Saturday, October 11, 2014

Teach English Overseas!

A PERIOUS PROFESSION - Teaching English as a foreign language in Russia.
By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia)'It represents a hugely lucrative and thriving market all over the world this teaching English as a foreign language and it is certainly exploiting many people,' lamented the late Sergi, a Russian translator who found that the art of linguistics was being abused by mercenary interests. 

He had dreamt of leaving Kishinev, Moldova for a city in Russian only to tragically fall ill and die from a stroke. His words still haunt me and at times, have turned out to be perceptively prophetic. It seems that learning English represents a booming industry in Russia which encompasses publishers, translators and of course, that much maligned profession, teaching English as a foreign language. It undoubtedly offers many people a second chance at taking up a new profession as well as an opportunity to travel around the world to exotic and hitherto out of reach places. 

On the surface, teaching English as a foreign language can seem alluring, attractive and easily taken up. There are courses which last for a mere 4-8 weeks which offer you a certificate. Believe it or not, you can qualify as a certified teacher over summer and just parachute into another country with a high demand for learning English. At a time when there is often mass unemployment in so many parts of Europe and Scotland, teaching English ought to appear an attractive proposition. At least it may attract the desperate and adventurous if nobody else.


I thought that taking up this trade was simple and straightforward. What fun it would be! It 
is just a matter of making pleasant conversation with students, teaching them role-play through acting and singing nice songs.

This was naive. I quickly learnt that schools and companies have their own agenda where
you are asked to use their dull textbooks, teach grammar and often constantly test unwilling students. Private companies who are obsessed with making as much money
as possible can cram lots of unwilling students into a classroom where you are asked to teach them. And often the groups are not even split into the appropriate levels so you could be teaching a mixed group of beginners and lower intermediate. If you don't double check who you are working for, you can find yourself being badly abused, poorly paid or not even paid at all. So you have to check up on who are the most reliable and well known
companies. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't!

Teaching English as a foreign language can either be tolerably pleasant or an endlessly
stressful headache where you eyes can not help darting to the clock. You are yearning
for the clock hand to turn to the magic number or 9.p.m. so you can get away. 'When is
this damn lesson going to end?' you think.

You might be like the luckless teacher in Dicken's 'Our Mutual Friend', who lacks the
temperament to be a teacher. I have heard of inexperienced teachers cracking up in schools where the pupils badly misbehave. A colleague called Philip, an English teacher in Kishinev once told me, ' A Russian school student told me that one young teacher broke down and left the classroom. She told me she followed him only to find him sobbing on the stairway.

I was a bit taken back to hear of this. I have been hearing a lot of stories about this.

In Moscow, I came across similar experiences.

While I was working for Language Link, I heard a head teacher had teachers coming up to him in tears. The main problems stem from having to teach students who are either being forced to study English and misbehaving, students with unrealistic expectations and teachers being expected to conjure up miracles. So a lot of the 'so-called ' demand for learning English seems to be 'superficial' and based not on proper research, but poorly designed surveys. When a person claims he want to learn English it does not mean he genuinely wants to learn, but is only taking a fancy to it because everyone else is doing it. 

It reminds me of  a story of how a priest was about to baptize some Russians into the Orthodox religion and asked one old lady, 'Why do you want to be Orthodox?' She innocently answered, 'Because everyone else is doing it.' The poor women was not baptized for some inexplicable reason.

So the teacher faces what is called a capricious consumer who says, 'I want to learn English not today but ... and I might or might not come on Friday night and I have another birthday party.' I have heard that out of four people who phone up to make inquiries about learning English, only one might be serious. When I once put an advert for teaching English in the local press, I got some strange phone calls, 'Are you married?' and 'I want you to know I'm still around'. It could be intimidating at times.

Nevertheless, I would like to declare that there are some Americans who have come into their own by taking up this profession. They adore it and have a way with children. I heard of two ex-soldiers, one suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, who found that teaching Russian children was a great joy which had healed his wounds! It was the best medicine after serving in Afganistan! Perhaps the best piece of advice I would give to anyone coming to Russia is to come with the lowest expectations and then you will never be greatly disappointed. He who wants nothing, shall never be disappointed, declared one pope.


The most important point to understand is that Russia is not as dangerous as the media, films or a stray imagination suggests. In fact, you might be pleasantly surprised to find that parts of Moscow are much safer than Chicago or Glasgow and you are not likely to have that many problems with criminals or gangsters.

At most, you might attract the attention of a lonely drunkard wanting to make conversation.

Perhaps the biggest stress to staying in Russia on a long-term basis is the struggle to master the Russian language rather than criminals or madmen. What strikes first time visitors is that, 'It is not a bad as I thought it would be. A lot of those Russians are not as rude as they told me, but in fact, are often polite, helpful and generous with their time!'


