Home Working in Switzerland Employment Basics What Switzerland taught me about work
Last update on July 31, 2019

An expat got her first “real job” in Switzerland and learned a thing or two about work along the way – Swiss style.

Switzerland gave me my first real job. Not a summer job, not an internship; the job that would pay rents and bills. When I arrived 3 years ago, I suffered from a kind of French disdain for work. Working was something annoying I had to do while preserving my energy for my private life.

I started teaching French in a spectacularly wrong manner. I arrived to the lessons late, breathless and unprepared. I didn’t know anything about French grammar and had never studied to be a French teacher – I studied law. I treated the job as something I would do before I start my real career as a lawyer or whatever.

Teaching in Switzerland

Trying to be Conscious: What Switzerland taught me
Léa, my 13 year old sister, made this cool illustration.

But teaching took me by surprise: I actually loved it and even though I had no training, I was good at it. I liked meeting different people everyday: unemployed kids, housewives, top bankers. I could bring something to them: some needed reassurance, others entertainment and a few, astonishingly, just wanted to learn French grammar. The ever-changing schedule was far from the traditional 8 to 6 routine I dreaded and I had the total freedom to plan my lessons as I pleased.

I enjoyed finding ways to make grammar understandable and less boring. Seeing the progress my students made. Looking for new ideas to make the lessons interesting. And, of course, having some time for writing. The money would never be as good as what I could make with law, but loving my job was, and still is, my highest priority.

So I started taking things seriously. I learned the grammar and the teaching techniques. I enrolled in a teaching French as a foreign language class. Teaching wasn’t a side job anymore, it was the life I wanted to pursue, giving up the grim prospect of a career in law with little regret.

I had to work on myself to become professional though; the Swiss expect their teacher to be on time, prepared and professional-looking. Here is what I learned in Switzerland:

1. Act and look professional

The first step to achieving my professional self was to be punctual… most of the time anyway. Growing up in France, being on time was a vague concept that meant arriving between 5 minutes before and after the time of the rendez-vous. No-one would even notice a 5 minute difference. The French would only start getting angry after waiting for at least 10 minutes.

The Swiss, on the other hand, don’t mess around with punctuality. Once, I was ONE minute late to a class and my boss told me off at the end of the lesson. So I had to change. I am still a few minutes late sometimes but I always make-up for it at the end of the lesson.

Then I noticed that my students were sensitive to details like always carrying a pen and paper to take notes. I learned to look prepared in every situation, even if I only had 5 minutes in the tram to prepare my lesson.

Acting professional also included giving up getting too personal with the students or allowing myself to discreetly snack during the lesson. Tough.

2. Take my time

I am as impatient as a hungry baby waiting to be breastfed. So I tend to rush and to rush others. But the Swiss like taking their time. Some students need half an hour just to tell me about their weekend! I wanted to teach efficiently and I was so efficient that after 40 minutes, I had finished my lesson while there was still 40 minutes to fill. I was going too fast and my students were getting stressed out. So I learned to take my time, to let my students talk, to write more on the whiteboard, and to accept unexpected turns in lessons.

3. Incorporate my personality

The Swiss tend to be extremely cautious and diplomatic when they want to complain about something. But It’s not because I live and work in Switzerland that I have to become the perfect Swiss worker. If I don’t like something, I go to my boss and tell him openly. He’s often surprised by my manners but he listens.

I am still a bit messy in my presentation and can be a few minutes late. When my students complain about it, I turn it into a joke: “It’s not my fault, I’m French! If you want to learn with a real French teacher, you have to put up with the mess.” And it works. Most of the time, my students laugh and make fun of me.

4. Don’t bully people into giving me their opinions or details about their private life

When I started teaching, I had this strange fantasy about becoming my student’s confidant. I also wanted to have real debates of opinion and lively conversations with them. But not everyone feels like displaying their opinions or private life. It makes some feel uncomfortable. So I learned to stop asking. If they want to share something, they will anyway.

5. Demand the right salary for my work

Switzerland is famous for its high quality products and services… and also for its high prices. I learned that it was worth paying for quality, but also normal to ask a decent salary for my work. I have a few private students outside of the school where I work and, at first, I barely dared ask them for money. Gradually, I understood that I was bringing them a valuable service and that they were happy to pay the right price for it.

Trying to be Conscious: What Switzerland taught me
I also learned how to say chocolate in Swiss-German: Schoggi (pronounce shoki.)
An essential survival skill.

Switzerland is the perfect place to learn how to become professional. I don’t think I would have been able to keep any job with the attitude I had at the start. I am grateful that my students and employers were patient enough to give me a chance.