Monday, August 20, 2012

The ESL Illusion in Paris

Some people believe that it's possible to lead an exciting and lucrative existence abroad simply by working as an English teacher. This may well be true in some countries—I'm not well traveled and I can't speak for countries other than France. However, it is absolutely, positively not true in France, so I thought I'd post a warning to those who might be considering it.

There are tons of language schools in Paris, and there's a strong demand for language instruction, most of it being English as a second language (ESL). However, there's also a tremendous glut of potential English teachers … practically every other Anglophone girl looking for something to do abroad during her gap year seems to be considering ESL teaching. And why not? It's easy to do. Many schools ask for some sort of credentials for ESL teaching, but they are easy to obtain. Some schools don't care. ESL employment is a revolving door, with extremely high turnover—few teachers stay more than a few months on the job. That's because ESL teaching in Paris is typically a part-time, minimum-wage job. I've been doing it for eight years, mainly because there simply aren't any other jobs available for someone my age (and my background is in computers, where age discrimination in France is even more intense than in other professions).

My school, for example, which is based right off the Champs-Élysées and targets a corporate clientèle (I won't name names, but it's on the rue La Boëtie), regularly hires people off the street to teach, since teachers are constantly leaving. They have to have working papers and usually some kind of teaching certificate. All the schools require papers, they don't all require the certificate. Typically the teacher is offered a guarantee of a few hours per year, at minimum wage. Many of the new hires have little or no work experience, so they don't immediately realize that you cannot survive in Paris on minimum wage and part-time work. After a few months, this becomes clear to them, so they leave, and someone else replaces them.

At my school, many teachers have rotting teeth and poor vision. That's because the French national health-care system, which is excellent overall, provides only very limited coverage of dental work. In respectable companies, the company usually pays a modest fee for complementary coverage that handles this, but my employer does not. Likewise, teachers are squinting a lot because the same problem exists for ophthalmology and eyeglass prescriptions.

I'm considered a seasoned veteran of ESL teaching because I've been doing it for more than a few months. I have no place else to go. The number of hours I get varies wildly (true for all teachers), from perhaps 120 hours in a month to zero. This year, I received no hours at all between June 27 and August 16, which means no groceries, no utilities paid, and no rent paid. Up to now, I've survived by selling just about all the personal property I own, and by receiving regular handouts from my family. But all the property is sold now, and my family cannot pay me a full salary. The future is not bright.

I've included a diagram that shows how much I've made over the past 22 months. The green fat line is the current French monthly minimum wage; it's about €1100. In the past two years, I've only made enough to pay the bills during a single month. The rest of the time, I've sold things or depended on handouts to survive.

The irony is that my school charges people €100 an hour for instruction. About one quarter of that pays for the teacher (including government social security and such, but not income taxes), leaving the teacher with about 1/8 of what the client is paying. Sometimes the school bills clients twice for one teacher. The net pay for one hour of teaching is about €12, before income taxes. It's not clear what the school does with the other 75% of what it charges the client.

Overall this means that almost all the teachers are earning no more than a few hundred euro per month—considerably less than a typical monthly rent payment. Many of them live illegally in apartments for which they pay the landlords cash each month, because no agency will give them a legitimate lease with their levels of income. But even rent paid under the table still amounts to more than some teachers make, so many struggle to find lodging, unless they live with someone who has a real job. A few teachers, favored by the school for reasons unknown, receive the lion's share of teaching hours, and presumably can make ends meet; the rest are allowed to starve.

It's a very typical case of people not actually being on the unemployment rolls, and yet making less money than those who are.

Anyway, the moral of the story is this: If you have even the slightest inclination to think about teaching English in Paris as a way to live in the city … think again. It may work in Thailand, Korea, China, or Saudi Arabia, but it won't work here.

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