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Teaching English in Hungary: The Heart of Europe

View of Budapest, Hungary
Panoramic view of Budapest, Hungary.

It is May, and I am within days of graduating from San Francisco State University. I have got a great GPA, some work to include in my portfolio, and am about to take the plunge into the real world. And then it hit me: I am not ready. With the worries of the job market, being able to get a well-paying job, and jumpstarting my career all on my mind, I decide to risk it all and go in an entirely different direction: teach English in Europe.

Picking a location: Europe versus Asia

My travel experience was limited before coming to Hungary. I had to make a serious choice: teach English for peanuts in Europe, or find a job somewhere in Asia that would definitely put some cash in my pocket. I chose Europe. I understood that my income would not be much, but it has been more than sufficient to enjoy traveling around the continent (more on that later). If I had to do it all over again, I would still choose Europe. I am half Hungarian, a driving factor in choosing the country. That said, there are plenty of options throughout Eastern Europe if another country interests you more.

But I Am Not a Teacher! How Can I teach in Hungary?

While Hungary is part of the EU, it is not as restricted as other EU countries, such as those in Western Europe that strictly limit work to EU citizens only. What that means for us Americans (or Canadians or Australians or any other English-speaking country) is that we can get a job here much more easily than in Italy or France. There are options online to obtain a Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (TESOL/TEFL) certificate, but since I had no experience teaching, I decided to go to an intensive program in my area. Although far more expensive than the online route, I felt I benefitted more from having the opportunity to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) students first-hand, rather than show up for the job and not know what I am doing.  Other requirements for Hungary include having at least a college degree.

Finding a Position

There are many websites claiming to be looking to hire qualified TESOL teachers for their schools, but how do you know whom to trust? I did not, and I decided to go through a program. Although a steep fee to sign up, Central European Teaching Program, set everything up. Fill out the paperwork, submit the proper documents, and they will help place you at a school. The fee basically covered for what I did not pay all year. What I mean by that is I did not have to pay for my apartment, any utilities (except Internet), and there is a special agreement such that for the first two years of teaching you do not have to pay any taxes other than for health. (Did I mention that in Hungary, they have universal health coverage?).  I know that not everyone can afford the cost of this program, and it may seem like the easy way to get started, but what is wrong with that? (Note: I do not work for CETP, and struggled for a long time about signing up with the program. However, I am glad I did, and do not think I would have had as much luck finding a school on my own).

First grade trip in Hungary CETP Teacher's trip
First grade field trip to Holloko, Hungary.
Photo by Jacob Hidas.
CETP Teacher's trip to Transylvania (Romania). Photo by Jacob Hidas.

Preparing to Leave: Do Not Worry, You Are Not Going Back in Time

I have to admit that my views of Hungary (and Eastern Europe) were skewed by everything I have seen in movies. Shame on me. I half expected horse-drawn carriages and a simple way of life, with few luxuries available back home. Whether you come for half a year or an entire year, pack well. My biggest concern was that I did know what to pack. Unless you have a special brand of shampoo you use, leave some of those necessities back home. There are malls, shopping centers, and other specialty stores where you can get everything you need. For the most part, prices are comparable to those in U.S., but sometimes cheaper based on the cost of living in Hungary. Do not skimp on warm clothes, either! Coming from California, snow in Budapest was a new experience, and I invested in a warm hat and some gloves. My other suggestion is to bring special food items that you will most likely not get here. My vice is peanut butter, and I made sure to stock up before I left (you can buy it here, but it is not cheap!).

Irány Magyarország! Ez a nyelv nagyon nehéz! (Welcome to Hungary! This Language is Hard!)

Hungary is a welcoming country where people are just as excited to have you teach English as you are excited to be in your new home. That said, there are things that may seem scarier than they truly are. For example, the Hungarian language was almost foreign to me, except for the few words my Grandma taught me before I left. So, if you have never seen the Hungarian language, you are in for a treat. Stepping off the airplane was overwhelming, and then trying to read the billboards on the way downtown was migraine inducing. No need to worry though, because it is not as bad as it looks, and once you know some basic words, you will be shopping with the locals at the Grand Market Hall in no time.

