“The mere fact that you’re a native English speaker is enough.” Heather Keagan has six months to complete two years of TEFL, or teaching English as a foreign language, at which point she will be eligible to go on to receive DELTA training, attaining a diploma in English language teaching to adults. At 25, she’s taught in Indonesia for a year, afterward relocating to Budapest, Hungary, where she works for several of the city’s English schools and takes on private students as well. With her bubbly personality, springy brown curls of hair, and tremulous yet insuppressible laugh, Heather says teaching English in Budapest, while not her ultimate dream career or city, has been a worthwhile pursuit, giving her the chance to travel and experience an altogether unique lifestyle.
Given her ambitions for a chance to excel in the ambivalent world of TEFL, Heather is unlike many of her colleagues, including Lachland, a thirty-some-year-old Australian who has been teaching for two years, during which time he had relocated to Korea. Just several weeks into the International House (IH) program in Budapest, Lachland sees teaching as “definitely just a side job.” This sentiment seems to pervade the teacher stock at IH and other schools such as Manhattan Nyelvstúdió, where turnover rates of teachers can be high due to, among other things, the lack of commitment to the profession.
“It’s rewarding,” says Luca, a former general manager at a hair salon for seven years in the UK. Now a year into teaching English with IH, she – in stark contrast to many other CELTA-certifieds – sees English as a serious career. During summer months, Luca says she teaches roughly 30 to 40 classes; once fall arrives, the full-time teachers return, and her class load drops. Still, Luca explains that it’s not only the number of classes, fairly low pay, and odd hours that add hardship to this position but the top line of her CV as well. As a non-native English speaker (she grew up in Buda), she is more likely to have her resume buried beneath the other, more desired native English speakers. Even so, she prefers her title remain unchanged despite the disadvantage. “I don’t want to be Lucy,” she says, wrinkling her nose.
While Luca says she seldom uses Hungarian to explain the more difficult English grammar, preferring to avoid falling back on this convenience, Heather, who knows only enough Hungarian to get by, admits that it’s a bit daunting in the classroom when students begin to chatter and titter in their own language. Echoing these worries is Carly, 22, who has only recently begun teaching English here but uses her minimal knowledge of the language to her advantage. “I don’t speak Hungarian but in class we only speak English,” she says. “I’ve taken French and Hebrew for years in school and my teachers never spoke any English to us so I think it’s a good method for learning.”
Carly spreads herself over four different language schools and teaches business English at an OTP bank branch in Budapest while taking on private clients in the meantime. Similar to Luca, Carly says the hours can be sporadic – mixed with a lot of free time – as well as the pay. “Since I’m new to teaching I get paid at a lower rate, but I make about 2,600 HUF [approximately 9 euros] per class, which lasts about 45 minutes,” she explains. “I charge a little lower for private tutoring. You get paid more working at an actual public or private school with contracts but I’m not sure, as I only applied to language schools.” Given the low pay and the challenge of attaining a visa for a longer stay in Hungary, Carly has an uncertain future in the world of teaching English abroad, much like the others who scrape by on so little in Budapest.
Is such a profession sustainable? Although as an EU citizen, Heather does not have the extra worry of going through the rigmarole of the immigration process, she seems to be willing to see where it takes her.