The Dark Side of TEFL

Last winter was rather difficult for me.  I had just moved to Prague from the US and finished up a month-long TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) certification course (at The Language House), and it was essential I find a job. I told people I was looking for work, but in actuality it took me two months to muster the courage to actually apply anywhere. In March I even wrote a whole blog post about it (see My Post-TEFL Slump). But I want to talk about what happened after I got hired, and how my slow start was a sign of things to come. As winter slipped into spring and then into summer, I was still struggling.

Now I want to clarify, I don’t think my story is necessarily the norm. Many, if not most, of my peers from my TEFL course were already working within a month after we finished our course, and probably would have started even sooner if it weren’t for Christmas slowing the application/interview processes down. But, although not the average, I also wasn’t the only one. A couple other people lagged along with me. I can’t speak as to their reasons, but for me it was very challenging to believe in myself, even after the course. I had discovered teaching was challenging in a way that seemed perfectly designed to bring up my personal insecurities. So I want to take this opportunity to put my thoughts out there, especially for anyone who suffers from any kind of anxiety or depression, as a big life change such as this one can be really challenging (though don’t get me wrong, it is definitely do-able and can be incredibly rewarding).

I’d moved abroad in order to change my life, travel, see the world. I’d chosen teaching as a career not out of an interest or any experience in the field, but because it was practical. I speak English natively, and there’s a market for native English teachers here in Prague and many other cities and countries. It’s a job that could open the world to me, and that appealed to me greatly. It still does.

But I’d never taught before, at all. I’d worked with animals for several years, and the change was more difficult than I expected. I felt like I was under-performing, and was really hard on myself no matter how encouraging my mentors and teachers were at The Language House. It’s a great program, and works well with a large spectrum of personalities. But as I tend to internalize all my problems and try to sort them out by myself, this resulted in a lot of feeling of isolation and inadequacy. Not just during my course, but for the next six or seven months or so.

Even after I got hired, and had positive feedback from students and observers from the language school I worked for – I still felt negative about my career as a teacher. I felt unsure if the students were making any progress, or whether my lessons were worth what they were paying. I didn’t know how to lesson plan quickly without sacrificing my confidence that it would be a good lesson. And I didn’t know how to spend more time planning without feeling resentful that I was putting in a lot of effort for no pay. It seemed like all my lessons seemed to go more or less the same, no matter if I planned ten minutes or ninety.

It got to the point where I was so convinced I was a rotten teacher that I thought couldn’t keep on with the career, even though I love my new life in Prague overall. The career was the only piece that wasn’t clicking for me. So I attempted (and utterly failed) to re-start again with another new career, as a freelance writer. Turns out, my feelings of inadequacy aren’t limited to teaching. And at least I was already earning an income with teaching, so after a month or two I abandoned my short-lived half-hatched plot to turn freelancer, and went back to teaching. I’m glad I did, as finally, after nearly eleven months here, I’m finally comfortable in a classroom. It came to me much later than it did to a lot of people, though it’s still not perfect.

My adjustment has come mainly from changing the kind of teaching I do. This spring I was working for three different language schools, teaching about 13 lessons a week. This was part-time and I still felt overwhelmed at times. I saw each student once or twice a week, for 60 or 90 minutes. All my classes were one-on-one with adults, many of them with a focus on business English. I didn’t realize it, but this was not where I could perform at my best.

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I didn’t take any photos in my one-to-one lessons. Here’s a photo of a tram stop I went to twice a week instead.

My current job which involves traveling to a new Czech or Slovak village every week, and teaching a five day conversation course to public school kids. I now teach 6 lessons a day – over twice as much as before – to groups of 15-25 children. Due to the short-term nature of each course, I no longer have to worry about how I’m affecting the long-term progress of my students. The balance of how long to plan is still a challenge for me, but teaching more or less the same exact course each week has helped considerably. Every week I improve on my main curriculum, while I’m able try out a couple new activities at the same time. If I ever return to teaching students in Prague, I’ll have to learn better how to measure long term progress. But lesson planning is not nearly as stressful as it once was.

Teaching groups instead of one-on-one has given me a lot more leeway while in the classroom, giving me precious moments when they are assigned group work to collect myself and prepare for the next activity. Teaching children general topics instead of business topics to adults has enabled me to actively have fun in my own class – I’ve designed a photography scavenger hunt lesson that I do with each week’s students, and I enjoy it as much as they do (if not more, sometimes!). Making these changes has made a huge difference.

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Some images from teaching, my photography scavenger hunt, and the gifts I got from the lovely students in Jirkov this month

I have gained something really valuable the past few months- a better sense of confidence in myself as a teacher. I have gotten consistently positive feedback from my students, their regular English teachers, and my boss, and it has helped a lot. I feel much more optimistic about my career, and I think no matter what jobs I have in the future, I will continue to improve. 

Not everyone will go through the same issues as I did, but as its not a story I commonly see discussed online, I wanted to bring it up. Everyone else seems very happy and confident as teachers when you open any random article about teaching abroad. However, in person, I’ve had plenty of conversations with other teachers who’ve had at least some similar thoughts and feelings, to some extent.

So if you’re considering moving abroad to teach English, consider whether you are moving abroad in order to teach, or if you will be teaching in order to live abroad. If it’s the latter, be prepared for a real job that requires hard work and a lot of your time. Be prepared for some emotional instability, especially if that is something you’re predisposed to. But don’t lose heart either – as with most things, with time and experience, the stress levels out and you can gain confidence. And never forget, when you feel like giving up – make changes. Kepp trying new avenues and you never know which one will work out.

