Friday, September 9, 2011

TEFL Interview Tips: Or, When You Probably Shouldn't Take That Job

Not terrific, TEFL-rrific!
So because I'm this big teaching professional now, I've gotten in on a guest blogging EFL Roadshow thing, hosted this month by Sharon over at TEFL Tips. This month's topic is "TEFL Interview Tips." Honestly, though, I can't really offer anything new about what to do in interviews, and most interviews I've had kind of slipped by in smiling terror where I relied entirely on the poise and articulateness I learned at prep school. I've been asked to participate in giving interviews here and there, but mostly as a secret language assessment agent, so I'm not much help there either. Therefore, I'm taking a different angle. Here I offer some interviews I've had over the years, and how they gave me clues that the job was probably one I was better off not having.

This is a real bakery.
But first, a pointless story. When I was about 17, I applied for a job at a chain called "La Petit Boulangerie," an offshoot of Mrs. Field's Cookies, located in the tourist district of Union Street in San Francisco. I felt pretty cool all looking for a job and shit, like I was some sort of grown-up off to support myself making sandwiches and slinging fast-food baked goods for minimum wage. I can't tell you how many European tourists fooled by the name "La Petit Boulangerie," that I turned away by sending them off to the proper bakery/cafe across the street. Even I got my morning coffee across the street.

The was never a real bakery.
The manager of the store was this creepy little Filipino fellow named, of all things, Rico. It's not really important that he was Filipino except that the Mrs. Field's chains in San Francisco seemed to be run by some sort of Filipino underground. Rico more or less hired me on the spot before I'd even filled out an application, before I'd even made it clear that I was of legal working age. He had busy hands and an oily smile. The hands became increasingly busy during my tenure there, until I turned on Rico with a salami knife pointed at his dick and told him to get his fucking hands off me.

Korean BBQ can make anything yummy.
Then I got mono, as you do in senior year of high school-- nothing to do with Rico, mind you. It turned into some sort of thing like hepatitis, which you're free to Google and assure yourself it isn't the needle-y or bodily fluids-sharing-y sort of hep. I was out for about 6 weeks, and when I came back, Rico was gone, replaced by a lovely Korean man called Dennis. All the new employees were Korean too, who, like their Filipino predecessors, had a good laugh at me because I'd never (knowingly) eaten dog. And despite myself, the Korean and Filipino recipes for dog sounded pretty fucking yummy. Anyway.

There almost wasn't sexual harassment in those days.
Several months later, after I wasn't working there anymore, I ran into one of the women from the Union Street shop, working at a much less desirable location on the outer reaches of Geary Street. She was the one Rico was forever holding up in my face as the better worker because she knew how to skimp on the lunch meats and clean the stains out of the coffee pots. She was also the one who was more adept than I at wiggling out of his hands before they even got there. She told me she'd opened a sexual harassment claim against Rico, at which point the Filipino overlords moved her out to the shitty Geary place, and moved Rico elsewhere (but presumably somewhere more central) with an admonishment to leave the girls alone. She was toying with the idea of opening a lawsuit, but it was clear to us both that the cards were stacked against her. If I hadn't once worked at La Petit Boulangerie, I never would have known she gave me double portions of meat on my sandwich.

Not always a good thing.
Which leads me to TEFL Interview Tip Number One: If you go into the interview feeling pretty much like you're hired just for turning up, it's probably not a very good job. The one job abroad I got this way sucked. The interview was purely a formality, all smiles and sunshine and cups of coffee and when can you start? It turned out all they really wanted me for was to sit in the canteen looking pretty. When potential students came by, they brought them into the canteen where I was sitting trying to solve Turkish crossword puzzles, the director saying "Look, we have foreign teachers here!" at which point I would smile and wave or whatever.

Then they got me on placement testing which was a farce, because the only criteria for placement was, "When do you want your class to be?" This meant that my weekend class was a hodgepodge of students and levels, from a strong upper-int Romanian tween, to two brilliant and motivated intermediate covered girls who had to miss at least an hour of the lesson for prayers, to two useless forever zero-beginner businessmen just out of prison for white-collar crimes, who, after 2 months of lessons and endless hair-pulling canteen hours, remained unable to construct or understand the simplest sentences and couldn't recall words such as "house" and "cup."

