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The Goods on Teaching English in Europe

By  Troy Nahumko June 18, 2009

Europe may be the School of Hard Knocks for ESL teachers, but Troy Nahumko has some tricks to ease the trade.

Riding the Metro all day from class to class, you almost miss your station because you nodded off to the rhythm of your neighbour's iPod. You jump out at the last minute and emerge into the blazing sunshine and heat of Madrid's Plaza de Castilla in July, fragrant with the aroma of baking pavement. A policeman passes by—depending on your passport and legal status, you may sweat even more.

Your inbox is full of envious messages from friends back home, sharing their dreams of tapas, flamenco dancers and the Costa del Sol, but the closest beach to you is over 300 kilometres away. Visions of late nights eating churros con chocolate come crashing down when your first class starts at 7:30 am and your last class ends at 10 pm. On payday it's clear that all those classes and unpaid Metro hours haven't added up to much.

Europe, with some of the world's most colourful countries, is a popular destination for first time English teachers abroad. For native speakers, demand can be high, but so can supply. In September it seems like jobs are falling from the sky but in February the market feels colder than the weather outside.

Your inbox is full of envious messages from friends back home, sharing their dreams of tapas, flamenco dancers and the Costa del Sol, but the closest beach to you is over 300 kilometres away.

Desperate for work of any kind, one September, I found myself in an Irish pub in Madrid, pleading with the bartender to hire me. As he was laughing an acquaintance came up and asked, "You have a British passport, don't you?"

Curious, I said, "Yes?"

"Well, you start teaching tomorrow. I don't have papers and even though I'm a teacher they can't hire me, so they want you."

Thus began my career. I have taught at some of the worst cowboy schools in Madrid where the owner changes offices just ahead of the debt collectors. I've also worked for some good schools, like Language Solutions and International House. In Madrid most students are employees, their English classes paid for by their companies. In the smaller provincial capitals, if you get an adult class, the learners themselves are usually paying. They expect more but they work harder. Though, outside of Madrid most of your hours are spent teaching children's classes, where the focus is on keeping the kids happy.

At the moment I am working at a very small school in the city of Cáceres, and my classes are a mix of adult groups, one-on-one lessons and children's classes. I'm also building up a network of freelance classes outside of the academy, which some bosses may frown on if you appear to be stealing potential students from them. By freelancing you can earn more per teaching hour, but building up a clientele takes time. In some places it's a cut-throat business, where well established expat residents defend their territory fiercely. In Germany, most teachers work freelance and jobs are scarce.

Eastern Europe is a growing market, as well as one of the cheapest places to take the widely accepted CELTA course. Poland is popular because the wage/living expense ratio allows English teachers to live quite well.

In the west, even France is talking about boosting its language ability, and more jobs are opening up. When you look on English job sites like TEFL.com, Spain and Italy come up with the most offers, but there's a reason for this: few stay in one position for long due to difficult working conditions. Schools know that they have sun, food and culture to offer and some take advantage of this.

No matter which European country you choose, the best way to get a job is face to face. In that first meeting you'll likely hear the dreaded question, "Do you have papers?" New laws are making it more difficult for non-EU citizens to secure working papers. If you are under 30, many European countries offer Working Holiday Visas but these may only allow you to work a limited number of months per year.

Alternatively, some European governments are creating programmes to improve language teaching in secondary schools, and they're inviting graduates from North America to work as cultural advisers. In Spain there is the Auxiliar Programme where you work in public schools in the mornings. Legality comes with a pittance of a salary but there's plenty of time to pick up private classes in the afternoons.

When summer rolls around and work becomes scarce there are English summer camps in the UK, Ireland, Malta, Spain and elsewhere. They start hiring in April or May and some are willing to look the other way when you show them a North American passport.

With so many different options so close together, teaching in Europe is a great way to break off from the whirlwind tours and actually see how Europeans live beyond the castles and museums.

Click here for more information about teaching English in Europe.

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Published in Work Abroad

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