Overall, moving abroad to teach was definitely worth it. I have no regrets about moving here, as I love the perpetual wonder I have for my surroundings (Prague is truly beautiful). I love learning Czech and exploring the culture here, even when it seems inscrutable. I have made wonderful friends that I hope to keep for a long time, and I wouldn’t trade it all in for a nine-to-five back home – not even for a million crowns.

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On a great day when my teenage students took me out to see Karlovy Vary last month

How Long To Get a Long-Term Visa?

Well, it’s different for everyone and depends on what you count as part of the visa process. When you arrive in the Schengen Zone (not just Czech Republic), you begin your 90-day tourist visa, and it’s best to get started making arrangements as soon as possible. There are a number of unknowns time lengths – when is the soonest available visa application appointment at the embassy? How long will they take to approve your documents?

Officially, 90 days is the processing limit for your application. If they choose to take the full 90, and they certainly can, you can see how this might be risky to apply after arrival in the Schengen Zone. I met many people who had a gap in legality between expiration of their tourist visa and approval of their long term visa, from several days to several weeks. This is, of course, illegal. If caught, it’s likely you’ll be deported and banned from Schengen for around 180 days. So it’s best to get started as soon as possible in order to avoid this circumstance.

Keep in mind:

  • Embassy appointments might not be available for a few weeks from the date you first inquire
  • You must travel to a Czech Embassy to apply for your visa. This means leaving Czech Republic if you are already there
  • Applications take anywhere from 30 to 90 days to be processed
  • You must register with the Foreign Police within 3 days of picking up an approved visa

With all this hanging overhead, you may wonder why anyone waits until after arrival to get started. The biggest factor is probably the required Proof of Accommodation – proof that you have a legal long-term residence in Czech Republic. It can be arranged from overseas, but it’s a bit hard to prove you live somewhere that you aren’t yet in. It must be signed and notarized by the legal owner of your flat or home, and depending on your landlord this can be very simple and done in a couple hours – or, like in my case, can lead you down a rabbit hole of middlemen when your flat is owned by a company rather than an individual. It took over two months for me to get the Proof of Accommodation signed by the correct person. So if possible, when looking at places to live, bring up the paperwork early on to make sure it’s done timely.

To Zivno or Not to Zivno?

In order to legally work in the Czech Republic, you need permission from the Czech Government and they need some way to document and tax the income you earn as a working resident.

The situation, as I am aware of it, is that there are two types of documents you can get that serve these functions. One is an employer-sponsored work license, the other is the self-employment license (aka, the Zivnostensky list). Depending on your situation, one or the other might be preferable to you.

The Employer-Sponsored Work Permit

For this document, you need to already have a job lined up before you start working. It is exactly what it sounds like – your employer arranges and pays for your work license. Most  of (if not all) the arrangements are made out of your hands, and after approval, the government will subtract taxes from your income .Much like the Social Security tax is taken from income in the US, and you never have to even think about making sure that tax gets paid.

The downsides as I’ve been informed, is that it is difficult to find employers willing to sponsor foreigners for work. I am not sure how true this is across the board, however I am willing to take it on their word that it is at least generally true in the English teaching business – of my twenty or thirty teacher friends and acquaintances here in Prague, I only know of one who was offered the sponsored work license. And you’d better hope your employer has gone through this process before with previous foreign workers – the paperwork trail can be labyrinthine for companies as well as individuals and not every company is ready to take on the challenge. And lastly, you need to have a university degree, and get your diploma apostled in your home country and then accredited at Charles University.

Since I have no personal experience with this work permit, if you have further questions I recommend doing some research – I’d start here.

The Zivnostensky List – A.K.A. Self-Employment License or Trade License

The Self-Employment License, better known here as the “Zivno”, is another option for working legally. It cannot be applied to every trade, but for freelance workers – such as writers or teachers like myself – it is possible, and in my case preferred. I work for three different language schools – it is unlikely any one of them is going to be interested in funding a sponsored work permit for me. Perhaps if I worked full-time at one school, I would have considered this option more.

The Zivno is essentially a list a trades (primarily services, but also some manufacturing trades) that a person can exchange for money. As a self-employed person, there are some additional hoops to jump through – first, you must pay all the administrative fees and do all the initial application paperwork yourself (or pay a visa consultant to assist you). After you’ve gone through the bureaucratic back and forth and collected all necessary signatures and stamps, you still have to manage all your own finances, including paying a monthly tax to the Social Security office. You may only work within the trades you are designated under on your paperwork, but you are allowed to designate more than one – even if you’re not working under all of those at the moment, it gives you more employment flexibility.

Under the Zivno, you are essentially your own “business” and all the associated costs and benefits come with it. You can market your service (be it English teaching, writing, tour guiding, hostel work, or consulting) to whoever you like and not be obligated to stick with one client or employer if it’s not working out. But you are responsible for paying your monthly taxes, maintaining records of invoices and expenditures for the upcoming tax year, and not providing services beyond what you are licensed to.

Hiring a Visa Person

I can’t recommend this enough if you don’t speak Czech. The process is long, complex, and having a professional who has established connections and relationships with the people who work at the multiple government agencies is incredibly valuable.

