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ESL Teaching Guide - Russia
"English? OK!" Stavropol, Russia - Only the facts
I have just got back from teaching English in Stavropol, Russia. I lived there for one year (January 2003 to December 2003) and I experienced many highs and lows.
The city itself, although situated near the dangerous Chechnya (only a few hundred kilometers away), is a safe place to live. Perhaps this is just naivety, but I felt very little concern for my safety walking around at night. It costs very little to live in Stavropol. The price of a bus ranges from four to six rubles (roughly fifteen to twenty cents), and a taxi ride rarely costs more than one hundred and fifty rubles (and that takes you across town). The city is not too big, which means you can walk almost anywhere in very little time. Shops are everywhere, making it very easy to buy necessities such as bread, beer, milk, etc. The salary I received from the school, when I actually had working hours, was more than enough to live comfortably.
The students, mostly between the ages of 13 and 25, were wonderful, responsive, and enthusiastic. They like to speak and they like to have discussions rather than learn from a textbook, which may or may not be a bad thing for you. They also enjoy playing educational games, so creativity is a must. Very few students were a discipline problem, and those who were did not cause me to raise my voice. Class trips with the students were also a lot of fun and certainly an enriching experience.
As far as the school ("English? OK!") goes, I also have some negative things to say about it. These are strictly facts. I'm simply stating what happened to me while I was working there and you can use this information in whichever way you like.
The owner, XXXX, and the academic director, YYYY, met me at the airport and took me to the place where I was to live. I had been promised my own one-bedroom flat, complete with a television and other basic utilities. However, there was no flat ready for me upon my arrival. I was told only when I got there that I would be living with a host family, which, although it was comfortable and the family was extremely friendly, it was still not my own flat. But I got used to that. The living conditions were extremely comfortable, complete with multiple televisions, a computer, 2.5 bathrooms, and a sauna, definitely not what you should expect if you're teaching in Russia. A Russian flat is much smaller, often missing many conveniences of home, such as hot water, comfortable chairs and a television. The hot water problem in particular, was quite annoying (the hot water is shut down by sectors in each city in order to replace pipes every summer), but it wasn't hard to adjust to cold showers in the summer time.
After two months I was moved out of this house and placed me in a two-bedroom flat with three university students. This was obviously not the living arrangement that I had been promised before I arrived, but, like everything else in Russia, plans change at the last minute, and the school needed to act fast. The fact that as many as nine people would be partying in the flat on any given night made this such an unpleasant situation that I strongly considered quitting, but I stuck it out because I hated the idea of leaving this country so quickly. I knew I hadn't yet experienced everything I wanted to experience.
I was told to expect (not promised) between 25-30 teaching hours per week. My work schedule never exceeded 23. Most of the year, I worked much less than that. A guaranteed number of weekly work hours was not part of the contract. I was told to expect hours during the summer months. However, from June 1 to September 30, I worked a grand total of 38 ¾ hours. I didn't work a single hour from July 11 to September 25. This lack of work made me upset because I had come here to gain teaching experience and make enough money to survive in Russia. Nevertheless, I was also able to use this free time wisely and experience Stavropol and make new friends. This turned out to be very beneficial to me.
The school tried to organize many trips (teacher's food and transportation paid by the school if there were enough students going) during the summer, but, again, like everything else in Russia, it seems, it is difficult to organize something in advance. Students often sign up at the last minute and sometimes you don't know if you're going on the trip until the night before. I didn't like this, but that's Russia. But the places to visit in the south of Russia are wonderful, especially Sochi and the Black Sea. I should mention that at other times, when there weren't enough students going on the trips, I was given the opportunity to go along if I paid my own way (about 1000-2000 rubles or $30 to $60).