After you begin to learn the apparently daunting language, my advice to you is to go with the flow. There have been times where frustration could easily get the best of me, but just keep in mind that Hungary is definitely not as organized as the U.S. This becomes a problem in the place where you work. Often, you will not be informed or reminded of certain events (like wearing black and white on a national holiday), but do not fret, it is not the end of the world. Everyone knows you are a guest and are not familiar with the country’s customs and culture; do not worry too much about making a mistake. Just accept that things happen, and be prepared to ride the wave.

But Wait! I Am Not a Teacher! I Studied (insert major here). What am I doing?

Do not be afraid to jump right in. You have come all the way from your home to teach students what you know best: English. Most schools will help with providing a curriculum and some textbooks. However, depending on your school and their financial stability, that may not always be the case. Teaching 1st and 2nd grade was frightening for me. How could I ever teach these kids English when they will not even know what I am saying? What you will find is that after a couple weeks it will all click at some point, and you will be comfortable teaching your students and knowing what works and what does not. And there are opportunities to teach at all levels, from primary school up to high school.

East(ern Europe)! Taking Advantage of Your Location

Many people dream about spending days in Tuscany, or wine tasting in France. But what about rowing across Lake Bled? Or a river cruise down the Danube? Ever consider wine tasting in Eger or Tokaj? While some of these places may be unfamiliar, once you get to Hungary, you will want to travel every weekend. One of the most remarkable aspects of living in Hungary is there are so many countries within hours by train or bus (some even serve hot beverages for free). I never thought I would be visiting Poland, the Czech Republic, Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

How Can I Afford All My Traveling Plans?

Traveling to all these places sounds great, but how can you afford it? Coming to Hungary is a choice you make knowing you will not be leaving with a padded bank account. On average, you will make approximately $700 a month, depending on the current exchange rate. While that does not seem like much, it is definitely plenty to travel and eat out at restaurants. As I mentioned, I  did not have any rent or utility bills to worry about because I paid to work with the program, so the money I made was put towards having fun and exploring the region.

Now, if you do not work through the program, you will still be able to live happily here. Rent is very affordable, even in Budapest, and there are plenty of options to choose from. There are several language schools around the area, and they could always use a native speaker. Also, you will likely be asked about giving private lessons. I have been asked often, even in public, because so many people want to learn English. The money earned from these lessons is a great way to help pay for that weekend in Prague.

The Hungarian Forint: Not as Confusing as it Appears

Speaking of money, even though Hungary is part of the EU, they are not using Euros as their currency. Instead, they use the Forint. I will admit that it seems like you are spending monopoly money, but just realize there is a couple more zeros to work with. Since I have been in Hungary, the Forint has floated around approximately 270 Forint to US$1 USD, so 1,080 Forint would be US$5. It has worked for me to keep track of how much I spend, even though it is not exact.

Exploring Hungary

While there is plenty to see in surrounding countries, do not forget that you are in a unique country with a rich history. There is so much going on Budapest that you will never get bored, and you will probably find a festival happening in some part of the country every weekend. From bathhouses to pubs to beautiful green parks, Hungary is home to a rich culture. I have tried to make it a point to explore a new location every weekend, whether it is a museum or another city. Recently, I discovered a WWII Hospital Bunker built underneath the Castle in Budapest, and I could not believe how modern it was (for its time, that is). Just be careful, or you might end up in a position like me: you are having such a good time teaching and living here that you do not want to leave.

For More Info

Central European Program

If you’d like to learn about other teaching opportunities in Hungary, Europe, or elsewhere in the world, is a great starting point.

If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, check out Transworld School, where you can also get your TESOL certificate in-person.

Related Topics
Student to Student
Living in Hungary: Best Expatriate Resources

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