Number one for English language teachers

Diary 9: Spring in St Petersburg

In his nineth set of diary entries, Saul Pope starts to think about summer camp.

Tuesday 1st March

Today is the first day of Spring in Russia, which must be some kind of meteorological joke. I’ve never known the temperature to rise above minus five on 1st March, and today was no exception, with it being minus sixteen on my way out this morning to my wealthy countryside individual client, who lives in a village called Foxes’ Nose. Next week they’re going skiing in Austria for a couple of weeks, which is good news for me; the three-hour round trip is starting to get to me. One of the benefits of teaching individuals is undoubtedly these little and sometimes unexpected breaks, which allow both you and the students to recharge your batteries before embarking on another series of three-hour grappling-with-English sessions. As I mentioned before, teaching individuals can be very draining mentally.

Wednesday 2nd March

Our local Metro station is something akin to a very depressing soap opera. I only realised this tonight, whilst waiting in the station vestibule for my wife. I wait for her every night after my lessons at exactly the same time, and on looking up from my daydreaming tonight I realised that I recognised a lot of the people around me; the same beggar, face caked in grime, who is always slumped by the steps in the evening; the same couple, always drinking beer and evidently heroin addicts, who are usually clumsily arguing and jostling each other; the same man with the strange self-cut haircut who is also usually drinking beer but constantly pacing up and down and around the station looking at everyone. Only the police seem to change.

Amongst all of this I was also thinking shop, in particular the fact that I’m now rather worried about my CAE advanced-level group. They’re due to take the final exam at the British Council in a few months, but are still failing some mock papers by a country mile. As well as this, I’ve discovered that my ace student, who took the exam in December and was a lot stronger than any of the others in the group, only scored a ‘B’. Something is going wrong in my preparation. It looks like as well as satisfying the grammatical whims of wealthy countryside clients over the next few months, I’ve got my work cut out in the city.

Thursday 3rd March

My birthday today. I didn't bother to tell anyone as grown-up birthdays are never that fun when they fall on the weekday, and so was rather surprised to get a couple of presents and some hearty congratulations at the end of the day. I'll never know how they found out, but the best work present undoubtedly came with the cancellation of my Foxes' Nose morning lesson, giving me a decent lay-in and a working day of less than twelve hours.

I and my wife whiled away the latter part of the evening in St. Petersburg's only Greek restaurant, not a bad place and one that'll have to be visited again. Perhaps when all the CAE students pass their exam. Tonight they did a speaking paper practice, which generally involves describing and comparing random pictures and doing rather artificial tasks in pairs for fifteen minutes. I've no idea how it helps people to use their English in real situations (I, for example, have never in my life had to compare two pictures of people doing different types of exercise and say which I prefer in a time-limit of one minute), but I suppose it's a hoop that has to be jumped through if they're to get that certificate.

Monday 7th March

We’ve got a couple of days off now, in honour of International Women’s Day, which is tomorrow. Although it’s an international day I don’t know where else it is marked in any kind of way, but in Russia it is one of the most important days of the year and a chance to make a fuss of the women in your life.

It’s also a chance for everyone to take a breather from a hectic work schedule. Hard to believe with it still being minus ten outside, but we’re getting ready for our summer language camps already. A language camp sounds a bit daunting, but is actually supposed to be fun and is something that has spawned from the Soviet tradition of sending children away for a few weeks to the south of that former empire for education, adventure and possibly so that parents can have a bit of a rest too (it’s always sad to see the kids who’ve been sent by their parents for a whole summer to these camps, even though they’re aware that the program repeats itself every two or three weeks). Our camps are mostly based in sunny Ukraine, on the Black Sea. In the light of this we generally have no shortage of volunteers to go and spend their summers by the sea, though camps are not without their problems. First is perhaps how to motivate a group of kids who have just finished another gruelling year at school to knuckle down and study English for another three weeks. The main thing here is to make the materials fun and interesting, which is a bit hit and miss at the best of times. You can either try to be cool and risk totally missing the mark (which is what usually happens when a group of adults try to understand what really interests an average ten-year-old), or else make no pretence at all about being about as cool but at least know where you’re starting from.

There is also the problem of life on the camp. As teachers live on the base with their pupils, it can be a bit difficult to get away from them, even on days when there are no lessons. Luckily discipline issues are taken care of by a Russian ‘educator’, who is in charge of the camps, however more often than not educators see the teacher as one of their charges too. I recently heard a story from one teacher, a woman in her late twenties, of how she wasn’t allowed to leave the camp because it was ‘too dangerous’, and had to wait until the educator was asleep before she could sneak out to the local shop to get a bar of chocolate.

However, I think generally camps are a decent way to spend a summer. If these small problems can be avoided (or at least blunted to some degree) the warm weather, relaxed atmosphere and chance to save most of your earnings make it a worthy adventure.

Now to get some materials together; I’ve written to my boss in Moscow to ask if they are going to send anything for us to use. If the answer is positive, it’ll save me several weeks of pretty intensive work on top of what I’ve already got; if not, it’ll be a long spring.

Wednesday 9th March

Moscow are going to sort out most of the camp materials for us to use, which is a weight off my mind. However, I’ve still got to prepare for one camp, which combines English with diving lessons. I’d welcome any contributions from anyone who happens to have English lessons loosely based around the topic of diving. Three weeks’ worth, if possible.

Tuesday 15th March

For some unfortunate reason the weather is still around the minus ten mark every day, and it’s given me a bit of a cold. Mind you, I’m sure it didn’t help that I spent Saturday afternoon stood in a football stadium enduring the same temperature whilst in a state of semi-disbelief at the pitch (which had no grass on it whatsoever) and by the local side’s excellent performance.

It’s also a job to get the students motivated as the fifth month of winter drags on and shows no sign of letting up; we haven't seen pavements, or unfrozen, soft earth, or walked in the street confident that we’re not about to go sliding all over the shop since well before Christmas. Motivation is necessary with the exams coming up in the fairly near future, and I’m doing my best by being a mean old soul in the class and giving them little fun and lots of hard work, and not giving them much serious homework seeing as they never do it anyway. They’ll thank me one day, hopefully sometime in August when they’ve passed the exam.

Sunday 27th March

To say that the last two weeks have been eventful would be an understatement. It’s just a shame they’ve been eventful largely for all the wrong reasons. One teacher has left us at our behest and is making things as difficult as possible for everybody, another has been in hospital and is returning to the UK permanently, another has resigned and another is threatening to do so in a week. If you know anyone in the Russia area who wants work as a teacher, tell them to get in touch with me…if I’m still here, that is.

Despite all the upheaval, the atmosphere in the school has not been better all year, except perhaps that glorious first month of September when the weather is still good and the full difficulties of life in Russia have not yet been revealed to new and enthusiastic teachers. The atmosphere is good in part because we’re getting to know each other and working well as a team, and partly because Spring has at last lifted off. Spring in St. Petersburg just means that it isn’t below freezing outside any longer, but it’s better then nothing. The snow is taking it’s revenge for being trodden underfoot for six months by temporarily turning the whole city into a grey sticky porridge as it melts and slides off until October or so. I never cared much for things like buds, birds singing and flowers before I came to Russia, but now I find myself every year looking for the first signs of this natural life, which mean that the long and tiring winter is finally behind us for another year.

At least until it snows again in May or something.

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