Dragoman Akademi (clients: Statkraft, KVK Teknik Servis, 1000 Volt, Emlak Konut, Novartis, Anadolu Grubu, DenizEmeklilik/MetLife, Mercedes-Benz, Abdi Ibrahim, DenizBank, Sekerbank). Also taught private lessons to adults at all levels of fluency. Istanbul, October 2010–July 2012.

Letter of reference

Istanbul has dozens of language schools, most of which have the ambience of a factory without a union. Despite having previous teaching experience and a freshly minted CELTA, I was offered salaries in the range of what I earned in Moscow 15 years earlier. So I focused on tutoring Business English and felt very lucky when I found Dragoman Akademi (now: Affina) and director Cagatay Donmez. Totally cool guy, honest, and very careful to spell out the drawbacks of being a traveling tutor.

“The traffic is very bad in Istanbul,” he warned, “and the students are located all over.”

“No problem!” I chirped. “It’ll be a great way to learn my way around the city!”

I still can’t believe I ever said that.

The saving grace is that my students were worth every minute I spent in buses, minivans, dolmuses, funiculars, and subways. Their levels ranged from elementary to advanced, which was a big stretch for me. The elementary-level students used course books; for the others, I developed lessons tailored to their individual (and often business) needs. I pushed my intermediate-level students to give presentations that we recorded with a pocket video camera, uploaded to my YouTube channel, and reviewed for grammar and pronunciation errors. An advanced-level student wouldn't tolerate grammar reviews, so I introduced him to the nonfiction essays of David Foster Wallace and an independently produced documentary about overeducated parking-lot attendants in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Besides teaching, I also developed the curriculum for a two-day Business Writing workshop and wrote the marketing pitch for a program called English 155—for business people who needed short-term, targeted language training prior to giving an important presentation or taking a trip abroad. (Turks dial 155 for emergency services, hence the name.)

English Business Writing Techniques

When Cagatay found out I had experience as a writer and editor, he asked me to develop the curriculum for an intensive two-day workshop on business writing—the only one of its kind in Istanbul. Dragoman Akademi sold the workshop eight times in one year, and I presented it to employees at five major companies (Anadolu Grubu, Mercedes-Benz, Abdi Ibrahim, DenizBank, and Sekerbank). A total of 79 students took the training, and 49 of them submitted written evaluations afterward.

Average rating (out of a possible 10):

Workshop content: 9.2

Trainer’s abilities and style: 9.8

Workshop met or exceeded expectations: 9.5

Private Lessons

Serdar was my first landlord as well as my first friend in Istanbul, and he kept insisting that lots of professional-level people in the city wanted private English lessons. I thought he was exaggerating, so to prove his point he gave my phone number to his friend Melik and told us to work something out. After a couple of lessons, Melik gave me a seal of approval, and the gates opened even wider. Serdar introduced me to his sister-in-law Kubra and her coworker Ercan. Then Melik introduced me to his sister-in-law Tugce. Serdar also introduced me to his wife’s friend’s husband Baris, who in turn introduced me to his boss Teoman. Serdar was like a Turkish Kevin Bacon—but instead of six degrees of separation, all of my private students could be traced back to him in just one or two steps. He put me in touch with his business associates Naip and Aykut, who were beginners and preferred very informal lessons. Aykut then set me up with his friend Aylin, who remains a long-distance friend of mine to this day. It’s no exaggeration: Word of mouth is everything in Turkey.


Meliksah: financial-data software sales director

Ercan: retail manager

Kubra: retail window designer

Baris: regional sales manager

Teoman: national sales director

Tugce: model/actress

Naip: gold dealer

Aykut: online magazine publisher

Aylin: retail trader

Selva: retail merchandise coordinator

Elif: textiles designer

Aysegul: architect

Burcu: marketing manager

Ozan: investment banker

Business Hand Writing Workshop

Business Writing Workshop, Abdi Ibrahim, November 2011

Business Writing Workshop, Abdi Ibrahim, November 2011

Business Writing Workshop, Anadolu Grubu, November 2011

Business Writing Workshop, Anadolu Grubu, June 2011

Business Writing Workshop, Anadolu Grubu, June 2011

Student Profiles

Cem was the highest-functioning student I'd ever worked with. Whenever we met, I was reluctant to call it a “lesson” because his grammar, vocabulary, and fluency were often better than a native speaker’s. Cem was the general manager of a company that specializes in CRM (customer relationship management), so I asked him to give a presentation on how to use social media in Turkish marketing. I also played the role of Skeptical Audience Member, but none of my pointed questions fazed him.

Whenever I got cranky about the travel demands of my job, Seyhmus always settled me down. Not with words, but by his example. He was the project manager for a renewable energy company, and he traveled frequently to oversee a dam that was under construction in eastern Turkey. Some days began at 5:00 a.m. for him, on the other side of the country, yet he always showed up for our lessons in good cheer. I like this clip because it reveals his personality as well as his personal history.

When we started working together, Hakan had studied English for only a month previously. The safest bet would’ve been to continue working with a bilingual teacher, but he opted instead to work with me, a monolingual native speaker who couldn’t explain the grammar to him in Turkish. Despite his demanding job as general manager at a telecom company, Hakan proved to be a dedicated student with a voracious appetite for homework. His teenage daughters attended a high school where most of the curriculum is taught in English, so they helped explain the grammar at home while I focused on speaking practice during our lessons at his office. Here he talks at length about a home bookcase project.