There are a range of available services out there, for people in all kinds of legal circumstances (EU, Non-EU, those looking to teach or do other kinds of work, families vs singles, etc). There isn’t an established title for these services, but I’ve heard them referred to as “visa assistance service”, “visa facilitator”, “visa consultant”, and most commonly, the vague yet accurate “visa person.” A few companies I found doing a little digging: CZ Visa, Visa Services, Move to Prague – but there are many more. Do some research, explore your options. Prices range from 5000-7500 crowns for full visa and Zivno assistance, the most commonly sought service. Ideally, you want someone who gives you fast responses to message and questions and is flexible about meeting places and times. Usually these prices do not include the fees for the visa/zivno themselves, but be sure to ask.

My visa person was Jitka Peterkova, aka Visa Guru. She taught the “survival Czech” lessons at the school where I got my TEFL certificate and when I heard she offered visa consulting services, I signed up. I have no reservation in recommending Jitka and Visa Guru, as she was incredibly helpful to me throughout my entire process. She always answered messages promptly, throughly, and went above and beyond as a consultant.

All that said, however, be aware that by choosing to hire someone to assist you in this process, you are placing a great deal of trust in them and their professionalism. Your stay in the country depends on this paper work, so make sure you read reviews or get recommendations from someone  first. (You don’t want to end up like the woman in this story!)

Forgoing an Visa Person

It’s certainly possible to do the process without hired help – if you speak Czech. My Serbian flatmate decided to forgo the extra expense and do all his paperwork himself, and has been navigating through the process successfully on his own – using his proficiency with the Czech language to assist him.

If you don’t speak Czech, I really don’t know if it’s possible without at least some assistance from a Czech speaker. All of the paperwork is in Czech, and Czech bureaucrats do not have a reputation of being the most helpful people out there. If you don’t have a Czech friend or family member willing to assist and translate for you, you’re most likely going to need to pay for a translator. I reckon it’s simpler and worth the extra expense to hire a consultant, and get all your questions answered and help with every step, rather than just paying piecemeal for translation services.

Getting Legal in the Czech Republic

I hardly know where to begin, because there is just so much to cover. So in order to make it less intimidating for me, and more easily understood by others, I am going to break up the legal process into bits and pieces. Here on the Czech List, lists are our friends!

First, a few caveats:

  • These are not hard and fast facts or rules. These policies and procedures can change at any point – in fact, two of them changed just during the 4-months while I was going through the process
  • All the following information is based on my personal experience. I am not a visa assistance service, and don’t have the information to address the full scope of legal circumstances under which people begin the process
  • Don’t just take my word for it – do research, ask multiple sources if you have questions! There is a huge variety of experiences out there, mine is only one.

 

That said, here are the topics I hope to cover. I will add links to the posts as I write them – I will be taking my time, as I want everything to be factually correct as possible.

How to live here legally: Getting a Long-Term Visa *

  • Hiring a visa person
  • Timing – How long will this take?
  • Expense – How much will this cost?
  • Tourist visa versus long-term visa
  • Getting your Proof of Accommodation
  • Criminal Background Check
  • Proof of Work License
  • Setting Up Visa Application Appointment
  • What to Bring and Expect at Your Visa Application Interview
  • You’ve Applied… Now What?
  • Approval and Visa Pickup
  • Registering with the Foreign Police

*(as non-EU foreigner – EU citizens have a different and purportedly less arduous process)

…and that’s just half the battle! At the same time, you also need to be navigating the process to work legally. Your visa is only permission to live here – there is a separate yet intertwined process to get approval to work legally. These permissions both rely on the other, so it’s important to pursue both at the same time. There are two types of permission to work – an employer-sponsored work-license, or a self-employment license (also called the trade license, or Zivnostensky list). I have no experience with the work license, so I won’t discuss how to get one (…because I don’t know!). But I can share with you my knowledge and experience getting my Zivno list.

How to work here legally: Getting your Zivno 

Teaching English in Prague

Of course individual circumstances will vary, but overall I don’t think it’s that difficult to find work as an English teacher in Prague. At least, as long as you put in the effort to find work, and have at least some education or experience to back you up – though it certainly needn’t be extensive.

Recommended Qualifications

When I entered the job market (finally) I had my TEFL certificate from The Language House, and no other experience teaching. I have a BA in Anthropology, experience working retail, research, and in the veterinary trade. But as far as teaching went, I’d never even done as much as tutor or even babysit. No experience with education or children of any kind – which is the reason I signed up for the TEFL course in the first place. I highly recommend it to anyone considering teaching abroad with no experience – getting a certificate shows you’re committed, and gives you at least *something* to refer you to potential new employers.

I’ve heard in Prague in particular, that you won’t be considered without a TEFL certificate. As I had one myself, I can’t really verify if that is true or not, but I reckon if you’re going to forgo the it, it should be because you have a lot of other relevant experience or education. I have also heard that although having a bachelors looks good, it doesn’t make very much difference in the Prague teaching market unless it’s in an education field. So don’t expect your bachelors in Civil Engineering or what-have-you to be enough to recommend you to employers.

Where to Look for Work

So once you’ve brushed up your resume with any and all relevant experience, what next? Like any job market, it can take some digging to find the right job for you. There are hundreds of language schools in Prague, as well as lots of opportunities teaching kids in international schools and pre-schools. You also can market yourself as a private tutor, and be your own boss. Or, like many of my classmates, work a combination of these.

