Stories from my life and travels as an American expat in Germany!

Teaching English in Germany: A Reality Check

Teaching English in Germany: A Reality Check

Teaching English to adults in Germany is a fun, rewarding experience. I know that I’ve personally enjoyed my time here as an EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher. But is it right for everyone?

A lot of expats share the positives of teaching adults English in Germany while glossing over the negatives. Perhaps, because they assume they’re already known. After all, who doesn’t know the work is freelance?

…a lot of people, actually. Especially those with no prior experience in teaching English to adults.

If that’s you, then read on. It’s time for a reality check.

It’s All Freelance Work

As an EFL teacher, you will not be teaching English full-time at a single school or business in Germany. Instead, you will have to cobble together a schedule from several different schools. Rather than hiring one person to teach on a full-time basis, or even a single freelancer to take on a full-time workload, many language schools prefer to hire several freelancers.

The reason for this (at least, according to one of the school representatives I spoke with), is because giving someone too many hours will “give the government the impression that they could hire the employee full-time.”

She tried to frame it as “bad for freelancers’ freedom.” What she really meant, of course, is that it’s bad for their business. A full-time employee with benefits is more costly than a handful of freelancers.

If you live in a big city, this might not be a dealbreaker; there are probably several language schools within a reasonable distance of your home.

If you live in a small city, though, it can be a struggle to find enough work. Not just because there aren’t as many language schools; sometimes, there aren’t enough students interested in learning English.

Classes without enough students get cancelled, but not until the last-minute; so, you’re left scrambling to fill the gap in your schedule.

No Benefits

Since you’re a freelancer, none of the schools you work for will contribute to your pension or health insurance.

Even if you don’t plan on staying in Germany, you technically have to pay into the pension system if you earn more than 450€ per month. Most freelance teachers who plan to eventually leave either don’t know this, or ignore the rule and hope they don’t get caught. If you’re an American planning on going down this route, I strongly encourage you to keep reading; not just this section, but the one directly after. Tax fraud is nothing to mess around with.

Unlike your pension, you can’t get around paying for health insurance in Germany. You will be paying a minimum of 320€ per month, though it can go as high as 440€, depending on your earnings.

If you’re able to create a full-time schedule, this isn’t so bad. After deductions and taxes, a full-time teacher who averages 20€ per unit will take home around 1,300€ per month. For reference, if you were to work full-time at minimum wage, you’d earn a net pay just under 1,180€. Meanwhile, the average net pay in Germany is 2,315€.

What if you live in a small city, though, and you can’t get enough classes to create a full-time schedule? Well, if you’re honest and pay into everything you’re supposed to, you might discover that you’re putting more into your health insurance and pension than you’re taking home.

An example: let’s say you’re offered 10 classes between 4 schools, at 20€ per unit. That’s 20 hours of work per week, after allowing for a half-hour of lesson planning per class. On this part-time schedule, you’re earning 1,600€ per month but keeping just 530€ (pre-tax) after your deductions.

Obviously, the longer you work for a school, the more classes they will offer you. Not everyone can afford to get by for six months on less than 550€ a month, of course, while they wait for more classes to open up.

If You’re American, You Might Have to Pay Extra Taxes

If you are an American expat employed by a business in a foreign country, then you qualify for the foreign earned income exclusion. This means that anything you earn under the amount of $105,900 will not be taxed by the USA; it will only be taxed by the country where you’re employed.

If you’re a freelancer, though, things are a little different. While you still don’t have to pay income tax, you have to pay self-employment tax if you aren’t paying into your host country’s social security equivalent.

A Lot of Travel Time

Working for several different language schools also means you have to travel between classes. Some schools will pay your travel time, others will not.

You should also consider how much time you’ll spend waiting if you’re commuting long-distance.

For example, I taught two classes at the VHS of a neighboring city. I was gone for 7 hours every Monday, for only 3 hours of teaching. I would bike to the train station at 4:15PM, get on the train around 4:40PM and be at the school by 5:30PM. My classes began at 6:00PM and ended at 9:15PM. By then, the train home was only coming once per hour. I couldn’t make the 9:26PM train, so I had to wait for the one at 10:26PM. I’d be home by about 11:15PM.

