Thursday, March 29, 2012

Teaching English in Switzerland/Geneva [Update]

My previous post on this topic seems to be still one of the most popular ones on the blog, so I thought I'd go and write the update. Not much has changed to be honest, but I still have a couple of things to add. I have a slightly more optimistic view of the situation that I did a year ago, but that's rather due to my efforts having paid off than to anything else. Also, I'm planning to leave off my usual ramblings and concentrate on the facts.

So what do you need if you're thinking about setting up camp in Switzerland and giving teaching English a go? Keep reading to find out. ;)
I've decided to compose a list of all the requirements you'll face in your hunt for a teaching position. Of course, there are a couple of ground rules to deal with before you start ticking away. First off, the order of importance of these items will vary from one establishment to another. Some schools put special emphasis on qualifications, while others would only engage native speakers. And there are those that won't talk to you unless you have tons of experience. Secondly, some skills work interchangeably and long years of experience, for instance, can easily push any lack of certificates aside. But let's see your options first.

As far as I've seen there are  places where your hunt can take you. You can teach English in
  • state/private education -- these tend to ask for some proof of knowledge of the local system, quite understandably, and qualifications are compulsory.
  • international schools -- qualifications are a must and they undoubtedly prefer native speakers.
  • language schools -- some take all willing to give it a try, but most need either a CELTA or tons of experience. They usually look at my MA as if it was something from outer space, but once I explain real nice (meaning I have to get an interview first!) they seem to get it. Here you have to be a bit more tricksy, since it's much like selling something (completely wrapped) at the market. They have to bite, otherwise there's no reply.
  • oneman show -- this is when you go entrepeneur. Don't ask me how it works, I still haven't figured it out. is a good place to start, but be prepared to read a lot before venturing into it. I've been suggested many times that I should just go ahead and take on private students without any such preparation, but I still don't know. I don't need anyone to tell me it's illegal, I'm not that dumb. But still, many people are doing it, and many say that it's totally OK. I've also heard that if it works out and you want to go white, you can just announce your previous earnings to the authorities, pay taxes on them and you're good to start your new business. Don't quote me on it though. The fact that I haven't plunged into it shows what I think of it. Could work for some, but I would't feel totally comfortable with it.
So here's the checklist you might want to consider before applying. I don't really want to give you any advice on the application process itself, there are more blogposts on that than you could read in a month. Of course you want to be assertive enough without being too pushy, and you want to show off your teacher-y qualities from the start. I'm not a big fan of lying on your CV, but I certainly believe that you can sell off mediocre language skills as pretty good if you are confident (and that coming from a language trainer...). The same goes for many skills and though I never lie I don't act shy either. My motto is that anything I don't know I can learn pretty fast, and it's always good to know where and how you'd start learning if the opportunity comes. For instance I plunged into my jobhunt without a CELTA, but I knew how to get one and I was quick to let potential employers know that I was willing to if adequately compensated.

That said, here's what you want to have to land a language teaching job in Geneva (or much of the world, for that matter). I usually say that if one item is missing, you're still good to go (no one's perfect), and if there are two, you can still make up for one (e.g. if experience is listed as an asset but you have tons of it, that might compensate for a missing item). But if you're missing more, I'd advise brushing up on some of those skills.

  • Qualifications -- these are normally listed in the job advert, but if they're not or if you're applying without an ad, you might look around what's usually needed. In general you'll need a CELTA or a degree from a local college/university. Foreign degrees are OK (depending on where they are from, of course), preferably from countries where the target language is an official one. However, people aound here tend to value Swiss degrees more, though educational standards here are a bit lower than in Hungary, for example. (I know, I teach them!) But an English degree can get you a long way, snobbish as the Swiss are. :)
  • Experience -- not always a must, but if you have some, don't be shy to advertise it. My 7 years brings tears to the eyes of the average language school hirer, so I like to mention it between long pauses. :) Don't forget to mention the different types of experience you might have, as you never know what makes these HR guys go dancing around the room. :)
  • Languages -- if you're a native speaker of the language in question, and sell your accent off proudly and confidently (I've heard of native speakers being rejected because they were difficult to understand, but in most cases I guess it's a matter of not even trying to sound standard-ish -- and a little foreigner talk never hurts either), you're good to go. Of course, as in many parts of the world, British varieties are a bit more appreciated, but I always do my best to feel interviewers uncomfortable about their own discriminative tendencies whenever that comes up.  :) (I remember that one conversation, interviewer ticking away on a list, when he stated that so, I don't have a British accent. No, said I, and asked whether it was a problem. I added that being a linguist I could fake one any time but as tapes are often in those varieties, my students are at least capable of understanding General American on top of the British dialects, a rarity in Switzerland.) Knowledge of local dialects is sometimes a must, especially with children and beginners, and I know for a fact that at the university would-be teachers that don't as yet speak French or don't use it with students are strongly discouraged from venting the fact. To me it's extremely difficult to imagine a good language teacher who themselves have never learnt any other languages. It's much like the PE teacher who never moves a finger.
  • Other skills -- a drivers' licence is definitely an asset, especially if you apply to languiage schools that organize company courses all over the area. Basic IT skills are a must, I can't imagine any language teacher working without a word processor and table manager, not to mention the online platforms language schools like to operate. But any skills can be of use, and academic knowledge of any other subject than the language taught can show your future employers how inteligent and knowledgable you are. In addition, being familiar with the field you want to teach in (banking, medicine, etc.) is often a must but always an asset. Here, in my opinion you can always exaggerate a little and read on the topic later, or interview friends in the same sector. (It's really difficult to check for a school director how much you know about the pharmachutical business, but really easy to brush up on it later.)
  • Attributes -- I'm not going into what makes a good language teacher. But I usually act like one in interviews. It not only takes away the stress (for some reason to me teaching is the most comfortable situation in the whole world, and I'm not the authoritarian type) but shows off my fares as well.
Whether you approach institutions replying to an ad or making a blind call, I always advise people to make such lists. If the ad doesn't give you any hints of what's expected, try to ask around or brainstorm a list of things you would look for as a school owner/director. Better still, ask a friend to prep you for an interview, asking questions drawn from the net and tell you what kind of an impression you make. It's really difficult to anticipate exactly what's going to happen or what will make a potential employer water in the mouth, but if they want to hire a teacher, show them one. Attention to detail, patience and the ability to speak in public are indispensable, so your CV should be a top notch composition (word processing skills come handy in teachers as well) and you shouldn't look embarrassed.

Another type of list that I find really helpful is often applied by agencies and the like. And they can help a great deal in getting you a job you'll be content with in the long term. Before applying to any job, I like to take a clean sheet of paper and list all the things I would like to see or do in my next job. These expectations can range from good office atmosphere to traveling less, or might even include things like lunchbreaks or specific activities (e.g. less public speeches). Then I take another clean sheet, setting the first one aside and clearing my mind (might take a walk or watch a movie in between). And I make a list of all the things, good and bad, that the job I'm applying for might involve. Of course at this point one cannot have a clear picture of one's future employment, but our expectations are good enough for now. When, later on, you compare the two lists, what you want to bring and what is expected of you as well as what you expect and the job might provide, you might find the decision easier. And I always say that you should only apply for jobs you really want to get. Having a bad job, in my opinion is worse than having none at all, because it leaves less of your precious time to file a well prepaerd application for a job you would really happy in.

I hope this post helps complement last year's one, and helps you all land the job you've been dreaming of!

Have a lovely day
and please let me know how your hunt is going. ;)



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