The weeknight classes were so bad they actually posed a moral dilemma for me, because the students were middle-class people coming after a long day at work and paying good money for it. The school was selling itself as a purveyor of some sort of language-learning technology called "Quartet." Quartet was a system that used computers for the four skills, with little videos and gap-fill games, and a proper lesson once or twice a week to reinforce it all.

Stupid technology.
The problem with Quartet wasn't just that the pirated textbooks kept falling apart. It was also that the textbooks had really egregious errors, like a picture of shorts with the word "lamp" underneath. And the computer part, which the school insisted I use no matter what, was just embarrassing. In every lesson, some vital part of the system would fail for at least half the students. On one computer, the headphones would work, but not the microphone. On another, the other way around. Another would have a broken screen, while two more would be unable to connect to the server, or the student's password would keep getting forgotten no matter how many times he reset it. There were always a couple of machines that couldn't access their hard drives. Whenever I went to the guy known as the Tech Guy, he was all, "meh," like I was being a foreign idiot for expecting him to do something tech-like with this crap. The so-called technology lessons were mostly spent screwing around with the various technological bits, and to this day, I still don't really trust using any sort of technology in the classroom. Even board markers and photocopies I'm not totally comfortable with unless I have a few backup options.

I used to know nothing of Hoca.
TEFL Interview Tip Number Two: Your friends can help you get interviews even when jobs aren't posted, but be aware of who your friends know and what everyone's affiliations are so that you know exactly what you're getting into. Friends can hook you up with good jobs, and sometimes, networking with friends is the only way you can ever move around in the expat TEFL world. I ended up in one job through friends that was pretty good, albeit strange and religious, but it's not always like that in a foreign country. I left that job after 2 years, at the end of my pregnancy, but I don't think I would have lasted there more than another year, and it wasn't just the crummy pay or the fact that boys and girls refused to sit next to each other. The canteen Quartet job was also through a friend, a friend who I liked quite well and who hooked me up with a job when I really needed one, so maybe I shouldn't complain. And actually I'm not complaining. It wasn't my friend's fault at all the job turned out to be so crappy, though at some point he was like, "What did you expect? At least you get paid on time," and that was true most of the time. So actually that wasn't a very good TEFL interview tip at all, but maybe it's worth keeping in mind somehow because working in a foreign country can be really fucking weird sometimes.

And now, on to TEFL Interview Tip Number Three: Really strange interviews don't bode well, especially if the school is brand new. By new, I mean that the sockets are mostly still in the walls and it smells of paint. The first job interview I went to in Turkey, it was the spanking brand-newly opened Istanbul branch of the allegedly prestigious TED Ankara. I say "allegedly" because I've had a few TED Ankara graduates who always whinge that they're TED graduates and therefore they shouldn't fail English for the third time around. They whinge in Turkish because after two years of full-time English, they're unable to whinge remotely acceptably in English. Honestly, I don't know where this school gets its reputation, but it's nothing to do with teaching mettle or study skills.

In the TED interview, they gathered around me at a gleaming new table sprinkled with construction dust and grilled me for about an hour. Everything I said, they either acted like I was lying or that I didn't know what I was talking about. I left feeling like shit, thinking "Worst interview ever," wondering who I was kidding with my shiny new MA and fairly limited experience. Two colleagues who'd interviewed for the same job left the interview feeling the same way, despite all the experience under their belts.

A couple weeks later, we all got the same angry calls from a secretary at TED. She was wondering why the hell we hadn't been in yet to sign our contracts. We were all like, "Eh?" and roundly turned down the jobs without even consulting each other, until after the fact, at the bar. Twice the salary, posh housing, and an infinitely more desirable location, and even I had a gut sense about that one. Nothing good can come of such a thing. A couple years down the road I learned the school had failed to keep even one foreign teacher (and there are a lot of desperate losers passing through this city), that the students and their parents were terrors, and that the administration was fully supportive of student/parent terrorism. Goodness knows how they're doing now. Sometimes schools settle in after 10 years or so.

