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Diary 3: The Snow

Type: Reference material

In his third set of diary entries, the snow arrives in St Petersburg for DoS Saul Pope.

Wednesday 17th November

Well, it finally caught up with us today; the snow, that is. We’ve been lucky up until today, but quickly and silently this afternoon St. Petersburg was blanketed with the covering that is set to be here until April or thereabouts. And it was indeed very quick this year. I went to the local cheap cafe for a bite to eat around 4.00 and the skies were still clear. By the time I’d scoffed down my soup and the mystery meat they serve up and gone back outside at 4.30, the pavements and buildings were white and getting whiter.

So starts the season that tests the mettle and resilience of any EFL teacher. It’s hard enough to live out here in the first place, but once you add cold and darkness to the equation, things get very tricky …

Thursday 18th November

It’s almost as if the snow has never been away already. Strange how you get used to it so quickly, but as I left the metro station on my way home tonight it didn’t even register that there was some cold white stuff all around me that hadn’t been there two days earlier. As you might have guessed, the winters here are quite monotonous and sometimes seem to blend into one.

Anyway, before I forget, the answer to the grammar question I set in one of my earlier entries. ‘If I’d had time today I would have got myself a copy’ is a conditional which refers to a past situation we would like to have changed (but couldn’t). The rules for making this type of conditional are fairly simple – past perfect in the first half of the sentence (the main clause), ‘would have’ with the other half (but never the main clause). I tricked everyone a little by referring to it as a ‘tense’ when I asked the question, because in reality it is two tenses. Full marks to you if you got it right though, but if not then at least you can point your friends in the direction of this website when they tell you that the internet isn’t educational (though generally they have a point, of course).

Friday 19th November

The play is coming along. Usually people add the word ‘nicely’ to such statements, but in this case I hesitate. None of us know our lines yet, nor have any costumes, nor have a clue as to where to stand on the stage. We’re going to get together and do a big rehearsal next Saturday, when nobody will have the distraction of lesson plans and annoying teenagers to take their mind off their acting.

I’m pleased that this week I’m able to give myself at least a seven for all of my lessons, and the one in which I did the stress role-play (with the doctors) got an eight, which must be verging on man-of-the-match material. The stress role-play went well because it got everyone moving around and working with different partners from usual. In the past I’ve perhaps been guilty of thinking that it’s only children who need to move around in lessons. Although they perhaps don’t realise it (and usually don’t want to get out of the seats they’ve become welded to), the same is true of adults.

I’ve no doubt that on reading my diary and seeing sixes, sevens and mentions of being man-of-the-match, you think I’m perhaps a bit crazy, or at the very least not suitable to be running a language school. All of this scoring is a bit childish, of course, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing. It’s a motivation for me to keep going from lesson to lesson, a fun method of quality control and a safeguard against becoming a cyni-teacher; after all, nobody wants to score a five. Previously I used a win/draw/lose system to evaluate my lessons (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw etc.) until I got up to date with how the newspapers do football these days.

I know far from everyone likes football, but I think every teacher should have a similar system in place to evaluate how their lessons are going. We are observed only rarely, and from day to day it can be quite a lonely up there in front of the students, especially when things aren’t going very well. Giving myself points for every lesson helps me to see what is working well and not so well, and lets me identify patterns (both good and bad) that are creeping into my teaching.

Sunday 21st November

Today is a real winter day – minus eight in the sun, a blizzard and a wind that makes it feel at least twice as cold. After battling to the supermarket and back this morning, I actually thought that our freezer was broken because it felt so warm as I was putting things into it. Now I know what it feels like to be The Snowman.

The new week commences with a chance for me to further my voice-over career. As well as providing language learning, the school I work for also offers a translation service, and it is from this that my new sideline has sprung. From time to time firms require not only text translation, but also a native English speaker to record the text for some reason or other. Hence somewhere in St. Petersburg there is a restaurant which, if you call up when they’re closed, has a recording from me cheerfully asking clients to leave a message after the tone. I also cheerfully and I hope not too ironically recorded an English language tour around the factory of a company that paints novelty pictures onto the sides of mugs and tankards. I am concerned that it may have come out as irony as it wasn’t that easy to sound enthusiastic about their machines and the special paint mixing process they use.

