8 Pitfalls to be Aware of Before Teaching English in Turkey

by Julia Kitlinski Hong

After months of anticipation, you finally feel ready for your new teaching job in Turkey. You bought your plane ticket, you have Turkish phrases, like please, thank you, and where is the toilet?, on the tip of your tongue, you’re drooling in anticipation for Turkish delight, and you have created elaborate lesson plans that you’re confident your new students will eat up with as much gusto as you plan to with baklava. 

Turkey can be an immensely rewarding country to teach English in, but it also comes with its fair share of issues, especially for unprepared or newbie teachers. As a country drawing its social norms from both the East and the West, one of the biggest issues that new teachers will face are the cultural differences, both in and out of the classroom. There will be a lot of unexpected instances that will test your patience (like trying to figure out how to get your resident visa in a local government office, not for the faint of heart!).

Hot Air balloons in Cappadocia, Turkey

But, like any teaching experience overseas, research is your best friend and can save you from a lot of unwelcome trouble abroad. Avoid these pitfalls to ensure a smooth, enriching, and professionally and personally fulfilling experience while teaching in Turkey.

1. Unexpected or hidden costs.

While teaching in Turkey, your salary may go quickly (unless you’re lucky enough to win the English teaching lottery by getting a job at a well-paying university or private school). You might fall in a trap of assuming that you will make enough to cover all your expenses abroad, but this is often not the case. If you do not budget wisely, you might find yourself going home sooner than you anticipated. 

One of the biggest hidden costs is the required resident visa, which is not always covered by your employer. This visa can easily set you back a few hundred dollars, leaving you without rent money for that month. Make sure to budget for this cost before leaving for Turkey and you can be reassured that you will be sleeping soundly in your own bed and not someone else’s couch.

2. Weather woes.

Think Turkey is comprised only of long stretches of white beaches and mild temperatures? If so, your beachwear will do little to shield you against a chilly reality. There are often misconceptions about Turkey having a mild climate throughout the entire country due to a lot of the tourism being focused on the temperate Mediterranean coastline. The opposite is true; snow and rain are quite common in the northern regions during the winter. 

As a teacher in Turkey, you will have to get up and go to class, rain or shine. There will be days where you are fighting the elements, whether you are trudging through snow, sleet, or rain. Many teachers who are not use to real winter weather do not realize the havoc it can create on your daily commute. One way to combat bad weather is to leave extra early in case of weather-related delays. Bad weather can also have an effect on your students, who may show-up late to class, so you should be prepared to play catch-up for them. 

Sub-zero temperatures are not the only curved balls Mother Nature will throw at you weather-wise. Triple-digit days can deter your teaching experience in Turkey as well, especially in the southern regions of the country. Imagine the air-conditioner in your classroom is temperamental and you still have to teach for another hour and a half with a class full of cranky students. We are guessing sticky situations like this (literally) were not directly covered in your TEFL certification courses.

3. Your commute will probably suck.

Did you land a teaching job in Istanbul? Welcome to a city that has it all, well, except for personal space. With a population of around 15 million, this is not a city for the claustrophobic. It is not uncommon for teachers to have a romantic notion of Istanbul, but the reality can be a harsh wake-up call.

As an ESL teacher in Istanbul, you will have to adhere to a strict schedule and be expected to be at school on time (despite the sometimes two-hour commutes both ways). Let’s face it: you will be spending a majority of your time en route, so make sure to bring a good book. 

Downtown of Turkey

4. Small town life.

Found a teaching job in Turkey in a smaller town or city (like Ankara or Izmir) and have dreams of becoming a member of a tight-knit community? Beware that small-town life in Turkey can be difficult as well. Similar to everywhere else around the globe, locals in smaller communities tend to be more traditional in their daily approach to life. This is important to consider as an international teacher, since everything from dressing conservatively to the content of your lesson plans will need to be created with more traditional views in mind.

Gossip is a national pastime in Turkey, which can be amplified in smaller towns where everyone is watching your every move. Being the new kid in town and naturally sticking out, it will be hard not to be the subject of attention. To avoid this, make sure to study up on everything from body language to appropriate dress to blend in as much as humanly possible.

5. There are some rotten schools in the bunch.

As the number of English language schools continues to grow throughout Turkey, the reputations range from exceptional to places that are better forgotten.

The best case scenario is that you are paid on time, have a solid contract clearly stating your rights and hours, and plenty of support from your supervisor. 

Unfortunately, the opposite is quite common as well. You think you found a school that meets your criteria, only to learn on your first day that the management does not care at all about their teachers’ well-being, you have to fight to get your paycheck on time, and you are expected to put in extra hours at a moment’s notice. Not all rainbows and sunshine anymore. That’s why it is important to read reviews from past teachers in Turkey.

6. Exaggerated media scares (and what it means for your safety).

Sharing a border with Syria, Iraq, and Iran, Turkey has experienced its fair share of violence in recent years. The biggest area of concern is the southeastern region around the border of Turkey and Syria, which is best to be avoided all together.

That being said, Turkey is often perceived as filled with more violence and criminal activity than it actually is. There are many different locations in Turkey that do not pose more danger than any major city around the world. Cities on the west coast, like Istanbul, Bursa, and Izmir, have large foreign teacher populations that thrive there. Like any major metropolitan area, it is important to use your common sense and not draw unwanted attention toward yourself in public.

As a foreign teacher in Turkey, be sure to take normal safety precautions, such as not walking home late at night by yourself after class or getting into a taxi that does not seem legit. If there are questionable neighborhoods around your school or areas nearby to where you live, be sure to always walk on the main streets and not take shortcuts through smaller side streets. Never give out personal information to your students (such as your address) and always meet friends in a public area (like a coffee shop).

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

7. The stress of life abroad.

Turkey can provide a strong dose of culture shock during the first few months of your teaching job. The honeymoon phase of adjusting to life in Turkey can wear off quickly, as traffic can be infuriating and unaccommodating toward pedestrians, the often heavy cuisine can make you tums-dependent, and a trip to the local drug store for a simple prescription can leave you feeling like you wished you had packed an entire pharmacy in your carry-on.

To make your transition smoother, it is important to develop friendships with both locals and fellow teachers alike, as they will be able to help you acclimate to life in Turkey. 

8. Culture shock in the classroom.

You will likely notice while teaching English in Turkey that culture shock can also be alive and well in your own classroom. Your students may have a different idea of being on time to class and most of them will think arriving half an hour later is perfectly acceptable. Turkish students can also be a bit shy in speaking up, since they are used to hearing their teachers give lectures as opposed to participating in interactive classroom discussions. In situations where you are unsure of social norms, try to be as open-minded as possible, but at the same time remain assertive. You are the one in charge after all!

Despite cultural differences that may take some adjusting to both in and out of the classroom, teaching English in Turkey can be an experience that will enrich both your personal and professional life. With careful planning you will benefit greatly from living and teaching in a country with a fascinating blend of East and West, that embraces the past while at the same time looking forward to the future.