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Diary 8: How I got here

In his eighth set of diary entries, DoS Saul Pope describes how he began his teaching career in Russia.

Sunday 13th February

How often do you sit and talk to someone that you don’t particularly like for two hours non-stop? Perhaps four or five times per week if you’re an EFL teacher. I’ve recently taken on a couple of new individual students who are fairly typical of those who want to study with a private tutor; hard-working high-flyers with a complex about the level of their language (they’re always much better than they seem to think).

The fact that they’re high-flyers gives problems of it’s own. Last year I taught the very wealthy but very busy director of a meat factory (his office always smelled of smoked sausages), or at least tried to teach him as I spent much of our lessons watching him get redder and redder as he answered the 100 tense work phone calls he seemed to get per hour. That was when we actually had lessons; several times I turned up and strolled into his office only to find that I was interrupting some kind of crisis meeting and that learning new phrasal verbs was, at least for the moment, firmly on the backburner.

The plus sides of this client were that he liked travel and had a good taste in music, so we had some good long chats about Spain, Britain, The Animals and Led Zeppelin. I was also, on occasion, treated to brandy (‘I have a lot of stress today’), beer and various luxury products the factory puts out. Ultimately, though, after three or so months of study the constant interruptions to our programme had made any kind of progress difficult, and I’m not sure that we made much.

Part of the problem in this case, apart from the lack of continuity, was that the client had no specific aim in mind. His English lessons were a twice-weekly chance to escape the stresses of a very demanding job under the guise of self-development. However, the lack of progress was also down to my shortcomings as a teacher of individual students, and I wonder now if I had used the same techniques as I am using with my current individuals we’d have seen a little more development. One of the biggest problems with individual students is that things can just drift into a long, rather staged conversation with plenty of feigned interest and false laughter on behalf of the teacher; and the biggest task of anyone training individuals is to avoid this. I do so by using the ‘scrap pack’, where you get loads of bits of scrap paper and every time you hear a mistake you write it down, then check through all the mistakes you’ve heard at a convenient point during the lesson. That way even when you’re just chatting there is a purpose and a system of quality control in place.

It’s also important that you don’t end up just sitting and looking at each other or the blank wall opposite you for two hours; make sure you offer the student a coffee, and go and make it together. Also, it’s good to do some stuff standing up; role-plays and dialogues lend themselves well to this. Your student may think you’re crazy at first, but will thank you later.

Anyway, with all this in mind I’ve set off on teaching my new high-flyers intent on not just listening to them talk for two hours, but instead on having a lesson. So far it has worked pretty well.

The many sick days being taken in the school continue unabated, so much so that I find myself working as a full-time teacher as well as a DoS just so that we can cover lessons. It is the season for it I suppose, with the difficult climate doing its worst. Some nights are so cold that the water droplets drifting through the air are frozen into tiny ice crystals. Every floor indoors is permanently wet and dirty from the snow brought in on peoples’ boots, and going shopping is something akin to a ride on the dodgems without the fun, as you bump your way clumsily around the supermarket in your huge down coat.

Going back to the illnesses, it seems that my recommendation of a few weeks back to eat plenty of grapefruit was either not heeded, or else is not all that it is cracked up to be. I’ve suggested to one teacher who has stomach problems that he tries coal, which in small doses apparently does wonders to calm the digestive system. If he’s not springing into work at 8 tomorrow morning I’ll eat my (woolly) hat.

Anyway, I’d better go as it’s an early start tomorrow; we’re having cable TV fitted in our flat and apparently there’s an English channel included. Hopefully not Channel 5.

Tuesday 15th February

Well, the week could have started better. Two of my subordinates feel that they’ve been treated unfairly, another has asked to be allowed to leave, and as a unit we are severely under-performing – yes, Leicester City are bottom of the league in Championship Manager. I really must kick this habit…

In the real world things are fortunately a little brighter, although the difficult weather grinds on and on and on….some time in the middle of April I’m hoping there will be a nice day or two. And everyone is still either off sick or shuffling around the office sniffing and coughing.

I don’t think the illnesses are helped by what is perhaps the main hazard of our profession – the working days which never seem to end. It’s not the fault of ESL teachers that the clients we tend to work with want lessons either first thing in the morning or else late in the evening, but it means that we as a profession often end up with horrendous hours; my days often start with me leaving the house at 8 and not returning until 10 in the evening, and I know I’m not untypical in this. As much as we try and jiggle the timetable about, it always seems that some unfortunate individuals are left with the mammoth days and endless hours flitting from appointment to appointment on the underground.

Saturday 19th February

The week finally over, following my Saturday morning individual and a bit of fire-quenching in the afternoon (I was asked to find a couple of volunteer teachers for a bit of work tomorrow afternoon; needless to say I couldn’t or in honesty perhaps didn’t try very hard), I find that even Leicester City’s magnificent FA Cup victory this evening cannot deflect my attention from work matters.

I can’t get my mind off my first ever time in St. Petersburg, which coincided with me starting my teaching career. Perhaps if I write it down I’ll be able to get it out of my head. So here goes…

It started something like this. My university course mates and I arrived on a Sunday afternoon, me feeling like a brave investigative journalist entering uncharted territory, though in reality being just a 20-year old with a new expensive coat standing at St. Petersburg’s international airport. Any delusions of grandeur quickly evaporated as we were levered with our bags onto a crowded old service bus that groaned us into the city and then onto the city’s crowded metro, at which point our guides managed to get us lost.

