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Teaching English in Cairo, Egypt: Alumni Q&A with Eric Schenck
Written by: Eric Schenck
Last Updated: April 22, 2021
What is your citizenship?
What city and state are you from?
How old are you?
What is your education level and background?
Have you traveled abroad in the past?
Some international travel with friends, family, business, etc
If you have traveled abroad in the past, where have you been?
I took a quick trip to Mexico with my family when I was much younger. I was quite young, so I barely remember it.
If you have studied abroad in the past, where did you study?
Never studied abroad. I would have liked to, but I was working all throughout college.
What sparked your interest in going to teach English abroad?
An overwhelming curiosity about the Middle East. I wanted to improve my Arabic, find out more about the culture, and leave my comfort zone. Cairo was the perfect opportunity to do all three.
What were some of your concerns before teaching abroad?
Not understanding the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. I had studied Standard Arabic for three years in college, and was afraid that my skills were going to be useless when it came to communicating with Egyptians. For the most part, I was right.
What did your friends and family think about you moving and teaching abroad?
My family was extremely supportive. Of course they had concerns about me moving to ground zero of the Arab Spring, but I have always had an adventurous spirit, and they have been nothing but encouraging of that. My friends, meanwhile, were a completely different story. So many tried to talk me out of it that I almost convinced myself that I was being reckless, in a way. I was going to be extremely home sick; I was going to get robbed; I was going to get beat up, or worse. These were just some of the concerns they had when I told them I wanted to move to the Middle East. I ignored them, though. Sometimes you just have to say “screw it” and block out all the noise.
Why did you decide to get TEFL certified and choose International TEFL Academy?
Through a lot of research, I came to the conclusion that teaching was my best bet to land a job in the Middle East. Even though I’m a native English speaker, I didn’t want to take any risks and realized the benefits to being officially certified. I decided to go with International TEFL Academy because they were the most professional and forthcoming with information. I find that the business that is the quickest to respond to your inquiries is usually the best bet for your money. This was certainly true of International TEFL Academy.
Which TEFL certification course did you take?
Online TEFL Course
How did you like the course?
The course was awesome. My teacher was extremely helpful whenever I had questions, and the course material was quite relevant to the job I ended up getting. That being said, I would stress that most of what you really need to know about teaching (like most things), you learn on the job. Take the class seriously, but don’t think the material will be a perfect fit when you start.
How has your TEFL training helped you in your current teaching position?
Most definitely. By the time I moved to Cairo, I was already in the mindset of “being a teacher,” which is half the battle. It also gave me ideas for future classroom activities. In addition, the practicum which I completed gave me great experience which I later applied to my job.
Which city and country did you decide to teach English in and why?
I decided to teach English in Egypt in the city of Cairo. A huge reason for me moving to Cairo was that after three years of “formal” Arabic, I wanted to learn a dialect of the language. I chose Egypt because it is the most widely understood dialect in the region. It should be noted that the vast majority of jobs you will find teaching in Egypt will, in fact, be in Cairo.
How long have you been in this country and how long do you plan to stay?
I started in August of 2015 and just left in July of 2018. I was about a month short of three years exactly.
What school, company, or program are you working for?
I worked with IH Cairo, International Language Institute. I also tutored privately off and on for the entire three years. If you are diligent about your research and put yourself out there, it’s quite easy to find private students.
During which months does your school typically hire?
The company is constantly hiring new people. The English department (it’s mostly an Arabic language school for foreigners) is growing, and while they have a lot of English-speaking Egyptians as teachers, there is demand for native speakers.
Did you secure this position in advance of arriving?
How did you interview for this position?
What kind of Visa did you enter on?
Please explain the visa process that you went through.
OH MY GOD. Ask any foreigner that has stayed in Cairo for a substantial amount of time, and you will hear horror stories about the Mogamma. This is the big giant government building in Tahrir Square, and it might just be hell on Earth. This is the place you will go to renew your visa. I could be a sweetheart and explain the process in detail, but I think I will just let you experience it on your own. This, more than anything, might be the true rite of passage to becoming a “foreigner in Egypt.” Good luck, and God speed.
