Number one for English language teachers

Latvia: finding warmth in a cold climate

Nicky Yeeles finds enthusiastic and well-behaved learners with a strong belief here in traditional teaching methods in Riga.

I write to you from Latvia where I am teaching English full-time at International House in Riga. I have been teaching English abroad for two years, first in China, then at International House in Braga, Portugal, and I have been in Riga for eight months.
Think back. When was the last time your students said thank you and goodbye to you as they dashed out of class? Or gave you flowers? Or made a phone call for you, just to help out? My respective answers would be: last lesson (as always), last week for International Women’s Day, and yesterday evening after an adult class. Regrettably, this outpouring of small kindnesses has less to do with my outstanding teaching than the genuine warmth on the part of my Latvian and Russian students.

I teach in a private language school in the centre of Riga, but my experiences are by no means unusual. Inbred in Baltic society is a deep respect for the teacher and while you can expect rowdy teens and mousy shyness, on the whole Rigan learners are enthusiastic and well-behaved. However, there’s a strong belief here in traditional teacher-centred methods, and while students are becoming more receptive to the communicative approach, you may find your favourite board race is more a source of complete bewilderment than delight.

Being British, I like to blame all this on the weather. The harsh winter that hits Latvia in October and hangs around until April (the snow has melted just in time for Easter) leaves even the liveliest teacher feeling slightly calmer through chronic lack of sunlight. Last winter we hit -29°C, and the pavements cracked even if local smiles never did.

Come the spring, of course, and the quieter students start opening up and the noisy ones get even noisier. Students here are fascinated by the prospect of life abroad, and English is increasingly the second language of choice. You are more likely to find yourself teaching IELTS to students hoping to live and study in the UK, than any of the Cambridge suite of exams which are only gradually gaining prominence. There is certainly a feeling that, as Ryanair provides an increasingly low-cost portal between England and Latvia and EU boundaries melt to allow greater emigration prospects, English will open more doors than other subjects in school. To this end wealthy Rigan parents ship their kids off to private language schools in droves.  

So there are good prospects for teaching in this emerging market, not least because Latvia isn’t first on most people’s list of ex-Soviet hotspots. Compared to the rest of Eastern Europe, living costs are relatively high but, with salaries to match and with the right contacts, there’s enough private teaching to keep you in fur coats. And of course, if you get burnt out, you can always retire to the Baltic coast and live on black bread and beer – what can possibly go wrong?

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