A TEFL School is Born
Admin - Apr 01 2015
Two years ago, a one-time Mechanical Engineer/Graphic Designer decided to turn his income tax return into a TEFL career. Read the following interview with Harry M., who has recently opened his own TEFL school in Ankara, Turkey.
Q: How did you go from Engineer/Graphic Designer to TEFL teacher in Turkey?
Harry: Two years ago I received a decent Income Tax Return and had to make a choice. Either payoff my credit card or invest in the TEFL certificate. I think I made the right choice. I initially was not attracted to Turkey specifically. Once I completed my certification I started sending out applications and resume all over the world. My logic was that because this was my first teaching gig, I would accept the first reasonable offer. Getting the first job in any profession is always the hardest and I didn”t want to limit my options. I had 3 or 4 possible choices offered: China, Korea, Russia, Mongolia, and Turkey. I found this job on Dave”s ESL cafe. After talking to the owner of the private school and getting a good feeling overall, I accepted the position.
Q: What were your initial experiences like in Turkey?
Harry: I teach at a private school to children grades 1 through 8. The parents of these children are professors, doctors, business professionals, and political leaders in the community. The children tend to be either very intelligent focused students or problem children that were not allowed in the state (public) schools. Generally Turkish children are much louder and less focused than my experiences in Colorado. Girls are by far better students than boys as the boys are encouraged to be sports/physically oriented. These are the offspring of the gentry of the city and tend to be an only child in a family of above average means. As such they are coddled, and fawned over.
The Turkish culture can be quite different than the ”typical” American lifestyle. I am located in a very conservative, religious part of the country. The western part is much more modern, cosmopolitan, and open than here. Here the family dictates the lives and goals of these children with many of them going to school even on weekends. The educational system has some real flaws including an intense pressure to succeed. Testing and standardized exams are relentless. When I ask the students about their goals they tend to all want the same occupations: doctors, lawyers, engineers, or police/military careers, which tend to correspond with their parents careers. I have yet to hear any student wanting to be journalists, writers, astronauts, artists, musicians or (God forbid) dancers!
Classes start with one teacher in first grade and continue with the same teacher until 6th. This creates an extended family but also the children become dependent on each other to the point that exam taking usually involves getting answers from each other. This is not considered cheating but ”sharing” as the class as a whole is expected to exceed. Because this is a Muslim country the outlook on life, individuality, and community can be quite different. It has taken me a good year to temper my expectations with the cultural norms. The owner of the school told me that ”the students should love me”. It took me awhile to understand what this means. It is more important for the children to have fun and not be disciplined because they should never ”loose face” or exceed the rest of the class. Generally the only escape most children have from this obsessive pursuit of success is video games.
Q: Why did you decide to start your own school? Can you share a bit about the structure of your school?
I am the first and only American/native speaker in this region. There is an American military base 500km south of me. Other than that, I am the only American east of Ankara (the capital city) and there maybe some US soldiers in Iraq. I am somewhat of a personality in the region. I was approached by one of the Turkish English teachers at my school about the idea of starting a language school. Together with the owner of the private school and one other English teacher we explored the idea.
English is taught in the schools here but it is substandard. Grammar and sentence structure is taught but speaking is not. The Turkish produced books are full of flaws. There is a real need from the professors at the local un?versity for conversational instruction as well as the business people who deal with the west. Also I do a brisk business editing research papers for these professors. One of our partners is the regional rep for Oxford Publishing and we spoke to them about working with us as well.
After searching around the city we found a quite neighborhood near the university. There are two other schools in town but they tend to have large (25-30 students) classes and do not have native speakers. We listed all the faults of these schools as each of the owners and our staff teachers (we have a total of 7) have worked in the public, private, and language schools. We wanted to make our school a special experience and a place where not only you could learn in an environment that allowed you to learn quickly: small classes of no more than 10 or 12, and personalized attention, but we also created clubs for people to join such as a horse riding club, bowling, art, and acting.
Harry painted all the murals in the classrooms, like this one...
and this one...
We have also created clubs for various professions: teachers, business, and professors. My back ground allowed me to design a 24 seat theater that is acoustically incredible! I installed a 7.1 surround sound system that I modified based on the acoustic formulas used in recording studios. These were given to me by friends in the industry back in the states. Our goal is not only to have a business but to create a place where people could come to have a cup of tea, a sandwich and meet friends.
We officially received our permit from the Ministry of Education in September of last year and if the numbers are correct, we will have the business paid off and in the black this June. So it”s been quite an accomplishment. At present we have just over 60 students. The irony is that I had to leave the US to become a capitalist! We have an option to rent the upstairs of our building in the future, so hopefully by next year we will expand. All of our rooms have smartboards and sound systems. The theater also can used as a classroom or conference room. We have a large balcony in the rear of the building that is beautiful at night and we have classes there as well.
Q: What were some of the challenges of starting your own school?
Harry: Our biggest challenges were dealing with the substandard quality of workmanship in the construction business. The other major challenge was with me. Being the first native speaker here, no one in the government knew what to do with me! It took the local bank about 6 months to figure how to give me an account and credit card. I had to have a business and resident visas to satisfy the police (who are national not local). That took a good six months and would have taken longer but the owner of the private school is well connected with the government. Here it is more important to know people than anything else. Also it was an issue for a non-Turk to be a partner in a business, that was another series of hoops to jump through. I bought a motorcycle recently and ”offically” I am not allowed to own without permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so we titled it through the business. This is a country of rubber stamps and connections.
Q: What have been some of the greatest rewards?
Harry: The rewards are obvious! But also the friendships and my credibility that I have established here. Speaking to the top political leaders, the senior professors and department heads of the local university. Having people seek me out for advise and counsel has been satisfying as well. I have a fun and interesting career and life in many ways. Typically the changes in my life have been beyond my control. For example, I truly loved working in the oil industry, but due to a market crash, I was layed off. Due to the explosion of the space shuttle, I was layed off from that career. Due to September 11th my art career ended. Due to the recent economic downturn, my teaching career was grinding to a halt as well. So every time I was too comfortable in a situation, fate has dictated a change.
This new life has given me yet another opportunity to raise above the norm. This part of the world is in a very dynamic growth phase and the next 10 to 20 years are going to be exciting on many different levels. I have been discussing alternative energy, photovoltaic and building opt?ons with a couple of my students who are engineers and several of the political leaders about recycling some of the vast amounts of trash laying everywhere in this area. I fully intend to leave a legacy of not only teaching English to these people but also I hope to direct an awareness of a 21st century lifestyle free of dependency on fossil fuels and clean alternatives.
Q: Any words of wisdom for new TEFL teachers getting ready to start their own international journey?
Harry: Most TEFL teachers I see on the various websites are young, and fresh out of school. Most are looking for the romance of working in a scenic city having a cappuccino in a cafe overlooking the various postcard vistas. The average teacher seems to be in this line of work for a few years, enough time to collect memories, photos, and stamps in their passport. Then they will disappear into relative obscurity given a certain amount of time. So the advice I would give is to enjoy the situation you are in, but never opt out for the well worn path most take. Take chances and challenges. Look for your pearl in an oyster that others pass over. Being the only American means needing a certain amount of self image, self worth, and self assurance. I sold, gave away and left behind a life and came 14,000km with only 50pounds of clothes. I have created a new life for myself with no instructions, no guidance, and no prior knowledge, it can be done.
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