Having worked in both countries, I have learned a thing or two about the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both are beautiful countries, where you can travel widely, have a lot of fun, and gain valuable teaching experience. However there are some drawbacks, and some unscrupulous employers, so here is a checklist of things to consider when contemplating a job offer in the region.
1 Are you aware of the current political climate? Both countries have very vocal populist movements which are anti-immigration, and very anti-Muslim. In last year’s general elections in Slovakia, the extremist right wing parties got almost 25% of the vote. This can make living there uncomfortable, especially as people feel free to voice their dislike of immigrants, especially those whose religion or skin colour differs from their own. And even the people who don’t mind the immigrants hate the gypsies. This is something to consider – how will you deal with people voicing these opinions in your class? Don’t think they that won’t – I’ve had many a class descend into a diatribe about gypsies, irrespective of the original topic. If you can’t deal with this, then a job in central Europe, and I’d include Hungary and Poland in this, is probably not for you.
2 Where are you going to be located? There’s a huge cultural difference between small towns and big towns in the region. If you’re someone who loves the outdoors and is happy spending a lot of time on their own, or with a very limited number of fellow ex-pats, then you’ll probably be fine in a small town, or within an hour’s travel of a bigger one. If, however, you crave company, enjoy concerts and the latest movies and love eating out on a regular basis, then you’re probably better off in one of the bigger cities. Either way, doing some research to find out what’s available in the area around the place where you’ll be living is a good idea.
If you can, it’s a good idea to visit the town before moving there, but even this isn’t foolproof, as visiting during the summer when tourists are around won’t show you what the place is like during winter.
3 Where are you going to live? Some employers will offer you a flat which goes with the job, others will find you something near the school. But be aware that what your employer thinks is suitable for you may not fit your needs. Ask for photos of the place and check out public transport links if you’re going to need them, before committing. I spent an awful first night in the Czech Republic in a small cottage with no glass above the front door, and insecure back door, with traffic hurtling past on the main road all night long. By 8am the next morning I had my bags packed and asked my boss to take me to the nearest hotel, where I stayed until I could find somewhere better to live. If you can, stay in a hotel for the first night or two, to ease the culture shock. Because there will be culture shock, no matter how prepared you think you are.
Also, check how much of your salary you will need to spend on rent, and how much the deposit on a rented flat will be. Some landlords will want two or three months rent up front – two for the deposit and the first month’s rent, so you will need to have this in your account when you arrive.
4 Will you have a contract or be a freelance worker? This is becoming a huge issue in this part of the world, as employers are moving away from employing staff and relying instead on freelance workers. This is fine if you just want to teach for a year or two, but as well as having to pay your own tax, social insurance and health insurance you will not have any holiday or sick pay, and this can leave you very vulnerable. And if you do have a contract, do you have a guaranteed monthly salary? If not, you will be paid by the hour and may well find yourself in a position where some months you don’t have enough hours worked to enable you to pay the rent.
If possible, speak to a teacher who is currently working in the school and find out what their average monthly hours were, so you have an idea of when the quiet times are, when you will earn less. Plan ahead. Also, check how long the school is closed at times like Christmas and Easter. It’s not unusual for a school to be closed for 2 or 3 weeks at Christmas and even if you are on a contract, you may not be paid for all of that time. So be prepared to work extra hours when things are good so that you can put money aside for the quieter months.
You may also want to consider additional work, such as proofreading or online teaching, as this can be a valuable source of additional income. Some schools will also allow you to take on private students – if you are a freelance teacher, there’s nothing to stop you doing this. However private students can attend class erratically, and don’t always pay up on time, if at all.
Also, check what the local average salary for teachers is. While the local salary may be adequate for someone from that area who has family and friends to rely on, it may not be enough for a foreign teacher to live on, particularly if you want to travel while living in the area. Also, local teachers paid on a lower wage within the same school may be resentful of your higher salary, and can make this very obvious.
5 Check your entitlements. There are a number of ex-pay websites which give details of what workers are entitled to in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These include things like a meal allowance and paid breaks, as well as holiday entitlements. Your employer may not be aware that they need to pay you these things, or they may choose not to tell you about what you are entitled to, so you need to find this out yourself. The Slovak Spectator, Slovakia’s main English language newspaper, has a list of answers to frequently asked questions about employment relations in Slovakia which is worth checking out. Expats.cz has similar information for the Czech Republic.
