In the past four years, Tunisia has gone from “where’s that?” to “where it’s at” in the Arab world. The Arab Spring of 2011 began in Tunisia and culminated in the establishment of a democratic government there. This feat prompted The Economist to name Tunisia “Country of the Year” in 2014 and earned it much praise from other democracies around the world.
For TEFL teachers interested in Arab culture and current events, then, Tunisia is one of the most interesting choices of countries in which to live and teach. Although it’s situated in a volatile part of the world, Tunisia has managed to escape the violence that plagues so much of the region.
The Tunisian people have taken the momentous changes of the last four years calmly and in their stride. On the Mondays after the three elections of late 2014 there were no riotous celebrations, no massive rallies and no pro-democracy demonstrations. Instead, people went to work or school as usual and hoped, quietly, that the political changes would soon translate into economic development.
Learning English is seen by many Tunisians as a way of preparing themselves for the prosperity they hope to see. The two biggest reasons my students give for wanting to learn English are 1) they hope it will help them get a good/better job, and 2) they hope it will lead to opportunities for study abroad. Business English and Academic English are thus popular specialties among ESL teachers there.
For an English teacher, living in Tunisia is an exciting opportunity to experience the Arab world while living in a country with a rich past and an exciting present.
What’s Cool About Tunisia
Here are the top five reasons why Tunisia is a great place to live and teach:
- It’s got an old and amazingly rich cultural heritage: Punic, Carthaginian, Roman, Arab, and French. The Roman ruins of El Jem and Dougga are among the best and most extensive in the world.
- Tunisian people are wonderfully hospitable. It is impossible to be invited into a Tunisian home without being offered something to eat and drink. Many teachers will find that their landlords regularly send them couscous and other Tunisian dishes.
- Tunisia sits on the Mediterranean Sea and has fine beaches with the usual seaside attractions. The proximity to the sea also provides relief from the summer heat and makes the climate very tolerable.
- The medinas (old cities) of Tunis, Sousse, Monastir, and other towns are well-preserved and include fascinating ancient labyrinths of alleys, shops, homes, and paths.
- Tunis, the capital, is a quick and inexpensive flight away from many other interesting places in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Teaching in Tunisia
People who want to teach in Tunisia will need a bachelor’s degree and either a TESL/TEFL/TOEFL certificate or a CELTA. Teachers at private English schools earn between 15 and 23 dinars per teaching hour ($7.76 to $11.90, based on current exchange rates), depending on the school and the teachers’ qualifications. I also receive about $1 more per hour for one-on-one assignments. The phrase “teaching hour” refers to official classroom time only and doesn’t encompass training, preparation, grading, curriculum development, attendance at meetings, or the planning and presentation of special events. These duties can consume larger or smaller blocs of time, depending on the degree of support the school offers its faculty. In some cases I receive pay at half my teaching rate for helping to plan school-wide activities, but not all schools offer such compensation.
As a full-time teacher, my classroom time varies from 18 to 25 hours a week. There is no clear distinction between part-time and full-time teachers except insofar as full-time teachers have priority when classes are scheduled at the start of each two-month session. The amount I am paid is sufficient to live comfortably and well by Tunisian standards.
At the school where I work, the curriculum is broadly set by the director of studies, but lesson planning is each teacher’s responsibility. This allows for a lot of flexibility and creativity in the classroom. On the other hand, there are times when I wish I had ready-made lesson plans to follow, especially when I am teaching a new course. My school offers some clerical support; tests were photocopied and collated by the support staff, but teachers themselves are required to enter attendance and grades into a database.
Living in Tunisia
Thanks to the revolution of 2011, the Tunisian people enjoy civil liberties and democratic governance and are strongly committed to preserving their hard-won rights. Speech was censored and suppressed by the former regime, but now Tunisians seem joyfully disputatious and are not at all shy about expressing their opinions.
