The good news? I landed my first teaching job in February 2012 - just a few days after completing my TEFL course in Prague. The bad news? It was in a small city I’d barely heard of.
Dessau, Germany. Not exactly well-known on the map.
Assuming I’d end up working in a huge, bustling European metropolis – daydreaming about Rome or Paris – I worried about the repercussions of working in a smaller place. I also didn’t think about the sheer amount of competition I’d have as a first-time teacher. Yes, I loved city life, but with limited experience I worried about what kind of job I’d find elsewhere. And surely the point of moving abroad was to move out of my comfort zone in the first place?
There are definite pros and cons about teaching in a smaller town. However, as a first job it can serve you in good stead. Here’s what I found with my time in Dessau:
Consistent hours can be a rarity in TEFL teaching. In turn, they are often used by schools as a lure to smaller or less popular regions.
This is not absolute, of course, but to compare city versus town: a friend working in Berlin struggled by on sporadic hours, often going under the 10 hour a week mark. She told me this was not uncommon amongst her colleagues. In comparison, my school in Dessau guaranteed all teachers a 25 hours per week minimum, and I often worked over 30.
Depending on your personal situation, more hours may not necessarily be a pro. However, for me it was a major plus factor in two ways. I wanted to gain as much experience as possible, this being my first job, and I wanted to support myself financially. More hours equals more experience, and of course, more money. And in smaller towns, if you want them, more hours are definitely up for grabs.
Alongside the increase in hours, living in smaller towns often leads to a significantly lower cost of living. Rent, food and entertainment are all likely to be cheaper than their glamorous city counterparts. This makes it much easier to save those precious pennies, and leads me on to my favourite point, number three…
With all this potential extra money, travelling to other places becomes much easier. Whilst my friends living in Berlin and Prague struggled to pay the rent on their wages, let alone anything else, I had enough freedom to travel on weekends, and therefore get my city fix, without worrying about finances. I explored a different city at least twice a month, and a different country almost once a month. And all was funded by my lovely TEFL earnings.
In bigger cities, an influx of expats, tourists and English often dilutes the experience of living abroad. It’s hard to really soak everything in about a new place when there’s a KFC on every corner and DSLR cameras flashing every which way.
When you move to a smaller town, you find yourself immersed hook, line and sinker into the “authentic ways” of a country. During my time in Dessau, I made friends with many locals, got a good grasp on the German language and learned a lot about traditional German culture – simply because I was living smack bang in it. I feel I gained a lot more out of my time in the country because of this.
Move to a smaller town and you can receive warmer welcomes, learn more about traditions and gain a greater understanding of what a country’s all about. To me, that’s priceless.
I came to Germany without a word of German, unless you count “Hallo!” And yes, I did learn a good amount of German in Dessau, which is a definite pro. But be warned, it was not an easy ride (quite literally, with the amount of incorrect trains and general misunderstandings).
Expect less knowledge of English from the locals and greater difficulties with the easiest of tasks, from buying bread to going to the bank. And whilst this is admittedly helpful in faster language learning, it can be difficult, and sometimes frustrating, to deal with every day.
Depending on your aptitude for the country’s language, it can be difficult to make friends – and certainly more difficult than in bigger cities. I had a good starter base with my school, but every place is different. It took me a while to meet people outside of work.
My advice? Accept every invitation, try looking on Couchsurfing and (if there is one) research into the town’s university events. There’ll almost always be someone to take you under your wing – and all it takes is to meet one person to meet another, and another. After all, it’s not what you know but who you know.
The grass is always greener, so they say. Whilst I gained a lot from my time in Dessau, there were other moments when I felt that, despite all the money, all the saving, all the travel, I was missing out on city life. On actually living right in the middle of a city, with all the noise and busyness. Facebook pictures from friends in cities certainly didn’t help this feeling.
So there you have it. Lots of experience, money for travel, versus language barriers and potential social challenges. It’s not for everyone, and of course only you know what you really want from your TEFL experience. However, I feel I gained a lot from my small town job, and the increase in experience and my wallet that I gained here certainly paid off; I’ve been accepted for my dream job in Italy for next year.
Take these points into consideration when job-hunting, and be prepared. Who knows where you’ll end up, or what quaint village you’ll fall in love with?
For more stories of teaching overseas, read “Expat Teachers: Stories from Teaching Abroad”.
By Alex Pendleton, 24, and moving to Italy in January 2013 to teach (and eat mountains of pasta). She just completed a ten-month teaching stint in Dessau, Germany. Read more at
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