You can command more from private students.
- Draw up a learning contract and make sure your student has a copy signed by both them and you. Include cancellation terms, e.g. outside of twenty-four hours no charge, less than twenty-four hours the full rate is chargeable. Remember, your time is valuable.
- If you speak another language and can translate, advertise your ability.
- If you are ace at grammar, spelling and punctuation, offer your proofreading skills.
- Perhaps you love children? Make it known. Many Czechs have well-paid jobs with foreign companies, they can afford to pay for private English lessons for their children.
- Summer holidays could see you with no work. In March, start applying for jobs as a live-in English as a foreign language teacher in the UK, America, Malta. The pay is often quite good and you have no food and accommodation expenses. This is not for everyone. You can get lumbered with some pretty revolting kids.
- Work online, there are several reputable online sites that promote teachers to a worldwide audience.
9. Buy what you need in charity or second-hand shops
This tip is specific to Prague because there is a tax on new clothes which makes them rather expensive. Many Czech people don’t earn a lot, so they buy second-hand clothes. Yet it also works well for any country that has second or charity shops with great quality clothes and household goods.
English teachers may experience low income through illness or student cancellations. Frugality is essential to survive. Make sure you save up for any eventuality.
Research the lowest priced and highest efficacy or pleasure essentials. Looking for bargains is crucial to a frugalist, especially if you are partial to delicious food and wine. If you also enjoy eating out, find online offers. Any teacher who has been in a city for a few months will know where to look. Don’t be afraid to ask.
10. Treat yourself to one luxury a week
If you are checking out the local supermarkets on and off during the week, you will be familiar with their food and drink offers and can ready yourself with weekend treats.
Also, make good use of online discount experiences, such as a meal in a new restaurant, a reduced price gateaux, or even health and beauty improvements. It should be dead easy to buy a ticket or two. You could tell your friends about it and enjoy the bargain with them. Booking a table or an appointment may not be as easy. This is where having a native of the country you are in as a good friend is crucial.
Most important of all, being frugal doesn’t mean deprivation. Think of it more as delayed gratification. Relish the build-up to a special occasion, be it a delightful meal with friends or a massage or just a free cup of coffee with a slice of cake. Let yourself look forward to it and take pleasure from having earned it.