Number one for English language teachers

Russia: Views from two cities

Saul Pope gives the lowdown on life in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Having read the interesting and very well considered piece on onestopenglish from a Russian teacher working in Russia, I’d like to add something from the perspective of a native speaker who has been working here for a number of years (five to be precise). I’ve spent the whole of my career as a teacher and teacher trainer in either Moscow or St. Petersburg, and my experiences shared below reflect the experiences of life in those cities.

Even since 1997, which was when I first taught in Russia, I can see huge changes in the demand for classes, the professionalism of organizations offering lessons, and in the reasons for students requiring English. If the mid 1990s were a time of economic uncertainty and instability in Russia, 2005 is a time when, according to official statistics, more new millionaires are being made in Russia than anywhere else in the world. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, business is growing fairly rapidly for schools and teachers with a good reputation, and whereas in the past most students needed English for school or fortheir jobs, there are now more and more studying so that they can travel abroad or just because they find it interesting. There has been a particular surge in people wanting private lessons; partly, I suspect, because this is a symbol of prestige among the new middle class, and partly because people over here are in general serious about their education.

This growth means that coming to teach in Russia is becoming a viable career option for native speaker teachers, rather than somewhere to come just for the experience or else to learn the language. I’m meeting more and more people in the country’s two biggest cities who have a DELTA, or else a CELTA and the right attitude to work, for whom living in Russia is a career choice rather than a year out, and who have no plans to leave when they’re earning more than they might do back at home. Qualifications are all important over here – as I’ve already mentioned, a good education is highly valued – but for those who have the qualifications the work is definitely there and often well-paid.

Thoughcareer options and the demand for lessons are growing fairly rapidly, other areas of ESOL life are unfortunately not changing at such a pace. Getting a visa is still a notoriously difficult process, and if you want to come out, it is worth making sure that your school will sponsor your visa. Many will not do this or else will give you a student visa, which is illegal. Many teachers also find the disorganization in schools annoying (especially when the schools themselves expect impeccable behaviour and lessons from their teachers) and, as one leading professional I know put it, some of them seem to be ‘flying by the seat of their pants’ rather than planning and enabling things to run smoothly. Another problem is property.

There are plenty of nice places both in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but only if you’re a millionaire. Property prices are steep, and even a modest flat (there are no houses) is likely to set you back a fairly large proportion of your wages. Though the flats provided by schools are generally comfortable, stairwells and communal corridors are often unlit and intimidating. Water is sometimes turned off for weeks at a time during the summer, and cockroaches can be a problem. All of this can be avoided, of course, by shelling out more than half of your wages, taking on some extra private students and getting a place in the city centre. You should be prepared for a lower standard of living than you might have at home.

Overall, Russia is not a place for the faint-hearted or for those who hope to be treated like a king in their TEFL country of choice. But if you’re realistic about life, generally not prone to bouts of melancholy and have the ability to get on with it when the going gets tough, then you could do worse than to come over and give it a try. Who knows, you might decide to make a career out of it …

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