When you first arrive in Germany, you’ll be tempted to apply for work at one of many commercial language schools, none of which I will name here. These schools are not traditional schools because the “students” are really clients.
What I’m calling a traditional school is one where the students, if minors, are mandated by the government to attend. Think elementary school and high school, be they public or private. The teachers of these schools have to hold certain degrees and are specifically qualified to work there. They are civil servants and hold that title indefinitely. The kids finish school with either a High School diploma or other certificate. The German school system differs from the American system in too many ways to mention here.
Another traditional school is a state-sponsored or accredited University where the student will earn a nationally-recognized degree. The teachers at the University can range from Professors to Docents, and are paid accordingly. If you teach a class or seminar at the University, don’t call yourself a Professor unless it is written on your own University degree. You can be hired as a Docent to give a seminar or to lead a course, workshop, or other informational meeting. Your qualifications will dictate what kind of classes you will teach and how much you’ll be paid.
A commercial school offers lessons to people in exchange for money, and can sometimes act as a facilitator for internationally-recognized proficiency tests such as TOEFL, TOEIC, and Cambridge Exams like BULATS. Teachers at commercial schools are hired at the discretion of the school, not the government. Although it is not acknowledged in writing, teachers are often hired based on physical appearance, age, and personability, above experience and qualifications. The teacher is a product whose goal is to encourage students to buy another course. I’ve worked at several of these language schools, and some are better than others. The best ones pay the most, hire based on qualifications, and provide teaching materials. The worst ones will take up too much space on this page if I start to describe them at all.
I will try to outline the pros and cons of working at a commercial school since most readers are going to teach abroad temporarily, and are not looking to be employed permanently in the German school system.
There are many big reasons to work for a good commercial school:
- Students are aplenty; you’ll be able to really get the hang of teaching if you’re a beginner, and understand what people need from a lesson.
- The good school will provide workbooks and solid content to teach from. Your prep time will consist of photocopying the two worksheets for your students, which should only take a few minutes. Photocopier on site. There will be white board markers near the white board, and flip chart markers near the flip chart. New markers will be available at all times, as well as paper, staples, etc.
- They will train you extensively to teach using their method. They’ll be consistent and hold you to their highest standard. Everyone will know the same rules, and there won’t be any conflicting information. Students and teachers will see measurable results and feel like progress is being made.
- Students will know the rules, what to expect, and will spend class time learning the material and participating in enjoyable lessons.
- Your transportation will be paid for if you’re teaching at the client’s location. For each hour of travel, you’ll be compensated as if it were a lesson. They’ll pay for your train ticket in full. I worked for a school that needed me to travel to another city three times a week, so they bought me a pass for the ICE which cost them 300 Euros a month. This was standard practice and I didn’t have to ask for it or jump through any hoops. Every month, a new pass arrived in my mailbox and that was that.
- You will get accurate directions to the client’s location, and the travel time will be estimated realistically.
- You will be paid on time every time with a good school. Simply fill in your timesheet, hand in a copy of the attendance sheets, and voila! Money.
- Some good schools will give you an employment contract that includes health insurance, paid vacation, retirement, and taxes withheld, clearly printed on a pay stub. They even honor that contract without trying to bamboozle you out of those perks.
- A good school will help you get set up in Germany with your work permits and might even write a letter to the Immigration Office.
- Your manager will ask you how you’re doing and listen to your answer.
- There will be a nice Christmas party, company picnics, and events where everyone is welcome.
The above describes one or two good qualities from a range of schools. There is not one place that will offer all of those things.
I will now describe the cons, and forgive me if it seems to go on forever. Again, these are all the bad aspects of several schools, including some bizarre incidents. Only one school met most of these:
- A bad school will try to pay you 7 Euros per lesson. Even if they pay you 18 Euros per lesson, you’ll still go hungry in Germany. They should offer some golden perks if they want you to work for less than 25 Euros for 45 minutes.
- You won’t get paid. At all. Through some glitch or wrong paperwork, they’ll lose all of your information, especially if you don’t speak German very well. Good luck getting any money from them ever.
- You will be scheduled to teach one lesson a week.
- You will be scheduled to teach no lessons at all.
- You will be scheduled to be away from home for 14 hours, while only having 3 teaching units that day.
- The school will be desperate for teachers and openly embrace a “warm body” policy. This means that “if you have a pulse, you’re the teacher.” Said my real boss. Really.
- You have to pay for your own mandatory health insurance, retirement insurance, unemployment insurance, and taxes out of your measly wages. And they don’t have to comply with the German laws mandating paid vacation because you’re a “freelance teacher” at their school, not “an employee”.