TEFL Interview Tips Number Four: Beware of interviewers who change the game on you halfway through the interview. I once applied for a job at another "prestigious" chain of K-12s. The friend who directed me there was trustworthy, and was working there himself, though at a different branch than the one I interviewed at. I was applying for an opening in their English prep for 11th and 12th graders, and we started off the interview talking about that. It was all going swimmingly.

Yeah. Insist on me teaching small children.
Then the woman asked me how I'd feel about teaching the kindergarteners. I told her I wasn't really interested, but she pressed on. "Oh, but it's such fun! You can do music and drama!" and I said I wasn't really into that kind of thing. "But we really need someone to teach kindergarten, you'll just love it," and I asked if I was interviewing for the older kids or for kindergarten. She wouldn't give me an exactly straight answer about that. So I looked her right in the eye like you're supposed to do in job interviews, and said, "Look. I have no experience teaching children. I have no training for teaching children. I'm not interested in teaching children, and I don't really even like children." Unfazed, she was all, "Come and meet our principal and when can you start?"

So, no.

Job interviews pretty much suck.
It's a wonder anyone lands a decent job or that schools stay in business. But they do. It's just that when you're getting desperate for work and going through the nerve-wracking process of a job interview, all prepared with your big words and professional clothing, suffering the smug stares of the people who already work there, it can be hard to remember you're interviewing them just as much as they're interviewing you, and you should be making sure that, first impressions aside, it's the kind of place you really want to work.


Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Thank you for writing this -- I will be shwoing this entry to American friends who occasionally get the idea to come teach here. About those 'big name' schools I'll offer usage examples of a Turkish term you probably already know: eşek bağlasan bitirir. Judging by the number people pushing into their fifties who still try to impress others by mentioning even the high school they have attended, I conclude the saying has some basis in fact.

Nomad said...

One of your best post.. and that's quite a declaration! I feel like I just met my own ghost-writer because so many of your experiences mirror mine. Thanks so much for sharing.

Stranger said...

Thanks, Nomad!

@Bülent-- a perfect expression that I should have known. It probably explains more about my job now than I care to think about...

Nomad said...

I recall going to an interview with the Colonel (I can't actually remember exactly why I gave him that nickname but it was probably his imperious attitude and not his military efficiency.)

Anyway, during the interview, he went on and on about having one of his teachers followed when she called in sick (there I said the word!) and he seemed so proud that he caught her teaching privately on the side. He told me how he had immediately the woman fired. That pretty much ended the interviewing process as far as I was concerned.
(Later I learned from another teacher that the Colonel had run into problems when he was accused of falsifying two teacher's signatures to contacts. They were quite surprised when he pulled out their phony contracts.)
Incidentally, I also recall that during the same interview, behind his desk, through the window was a building under construction and a big hairy construction guy was stripping down right and changing into his street clothes. I thought it was some kind of interviewing trick. But whenever I look back and think of the Colonel all I can picture is a big gorilla's bum.

I worked at one school (only eight months!) whose reputation was so bad that they were denied entry visas into England because of all the complaints and charges of misrepresentations.

My first week there, when I asked another teacher exactly what her salary was, she told me that, in fact, that month she owed the school money. WTF?
"That's right," she explained "I've had to take so many advances just to make ends meet that I still owe them money."
That's when the eight month nightmare began.

A Seasonal Cook in Turkey said...

Between you and Nomad, you have got it in one. I was never happier than the day I gave up working in Turkish schools and started a wonderful job representing a British university here in Turkey.

Stranger said...

Ah, yes, the phony contracts. They were pretty much par for the course when I worked at dershane. The way it worked was you had your contract in English (which we always believed didn't "count" somehow, probably because no one had the money or wherewithal to go to court for several years when a school failed to hold up its end), which existed primarily to make you feel like you had to hold up your end. Then there was the "real" contract in Turkish (I never was asked to sign one of those at dershane, but they were always there, signed and dated, whenever the Inspectors turned up), which showed your salary as about a third of what you were actually being paid, presumably as some sort of tax dodge or to get out of paying the right amount of SSK to the few token documented teachers who were called in to work on Inspector days. The Turkish contract also appeared if you tried to get heavy-handed about demanding a salary not having been paid to show you that, in fact, they didn't actually owe you anything.

@ Cook, between you and me and whatever members of the public who might be reading this, if a decent opportunity outside of teaching arose, I'd snap it up in a second.