What are the qualifications that your school requires for teachers? Please check all that apply
You only need to be a native speaker of English. However, you get more teaching time (this is true everywhere) if you are certified. In short, the certification is worth the time and money.
What is the best way to apply?
In-person. This is the way Egypt works for almost all language centers. Have a nice breakfast, write down your list, and then spend the day stopping by places. Might sound like a lot of work, but I promise they will appreciate a foreigner showing an interest.
Please include any application resources (website, email, etc.) or other information here:
Like I said, the school/organization is mostly for foreigners learning Arabic, and their English department is less well-known. However, Google it, and stop by. Also, if you want to be a creep and make some new foreign friends, the place is jam packed with them. They are probably just as new as you, and striking up a conversation and exchanging digits can’t go wrong.
Tell us about your English teaching job!
WORK SCHEDULE: It varied constantly. Because I was a freelancer, my company would essentially put me where I was needed. When I was teaching regular “conversation” classes on site, I worked four days a week and averaged between three and five hours/day. When I was being sent to businesses throughout Cairo to teach business English, this was usually less. The pay wasn’t great, but I supplemented it with private tutoring and online teaching on the side. Basically, the company puts you where there is demand, whether business English, young learners, or private lessons. It's a good way to get experience with different class settings.
VACATION: Egypt has an absurd amount of public holidays (something like 20/year). This is besides Ramadan, in which you usually get the entire month off. If you are a freelance teacher (like I was), you will have more command of your schedule, but make less. Conversely, teaching for a school will usually net you more money, but likely (according to my friends in Cairo) you will be working your average “9-5, five days a week” schedule. Overall, I would say 1.5-2 months in total of vacation time per year is common for a teacher in Cairo. Maybe for Europeans this is quite normal, but as an American it was (and is) incredible.
SALARY: When I left my job I was making 120 Egyptian pounds/hour. Because the rate is about 17 pounds per USD, that’s only about seven U.S. dollars/hour teaching. This is crap, I know. However, read below about an easy way to make more money. It should also be noted that teachers at legitimate schools can make a lot more in Cairo. English is in demand, and upper class Egyptian parents have the money to spend.
SAVINGS: This is important, and something I recommend to any teacher crazy enough to teach in Cairo (hahaha, you’re not crazy, you’re actually awesome): get a side gig teaching online. Because of how cheap everything is in Cairo, the salary (usually) isn’t great. However, this is a double-edged sword that works in your favor: you hardly spend anything. Teach online with a reliable internet connection, and it’s actually quite easy to put away $1,000 dollars/month. Google (as well as Facebook groups through International TEFL Academy) are your friend here. There are a ton of opportunities for “easy money” if you are simply willing to research it.
IN GENERAL: They certainly suffer from the Egyptian mentality at times (don’t think I’m culturally insensitive, you’ll know exactly what I mean soon enough), and that can be frustrating. Things aren’t as well-organized as they theoretically should be, and even managers are often late for meetings. That being said, this place rocked to work at. They essentially set my schedule, handed me some materials, and then set me free to do what I wanted. They were also quite accommodating to my schedule (I could take off whenever as a freelancer), and the coworkers were pretty fun to be around, too. Also, the janitors!!! The older men that work there to clean the place up are a bunch of hilarious jokesters, and (in all honesty) were probably my favorite part about the place.
How did you find somewhere to live and what is it like? Do you have roommates?
Craigslist, Craigslist, Craigslist. In three years in Cairo, I stayed in five different apartments, and I found each one through Craigslist. There are also a few pages on Facebook that make finding a room (or an entire apartment to yourself, if you don’t want roommates) quite easy. I didn’t even have a place to stay when I first got here in 2015. That’s how easy it is.
Please explain the cultural aspects, public transportation, nightlife, social activities, food, expat community, dating scene, travel opportunities, etc...
