Teaching English in Iraq: It’s More Than a War Zone
by - Published February 13
Have you ever thought visiting Iraq? What living there?
Probably not. Which is fair. When people hear “Iraq,” they think of violence: assassinations, kidnappings, bombings, and (I hate to say it) ISIS. In all honesty, these associations are a reality… in most of the country.
However, there is one semi-autonomous region that has remained quite insulated from these conditions, a beautiful land with incredible history, a rich culture, and personal security. Kurdistan. This wonderland should absolutely be considered if you are pursuing teaching jobs in the Middle East.
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Located in the far north of Iraq, Kurdistan has been home to some of the oldest-known civilizations. Its history is riddled with tribal disputes and foreign conquests, with the most notorious imperial powers settling on its land; Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Macedonians, Mongols, Arabs, Ottomans, and the British have conquered and held Kurdish land over the past several centuries and millennia.
Beyond its legacy of occupation, Kurds have faced a slew of catastrophic events over the past century, including the Halabja chemical attack (1988), Saddam’s Anfal genocide (1986-1989), the Kurdish civil war of the 90s, and the ongoing war against ISIS, among other conflicts and devastations; these events continue to influence daily discussion, and play a big role in shaping Kurdish identity. They also provide weight to the Kurds’ argument for independence (from Iraq).
In the most recent geopolitical developments, the Kurdistan Region pushed for independence with a controversial referendum. This effort failed and resulted in the loss of key territory, most notably the city of Kirkuk.
This background is not intended to scare you away, but to illustrate the rich sense of cultural identity shaped by the challenges that the Kurdish community has faced. Kurdistan’s semi-autonomy from Iraq further reinforces its regional distinctions, fostering foreign investments, security improvements, and reforms across all sectors. Employment opportunities have emerged across the region. Most relevant, of course, is the surplus of jobs in Kurdistan for English speakers.
FAQS on teaching English in Iraq
1. Where in Iraq should I teach?
Work options are limited in central and southern Iraq. Security in these regions is uncertain at best (and disastrous at worst), and upcoming elections will likely worsen these circumstances. That being said, there are some contractual jobs, but most require an extensive amount of experience and some sort of military background.
Let me reiterate: THAT’S THE CASE IN CENTRAL AND SOUTHERN IRAQ. There is a lot more to say the Kurdistan Region, which will be the focus of the rest of this section. When you’re considering where in Iraq to teach abroad, eliminate the noise and zero-in on the north: good ol’ Kurdistan. Major cities here to find ESL teaching jobs in Kurdistan include Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Dohuk.
2. Why consider teaching English in Iraq?
The universal reasons to consider living and teaching abroad apply here: the opportunity to learn a new language/culture, the chance to save money, and the ability to gain classroom experience. However, here are additional benefits that I consider unique to living and teaching English in Iraq. Firstly, the local students have a deep understanding of how and why English is important. Many foreign NGOs and companies have offices across the region, which means English is vital for employability. Local companies pushing for entry into global markets also frequently require English competency. As a result of the local employment conditions, students take their studies very seriously.
Secondly, foreign teachers are deeply respected here. At work, students and colleagues express endless gratitude for ESL efforts. They truly appreciate teachers in every task that they take on.
Thirdly: hospitality. Kurds are known for their incredible hospitality. Outside of work, a week doesn’t go by without invitations to dinner, picnics, and weddings. These invitations are absolutely non-stop, and even though they felt weird at first, being included in meals and celebrations has become a huge part of my life today. I’ve formed strong friendships with members of the Kurdish community, and their welcoming attitude is a distinct benefit to living and working here.
Lastly, working in Kurdistan provides valuable insight into a culture that is especially different from Western life. The fundamental structure that upholds the Kurdish region is absolutely fascinating: The political system is run by tribes and other networks, which means that foreign teachers are immersed in a completely unique political climate. Far from being a negative factor, this has been absolutely eye-opening to me as an American.
3. How much can I expect my teaching English in Iraq salary to be?
In Iraqi Kurdistan, teacher salaries vary. There are many organizations that bring on volunteers, and some offer stipends. For paid work, the monthly range is between $1500-3500. This salary range allows all ESL teachers to save money whether it be for personal reasons or future travel. If I take city trips and go out to the bars, I still manage to save $1000+ each month. Keep in mind that most ESL jobs offer plenty of free time, and there are lots of opportunities to freelance, do private ESL tutoring on the side, and pick up side gigs.
My average week includes 12-15 hours of class time, and these hours are spread out over four days. Because of the relaxed working environment, these hours are very enjoyable, and with the remaining three days I am allowed to focus on side gigs and activities.
4. Can you teach English in Iraq without a degree?
Most ESL jobs in Iraq do require you to hold an undergraduate degree. When I went through the hiring process, the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research needed to approve my documents. So no, you can’t teach English in Iraq without a degree and get paid for it.
There are, however, volunteer positions that don’t require a university degree—keep in mind these are less formal and generally unpaid.
5. What are the requirements to teach English in Iraq?
Like many countries, foreign ESL teachers should be native speakers. If you want to have a position at a university, you absolutely need a TEFL certificate. If you want to do a great job rather than an adequate one, we also recommend getting a TEFL certificate. Truthfully, this training program prepares you for more than just engaging whiny kids in the classroom or how to prepare a lesson plan properly.
