Teaching in Istanbul is an unforgettable experience. From the moment I arrived, Istanbul drew me in and awakened my senses. I loved the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer. I reached the point where the afternoon felt long if I hadn’t already heard it. The mixture of Byzantine, Genoese, Ottoman and Turkish architecture is stunning, with minarets and towers piercing the sky. The flowers and designs inside of mosques and palaces curled around each other to make the most beautiful shapes and patterns. Shopping in the market provided a flurry of mouth-watering expectation. The shopkeepers had a variety of green and black olives, pale cheeses unique to Turkey, sausages, fresh figs bursting with juice, and bulbous red pomegranates. The mounds of spices sent mixtures of rich scents wafting through the air while their colors mesmerized my eyes. I loved to touch the soft silk scarves, the smooth cool ceramics and worn, thick kilim rugs.
It’s amazing to be immersed in such a rich culture- to live and teach in Istanbul. The people were unbelievably friendly and hospitable too.
I had two different jobs in teaching in Istanbul, both of them were in kindergartens. The teachers in the other grades in my schools also had TEFL certificates. In some of the other schools I’ve looked at, teachers for higher grades need a credential valid in their own country while the kindergarten teachers don’t.
I found the first school through a recruiter online. My interview was on Skype with a man in a big empty office in a big black chair. His main question was, “so, you like kids?” When the interview seems too easy or too good to be true, likely it is. So be sure to ask plenty of questions and do some internet research to be sure the school is legitimate. It’s a good idea to ask to talk to some current teachers at the school as well. After the interview, I got the job, which I think nearly anyone would. I was paid next to nothing, but I was ok with it because I wanted to move to Turkey so badly.
In my first job teaching in Istanbul, I worked with one local co-lead teacher. She was a wonderful Turkish woman with a face like stone when the children crossed her. But she also had a bubbly laugh and lots of hugs, kisses and winks for them when they behaved nicely. We had one assistant who came in to help during sessions when there was only one lead teacher. I worked with the children during meals, breakfast and lunch, which I was welcome to eat too. I also helped during play time in the morning with my co-teacher. I had one serious study time with the students in the afternoon. The school was new and so we helped with developing the curriculum. I had 5 scheduled periods each day and usually left school around 2 or 3. It was a plush position.
My next job was much more serious. I had to go to the school 3 times for an interview, an observation, and a demo lesson before I got the job. They paid much better to reflect the coming increase in work. Again I had one local co-lead teacher. She was less jovial and more outcome-driven. We had our kindergarteners all day long. We taught using a content and language integrated learning approach; all of our topics from “knowledge and understanding of the world” to literacy to science were in English. We were at school from 8 to 5. The students left earlier, but then we had time to work, making lesson plans and new worksheets and completing other tasks related to teaching. We changed the classroom materials regularly and met often for the principal to explain what we would teach each week. There were lots of classes for each level so we could trade ideas and worksheets with the other teachers as well.
I lived in three different apartments during my two years teaching in Istanbul. The first two I had to find myself. Two of the other teachers working for the same recruiter I used found the first apartment on AirBnB. I thought it would be a good idea to share with some other teachers. I agreed to the smallest and cheapest room. When I arrived, I found out it was the size of a closet. I could literally touch all 4 walls while lying on the bed, which was the only furniture in the room. I shared the one bathroom, kitchen and LARGE Turkish-family sized living room with the two other teachers. It was nice living in a building with mostly local residents. I learned a lot from my Turkish neighbours across the hall, like the phrase “elenize sağlık,” meaning ‘health to your hands.’ This is a nice way to thank and simultaneously compliment someone on their cooking.
Later, I decided I wanted a bit more elbow room so I moved into an old building closer to the water. The building was originally built to house the workers who built the famous Haydarpasa train station that I could see from my window. I could also see the Kadiköy harbour. I loved my view. I did not, however, love my roommates’ lifestyle. They were college students who were more interested in partying than doing their studying while they were abroad. It didn’t match too well with my working schedule. We shared a small living room, kitchen, and one tiny bathroom.
My second job came with a huge perk: housing included. I had a freshly refurbished one-bedroom apartment all to myself. I lived on the top floor and could see the Asian side from one of my windows even though I lived in Europe (the two continents are divided by the Bosphorus and the city is sprawled across a bit of both continents). My apartment had a big flat screen TV and a dishwasher! I felt like I was living the life of luxury! I had lots of counter space, including a breakfast bar. The large bedroom had tons of closet space and a full sized bed. I felt like a real grown-up living there.
I found Turkish incredibly difficult to learn at first. I could hardly even understand which sounds made up the many syllables that combined to make a single phrase. It took me about 3 weeks to decipher and respond to a local shopkeeper who said “iyi ak?amlar” (good evening) to me almost every night on my way home from work. Istanbul also wasn’t the easiest place to practice my new phrases. Often when I greeted shopkeepers, “Merhaba,” they would respond, “How can I help you?” Their English was always better than my Turkish so I would revert back to my comfort zone. I was thrilled, however, to find when I travelled outside of the city that my learning proved to be more useful. I was throwing phrases around everywhere I went- how are you? Nas?ls?n?z I want to buy cell phone credit kontür, Turkish coffee please türk kahvesi lütfen!