You can look for jobs online a great deal –  website job boards such as expats.cz and on Dave’s ESL Cafe were recommended to me by my school, though I didn’t end up using them. Or you can use Facebook, as I did for at least one of my jobs. I am a member of my school’s alum board and saw the posting there, and jumped on it. Obviously you have to be an alum of my particular school to use that board, but there are several others I found just using a few minutes to look them up (herehere, here and occasionally here). I’m sure you can find even more if you take longer than the five minutes I just did!

There is a fairly high turnover rate at the larger language schools, one of which hired me and three of my (equally unexperienced) friends and recent TEFL grads. If you’re already on the ground in Prague, it’s easy to find them – they advertise everywhere. James Cook, Caledonian, and Spevacek are probably the biggest advertisers. If you’re interested in working for a language school, they are good places to start. Some smaller ones are IJV, Skrivanek, and Channel Crossings. Those are the three I applied at, but there are hundreds in the city, with a little research you can find many more. All three responded to my applications and interviewed me, two of the schools offered me a position, and I accepted at one. The going rate for all three schools for new teaches was 200 crowns per a 45-minute lesson – though most lessons are either 60 or 90.

I also found jobs working for another, very small language school located outside of Prague, and for a “teacher manager” (more on that in a moment) as well – through one of my contacts in the alum group. She was an established teacher in Prague for several years, and was moving back to the States. She posted about needing replacements, so I sent her my email and resume. I don’t think I even really thought I would end up being considered -surely there were more qualified applicants than me to replace her? But I think that says more about my lack of confidence than was a true reflection of the teaching market. I had just been hired on part-time at one of the language school (scheduled to teach six classes a week), when I doubled my work schedule through these two other employers.

So, in the end, I can’t emphasize enough to take advantage of any and all personal connections and networks you have, to find opportunities to put your name forward.

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Got my interview boots on and ready to go get a job!

What to Expect Working at a Language School

Working at a language school involves a lot of traveling around the city, teaching classes at businesses, and sometimes homes. Your typical day is anywhere from two to five classes (if the latter, usually in blocks at one location) – and involves travel. I teach all over the city, and make good use of public transit – bus, tram, metro, and even train. I teach in five different business offices (sometimes more than one class), and in three different houses. My classes are all either 60 minutes or 90 minutes, and the pay varies from employer to employer. I make a decent amount per hour, but I don’t make anything for all the hours I spend traveling, planning, or if a student cancels more than 24hours ahead of time (which happens frequently), so at the end of the week my wages are not as high as I would like.

Some classes will be at the language school itself, which is convenient for using the library or break room. You might be even offered a job teaching one a public course – meaning, a class at the school anyone from the public can sign up for. Which reminds me,  another benefit of working at a larger language school is that they often offer public courses in other foreign languages at a discount to their employees. So if you’re interested in taking French, Spanish, Czech for foreigners, or what-have-you, a larger language school might be a good workplace for you. Just check on the particular school’s policy that you’re looking at.

The “teacher manager” I mentioned before is not strictly speaking a language school, but the job operates exactly the same. She is hired by clients – usually companies- to arrange English classes for them. She in turn hires and pays the teachers. The smaller schools I work for pay me more, but the larger one offers me more classes to take on (if I want) and has more resources (a library, printer/copier, break room and free coffee/tea).

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A London-themed classroom at one of the schools I work for

I only teach one-on-one classes myself, at first through coincidence (that was all I was assigned when I began my part-time schedule) – and then later on, I decided I enjoy the one-on-one format and would rather not take on larger classes. At this point, only one of my weekly lessons is not a one-on-one class – is two students. This is just a point of preference though, and if you want or don’t mind teaching larger groups of adults it’s widely available. When interviewing it’s probably best to be available to teach all group sizes, especially if just starting out in this career.

 

 

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The school supplies I’ve purchased since beginning my teaching life

Schools for Children

I know much less about working a regular schedule a school  or pre-school for children, though some of my friends are doing it. I know the pay is slightly lower per hour, but that with the reliable schedule and 40hrs/week, it’s easy to make the same or more than at the language school gigs.

Private Lessons

Teaching privately, or on your own without a language school, is also an option. You can make a profile at websites such as Teacher Creature and students will find you – you can post your own rates and there’s no middle man, so you can make more per hour than you would working for a school. You can run class however you like, and rarely have more than one or two students at a time. Downsides – it’s much more difficult to get payment for late cancelations (something most schools provide for you). There are no resources – no library of textbooks, copier, coffee machine. Also, as it’s usually people hiring you as individuals, not from a company, it’s common to have class in a cafe or other public place. This has the downside of being noisier, more distracting, less space, and you may have to fork over 30 or 40 crowns every lesson for a coffee or tea.

Zelenec

So, I am so tired I am *this* close to not writing tonight. But I made a goal and I’m going to meet it, one way or another. I don’t have the energy to write about anything substantial, so instead I will tell you a little about Zelenec.

Zelenec is a small village outside Prague, and I’ve been teaching out there once a week for about five weeks now. If I took the metro all the way to the end, and then caught a bus, it’d be an hour long commute. Fortunately though, I am able to catch the train instead and it only takes about 20 minutes to arrive.

I go to the home of two young boys – brothers, age 8 and 11- whom I teach for an hour each. I don’t know much about Zelenec, but as one of my friends from the TEFL course also happens to teach out there at the same time (though she teaches for an after-school program at the school), we enjoy exploring the small town one bit at time.

They say a photo is worth a thousand words, so I’ll let those do the rest of the talking for me.