CULTURAL ASPECTS: Oh boy, where do I even begin? This country will simultaneously make you laugh and make you cry. While Cairo is in many ways is a “Western” city (nightclubs, drinking, expat community), it is very much part of the Middle East. This has resulted in quite an interesting mix. On Friday mornings, you can simultaneously see girls in miniskirts getting back home from their night at Cairo Jazz, and old men in “ghalibyas” getting ready for their day of prayer. You might have a date at a café with a relatively liberal-minded Egyptian, and be sitting next to a table of women in burqas. It’s a mishmash of influences, and while part of the population (usually younger) spends their day chatting in English and watching YouTube videos, the other part (usually older) speaks only Arabic and reads the Koran every morning. This is obviously a generalization, as Egyptian mindsets and lifestyles cover a wide spectrum. However, if you are coming from a Western culture, be prepared for a bit of culture shock. Cairo, to sum it up, is weird. I’ve never seen anything like it.
DATING SCENE: Tinder Tinder Tinder. I hate to say it, but your best bet for an Egyptian girlfriend/boyfriend (or whatever level of casual relationship you are looking for) is going to be Tinder. It’s a bit rare as a foreigner to meet Egyptians in “real life” that could be good prospects for dating. And even if you DO, odds are that you will have at least some level of cultural difference. And if you manage that….well, their parents might not even know about you. I dated numerous Egyptian girls during my time there, and it was fundamentally different than back home. This is not to discourage you, but you can’t ignore the fact that you are in an Arab country. Good luck, and be smart. That being said, there is still very much (see below) opportunity for dating fellow foreigners. Online, at parties, a shared Arabic class…..you won’t be only foreigner in Cairo, trust me. You already have a shared level of weirdness for living there anyway. Odds are they give you their number. So just ask. :)
PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: I’m going to miss it. In my humble opinion, the public transportation (especially buses) is like the cheapest roller coaster in the world. It’ll only cost you a few Egyptian pounds, and you are almost guaranteed your daily allotment of adrenaline rush. What more could you ask for? But in all seriousness, public transportation (while not of the “fanciness caliber” of countries like Germany or Japan) is pretty rad. It’s reliable (enough), cheap as dirt, and is actually quite fun, if you are looking for a bit of adventure. The metro is super convenient, and even though it has gotten more expensive over the past few years, it will still set you back less than 50 cents wherever you go. It’s also good enough. True, the metro lines (there are three of them) aren’t as extensive as European cities. But it will usually get you to the hot spots (Maadi, Downtown, Dokki), and hardly ever breaks down. Taxis are super cheap, and they almost always know where they are going. Assuming they don’t try to overcharge you (quite normal), they are also a great way to practice your Arabic. I owe at least 50 percent of my current Arabic to taxi drivers in Cairo. Uber also exists, and it might be the cheapest you’ve ever paid for it. They also have “Uber scooter” in Cairo. Enough said.
NIGHTLIFE: Strange, to say the least. First thing’s first (surprise, surprise): it’s not like home. If you are coming from a Western country and were even slightly into partying in your previous life, leave all your notions at the door. True, Cairo is one of the more liberal Arab cites. But it’s still Arab. The culture is almost guaranteed to be more conservative than what you are used to, and the “party "till you drop” mindset isn’t so prevalent. That’s not to say it can’t happen, or even that it doesn’t. Take it from a guy that likes to get his drink on: you just have to go looking for it. :) The most fail-proof way to experience “life like it used to be” is by either making liberal Egyptian friends or foreign friends. House parties are quite normal. These are usually going to take place in Zamalek, Maadi, or Mohandiseen. Once you make a few foreign friends, you will make a lot of foreign friends. Expect your main source of debauchery to come from house parties frequented by expats and liberal Egyptians. When you want a more “Egyptian” experience, Cairo does, in fact, have clubs. They are weird, and were never really my cup of tea, but they exist. The most famous ones are Cairo Jazz (multiple locations), The Tap (multiple locations), and Zig-Zag. My favorite stress relief was always rooftop bars/cafes. These included Zamalek Rooftop, and Kings Hotel and Tonsi Hotel in Dokki. There are more rooftops than you can count, and usually serve the world-famous combination of beer and shisha. Plus, you are usually outside under the open sky. So. Many. Memories.
FOOD: Koshary. Mahsee. Koshary. Moluhaya. Koshary. Fatoora. Kosahry. Lots of delicious desserts….have I mentioned koshary? Koshary is my personal favorite, but Egyptian food in general is quite delicious. In any case, Cairo has a ton of really good restaurants, so you won’t be lacking for options.