Some of my favourite phrases
Teşekkür ederim Thank you
Kolay gelsin! May it be easy for you- said to someone who is working
Afiyet olsen May it be good for you- said before, during or after a meal
Geçmiş olsun May it pass- said to someone who is sick or otherwise ailing
Inshallah God willing- used like hopefully or most likely
Allah, Allah Literally, God, God- used a bit like oh my God, or wow
Teaching in Istanbul you can enjoy a very full array of experiences for activities outside of work. It is a great city to walk in. Each area has something different to offer. For example, in Kadiköy, there are complex and varied artistic murals on the sides of some buildings. It’s also a great place for being outdoors, whether sitting in the square by the Blue Mosque or dining outdoors in the cafes in Beşiktaş or on a rooftop in Taksim. I took classes in yoga and belly dancing. Some of my friends participated in theater, improv comedy clubs, and Hash House Harriers- an international group that follows clues to run around a city while participating in drinking challenges. I participated in regular weekend getaways with a group organized through InterNations. InterNations is a website to organize clubs. Whatever you’re interested in you can find- from language workshops to nights out to tennis games. Couch surfing, a website for finding places to stay and things to do, also organizes many events. Nike sponsors regular races and has weekly running groups that meet in most corners of the city. Another race that I really enjoyed was the Istanbul Marathon. It’s the only race in the world that goes through 2 continents. You can run from the Asian side of Istanbul over the Bosphorus Bridge to the European side. The fact that Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia also means a great opportunity for European travel. Europe was fairly new to me and I really enjoyed getting to know some of the major cities and lesser-known villages. In Istanbul, you can easily create a very full, rich life for yourself.
During some of my stay, there were riots in the Taksim area and occasionally in Kadiköy as well. For the most part, I found it easy to avoid the dangers. More recently, there have been a couple of small bombs in the city. Generally, the city is safe, but it’s always good to be careful and alert.
There is an abundance of delicious Turkish food. The highlight is probably breakfast- kavalti. It’s a massive spread of tiny breakfast plates of fried or boiled eggs, olives, sausages or meat slices, fresh sliced veggies, a small collection of cheeses, bal-kaymak (cream and honey), jam, nutella, and breads.
Most Turkish lunch and dinner foods involve wheat and meat. There are lots of different takes on the combo though- manti (like ravioli), köfte (like meatballs), pide (like pizza), kebap, dürüm (meat in a wrap like a burrito). Mezes are a little like the breakfast- lots of small plates. This time, the plates are full of appetizers. For dessert, how about fresh layered baklava or lokum (Turkish delight)? There are whole stores devoted to rich, flaky, honeyed baklava.
You can buy groceries at open-air markets or in grocery stores. There are also a few good stores for foreign foods that you might be missing while living abroad too.
There are lots of foreign food restaurants of varying quality. There is a website called Yemek Sepeti that will deliver food from nearly any restaurant in Istanbul.
Çay is crucial to Turkish culture. Turks drink more cups of tea each day than people in any other country in the world. The tea usually comes from Rize (a city near the Black Sea) and is usually made on a two-tiered kettle. I’ve never seen anyone drink it with milk, but they do like to add lots of sugar. Çay is served in small tulip-shaped glasses. Turks love to drink tea and even more than that they love to share it.
By far the most memorable way to get around ?Istanbul is by ferry. It’s also one of the best ways to get a great view of the city, feel a refreshing breeze, and skip the traffic that can often be found on city streets. There are scenic trams that run down Istiklal near Taksim, a major eating, drinking, and shopping hub. There are also trams, buses, and metro buses in the center of the highway. You can track them with the IETT website or iphone app. The metro was new when I was there. As they were building the tunnel under the Bosphorus, they repeatedly found treasure and had to pause construction for excavation. On almost all of the public transport options, look out for wandering hands. There are also Dolmu?es, which are minibuses that stop along their route wherever someone wants to get on or off. “Taksi” cabs are also available. They are more expensive than all of the other options, but not unreasonable.
Travel within Turkey
Of course within Istanbul there are lots of amazing sights to see, especially in Sultanahmet. The Hagia Sofia Museum is full of glittering mosaics. It’s next to the Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Saray? where the Ottoman sultans used to live) and across from the beautiful Blue Mosque and the Bascilica Cistern (Yerebatan sarnıçı, which is an underground cistern that used to be below a bascilica). Other highlights include the Galata Tower with a great view of the city, the Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı full of wondrous touristy treasures, and Chora Church with its elaborately decorated ceilings.
Turkey has lots more to offer too! Ephesus was an ancient Greek city and the remains are well-preserved. Pamukkale means cotton castle in Turkish. It imaginatively, but accurately describes the white travertine cliffs filled with turquoise waters. Cappadocia is probably the most visited and best-known destination outside of Istanbul. It is famous for its fascinating “fairy chimneys” which are tall thin rock formations. Mount Nemrut has massive carved stone statues at its summit. Turkey also has an amazing coast full of gorgeous beaches like Anatalya, Marmaris, Olympos and Bodrum. There is also more culture to explore, like Konya, the home of the whirling dervishes or Mardin famous for its old city architecture.
When reminiscing on my time teaching in Istanbul, I look back fondly on two colorful years in an amazing city. What a great place to explore, teach and live! I miss the distinctive blue color of the Bosphorus and the taste of the fresh foods the most. I also miss my loving students and the amazing adults I met there too. I’d recommend considering IIstanbul if you want to teach abroad.
By Katia Davis