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At the train station in Prague…
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The station in Zelenec
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The view from my student’s house is quite different from mine in Prague!
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The nearby school seems like a happy enough place!
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Quite possibly the only restaurant in town
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Just loitering after class, with my new friend I named Karlos
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Train to Prague arriving
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Goodbye Zelenec – until next week!

My Post-TEFL Slump

So, early December I was done with TEFL and ready to enter the world of teaching.

…or was I?

I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but for me, the end of the TEFL course marked the beginning of a challenging new period in my life. TEFL was intense – constantly busy, from before dawn ’til long after sunset. Which really isn’t saying anything because the sun set around 4 PM, but with or without sunlight, they were long, frantic days. After 30 days of this, I was ready for a few days off.

Which turned into a week, and then another… until it was nearly mid-January and I still hadn’t even touched my resume or sent out a single job application. So what happened?

First, I’d like to say that The Language House offered me all the resources I needed, and more, to find work in the city. In fact, I could’ve begun my job hunt while still in the course, if I had somehow found the time. But even after graduation, the school was available to review resumes and assist with where to look for work, tips on interviews, as well as adding all of us to the Alum Group – a constant source of job openings. For a full month after the course we had our own “Jobs Board” as well, just for us November, where one of the staff posted job openings that were sent her way by employers who trusted the reputation of the language house. Many of my friends found jobs through these resources, so they weren’t just for show.

I recall that first week after the course – I felt finally free to explore Prague! I had moved overseas only to be living in School Land, consumed by the world of teaching and homework and lessons. Unable to summon the energy to venture far in this strange land, my world was the school, the flat, and on weekends expanded slightly to various restaurants and bars around Zizkov. The end of the course meant I was finally free to wander, see the sights, spend time with my new equally unemployed friends, and relax. So I gave myself a break, and figured I’d start with the job hunting soon – just not quite yet.

But the next week was the week before Christmas – and well, no one is really hiring around the holidays. I knew I should at least be editing my resume to reflect my new TEFL grad status, and drafting a cover letter or two, so when the holidays ended I’d be ready to start job searching. But although I opened up my resume a number of times, and stared at it – I’d always end up closing it. Most of my friends were still unemployed through the holidays too, as it really is a slow hiring period.

I moved into a new flat the weekend after the course as well, and spent a lot of time, energy and money into making a home for myself in it. Ikea is located about an hour away on the metro, but I made the trip twice. I was one of a few of my graduating TEFL group to move out of Zizkov – most stayed in the area, as we were already familiar with it and it’s centrally located. I moved a bit farther out, into a neighborhood called Vrsovice. I moved into a 4-room flat with a lease on one room, paying a considerably cheaper rent than some of my friends who stayed closer to the city center. One of my fellow Novembers who I got along well with, a Serbian named Marko, also moved in. The other rooms were filled by a Slovakian gal and then an Italian, who then moved out shortly after, and was replaced by a Portuguese gal (the current flat demographic).

I got along well with my flatmates, I arranged and re-arranged my belongings, and began to settle in. Over the holidays I didn’t even think about work all that much – I got a bit homesick instead. I stuck to hanging out with friends, I obsessed over getting a Christmas tree and re-creating an American breakfast like I could get at any greasy spoon back home. (Properly crispy hashbrowns still elude me). I spent more money than I probably should’ve on my own little tree, buying lights and baubles and ribbons, and threw a Christmas Eve party with my friends.

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The early sunset coupled with my lack of ability to wake up early meant I only got about 4 or 5 hours of sunlight a day, and often I was indoors for most of it anyhow. I missed the sun, I missed being warm, I hated having to put on so many pieces of clothing every time I needed to walk out the door. The days in the weeks after Christmas all began to blur into each other – I would sleep in, feel guilty, stay in my room or nap on the couch. I am lucky I had friends messaging and getting me to come hang out fairly often, but even so as January approached they all began to get busier, looking for jobs and then interviewing and then getting hired and beginning to work. In the meantime, I was feeling furtively guiltier and guiltier for doing none of that, sleeping and living off of my savings.

Every time I sat down at my laptop I would think about how I was failing to look for work, and feel bad – but not fix it. I began to dread any encounters with anyone from the school (save from my closer friends), because of course the inevitable opening question was always, “So, how’s the job search going?” – “I’m not,” just never seemed like an adequate response.

Then it snowed. I’ve spent the last ten years before Prague living in Texas, where the attitude about snow is definite – if it snows, everything closes. Schools close, work closes, people stay home. So I did what an sensible long time resident of the south would do – I stayed home. I hibernated, waiting for the snow to stop. I slept a lot, I read some, I surfed the internet, and slept some more. My friends posted photos on facebook of beautiful snow-covered views in the city, snowball fights and snow angels. I just thought, it’s too cold, it’s too wet, I’m tired. And so I slept some more.

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I took this photo of the tram stop the day I finally left the flat

There is light at the end of the sleepy, snow-buried tunnel, however. I finally left the flat, to see some friends, and learned that snow does not, in fact, kill you. The inconvenience of having to get dressed, as huge as that was, could not damper the benefit of being around my friends, talking to people and eating and just in general operating more like a normal person. Unfortunately, then I got sick.

Not terribly, deathly ill – just your general it’s-winter-and-of-course-I’m-sick type of sick. Headachey, tired, and just general crappieness abound. So, another week of sleeping too much, staying in too much, and not getting anything done about my job situation. But as time wore on, the feeling of failure, guilt, and inadequacy only got stronger and stronger and made it more and more difficult to break through.