EXPAT COMMUNITY: It all depends on the kind of life you want. If you don’t want to go zero to 100 (fully immerse yourself in Egyptian culture), it’s easy to find foreigners. Go to night clubs (will explain more below), hop on Tinder, or go to the rooftop bars, and you are bound to find them. Sure, there might be less than there were before the Arab Spring, but they are still there. It’s really just a process, like anything else. It’s been said that as soon as you make one foreign friend in Cairo, you make a ton. I think that’s true. There aren’t a TON of foreigners in Cairo (still plenty) and you have a tendency to run into the same people repeatedly. This can either be a good thing or bad thing, depending on what kind of person you are.
TRAVEL OPPORTUNITIES: I really do believe that Egypt is one of the world’s best-kept secrets when it comes to travel destinations. When you think of Egypt, I bet you think of the pyramids, camels, and then……that’s about it. But there’s more. So much more.
Did you know that Siwa has some of the best star-gazing you will ever come across?
Did you know that Dahab is top ten of the the best Scuba diving in the entire world?
Did you know that the beaches of Ain Sokhna are exactly what you are looking for if you want to get your party on?
However, if international travel is what you are looking for, Egypt is just as amazing. Simply put, it has to be one of the most strategically located countries in the world. Go south to Africa (I took a trip to Ethiopia), go east to the Middle East (I took a trip to Lebanon), or go north to all of Europe (I took a trip to Turkey). These were all quick, affordable, and incredible experiences. If you afraid that spending some time in Egypt is going to limit your travel opportunities…..take 30 seconds looking at a map. :)
What are your monthly expenses?
Note: $1.00 USD = 17-18 Egyptian pounds
RENT: Cheapest you will pay in a “bad” area (bad here meaning not a hotspot for foreigners) with roommates is less than 1,000 pounds/month. Most expensive is right around 15,000 pounds per month for an entire apartment to yourself in a nice area like Zamalek. My average rent+utilities for each of the five places I stayed at was 1700 Egyptian pounds.
FOOD: Fruits and vegetables in Cairo are amazing. Maybe it’s not what you expect in Egypt, but the Nile river has enabled some pretty kickass agriculture. I spent about 100 Egyptian pounds per week on fruits and vegetables (and I eat a ton of them). There are so many open air markets for produce, so ask around. My favorite is Soliman Gohar in Dokki. Try to shop at a stall with a scale. That way you know you aren’t being overcharged. Everything else varies on where you buy your food. Overall, I probably spent 1,200-1,500 pounds/month on “purchased” food and another 1,000 pounds/month at restaurants.
SOCIAL ACTIVITIES: This depends on what you like to do. If you like sitting at cafes, that seems to be all Egyptians do, sometimes. So you will be good there. If you like bars, Cairo is decent, but not great. Try to hit up places like King’s Hotel, Tonsi Hotel, and Zamalek Rooftoop. All these places have rooftop bars where you can buy beer and shisha. And the shisha! So many different favors in Cairo, and even if you aren’t a big smoker (I’m not), it’s still pretty fun to do with friends. The biggest “social activity” in Cairo is going and sitting at the “awhuwuh.” This is essentially an outdoor café where Egyptians (usually men) go to sit, chat, and drink tea. If you are comfortable enough to do this (totally understandable if you’re not), it can also be great for your Arabic. There are also numerous sports clubs you can join. I played consistently on a Frisbee team (Flying Disc Invasion, if you are curious) for two years. This is one of your best bets to meet fellow expats who are just as confused in Egypt as you are.
TRANSPORTATION: Most foreigners will stick exclusively to things like Uber and taxis. These are expensive compared to everything else in Cairo, but still insanely cheap by the standards of most foreigners. Taxis to most places will be between 10 and 30 Egyptian pounds, microbuses will be three-five Egyptian pounds, and the bigger with 30ish seats will usually cost two pounds. The underground metro, while not very extensive, was my preferred method of transportation. This will cost between two and seven pounds, depending on where you want to go. The spike in prices for the Cairo metro is an interesting thing in and of itself to read about. When I first arrived in 2015, every single ride was one pound. Inflation after the currency devaluation has sent that price skyrocketing. Still dirt cheap, though.
