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Teaching in cloud and cuckoo land

The cost of living is high but so are the potential rewards. Sarah Muxlow presents a guide to the Tefl landscape in Switzerland

Tuesday January 14, 2003

Switzerland, what better location to teach in than the trilingual country that is home to lakes, mountain ranges, tasty chocolate and cheese. If the idea of learning several languages while you teach your own, or spending cold winters skiing and warm summers swimming and sailing does not tempt you, then perhaps the easy access to the neighbouring countries of France, Italy, Germany and Austria would.

It is true that Switzerland, while a beautiful country and well situated, is extremely expensive. The cost of living is high and wages do not always allow for a comfortable life. The minimum wage is Fr2500 (1,000) a month, which barely covers the essentials.

On the other hand, if an English teacher is moving with a partner who works in the IT, banking or another business sector, the move can be worth it. Salaries for such professions make it possible to work and save if a 42-hour week, four weeks' holiday and not many bank holidays do not put you off.

Swiss people love to do business and earn money. It is their motivation for life and learning languages. Rather than learning the other languages of their country, Swiss children now learn English as their second language. In the past, the country's German speakers learnt French and its French speakers learnt German; now their common language is English - the international language of money.

Opportunities & work permits
Positions for English language teachers in Switzerland are advertised frequently, and to improve your chances you can become part of an English language teachers' association. However, the first hurdle to clear when contemplating a move here is to obtain a work permit.

A work permit ("B" permit) is obligatory to live and work here. It is possible to visit Switzerland on a three month tourist visa to search for work but it is not worth the risk working without the correct papers.

To get a work permit you need to be qualified to do the job you are applying for and to have secured a work contract. Permits are in short supply and can take up to three months to come through, depending on the region you want to work in. Many language schools refuse even to try to get permits for teachers and prefer to employ anyone who speaks English and already lives here, regardless of his or her qualifications. However, there are many different types of schools where teachers of English as a foreign language can find work and gain permits.

Types of schools
Language schools, private schools and institutes of higher education are some of the places that employ English language teachers. These differ greatly in pay and working conditions from place to place.

Language schools often provide " la carte" language classes. During the academic school year, clients usually come from local businesses; during summer the schools are open to international students. Because of the specific needs of business clients, language schools enforce few limits to their timetables. It is possible to teach large or small groups, mixed levels, or one to one, at the client's office or at the school building. The courses can be anything from a week's intensive course to two hours a week for more than a year. To keep existing clients and to be flexible are the name of the game for the school and therefore the teacher.

It is standard practice for teachers to start with only a few hours of work. Contracts are often vague and do not promise a minimum of hours or pay. The starting hourly rate can be as little as 10, which does not go very far in Switzerland. As the school gains more contracts, and the teacher's reputation grows, the workload is likely to increase, as will, sometimes, the pay (up to 40 an hour). The timetable is built around clients' requests and can change from month to month.

To have full-time hours, the teacher often needs to be available from 7.30am until 9pm. Why? To teach before business hours, during lunch time and then again at the end of the day. Swiss companies prefer their workers not to participate in training courses during the working day. The teacher's day is therefore fragmented and tiring, often involving travel to different locations for each class and a lot of waiting between sessions. It is rare to be offered a salaried position.

Because they provide no financial security, few language schools ask for qualifications. In their defence, however, they do often offer in-house training on their teaching method, as well as providing modules for the different courses. For a new teacher this can be a nice, slow, supported start but for an experienced teacher it can prove frustrating.

It is important to be careful whom you work for. With some experience, a degree and a Tefl (teaching English as a foreign language) diploma or certificate, it is worth looking for work in an institute of higher education, a private finishing school or a hotel school.

Institutes of higher education can be state or private and often have a language department attached. However, they have regular staff, who are permanent and well qualified. Vacancies are rare, but if you are thinking of staying long term it is worth making contacts and waiting in line.

Private finishing schools, for either boys or girls, are still reasonably popular with a wealthy international clientele. Their curriculums can be anything from finishing American high school to being purely language focused. Students usually enrol for a minimum of a year.

In my experience these schools are well organised. The groups of students are usually small and, because of the high fees paid, the equipment is plentiful. The timetable stays the same for the entire school year (September to June). The mornings are spent learning French, German or English and the afternoons doing the "finishing" syllabus. The classes are intensive and challenging but can also be rewarding.

Depending on the number of students wishing to study, full-time positions with paid vacations can be found. Often the occasional weekend or trip away needs to be given from the teacher's time, to accompany the students on an excursion. Expenses are paid on such trips and you could find yourself spending a weekend in Italy or two weeks in China.

Hotel schools are the third type of school. While English is not the main subject, these have posts for Tefl teachers. A hotel school generally offers students practical and theoretical training leading towards a diploma in hotel management. These schools rely heavily on international students coming from all corners of the globe, who pay for their tuition and live in the school.

To study at recognised hotel schools, students need to have good English because all courses are taught in that language. However, prospective students often do not have the required level of English. Rather than sending them home, schools often offer a variety of English language classes.

On the whole, the longer a school has been established, the better the organisation, the happier the students and the better the working conditions. There is the long-established and famous Lausanne hotel school based near Lake Geneva. This is the original hotel school. It has excellent working conditions and gives high quality courses yet only requires a teacher to have a degree and three years' teaching experience.

The average hourly pay in hotel schools is 20 to 30 an hour or a salary of 1500-2000 a month for 22 to 25 hours a week. It is easily possible to live, pay obligatory health insurance and put money in the bank on this income. The timetables are fixed for the semester, and working hours are between 8am and 6pm. The schools make an effort to condense hours and to stick to the timetable. Full-time, permanent positions do sometimes become available, providing four weeks' paid holiday, but semester contracts are more frequent.

Swiss bosses
Switzerland's working culture is not very democratic. The boss tells you what to do and you do it. Negotiating anything from salary to hours and conditions can often lead to teaching hours being reduced or promised contracts being cancelled. It is worth treading carefully and realising that in many ways Switzerland is 40 years behind the UK in management style!

The best way to meet other teachers and to learn more of the dos and don'ts, keep up to date with teaching material and do a top-up training course through the English Teachers' Association of Switzerland (Etas).

However, when looking at the English teaching industry here, I would question whether there is a need for more qualifications than a degree. The working conditions and pay rarely warrant further study, state institutions seem to have their doors fairly closed and work experience and networking are the name of the game.

Why Switzerland? Despite the difficulties of getting a permit, the importance of choosing a school carefully and negotiating a salary with caution, Switzerland can still be an interesting place to visit for a year or two. There is after all the chocolate, cheese and cuckoo clocks! Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

Find more articles from Sarah Muxlow here:

         travel articles Travel Articles

         Providing resources to people wanting to live or work in Australia, and building a community Welcome to Australia Blog

         hospitality articles Hospitality Articles

         immigration articles Immigration Articles