I’d think about teaching and recall the stress and anxiety I felt during TEFL, and just felt completely incapable of becoming a teacher. It’s not that I thought I couldn’t or wouldn’t get hired – just the opposite. I’d seen enough of my friends get jobs by this point to know it would happen for me if I just put myself out there. I was terrified to actually get hired and have to be a teacher for real. My internal work ethic has always dictated I go into things prepared as possible, to be competent, and in order to feel secure I needed to feel like “I know what I’m doing.” But even with all the things I’d learned and preparation I did during TEFL, I still felt like a fraud.

But, after six weeks of procrastinating and these feelings not going away, the pressure to address the problem finally grew too large to ignore. I had to do something. So, I wrote a blog post. Probably one of the most pathetic, self pitying blog posts to even grace the WordPress editing page, but that’s what I did. I couldn’t sign up for the embarrassment of publishing my failure, but I did send it to a few online friends, as well as to one of my friends and fellow TEFLers. She had yet to apply anywhere yet either, and after I sent it – she told me she had similar feelings.

It turns out having someone else who understood how I felt, and was going through the same thing, was just what we both needed. That week, we met at a cafe and vowed to stay until we had both applied to at least one job – and we did it. With her I applied for four jobs, and the next week had four interviews, and now I work for three language schools, teaching 12 classes a week. I still struggle at times with my feeling of somehow being a fraud and not a ‘real’ teacher, but it’s manageable.

I wanted to write this post, not to look for pity or congratulations, but just because I am sure that if two people (at least) out of our course went through this period of self-doubt and insecurity, others will too. I don’t think I ever fully lost hope, but sometimes it was close to it – which is saying a lot for an idealist like myself. I have no doubt, though, that what pushed me out of my slump and into normal operations, was my friends. We survived TEFL together, I think a lot of them went through a version of this funk, just a bit faster than I did. But we all leaned on each other and came out the other side employed… if not all entirely legal. But, that’s a topic for another post.

My TEFL Course Experience

So I’m sure many of you recall, last February I reviewed a number of TEFL courses in Prague, and landed on The Language House TEFL program, putting my deposit down in March of 2015. I was signed up for the November/December 4-week course, at the school located in central Prague, only a few minutes walk away from many of the main tourist sights and just across the street from a large, modern shopping mall. Here is a summary of my experience of the course, as well as my life in Prague during that time.

Arrival & Accommodation

I arrived late Friday before the course’s Monday start date, and the school arranged for a taxi pickup to take me to my accommodation. The driver’s name was Vladimir and we had a nice little chat, though I was so exhausted after a 26-hour journey, I could barely comprehend where I was and what I was doing. In retrospect, I am very glad to have had the taxi – trying to figure out the public transit at that moment, with all my luggage, would’ve been such a nightmare.

The accommodation varied from student to student, but the I was placed in a spacious 3 bedroom flat with a separate kitchen and living area, with only one other student sharing with me. Other students were not so lucky as to have all that extra space, but from what I saw everyone was in relatively comfortable living situations. My flat was old and definitely could use some more regular maintenance – the kitchen baseboards just…weren’t (fallen over, missing pieces, crumbling), the toilet seat was cheap plastic and constantly falling off, and the shower door liked to jump off it’s tracks at random moments. But it was a place to live, warm and dry and had all the dishes and sheets provided, along with a washer and wifi.

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I paid 400 Euros, and I think most of the value of that was fact that I didn’t need to arrange it myself from overseas, and the location. The flat was in Žižkov, which is near to the city center, and overall is just a fun area to live in. The building I was in was right behind the iconic Žižkov TV Tower, and it was kind of a neat experience to look out the kitchen window and see it lit up at night all red and blue with babies crawling up and down it like ants (the Czechs have some very interesting art…).

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The local neighborhood, seen from Jiří z Poděbrad square

Orientation

I paid 50 Euros additional for the optional “Prague Orientation” which was overall good value, as it gave me an opportunity to see some of Prague and the sights before the course. I feeling rather unwell after my 26-hour journey from the states, and jet lag hit me hard, but decided to participate anyhow. We went to Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral, a quick jaunt down historical Golden Lane and then out for dinner at a medieval themed restaurant (and it had the history to back it up!) which included a tasty meal and a drink. Vegetarians, get ready to eat a lot of fried cheese here, by the way. The next day we went to the school itself for a “survival guide” presentation and a representative from a visa company came to introduce us to the visa process (more on that in a future post, I promise). And last but not least, came the visit to the Prague Beer Museum where we were each given a basket of four different beers to try.

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TLH November Teacher Trainees during orientation

First Week

During orientation we were also given a month-long transportation pass, that was covered by the course tuition. We took that pass and used it on the trams to get to the school each morning, which began at 9AM each weekday. The bulk of the first week was spent learning teaching terms, techniques, and methodology. The days were long but not too overwhelming. On Wednesday we had our first Survival Czech lesson, to be continued in one lesson per each week of the course.

On the Thursday of that week (if I’m recalling correctly) we were given an optional walking tour (I opted in) around Old Town Prague and learned a bit more about the city and it’s history. We ventured past the Municipal House and National Theatre (just around the corner from the school), Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock, went across Charles Bridge, had some spiced wine or hot grog by the riverside, went to the Lennon Wall and past the art museum… all to end up at a dinner paid for by the school, where it was announced that the next day we would put our teaching methodology into practice the next day (Friday) by teaching a group of our peers any skill we felt we could.