Having finally arrived in what at that time seemed to be an incredibly ugly and intimidating road of tower blocks, we tossed a coin to decide who wouldn’t live in the block presented before us. I lost, but was soon fortunate enough to discover that I’d actually won as the flat inside was, although not comfortable, at least modern. Over time the same blocks of flats in which practically every city-dweller in the former Soviet-Union lives become far less intimidating (although remain just as ugly), and as I looked out of my window at some children setting light to a tyre I believe that process was commencing.

There wasn’t much to do on that first evening once the tyre had been burnt, nor the next day for that matter, except perhaps to find out that I really didn’t know Russian as well as I thought as I tried to buy myself something to eat in the shops. Tuesday was crunch day as we met our course director who sat us down and asked us to say a few sentences in Russian. His verdict, at least as far as I was concerned, was thus:

‘Saul, you seem to speak the best Russian. You will start with the elementary group on Thursday’….

We had been promised a couple of weeks training before the proper teaching kicked off, and I asked about this:

‘Will we be getting any training?’

 ‘Unfortunately not’

‘OK, is there a book for me to use?’

‘I’ll try and get you one…’

Staples like teacher’s books and audios hadn’t occurred to me at this point, and it was a good job as there were none anyway. The following day I was presented with a copy of Headway Elementary, and spent the majority of the next 24 hours thinking how I could keep a group of 10 adults entertained with it for 2 ¼ hours.

Sunday 20th February

Having spent Wednesday immersed in the first chapter of Headway Elementary, I entered my new classroom with every part of my body shaking, although this was perhaps in part due to having encountered a man masturbating in the bushes outside the school on my way in. I am sure there is no good time to be witness to the unpleasant and shocking spectacle of someone pleasuring themselves in public, but 10 minutes before starting a new job is certainly not a great time for it to happen.

A couple of students were already in the room when I entered, so I thought I’d try out the Russian, for which I’d been so complimented by our director just two days earlier, on them. ‘We’ll wait a few minutes for the others and then start’, I said, or at least thought I’d said, because after a confused glance or two in my direction my new students seemed to give up on understanding me and went back to staring at their desks.

Once everyone had arrived I took a deep breath and dived in. We started with the alphabet, which went well enough, and looking back it certainly wasn’t too advanced for their level. The rest of the lesson seemed to go by in something of a blur. With no training I had no clue about basics like keeping my talking time to a minimum, concept checking and eliciting answers, but ultimately the students were satisfied with my lesson. I worked just as hard on preparing the next few lessons for them, and the work paid off. The term went very well and, as always seems to be the case with new teachers, I made a lot of friends and spent a lot of time socialising with my groups (I got a second one which went equally as well not long after the first had started).

The second album is always said to be a difficult one for a band, as is the second season for a footballer; time to start living up to the early promise. For me, it was only in the second term of teaching that the cracks started to appear in the classroom …

Monday 21st February

By now, having successfully got two elementary groups through the rigours of Headway Elementary’s ‘Stop and Check’ sections, I was (wrongly) considered by my employers to be a lower levels specialist. My next task was, having been refused the chance to take my present groups for the next level up, to teach a few groups of complete beginners. Complete beginners are getting rarer and rarer in Russia as most children now study some English at school, but in the early days following the collapse of communism it was quite common as many studied German as their second language. Teaching people who know precisely zero words of your language takes a lot of patience and the ability to empathise and work with the people in front of you. Not things the average twenty-year-old is replete with when faced with a class of forty-somethings with a complex about their language skills. Needless to say I failed miserably; one morning I arrived for class only to be told somewhat abruptly that I’d been taken off the group. However, they’d forgotten to tell the new teacher about this and so I managed to recover some dignity by teaching one final lesson to the group which, typically, went rather well.

From here until the end of my contract my morale sank faster than a stone dropped into the river Neva, and although I wasn’t sacked from any more groups I was aware that I was teaching badly with all but one group. Only the amusing banality of Headway Pre-Intermediate and the friendly people I met in that group prevented the stone from hitting the bottom. I was even threatened by a student in another group in some bizarre personality clash, not, as could be assumed from the above, for my teaching.

But I made it back, and here I am working not ten minutes from that former employer. I suppose what I really wanted to work out from writing all of this down was whether things have changed over the last seven years. In terms of ordinary life here, that early post-communist grit has gone; there are now a lot more foreigners here (we were something of a rarity back then) and the number of familiar high-street shopping outlets and places where you can watch Sky Sports is growing by the day. If we are talking about how life in the schools has changed, certainly there are better books and resources available (the internet of course has had a big effect), but I’m not sure that a lot else is different.

Relations between local staff and teachers are at best cordial and at worst bordering on animosity. One lot see that other as dossers, here for the short-term to earn a good local wage, not turn up for work because of a hangover and bitch about the climate and people. To the others, this first lot are lazy, badly organised and surly slave drivers, always ready to make a quick buck at their expense.

And both have got a point …

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