PHONE: Right around 75 Egyptian pounds per month for unlimited calling and data. Popular carriers are Vodafone (which I used) and Orange. Pro tip: you can buy recharge cards at the little snack “koshks” that you see everywhere. This is easier (and certainly less scary) than speaking English in front of a crowd of Vodafone customers.
GYM MEMBERSHIP: 300 Egyptian pounds/month for a nice gym. Prices obviously go higher or lower depending on your requirements.
TRAVEL: Again this depends where you want to go. It can be expensive if you want to fly to Aswan, or you can look for cheap options like taking the bus. I usually preferred the cheaper options. Some of my best memories in Egypt come from sitting on a bus with a few friends on our way to Dahab. It’s less comfortable, but I have found that shared discomfort usually makes for a life rich in experience.
How would you describe your standard of living?
Decent. I don’t really have that expensive of tastes, and I prefer to live a more “minimalistic” lifestyle. Because of that, a bed to sleep in and a lack of cockroaches in Cairo apartments were usually enough to satisfy me. I could have spent just a bit more to have nice apartments, for sure. But I didn’t really care. Your desired standard of living, regardless of the level, is likely available in Cairo. Just need to search. I also always had roommates (some Egyptian, some foreigners). This cuts down substantially on cost.
However, if you want to live like a gangster and take advantage of some of the highest purchasing power you may ever have, you can get a great apartment to yourself for 500 bucks a month. I’m vomiting just writing that. Maybe that gives you an idea of how DIRT CHEAP living is there….
In your opinion, how much does someone need to earn in order to live comfortably?
6,000 Egyptian pounds/month. This will go up or down depending on how willing you are to spend a bit of time finding cheaper places/using cheaper options.
What advice would you give someone planning or considering teaching abroad? Would you recommend teaching in your country?
Have I scared you yet? Does moving to Cairo, Egypt seem like the worst idea you’ve ever had? Are your friends correct when they say that you’re insane? Do your parents’ tears of sorrow contain any truth? Well, I’m here to tell you….just do it. A bit anticlimactic, I know, but sometimes that’s all you can do.
Listen, I’m not going to lie: Egypt is not a Western country. Living here isn’t comfortable; it’s not easy; and certain things about the culture are going to have you pulling your hair out (have I mentioned the Mogamma?). But it’s worth it. Every second you spend here is going to build you as a person. Where else do you have that kind of opportunity?
I lived in Cairo for three years, and with what feels like a lifetime of experiences there, here is what I have realized: Egypt is like a father that’s a bit too “intense” at times, but that loves you with all his heart. It seems like a jerk sometimes, and you just can’t believe that it doesn’t raise you like all the other countries. But given some time for thought, you realize that you are who you are BECAUSE of him: stronger, more focused on what you want, more willing to put in the work to make it a reality.
There is also a special bond that foreigners share who live here. Twenty years from now, when you’re a fancy pants millionaire, and you’re at your third dinner party of the week, you think people care about how your stock portfolio looks? Not a chance. But meet somebody else who has lived in Cairo? Well hot damn, let’s sit down and talk about it, stranger.
Egypt is frustrating, but I personally guarantee you are going to have some of the most unique experiences of your life here. For every person that will keep you waiting for an hour, there are ten that will insist you drink tea with them. For every taxi driver that tries to screw you over, there are ten that will just hand you their sandwich if you look hungry. It is a country that will continually frustrate and surprise you, and the only way to experience it is to go. Save up some money (a thousand bucks is probably too much), embrace the call of adventure, and go.
Moving here to teach was, quite literally, the best decision I have ever made. I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, you say the same.
Eric had an overwhelming curiosity about the Middle East. He wanted to improve his Arabic, find out more about the culture, and leave his comfort zone. Cairo was the perfect opportunity to do all three! After getting TEFL Certified through International TEFL Academy, Eric landed a job at an International Language Institute teaching students ranging from all levels and ages.
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