That school paid better than the others, and even gave me a nice bonus for checking homework. In the end, though, it wasn’t worth the commute.

Restrictive Contracts

All of the chain EFL language schools will make you sign a contract stating that you won’t give private lessons to “their clients.” They don’t always mean individuals, either; sometimes, they mean entire companies. In other words, by giving a lesson to employees from Company X through their language school, you can’t give private lessons to any of Company X’s employees.

In some cases, it goes beyond private lessons. Some schools also want you to agree to not giving lessons of any kind to their clients through other schools.

So, let’s say one language school has me giving lessons to employees of Company X. Then, a second language school offers me classes teaching employees of Company X as well. Even if they’re different students, according to my contract, I’m supposed to turn the second language school down.

As one language school’s representative pointed out to me with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, they probably won’t find out if I take those jobs anyway. But, I’d still technically be violating my contract.

Of course, she also told me that she’d deny saying it was OK if I ever got caught. Considering her language school was known for taking legal action against people they caught doing the very thing she was suggesting I do, I didn’t take her “helpful” suggestion.

Volkshochschule: The Lone Bright Spot

It’s worth noting that these are the policies of the for-profit, chain language schools. The local community education centers, known as Volkshochschule (or VHS) are much less controlling and (in my experience) wonderful to work for. They’re also more selective about who they hire, meaning the students receive a better education.

Just keep in mind that working for them is still freelance. They (usually) don’t even give full-time contracts to their German teachers.

The CELTA Requirement

Many of these schools also want you to have a CELTA certificate. I’m not going to bash CELTA; the program in Berlin was excellent and I learned a lot from my instructors. Despite all that, though, I regret taking the course. The cost (1,595€ in Berlin) simply doesn’t justify what you “get out of it” if you’re planning to teach in Germany; or, as I suspect, any Western European country.

It’s also a bit like bringing a gun to a knife fight. You will be over-prepared for an industry that doesn’t value you or your skills enough to give you a full-time contract or benefits. Or, as is the case with your local VHS, doesn’t have the budget to value you.

Who Should Teach English in Germany?

Teaching EFL in Germany is best for recent college graduates who can put off saving money for a while. You might end up sharing an apartment, living paycheck to paycheck, and spending hours each day on public transport…but, for some, it’s all worthwhile. If you have your heart set on experiencing Germany, and don’t mind only making enough to get by while you live here, then I say go for it; it’s a wonderful experience for young people.

Teaching English to adults in Germany can also be a way to earn a little extra spending money on the side, if you’re a married expat who already happens to live here. English-speaking jobs in Germany are hard to come by without a STEM degree. So, teaching English part-time while you learn the language is a nice way to earn a little extra income, and you can stay on your spouse’s insurance by keeping your hours low.

If the only reason you want to teach EFL is to experience another culture, though, and not necessarily German culture, then I suggest considering all your options. If you’re a young, fresh college graduate, you can teach English in Japan or Korea without a CELTA certificate. It’s also very likely that you’ll only be teaching at one school and they might even pay for your housing.

If you decide teaching EFL in Germany is what you want to do, I wish you lots of luck! Germany is a wonderful country and, for all the downsides of teaching English to adults in Germany, it’s an amazing experience you’ll never forget.

Reader Comments

  1. I totally agree with your article! I teach English at a couple of fachhochschules (universities of applied sciences – or in Canada, colleges), and they too often don’t offer full-time contracts, so all the language instructors who aren’t German and have lived here for 5 years or less, basically don’t have a prayer to be full-time. Respect the culture: learn some German (or whatever language of the culture you’re living in), your colleagues will appreciate that you’re trying.

  2. Quick information: If you contribute to the pension scheme, you will get a payment when you will retire, regardless of the country you will live. This requires you to pay into the scheme for five years or more. If you don’t hit the 5 years limit, you can claim back your contributions after leaving the country.

    Beyond this piece of information: Just starting to read your stories – always interesting to see how people coming to Germany experience my home country 🙂 Thanks!

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