- You won’t have any materials. No workbooks, no chalk.
- You won’t know anything about your student until you walk into the classroom.
- You won’t have a classroom. Your lessons will have to take place at the cafe around the corner, and no, the school will not pay for your tea.
- They will cram as many students as possible into your lesson without telling you, and you won’t get paid extra.
- They will only give you the name of the company and the date and expect you to find out how to get there, how to get into the building, where your lessons are, who your students are, and what they want to learn. You’ll be standing outside at the gate, trying to convince the security personnel that you’re the English teacher for, uh, someone.
- You will never see a fellow teacher. A bad school will be little more than a hallway with a series of closed doors. If there is any sort of reception desk, nobody will ever be at it. If anyone is at it, he or she will be aggressively unwilling to answer even the simplest of questions.
- You will never see the same student twice.
- The management and coworkers will be vague in every sense.
- Your “contract” will specifically state that they aren’t obligated to assign you any courses if they don’t want to. You’ll see in bold that you get no benefits whatsoever and that you’re not formally employed by them. It will be in German, and nobody will sit down with you to go through it in English.
- Your wage will never be in writing anywhere.
- The boss will make fun of people who just left their interview, saying that they didn’t get hired because they were too fat or ugly. I once had a boss who told me that he only hired me because of my cup size. And he also informed me that I couldn’t take legal action because it’s not discrimination if I GOT the job, only if I lost the job based on looks. I asked a lawyer about it, and it’s the sad truth.
- They will expect you to have the contact info for all of your students and schedule your lessons yourself, despite the fact that your work contract warns you not to communicate with students outside the lesson or possess their telephone number.
- They will expect you to evaluate your student’s level and write your own curriculum which will be added to their collection of material. They will then try to claim ownership of your intellectual property based on you writing it “for their client”.
- They will blame you for their clerical errors. For example, if they schedule the lesson for Tuesday at 11:00 a.m. in the client’s office, and you go, woe betide you if they realize they meant to type Thursday. It will be your fault.
- If you go on vacation as planned and approved, and it’s overseas, the school will assume that you’ve left the country for good and withhold any money they still owe you, leaving you high and dry, not returning any of your frantic phone calls or e-mails. When you get back, they’ll hastily pay you, claiming that it was “an accounting delay, heh heh,” even though your fellow teacher heard the manager gossiping about how you “probably bailed” so she’ll just pocket the rest. It’s a habit formed when most teachers end up fleeing from the crappy school, cutting their losses.
- You’ll have to do most of the administration work, including recruiting new students, selling books, and convincing them to renew their contract. But not billing them because you shouldn’t get near the money you greedy teacher, and you don’t get a commission.
- You and your fellow teachers will find out that the school gave raises to all the teachers in Germany the previous year, but not your city’s branch. Why not? Your manager forgot to do the evaluations, and the raise is not retroactive. He will get around to it when he gets around to it, and the teachers should all just get off his back.
- You’ll have to train your new boss. She got the job because she’s friends with the branch manager. She’s absolutely new, she has no experience working with teenagers, yet she gets paid twice as much as you. She doesn’t believe you when you try to explain the job, and she keeps track of how many “brownie points” you’re earning with her.
- You’ll live near the school and yet constantly be told to travel. A fellow teacher who lives far away from the school, and near the student’s office, will never be sent to that student. She will always have to take the train to the center of town and you’ll have to take the train from the center of town to her neighborhood. You’ll both talk to the manager several times to no avail. After all, travel is unpaid at this school, so why should he care?
- If a student doesn’t show up for the lesson, you won’t get paid.
- Your boss might get drunk and throw a bowling ball at you.
- Your groups will always have different students, coming and going from week to week, and they’ll all be on different levels.
- A bad school will not provide you with a “Zeugnis” when you leave. In Germany, every employer is required to give you a letter of reference, stating that you worked there and the duration of employment. Most of the time it is a neutral document which doesn’t state anything about your performance, positive or negative.
- There will be no Christmas party.
- There will be a Christmas party, but only the favorites are invited.
- There will be a lavish Christmas party with booze, caterers, and a DJ, right after the boss tells everyone that the school has no money to pay teacher’s salaries on time.
These things are not exclusive to one school, and some schools have an odd mix of good and bad. This list only tells the worst qualities of the schools I’ve worked for, and I’m sure there is another side where the schools might have a list of shortcomings that they resent the teachers for. I’ve seen some bad teachers come and go, or stay, which is worse. Sometimes the school is wonderful in every way, but the students are unbearable. Sometimes you stay with the crappy school because the students are the greatest people you’ve ever met. Sometimes, and this is rare, you stay with the crappy school and its horrible students because the money is great. In the end though, your blood pressure will be unresponsive to the pile of Euros, and you’ll have to take the money and run.
