Teaching English in Turkey – De, da, huh? *

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When I first started teaching English in Turkey I was pretty inexperienced. I’d only taught behavioural sciences at university for a few semesters back home in Australia and then small English classes at a private college in Istanbul for a year. All my students had been in their early twenties, and well able to stay focussed and engaged with the work. Going from that to teaching five different classes a week, with twenty five students in each, was a big challenge. My new students were teenagers and it was hard to reign in their energy and channel their enthusiasm for noise and action towards learning something other than facts about my life

In one of my reading classes the boys rather than the girls asked me about my clothes and jewellery. Sometimes this was an attempt to distract me from the work we should have been doing, but most of the time it was because they were teenagers, and to them I was an exotic and beautiful teacher with blue eyes. It was rather disconcerting when some of the young boys sat and gazed at me for hours without blinking. If I asked them a question it was clear from the stammers and red flushed faces what they’d been thinking about. I was regularly told “You are beautiful teacher” and just as frequently heard, “I love you teacher”, from young men whose acne hadn’t cleared. Many of them still didn’t even shave and were in the process of developing their adult voices. After one five day holiday I was quietly amused when a few of them returned with voices several octaves lower than when they left. Their fascination with me wasn’t only limited to the classroom. When I went into town with female colleagues all the male students on the bus regularly stood up to offer their seats, but only to me. One boy even carried my shopping a kilometre through the snow for the chance to be alone with me. On another occasion I spent an uncomfortable bus ride with this same boy, who questioned me on my free time, trying to find an activity we could do together. He failed to acknowledge my husband who was standing beside me at the time.

Teaching English in Turkey in the snow

Despite their adoration, I was having enormous trouble teaching one of my lowest level classes. The kids in this group had twenty five hours of English a week, and for many of them it was an uphill battle. I had my two worst performing speaking classes on Friday afternoons, and nice as they were, the students were sick to death of English by then. There was no set pattern for what I was meant to teach them, so one Friday I decided to try something a little different. As I entered the class the students called out,

“Hello my teacher.”
“Hello class, how are you today?”
“Good. It is Friday. Tired. Hungry,” came the various responses.

“OK, today we are going to practice prepositions. Can any one tell me what a preposition is?” I asked. Looking around the classrooms I ignored Mehmet, who always had the answers and tried again. “Serhan, can you tell me a preposition word?” Serhan smiled at me and as usual leant towards his friend. “Serhan,” I said, mock sternly, “if you always ask your friend, what will you do when your friend isn’t with you?” His friend Deniz quickly translated this into Turkish. Serhan laughed and called out the word “at.” I wrote the word on the board and managed to coax more prepositions out of the class. “Alright, now we are going to practise the words.” This time, I used Mehmet’s enthusiasm and confidence in order to demonstrate what I wanted them to do. “Mehmet, can you come here please. Now, please sit on the desk.” He looked at me in surprise, but tentatively did as I asked. “Class, what is Mehmet doing?” After a pause, Fatma called out, “He sit on desk.”

“Yes,” I said, “He is sitting on the desk. Now Fatma, please sit on your desk.” Fatma obeyed and soon I had students standing on their chairs, sitting under my desk, standing behind the door, in front of the door and even outside the door. I held my breath for that one as I was afraid Gurhan might wander off, but he was having too much fun and immediately wanted to come back inside. To end the session I requested Hasan to, “Please sit in the windowsill.” Hasan was a big boy, not that bright but very popular due to his football skills. With a bit of persuasion he lumbered over to the window and put his finger on the sill, looking back at me for confirmation. The class yelled out encouragement, and I cast a look at the brighter students to stop them from helping him too much. Finally Hasan said, “I cannot sit in the windowsill. Maybe I sit on the windowsill, but it is too small.” At that everyone broke out into loud happy laughter and I knew the class had been a success.

Teaching English in Turkey and more

Read more about my adventures of teaching English in Turkey and travelling the country in Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries.


*in Turkish, the suffixes de and da are used in English as the prepositions in, on or at. Turkish students have a lot of trouble with them in English as usage is determined by collocation and not by the logic of vowel harmony as is the case in Turkish.

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  1. My question to you is not about the English lesson, but rather about the photographs of the fashion dummies with those interesting head gear. Where on earth do they wear these? Where can you buy them? I thought is was most bizarre! I have seen the “bone” sold in the market by the street vendors, but these take it up a notch!!

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