Teaching English as a free-lance tutor can either end in near crisis or turn out to be relatively lucrative. In the former, the writer George Orwell, famous for writing 'Animal farm; and '!984', wrote a less known work 'Down and out in Paris'. In his account of why he became homeless, he attributes it to French students of English who decided to suddenly
discontinue his lessons leaving him without money to pay the rent. I had the same
experience in Moscow as did another teacher from England. The contrasting experience
comes from the book, 'Three men on the Bummel ' by Jerome K. Jerome. In this work he comes across an English teacher who boasts about how wealthy he has come from
teaching English to Germans by jingling the gold coins in his heavy pocket. If anyone
deserves to qualify as being the patron saint of teachers of English as a foreign language
it ought to be Jerome. While an American expat Journalist Mark Ames mocked English
teachers as hopeless losers who had come to Russian to beg for jobs they could not get
at home (a front page headline depicted a poor teacher sitting on Moscow streets with
the sign 'Give us a job !'), then Jerome sings their praises. Indeed, he goes to the opposite
extreme! In regard to English teachers, he declares, 'The English speaking man stands
amid the strangers and jingles his gold.

'Here', he cries, 'is payment for all such as can speak English.'

He it is who is the great educator.Theoretically we may scold him; practically we should take our hats off to him. He is the missionary of the English Tongue'. We see two different
contrasting results; one teacher ends up on the streets and another grows quite well off if
not rich.


What is the best way to teach in Russia?

Due to more extreme visa arrangements Russia has become more difficult to work
in on a free-lance basis. Gone are the days when you could just get an easy invitation, a
year visa and just begin teaching where and with whom you wanted. Now you are better
letting a big company deal with this. It would be easier just to train on a course to attain
a certificate over the summer and begin in a company around autumn. A company, such as Language Link or English First can take care of your accommodation or visa. I heard that a full time teacher at English First can earn 65,000 rubles a month which turns out to be approximately 1625 dolllars. This is not a lot compared to other companies which can offer from 2000 to 3000 dollars a month. But it is a great advantage to have a universty degree and maybe a necessity to have the teaching certificate. Nevertheless, be warned. The work can sometimes be 6 days a week and you won't have much or any time for real
travelling around Russia. Companies who have signed a contract with you will expect you to stay and finish you job. I heard of the predicament of one teacher who disappeared
and went to another Russian town only to be tracked down by private detectives and


It is often the case that teachers can be exploited and abused by the companies who underpay, overwork and indeed, insult the workers through their angry administrators
who take pleasure in taunting them. An American teacher called Daniel Ogan told me
how he was constantly bullied and tormented by an irrational secretary at B.K.S. in Moscow.

In another case, Rachel, a maths teacher from England told me how 'I came back to my
apartment to find a drunken landlord slumped over my bed in the middle of the night'.

However, companies tell me they have a hard time finding suitable teachers. In Kishinev,
a company found that often some of their teachers were drunk while teaching pupils.

Another teacher invited by Language Link to Moscow to teach vanished for a day leaving
his classes without a teacher. When the boss went to see what the problem was he found
the teacher and alot of Russians in his apartment sleeping after a binge.

One American woman did not turn up to her English class in Moscow because it distracted her 'meditation'!

A lot of teachers who are invited don't know English grammar at all. When a pupil asks an English teacher what is the difference between 'a first conditional and the second'? he might retort, 'Do you really need to know?' and ' It is irrelevant'. This does not satisfy
pupils who might need to take grammar tests.

Another problem is that some of the teachers completely ignored the programme and simply entertained their students with games and the guitar. Unfortunately, the students all failed the exams they were set to take.

So teachers are asked to keep a balance between making lessons interesting but
carrying out the programme. The best advice about how to teach English as a Foreign
Language was made by Noam Chomsky, who stated the main aim of teaching should be to making the lessons as interesting and relevant as possible and ignore the research
of most psychologists on education because their educational theories often damage the
learning process.

So a good teacher needs to know his subject, know a lot about English literature and culture and make his lessons interesting for the students.This might sound easy. It is not!

There are some students who are crazy about history and others that prefer to talk about
cars and little else. So you can't always please everyone! It is easy to inadvertently bore

A lot of pain might be prevented by planning the lessons carefully before hand but not too
much. I quickly discovered that you could make a mess of lessons by 'over-planning'.

You end up exhausting yourself before the lesson begins.

One thing which might help easyily alleviate lessons is to tell a good folk story! So I would tell any potential teacher to learn by heart at least twenty or thirty good folk-stories,
especially about American Indians which Russians love! Daniel Ogen would enthrall his students by telling them the buffalo story or about King Moon and his wife!

So we can still put some fun back into English lessons by instructing students on how
to tell stories. Now, if a teacher finds teaching a big class daunting, he might still become
a tutor who instructs students one to one. This can prove easier and far less stressful, and
often more lucrative. I found I could make double the amount of income by teaching
less than half the hours I would have to work in a big company.

So perhaps there is lack of logic behind the paying of wages to English teachers in

Due to a combination of factors such as unemployment in Europe, teaching being an
'overcrowed profession' in Britain (Teacher graduates can never get jobs in Scotland)
and the tendency for the economy to fall into a crisis every ten years, Russia will continue to represent a magnet for potential teachers. There is still a huge shortage of native teachers in Russia and therefore a never-ending demand that shows no signs of declining. Russia represents a challenging prospect for teachers prepared to brave it !

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