Where Supply Doesn’t Meet Demand: Why Kyrgyz Schools Can Never Find Enough Native English Teachers

Because they don’t pay them enough.

Longer Explanation: because there is the belief (probably hanging over from Soviet times) that everyone’s wages should be about equal, foreigners as well as locals.  And thus local positions for English teaching often offer only about 10-30% more than  local teacher salaries (not local teacher incomes, which are often much higher than official salaries at all but a few universities).  Almost everything I’ve seen is in the range of 300-500 som/hour.  At 68-70 som/dollar that’s..um, not enough to attract a lot of qualified, experienced teachers.

Two school years ago I taught “Talking Club” for preparatory students at a international university that does differentiate foreigner and local salaries and pays foreigners wages equivalent  to those in their home country.  In September I was contacted by the same person – but on behalf of another person in another department – to teach an evening speaking class three times a week, though to personnel and through the university’s school of continuing education.  I assumed the wages would be about the same – i.e. less than I received in China (normally about $20/hour), but still in the realm of reasonable.  Today I went over and talked to the directer of programs at the SCE to discuss classes and thankfully asked to see and sign a contract before  starting classes, whereupon I discovered that the school was paying 313 som/45 minute class period for all teachers, foreign as well as local. You can do the math, but let’s just say it’s below the minimum wage in my home country, and certainly less than an equal exchange for my time.  When I told the organizer that I was sorry, but it would be impossible for me to work under those terms, her response was, “But you’re in Kyrgyzstan.”

Which doesn’t really make sense as a reply once you do the math:

RT flight ticket from most US locations to Kygyzstan: $1200

Annual Visa Costs: $250-500

Monthly Rent in Bishkek: More than a lot of European Cities; $300-450/month for an unsecured soviet apartment with sporadic breaks in electricity, gas and water and random midnight visits from strangers and unbeckoned police alike; minimum $500/month for a modern-ish apartment with basic security located outside of downtown. Our rent is ~$200 more than it would be for approximately the same apartment in Berlin.

Western Education: anywhere from $5,000-60,000/year (students at this particular university study free, very few students pay more than $1,000 a year, if that)

So, no – I don’t see how you can justify paying local salaries to non-locals.  If you want to attract them, you will have to offer wages that give potential teachers sufficient incentive to pack up and come to Kyrgyzstan.  There are hundreds of other locations where foreigners can teach English – not to mention the booming online teaching industry with startups like italki.  Even already living in Bishkek, why would I spend my evenings teaching outside my home when I could just turn on my computer and make three (or more) times as much teaching (or editing, or writing) from my desk?  Where is the incentive?  Unless schools actually start to offer attractive wages (and/or create salary packages covering flight, visa and accommodation costs like so many institutions in China), there will be a perennial lack of qualified native English teachers.

I observed the opposite of this in China – back in 2008, hourly rates for an absolutely unexperienced native speaker with no university degree were around 130-150 RMB an hour.  At the time my rent was 700-[later] 1400 RMB a month, and a simple restaurant lunch was 5 RMB.  As this was concurrent with the global economic slump, needless to say a lot of young teacher-potentials flooded into China.  Schools began to demand degrees, teaching certificates and experience.  By the time I left China in 2013 (with 3+ years teaching experience, a university degree and a teaching certificate), the hourly rate for private lessons was still 150 – actually less than five years before once one calculates in inflation. Because China understands market response and the private sector doesn’t stick to pegged priced (which the Kyrgyz education/training sector does).

Kyrgyzstan (as with most former Soviet states) also has a cultural factor preventing individual firms from raising wages to attract new workers: the notion that education should be both universal and near no-cost.  While parents in China will save and sacrifice for their children’s education, few Kyrgyz parents are willing to shell out that much cash for in-country education.  It’s simply not something they peg at that high of a [monetary] value.   A dozen schools around the capital advertise “999 som English courses” every summer. So if a language institute, for example, paid foreign teachers market wages and reflected that in their prices, they might very well see a huge drop off in students (and thus profits) unless they launched an especially good targeted marketing campaign emphasizing quality ‘luxury’ education.

To Summarize: the majority of schools in Kyrgyzstan have a difficult time locating and employing enough foreign English teachers to meet demand, and this is mainly because schools do not offer market-level wages, thus making them highly unattractive to potential employees.  At the same time, the low monetary value placed on education discourages schools from offering more attractive salaries.

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