The recent political changes, though, don’t tell the whole story. Tunisia is an Arab Muslim country. Though it has a liberal political system now, it remains socially conservative, at least from a Western perspective. The critical thing to understand is that there are no clear lines in Tunisia that separate law, religion, and culture.
This is certainly true when it comes to sex and gender roles. Public displays of affection are frowned upon. Unmarried couples can’t share a hotel room, at least not when one of them is Tunisian. Most landlords will forbid their tenants from having overnight guests of the opposite sex, and some will even forbid them from having opposite-sex colleagues or friends over for a casual meal.
There is considerable self-imposed sexual segregation. It is common, for example, to walk by a busy café and note that all its customers are men. But there are exceptions to these conventions, and teachers will probably quickly discover where those are to be found.
Most English schools and universities do not provide housing for their faculty, so a new teacher’s first order of business is locating a suitable apartment. Some schools have a very helpful welfare officer who helps with sort of thing, while others do not; this is an important query to make when considering accepting a position. Apartments can be found online on www.tayara.tn, though better deals may be found just by talking with people.
One good technique is to find a district that has a number of apartment buildings and inquire at the local shops if the people there know whether there are any vacant apartments around. This will quickly result in conversations with the building’s superintendent or rental manager. Teachers who speak French or Arabic can do this themselves; otherwise, having a good translator is important. Most teachers wind up paying between 300 and 600 TND a month, plus utilities; of course, this can be reduced by sharing a flat. Many apartments do not have heat or air conditioning. I found I could live with just a fan in the summer, but I had to have a space heater December through February.
In order to get a residency permit and a working visa, it is essential to have a written rental contract. The written lease will have to be notarized and registered at the local municipal offices. Teachers will also need proof of employment and an employment contract, both of which, again, must be notarized. The bureaucracy involved in obtaining residency permits and work visas can be frustrating. I once had my papers rejected because although I had had them notarized, the notary had not placed his stamp in the “right” location.
Residency and working permits are required before one can open a Tunisian bank account. New teachers are generally paid in cash for a few months until their paperwork is approved.
It’s difficult to get money out of Tunisia – and this will be a factor for any teacher who wants to send money to a family member or bank account back home, as well as for any teacher who wants to travel abroad. In theory, once they have a bank account, teachers should be able to send money abroad. But there are many conflicting understandings of this principle, even among the larger banks. To make matters more difficult, since the Tunisian dinar is not a convertible currency, very few cambios outside of the country will trade dinars for hard currency (dollars, Pounds, Euros, etc).
People who can prove that they exchanged hard currency for dinars when they entered Tunisia can generally exchange that amount (but no more) of dinars back into hard currency at the airport. It’s thus an excellent idea to save all receipts that document each exchange of hard currency for dinars. Other solutions may be found on the black market.
Where to Live and Work
There are opportunities for English teachers at British, American, and Tunisian institutions. The British Council places teachers in some of the major cities, while AMIDEAST operates in Tunis and Sousse at present. There are Tunisian-run language schools in Tunis, Sfax, Sousse, Monastir, and Gabes, though these generally pay teachers less than foreign-run schools. Public universities in Tunisia sometimes hire native speakers as lecturers or tutors, but these positions are very poorly paid. The few private universities pay more.
There are, however, opportunities for teachers to supplement their incomes by doing independent private tutoring, particularly with students in business and graduate-level university programs.
Fortunately for those who love living by the sea, most of the opportunities for English teachers in Tunisia are on the Mediterranean coast. This is one of the very best things about living in Tunisia. You can head off to a café and sip your coffee while watching the waves. You can go swimming or sunning eight months of the year. No matter where you are, you can take day trips to some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world, get lost in labyrinthine medinas, partake of the justly-famous Arab hospitality, and see firsthand how democratic reforms shape this small but dynamic country.
By James Trumm
If you have any questions for James or also have experience teaching English in Tunisia and would like to add some additional advice for prospective teachers please leave your reply in the comments section at the bottom of the page.