6 Find your local English language newspaper, a local ex-pats association and register with your country’s embassy. Your local English language newspaper will have details of events happening in your area, which your colleagues, who may not be as interested in local culture as you are, may not know about. There are also lots of ex-pat groups which are useful in terms of making contacts, and for finding information about issues like registering with the foreign police, where to find decent healthcare, etc. If you are really lucky, they may also run social events and outings. I have happy memories of a trip to the Czech national wine cellar at Valtice – at least I have happy memories of getting there, the journey home was a bit hazy! Also, register with your country’s embassy so that they know you are in the country and also because they too sometimes send out invitations to social events.
7 Get used to waiting. You will need to register with the foreign police in your area, also with social security and the local health service. This will usually involve multiple visits and a lot of waiting. Also, despite the fact that staff at the foreign police work with foreigners every day, don’t expect them to speak English – they don’t / won’t. If possible, get someone who can translate to go with you. A good employer will do this automatically, others will need some persuasion. And if you’re moving to Slovakia, be prepared to pay for your registration with the foreign police in postage stamps! Yes, really. Shiny beads and magic beans, on the other hand, are not accepted, despite the local love for fairytales.
8 Do you have any special dietary needs? Be prepared to spend time searching for normal ingredients, and to spend even more time searching for anything unusual. And be prepared for items to be available occasionally, if at all. If you like fresh coriander don’t move to either of these countries – you won’t be able to find it! You will find yourself making multiple trips to the supermarket in order to find what you need, and if you need anything from a health food shop this will take time and patience, and a lot of searching. However most supermarkets do have a limited range of diabetic and gluten free products, and they have things like tofu. But if, like me, you’re vegan and like the occasional non-tofu meat substitute you may need to plan a trip to your nearest town around this. Asian supermarkets, like Seoul Plaza in Bratislava, are treasure troves of products not only from Asia, but also from the UK and USA, so don’t overlook them. I still have happy memories of travelling home from there with a packet of Linda McCartney sausages and devouring the lot in one go! But you will pay extra for these products, so make sure you have plenty of money when you go shopping there.
9 Don’t register with the first doctor recommended to you. Take your time and search out one who speaks English – get advice from local ex-pats. It’s worth the effort because there’s nothing worse than trying to communicate with someone who can’t speak your language when you’re ill.
Going to the doctor in this part of the world involves a lot of waiting. In many cases you can’t make an appointment with a doctor, you find out when their office hours are and turn up a couple of hours before that if you want to be at the front of the queue. Dealing with a general practitioner is usually quite straightforward, but getting hospital treatment can be a nightmare, and the staff may try to deny you treatment if they don’t understand you. Be prepared to insist on being seen, and have a friend/colleague on the other end of the phone to argue with the hospital staff if you have to go there on your own. Hospitals can vary – in the Czech Republic my local hospital in Blansko was quite modern and the staff made a lot of effort to try to understand me, but I would rather go without medical treatment than ever set foot in Piestany hospital in Slovakia again. Check with colleagues as it may be better to travel to a hospital further away than to go to the one in your town.
One thing that seemed very odd to me is that doctors in the Czech Republic and Slovakia do not have receptionists. Instead they have a nurse who works in their room with them. So when you arrive you have to wait for the door to open and thrust yourself in front of the patient being treated, so that they know that you are there and need to be seen. This seems horribly rude the first few times you do it, but you get used to it. Very occasionally the doctor’s waiting room will have a list to which you can add your name, so make sure you look for one. Other patients in the waiting room will point it out to you if they’re feeling helpful.
10 Staying connected. You may need to take out a wifi contract if your home doesn’t already have one. Shop around, and you may find a deal that includes your mobile phone and/or cable tv package. However be aware that a lot of these deals run for a minimum of two years, so if you only stay for one year you will have to either find someone to take over the remaining contract period from you, or pay a penalty charge for early termination.
I hope at least some of these tips are useful to you. I spent 4 years working in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and it was a great experience. It’s a beautiful part of the world with endless opportunities to travel and discover something new. The language is very difficult but it won’t take long before you learn a few basic phrases and then you’re on your way. The local beers, which are excellent, will also help you achieve fluency 🙂
If there’s anything I haven’t covered above please leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.
Good luck and happy travels.