Many people prefer private students:
They pay less, but you earn more. You’re the whole staff: boss, teacher, accountant, secretary, HR, sales consultant, everything! So here are some pros and cons of being a fully self-employed English teacher in Hannover:
- You can build your own good reputation; you’re not tied to the performance of a bad school.
- You can teach the students whatever they need to learn.
- You can accept or reject a student or group for whatever reason, and you don’t have to justify yourself.
- You can set your prices: my minimum was around 25 Euros for 45 minutes in a one-on-one lesson. Groups are more, and in-company lessons are a lot more.
- You won’t resent the spending choices of your boss.
- You’ll feel better knowing that your hard work is not lining the pocket of an obnoxious boss.
- You can control your schedule and give yourself Thursdays off.
- Your Scrabble game stays with you, and the pieces are accounted for.
- You can decide where you’re willing to travel and bill accordingly.
- You can use your own teaching method.
- You can set the due date for the course fee.
- Your white board markers are never left open to dry out by an irresponsible coworker.
- You can make boatloads of money if you really have the motivation. Depending on your area of expertise, you could give seminars and make 500 Euros per day (If you’re teaching English for IT, medicine, law, or another special area). I’ve made 200 Euros per day with four groups of kids in a huge Kindergarten. It really depends on what you can offer and where your talents are.
- You can rent your own office and pick out your own decor.
- You can simply tell your students that you’ll be on vacation in June.
- You can collaborate with other independent teachers and share books, games, and students.
- Your curriculum, materials, and methods that you create are your intellectual property.
- You have to find your own students.
- Your lazy self will regret the schedule written by your motivated self, while your poor self will hate the low bank account balance caused by your lazy self.
- You have to do your own billing, set your terms and conditions, write the contract, and have the phone number of a good lawyer on hand in case of trouble.
- You have to pay your own health insurance, retirement, taxes, and so on, just like at a school.
- Your students will try to guess how much money you make, and they’ll use it to manipulate you.
- If someone steals a book or a pen from you, you really feel it.
- You have little support if a student gets weird. You don’t realize which boundaries a student might try to cross. It can get really creepy when your student knows you’re alone in your office and comes knocking or slowly drives past every day. Or on the other side, a student might hang around to chit chat, thus extending their practice time and getting a little extra lesson for free.
- You’re always “on air”. Even if you post your contact hours as 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., you have to answer the phone if a potential student calls during those hours whether you’re eating, teaching, or running errands. Some students might have to call or text you late at night to cancel the lesson the next morning, saving you the trip to their office. Yes, they woke you up, but it’s nice to not have to rush to the train station at 6 a.m.
- Every potential new student is another job interview. They sometimes want to see your résumé and TEFL Certificate, and they’ll ask a lot of unexpected questions that a boss wouldn’t ask.
- Students expect you to help them with everything related to English, all the time. They give you homework. You have to be firm and give them your price list for corrections and translations. One student called me at 9:30 at night to help his daughter with her schoolwork! He assumed that I’d be happy to do it, and he was baffled when I politely declined.
- You really have to budget! July and August are generally dry times for a self-employed teacher, so set aside money religiously or you won’t make it through the summer. By September, you’ll say yes to the first students who come along and you might regret agreeing to some desperate conditions for the sake of paying your bills.
- You can’t count on students to renew their courses when you need the money. There are some students who will stay with you for years and years, and others who disappear after one course. Still others will straggle in and out over the years.
- You’ll feel more pressure to do everything right.
- If someone gets a paper cut in your office, you better have the proper insurance and be prepared for whatever headaches they bring you.
- If you get sick and have to stay in bed all day, you have to call all of the students and tell them. So if you have three groups of four, you’ll be on the phone for a while. And then they won’t always accept that you’re sick. One student showed up at my house and wanted to feed me soup. When I didn’t answer the door, he accused me of faking my illness!
- If a student fails a test, you feel like you’ve failed, too.
- You have to go to the government by yourself or with a lawyer and hope that they renew your permits.
- People won’t take you seriously if you describe yourself as self-employed while not dripping with cash. They’ll consider you “unemployed”.
Most of these cons can be eliminated by you, the better businessperson. I look back at my time teaching in Hannover and I see things that I should have done differently. That is exactly why I’ve written this guide! Go forth, brave teacher, and heed my wise counsel!