It’s been… a WHILE since I posted here. But here goes…
Scarcely had I been in Lisbon a fortnight when I asked a bright, articulate advanced student why he was learning English (as you do in these introductory ‘getting to know you’ sessions. He gave it to me straight:
“If I work in Portugal, I will work the longest hours in Europe, for some of the least pay. The only way to make a living here is to have a contact who can get you into a cushy job somewhere, or to open your own business, which I don’t have the money for.”
I was pretty shocked and – starry eyed about this beautiful new city that I was just getting to know – I told him that, surely, he was exaggerating. That surely it couldn’t be all that bad?
Dozens upon dozens of students would tell me the same thing over the next 6 years.
At the time, I was working for one of Portugal’s biggest private language school groups. Fresh from a 3-year stint honing my craft in a self-styled training school group in Poland, I was keen to test out my skills in a new environment (and catch some sunshine).
It soon became clear that the school I was working for was less focussed on education as a priority but, in taking a passive approach to management, allowed teachers to be as committed (or not) as they saw fit. I threw myself into my classes, relishing the chance to work with higher level students and to challenge myself and everything went fairly well.
“This is a fine place to work,” my colleagues and I would say in the staff room or over a beer in the town on a Saturday evening, “as long as nothing goes sideways.”
If the school had previously been more business than educational establishment, it was about to transform into an infinitely more callous and cutthroat version of the same. Student safety was not a high priority. Teacher safety did not even figure on the list. When the inevitable transition to remote teaching came, they were slow to react, attempting to use a chat-based learning platform which would have been state of the art when I was in primary school in the mid-eighties. Classes were cancelled, teachers subsequently coerced into working unpaid public holidays to make up for the school’s mistakes, with the mantra “we must keep the students happy” the reply to each and every question raised.
I decided to get out at the end of the school year, interviewed for another school who painted a rosy (false) picture of a more relaxed environment, where education was the focus. I was naïve. Took the bait. It was a disaster. Remains a disaster. Probably the worst professional experience of my life to date. I’m still undecided whether the multiple, endless phone calls about nothing outside of work hours are a lack of competence or a form of deliberate bullying.
Before teaching, I had a career as a financial/commercial analyst in a number of big companies in the UK. Realising that, though teaching is my passion, Lisbon might be the sort of place where the market is just too saturated with antiquated players. Maybe I could re-start my old career.
I started looking for jobs, many of which were advertised with English as lingua franca, as might be expected for big multinational companies. As I highlighted posts which I might be interested in, I would look up the business on Glassdoor. Some of them were, on a global level, places to avoid. Others were more nuanced.
What I started to notice was that companies which had solid global ratings of 4 to 4.5 out of 5 would have ratings of 3, 3.5 – even 2 – out of 5 in Portugal. The complaints were the same in every case: expected to work 2 to 3 hours of overtime, unpaid, every day. Minimal salaries.
You might read this and think – well if you don’t like it, leave. Fair enough, but I would ask why people would seek to defend a situation like this.
Speaking to others I know who are also frustrated in his job because of inefficiencies and work being dropped on them at the last minute, they put it like this: In Portugal, companies expect you to be grateful to have a job. No matter what it is. No matter how they treat you.
As for me, my choice really is between the misery, lost sleep and elevated stress levels of the last few nightmare months and leaving the country. I’m happily married. I live in a nice apartment. I have a cat who I also love dearly. But I can’t – won’t – live in a situation like this one, less so for a minimal salary.
Like many others, I’m not looking for an easy ride. I’m happy to work hard. But the work culture here is toxically stacked in favour of the employer. There is no sense that ‘we are a team’. There is no sense that hard work, talent, or intelligence will take you anywhere. So, it might have to be good bye.
There is much to love about Portugal: the food, the landscape, the traditional culture. But the opportunity to work in a place which offers decency or respect is not something I recognise here. Sad to say.