Anyway, my career continues in earnest tomorrow morning, and I suppose it’s good to have as many irons in the fire as possible. I’ve heard it’s quite difficult to get into EFL back in the UK. If, when I come back, I find there are no jobs for me I can perhaps find out if Family Fortunes or Celebrity Squares (is that still on?) need someone to do a voice-over for their prizes.

Tuesday sees the start of a new round of open lessons, our little 45-minute advert classes, which are this term taking place in various schools around the city. The first is a lesson on British culture with 20 or so teenagers. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Wednesday 24th November

Well, the voice-over went ok; I can feel proud that I’ve done my bit towards the St. Petersburg bid to get the Women’s Handball World Championships. Yesterday’s open lesson was good as well; they even gave me an apple. The highlight of the lesson was undoubtedly clearing up - for not the first time in a classroom over here - that haggis is a Scottish dish that has nothing to do with nappies (Huggies seems to sound identical to the Russian ear). So everything has gone well so far this week. I even enjoyed my difficult group yesterday.

12am: OK, so not everything is going well after all. Just had a call from a teacher who’s had his wallet and passport pinched on the metro. It happened three times last year, and a couple of times the year before, so it’s not an uncommon problem and one that all visitors to the city should guard against.

This time there’s a bigger problem, though. The wallet’s easy – cancel the credit cards and get over the money lost (hopefully not too much). It’s the passport that’s going to be the big one to sort out. The teacher in question has got to leave Russia in a few days to get a new visa, and of course can’t do this without a passport. At the same time he can’t stay in Russia legally without a new visa …

Thursday 25th November

As if to emphasise the problem, I found out when I got into work today that another teacher was robbed on the Metro this morning – a mobile phone this time, so they’re doing quite well out of Language Link this week.

However, the main problem of the moment has been solved. After a day of headaches, frantic phone calls and frayed nerves all round, a kindly policeman based at the local metro station in a matter of a few sweet seconds untangled the whole web for us. The passport has turned up somewhere in the station, Maxim phoned to tell us, so come and collect it when you’re ready. Never again will I criticise the Russian police unjustly; most foreigners (and Russians) here have a go at them just for being there, and although my personal dealings with them have never been problematic, I’ve often joined in. Anyway, the main thing is that today’s plans of cancelling weeks of lessons and returning to England to spend a fortune on an urgent passport and work visa have all been rendered unnecessary by good old Max and his eagle eyes.

I’ve had my difficult group again today, and again I had a good lesson that was tiring but enjoyable. I’m starting to like them more and more, perhaps more than my nice group. The problem with the nice group is that numbers are dwindling (five started on Wednesday but only three finished, same as on Monday), and it’s difficult to create a good, lively learning atmosphere with so few people to bounce off. I constantly have to quieten down certain elements of the difficult group, as well as encourage the weaker students (there is a big range of abilities, as often with advanced groups; those who are genuinely fluent and those who are just a touch over upper-intermediate), but that’s what makes it good. I’m constantly moving around and am kept on my toes, but that makes me plan properly and keep a tight rein on the lesson. It’s difficult to do that with only three students who are well behaved (try standing up in front of three people to teach them and see how silly you feel), but I reckon I’ll have to try before the lessons become flatter than the beer I’ve just finished.

Friday 26th - Sunday 28th November

Christmas in a month, and I’m really looking forward to it. Went to the British Consulate this morning to get my wife a visa to come to the UK this Christmas. On the way back I had to get out of the trolleybus we were travelling in to help the driver give it a push. Just a typical morning in St. Petersburg.

Seems good old Max wasn’t perhaps quite so shiny-white after all, with my colleague’s passport only being surrendered in exchange for a bottle of vodka and a small cash reward. At least he can go and get his visa, though.

Play rehearsal tomorrow. Just realised that the dreaded December is almost upon us, and we still don’t really know what we’re doing….

The play rehearsal wasn’t too bad. We’re going to have a break from it next week, then get back into things seriously the week after. Oh, and yet another teacher was robbed on the metro on Friday. The pickpockets had better watch out – there won’t be many more of us left to rob soon…

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