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Group photo on Charles Bridge

Friday we taught our personal skills to small groups of each other, and also prepared to meet our first Czech students. Friday evening was the first class with real Czech students – we were all assigned to prepare a simple 15-minute warmup activity for a small group of students in one of five levels (beginner, pre-intermediate, intermediate, upper intermediate, or advanced). Our warm-ups were observed by a teacher trainer, and two or three other trainees. After our warm-ups it was our task to observe one of The Language House teacher trainees teach a full 45minute lesson and take notes – next week, starting Monday, it would be us leading these same students for full 45 minutes lessons.

It’s also tradition that after the first Friday of the course, the students of the previously graduating month take out the new students. So my class of Novembers were taken out to the beer museum again, and met up with 20-some of the Octobers still living and working in the city. It was nice to meet some people who had already gone through the course, knew what to expect, and could give us a little glimpse into the lives waiting for us when we were done.

Second & Third Week

These weeks were definitely the hardest. We began teaching real classes to our students, finally. Each day was very long, and stressful, for most of us. I know it was for me at least! Most days began with me waking early trying to lesson plan, but feeling at a loss until the last hour before class and then cobbling something together. Our training began at 9AM, and we covered a variety of topics throughout the day. Our one hour of Czech a week seemed to me a miraculous break from the methodology grind. Though no one class or topic was intensely difficult, but there was just so much going on. After the lunch hour, we had a bit more training, and then it was a couple hours “break” until time to teach. And by “break” I mean, of course, lesson plan, and hopefully eat something.

At 5PM lessons started, again with the trainees broken into smaller groups. You’d watch two or three peers teach, then when your time came you were observed by them in return as well as by the teacher observer, who took notes and gave you a grade. At the end of all the lessons, the Czech students would be released for the evening, and you would give a self-evaluation, get feedback from your peers, and then from your observer. The day usually ended around 9PM. Then it was time to go home, collapse, eat something, shower, and maybe even do your homework.

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The tram stop outside the school one night, waiting for my ride back home I snapped this photo. Even in the midst of the stress, I was distracted by the surreal beauty of Prague 

Also throughout these two weeks and the last week, you were required to arrange and teach three one-on-one lessons with a student. The most difficult part of this for me was arranging a time to do it, as we were so busy already, and students also have lives and schedules. But with weekends, evenings, and a missed meal somewhere, it all got done.

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The Needs Analysis form I had my one-on-one student fill out before our lessons – a very nice Russian woman named Svetlana

 

Starting in the third week as well were the Young Learners & Teens (YLT) special modules for those of us that paid extra for it, so the group was split into YLT and non-YLT. The YLT course covered teaching techniques and methodology specifically for those under 18, though unfortunately we never had any opportunities to practice with any Czech young learners during the course. We covered the key differences between teaching children vs adults, drafted lesson plans, and what it’s like to work full-time with kids of different ages. YLT modules continued into the fourth week, but it meant we missed out on some of the other courses that the non-YLT students got – teaching business English, or teaching online. We were offered an opportunity to schedule these classes the week after the course if we wanted, though, and get our full tuition’s worth.

In addition to intensive course, of course, we were all also living in a completely foreign country where we don’t speak the language, or know the culture, or our way around. The upcoming end of the course would bring with it the end of our accommodation, so we needed to be flat-hunting as well. And the ever-changing visa and work license process was constantly being debated and discussed too. Thrown together into this conga-line of challenges, naturally myself and my classmates stuck together and all became very close, and even as I write these words I am sitting over at a house in Žižkov were four of my November friends live.

Fourth Week

During the last week, our training, homework, and lessons with the Czech students continued as usual, but we also had two additional challenges. The first came on that Wednesday – the grammar exam. We knew from the beginning of the course it was coming, and there was a lot of anticipation about it. Everyone I knew was worried and stressed about how terrible they were going to do, they hadn’t studied enough, and that grammar was simply unexplainable, inexplicable, and our inevitable demise. And yet, somehow, we all passed! Apparently in most months, at least a few people have to re-take it, so I’m quite proud of my class for all getting it on the first go-round.

Yet even though all our grammar anxiety was for naught, it did not stop everyone from stressing an equal amount, if not more, over the mysterious “Long Arm Of TEFL.” The teacher trainers wouldn’t say what it was, only that it would be “our last test” and on Friday afternoon of the last day of the course. The lack of explanation added exponentially to the stress levels of everyone, and I heard many a rant of how people weren’t going to take any more of this, if the trainers pull some stunt they’re walking out, etc. Yet, time rolled around for the Long Arm and we all pulled through in one piece, and subsequently were sworn into secrecy ourselves. Although I didn’t sign a NDA or anything, I’ll honor my pinky swear and not reveal the secret of the Long Arm to any future TLH TEFLers… only to say that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel. And no one died. Probably.

Riding high on the thrill of completion, we were taken out by the school one last time, for celebratory drinks at a local bar. The stress of the last few weeks had been intense, but we were all through the woods and out in the wide world at last, and I don’t think any of us were sober. If any one was, the rest of it took it personally and drank that much more to make up for it.

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November’s TEFL Graduation party – we survived!

What I Gained:

In order of what I value most:

Friends – some brief friendships, but some I can see lasting a lifetime. Absolutely the best thing I could possibly get.