If you’re just breaking into the field of ESL, don’t be discouraged! A lot of schools are easing up on requirements due to growing demand, so it isn’t impossible to fulfill the requirements to teach English in Iraq without actually fulfilling the requirements…
6. What are the types of jobs in Kurdistan for English speakers?
NGOs—There are tons of organizations that operate in the Kurdistan Region. Some notable names include UNESCO, Save the Children, Doctors without Borders, and War Child. There are plenty of others, and many reach out to the English teachers already here. The best way to find NGO work is to arrive in Kurdistan and build up a network.
Private/International Schools—As the demand for English grows, private schools continue to pop up across the region. The biggest organization is SABIS, a global chain of Lebanese schools. There are SABIS locations in the three biggest cities in Kurdistan, and they also have a teacher training department. My friends who work for SABIS earn good money, but the hours can be a bit overwhelming and there have been some complaints management. On the plus side, SABIS is known to hire entry-level foreign ESL teachers, so this is a good company if you want to “break in” with little prior experience. Other international schools are located in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Dohuk. A quick search will bring up many results.
Universities—Higher education is a great option for teachers who want to work in Kurdistan. The biggest employer is the American University of Iraq Sulaymaniyah (AUIS). They often hire ESL teachers to work in specifically designed English programs, and the friends I have there really enjoy it. The American University of Kurdistan (AUK) is another university, smaller than AUIS. If you have experience in TEFL, the salaries at AUK are great. However, the school is very political, so free speech and movement may be limited. The third option is working for a public university. In the public sector, working hours are limited, providing plenty of free time to do extra activities. The only downside is that, as in all public sector jobs, salaries can be delayed.
Tips on life as an ESL teacher in Kurdistan, by an ESL teacher in Kurdistan
With the free time provided by ESL work, there are endless opportunities to explore the Kurdistan Region. There are some great hiking clubs in the area, including groups for both expats and locals. Because the locals are so outdoorsy and hospitable, you will be invited to join many outdoor adventures.
During my time here, I have biked and hiked in many parts of the region. Highlights and discoveries include former battlefields, archaeological sites, and fresh water springs. I also happen to be walking distance from Lake Dukan, so swimming and water sports are a big part of my life. If you’re interested in horse trekking, the lack of official businesses is made up for by the affordability of actually owning a horse! During my third month in Kurdistan, I bought one for only $600!
Kurdish cities are full of things to see and places to wander. Each city has a lively bazaar, and there are plenty of other attractions, such as malls, museums, and amusement parks. Many ESL teachers love to visit Chavy Land, an amusement park in Sulaymaniyah (my personal favorite!).
Transportation in the Kurdistan Region is super easy and cheap! Kurds are famous for welcoming foreigners, and a surprising amount of people offer free rides. If you prefer to take taxis, there are shared taxis that shuttle around the entire region. Shared taxis are always a fun opportunity to practice the language and make new friends. It’s also common to share taxis with Peshmerga (Kurdish army) as they rotate to the front lines.
From my town to the major cities ( a 2 hour ride), taxis cost around 8 USD per person, and the bus costs $6 per person. Once you’re in a city, taxis are insanely cheap ($1-4).
You may get tired from all that lesson planning, so you deserve a night out! One of Kurdistan’s biggest appeals is its nightlife. While I can’t say it’s better or worse than other areas I’ve lived in, I can say that it’s unique! The residents of my town are typically pretty conservative, but there are a few bars run by Yazidis (minority Kurds)—these hole-in-the-wall spots are amazing, and the owners always allow us to play our own music through Bluetooth speakers. Mix-gendered house parties aren’t as common, but there are plenty of private garden parties “for the boys.” These parties often include Kurdish music, food, and moonshine.
Nightlife is lively in Kurdish cities.
- Erbil—The biggest city is Erbil, also known as Hawler, is known as being very religiously conservative; however, there is a small Christian area named Ainkawa. Here, you will find bars, clubs, and lots of expats. This area is really fun, and most nights you get to meet some really interesting foreigners.
- As-Sulaymaniyah—Unlike Erbil, As Sulaymaniyah (also known as Slemani) is culturally open. There are bars, clubs, and liquor stores spread out all across town. In this city, you’ll find fewer expats, but there are more locals who go out to enjoy drinks. Known as the “cultural capital” of Kurdistan, Sulaymaniyah is a perfect place to go out and mingle with Kurds.
If you arrive on a whim, there are plenty of hotels in the big cities. Hotels range from moldy dens to international class. If you want to experience Kurdish culture, I guarantee you’ll be invited over to sleep at someone’s home—immediately.
As for actual housing, there are many options in the Kurdistan Region. Almost all schools will put you up in a gated community, where houses have generator-powered electricity. If you work for a public university, you will most likely be housed on campus. If neither option suits you, there are plenty of places to rent (for cheap!).
Learn the language
Want to be a student instead of the teacher all the time? Kurdish languages are a group within the Indo-European category, so they are much easier to study than Arabic. In Iraq Kurdistan, the most common dialect is Sorani, and it’s crazy different than English: THERE ARE MILLIONS OF INTERESTING PROVERBS. By studying Kurdish, you’ll earn a lot of respect. With only 5 million Sorani speakers in the world, locals are thrilled to see foreigners take up their language.
Now’s your chance to find ESL jobs in Iraq
While the life in this region isn’t for everyone, I hope some of you will find a new interest in Kurdistan. If you’re interested in experiencing a rich and unique culture, over-the-top hospitality, and the excitement of living right on the edge of danger, teaching English in Iraq is a great idea for you. There are many ESL jobs in Kurdistan!
To make your job hunt easier, I am including a few links that list jobs in Kurdistan for English speakers. Good luck, and I hope to see you in Kurdistan!