Another negative aspect of the school was the lack of control the director gave me over my classes. This is also common in Russia. It upset me to have my classes interrupted, but it's impossible and unfair to expect Russians to change their way of life and their culture. As a foreigner, I needed to adapt. On one occasion, the school director announced to me (after she had already announced to my students) that she wanted to change my lesson plan for that day. I had planned a test for this particular class, but she told me that the students should write it at home instead because she wanted them to practice their speaking, not their grammar, during class time. I did not think that this was the best idea, but since she had already given course-completion certificates to some of the students, they, of course, did not want to write a test when they could be speaking instead. The owner would also frequently interrupt my lessons to make personal announcements which could have easily been made afterwards. I wish it would have been differently, but this is the way things are done in Russia, and no one can change that.
Sometimes I felt like I was being given headaches for no reason. On one occasion, I was scolded for taking Russian lessons. I had told my director early in the year that I was thinking about taking lessons, and she said she would find me a teacher. However, when I asked a friend to find me a teacher the director became irate and lashed out at me in front of my students. I was deeply hurt by this as I thought I was doing a good thing by trying to adapt to Russian culture. But I believe it was cultural differences that caused this to happen. In Russia, people really expect you to stick to your word, and I think I may have disappointed her by leaving her out of the equation when I finally decided to take lessons. I don't feel I did anything wrong, and I don't think she feels I did anything wrong, but it's one of those instances where cultural differences can lead to unnecessary conflicts.
XXXX did a very good job finding me a flight home to Canada, on the date that I wanted, at the price that I wanted, and at the airports that I wanted. She followed up on the school's promise to pay for my flight home. I was very appreciative of all this. One problem did arise, however, which I now realize was justified. After several verbal and written requests to give me my plane ticket the school just wouldn't give it to me. I was left feeling quite vulnerable. She wouldn't even let me make a copy of it, getting upset that I would question her honesty. Call it the North-American mentality to want to see and hold important documents, but I didn't like having my plane ticket dangled over my head like that. On the second-last day of my contract, she finally decided to give me the tickets. The school told me that they had had a bad experience with giving foreign teachers their plane tickets ahead of time. One teacher lost his ticket and the school was responsible to help him out in case he didn't find it. Luckily, he found it in time and the school was let off the hook, but it made them aware of this potential problem. I understand their reasoning now, but I didn't appreciate it much then.
Here are a few more facts about the school. "English? OK!" did not permit interaction with the students outside of school, which often caused me to turn down invitations for various social activities. In the event that such interaction was desired, it was necessary to ask for the director's permission.
The school has started advertising on the Internet, but potential teachers should be wary of "English? OK!'s" website. The school's website states very clearly what services it offers, but the site is still misleading, as many of the pictures on the site are not of the actual school, its classrooms, or its students. Do not be fooled by what you see because you will be disappointed when you arrive there to work. The working accommodations are adequate and comfortable but are certainly not what the school is advertising. So creativity is a must and you need to be able to make lessons interesting without the use of technology.
All in all, teaching in Stavropol was a good experience. There are lots of positive experiences to be had here, but they are sometimes outweighed by cultural conflicts with the employer, the people you run into every day in shops and restaurants, and the difficult day-to-day life in Stavropol. The bottom line is that you can have many positive experiences in Russia, but you may have difficulty adapting. You may find that it's hard to live with a smaller fridge in your apartment, no hot water for four weeks in the summer, surly shop assistants, elevators that don't always work, bumpy roads, crowded buses, or dust in the streets (watch out if you have allergy problems). It's up to you if you are really horrified by this or if you want to embrace this culture's differences. Personally, I didn't mind these inconveniences after a while, but not everyone is like me. Sure, these are little annoyances, but they can be overcome as you adapt to life in Russia. If you want to live naturally, Russia will entice you. It is a less manufactured country than Canada or the United States, and the people stress healthy living and home-grown foods. It's up to you to decide if this is what you want. However, even if you like to live a North-American style life with all the conveniences of home, you can do this too. You can pretty much find it all here. Focus on the good points rather than the bad, and you can have yourself a good time.
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