A near second is the alum network – hundreds of people who have gone through the same gauntlet, with connections and experience all around the world. I never feel alone in the TEFL world, not even now that I’m done with the course. I feel confident that even years from now I can go back and draw on this network as I need – because I see the other alums from years past doing so all the time on the alum board, sharing jobs, flats, questions, tips. The Language House definitely has a great network, it was why I chose them over the other courses, and I don’t regret that decision in the slightest.

The school itself is also a great resource I still I have – if I have questions about visas, flats, or just need to make some copies or need a place to use the wifi for an hour, I’m more than welcome to as an alum to stop by and ask questions or use the computer (provided I stay out of the way of the current trainees, of course).

Of course the education on teaching itself is very valuable, as it has enabled me to more confidently pursue my career in teaching and design and produce my own lesson plans. Knowing terms and methodology didn’t just help me in my interviews, I believe it has made me a better teacher than I would’ve been if I had started teaching without this education. Especially the experience of working directly with Czech students – probably twice the learning happened standing up there in front of them, attempting to teach, as did seated in class listening to our trainers.

Oh, and a TEFL certificate – most valuable in it’s meaning to employers. Depending on where you teach, this certification can take you a long way, or be the difference between a job and having your experience-less resume (like mine) tossed out.

Where I Think They Could Improve:

Possibly less students, or more space/computers. Break time often felt like crunch time not just due to the stress of the activity, but the stress of knowing whether you could get your turn at the computer/printer/copier in time.

After beginning teaching, one thing my school asked from me that I was unprepared for were writing study plans for my classes. I was ready to teach lessons as individual units, but left flummoxed on how to prepare a whole class syllabus from the start. What to cover first, and how to decide what direction to go? Maybe this was covered at some point and I just missed it – but I feel this is an important topic for any teacher to become familiar with, so lessons aren’t just all pulled out of a hat at random each week.

*Note for clarification- a study plan is not the same thing as a lesson plan – it is the plan for a whole semester (or other long time frame), where you sit down and decide all the lessons you will teach over the course in one go. My school definitely covered lesson plans – that was probably over half of our training!

Recommendation?

Yes – if you are committed. TEFL isn’t a casual course, and takes a lot of energy, mental and emotional stamina to get through. We all came out better teachers (and friends) by the end, but it was easier for some than others. I think if you are determined to teach, and want the education, you should by all means go for it. Just know what you’re getting into!

What happened to Czechlister?

So many, many things have happened since I last regularly wrote in this blog. What happened to Czechlister? Well, a lot. In May (2015) I crashed my car, and tearfully accompanied it to the wrecking yard, where I was overcome by a fit of sentimentality and tore the license plate off with my bare hands to keep as a memento. #Poetlife, y’all. It ain’t easy. I borrowed my dad’s truck to get to my research job for a couple weeks, but the demise of Beloved Camry (may she be recycled and live on) accelerated the end of my job there. I was intending to stay on at the lab until it was time to leave for Prague, but I couldn’t keep using my dad’s truck, and it just wasn’t practical to buy a new car 6 months before leaving the country.

Mid-June, I quit my job working with the monkeys earlier than planned – I loved that job, but I was ready for a new adventure. First though, was the interim adventure – moving back in with my parents. I moved all my things and my kitty (I miss you Mishka!) from my tiny Austin apartment, to my parent’s lovely house outside Houston. I spent a month house and dog-sitting for my parents while they were away, which sounds better than the reality, which is I sat around unemployed for a month. I read, I laid in the sun, I swam, and tried to make youtube videos. But, my month in the sun couldn’t last forever, as I needed to be earning money to save for my big move.

I got hired on at a local animal hospital as a veterinary technician in July, and I couldn’t have asked for a better interim job. I love working with animals, and though dogs and cats aren’t as fascinating as monkeys they make up for it with the cuddle-factor. My co-workers and the vets there were all great, and I was lucky enough to make some real friends. And when late September rolled around, everyone was so supportive and encouraging when I announced my impending move overseas.

In November I made the big move, began my TEFL course. Within 30 days I was loose in Prague with a TEFL certificate in one hand and the other freezing ’cause I can never keep track of my gloves. I hibernated through the slow-hiring period during the holidays, and after New Years began job-hunting. February 1st I began working as an English teacher at last, and just two weeks ago I turned over my first bundle of monthly invoices to get that sweet cash to fund my regular shenanigans.

Now it’s March, 2016… It’s been over a year since I started this blog, and nearly five months since I moved to Prague. I think it’s time this blog saw some real progress – which is why I am solemnly super-swearing I am going to update this blog more regularly – and just to show you I really, really mean it this time (really!), I am initiating a Seven Day Czech List Blogging Bonanza! That’s right folks, every single day this week I promise a new post. If I don’t live up to my word… well, I’ll just have to keep trying! Else the word “bonanza” will lose it’s zingy appeal and I’ll start to cringe every time I see it.

I know many (okay, like, two people at most) of you are wondering where I’ve been, how did TEFL go, what’s Prague like, what am I up to, what is life in Prague like? Basically, because I’ve been so bloggingly negligent, I now have no shortage of topics to write about this week. So no excuses.

Also, you may have noticed I’m no longer writing under the moniker “czechlister” and it is now “Elliott Bell” – how very observant of you! Truth is I’m going through an online-identity overhaul, editing and updating all of my blogs and social media accounts, as well as making a new website, as I’ve decided to turn my online identity professional and write freelance in addition to teaching English. If it goes well, I hope to completely phase out of teaching by the end of August. But, that’s a whole ‘nother blog post I think. Coming soon!