Judith traveled the world as an English teacher for seven years including a stint teaching business English in Russia. She recalls her time in Moscow and answers some commonly asked questions about teaching in a wholly different culture.
How on earth did you go about arranging work out in Russia?
Russia was on my list of places that I thought looked interesting and wanted to visit. I did what I’ve done for almost every other TEFL job.
First I found a few possible jobs online, applied, had a couple of phone interviews and then went for what I thought was the most suitable job for me.
In this case it was teaching mostly business English to adults. The school’s director helped with preparation of papers and getting settled when I initially arrived.
What is the work situation for TEFL / ESL teachers in Moscow?
There are plenty of private language schools, where most of the English teachers I knew worked. Remuneration is not great. Salaries vary wildly and have probably changed since I was there in 2008, but generally you can expect less than you’d get in Western Europe or North America for doing the same work while expenses are higher.
However, some schools provide accommodation and cover commuting expenses. The school I worked in provided an apartment with bills (including heating) paid and a monthly metro ticket. It is definitely worth finding a job and checking the details carefully long before you go.
You’ll be treated as any other professional provided you can do your job well.
Students expect you to know English grammar inside out and be able to explain any part of it. A likeable personality and a nice teaching style might cover for a shaky knowledge of the language in some places but definitely not in Moscow, at least not with adults. I only taught a few children here but you might find their parents asking questions as well.
I found the school and individual students expected me to pretty much design their courses, rather than working from a set book. This suited me perfectly but might be like being thrown in at the deep end if this is your first TEFL job. What you’re expected to do varies from school to school so, as always, I think it is well worth asking lots of questions at the interview stage.
Is the Russian language very difficult?
It’s not the easiest language for English speakers but it’s not the most difficult either. I have a bad habit of not learning languages before I’m in the country but I already knew the Cyrillic alphabet from a trip to Bulgaria (completely different language, same alphabet). It was useful for reading street signs. I don’t think you need more than phrasebook Russian to start with, although fluency would be nice.
I met a number of expats who’d never learned any more than a few simple words, which seems a bit isolating. Personally, I’d recommend learning some basic words and phrases (please, thank you, numbers up to ten, yes, no, how much is..? where is…? etc) beforehand and getting Russian lessons once you’re there.
What about red tape? Do you need a working visa or could you wing it on a tourist one?
I arranged a work visa before I left, thanks to the Russian embassy in Edinburgh. I also needed a letter of invitation – if you go there on holiday, hotels will do this for you. In my case, the school did. As for trying to wing it on a tourist visa, I really don’t recommend it. There are some countries where immigration laws are really 'optional guidelines' but Russia is not one of them. It would just take one aggrieved student or neighbour to report you and you’d be on the first plane out.
Are there any cultural differences that stand out in the classroom?
Something that I noticed pretty quickly is that the sense of humor is completely different to that of the Americas.
I was teaching in Ecuador prior to moving to Moscow and I quickly realized that the silly activities that go down a treat with Ecuadorians didn’t work so well here.
To generalise wildly, the sense of humor in the Americas, both North and South, tends to be light and silly, tending to the absurd. Here it is a lot darker. I liked this actually, because it is similar to what I’m used to coming from Scotland.
What about talking politics? Is this a no go area?
Well, I don’t think you have to avoid the topic completely. In fact, you might find this difficult, especially with colleagues or adult students. You should be careful though, which applies just about everywhere with people you don’t know very well but especially in Russia. A lot of people, particular in Moscow, are highly critical of the current government, but plenty are not. In rural areas, the supposed immense support for Putin isn’t always manufactured. The same goes for the communist system of the past – you can’t assume that everybody was relieved when it ended.
One assumption that you can make fairly safely is that most Russians do not view the United States system as the ideal. European or Canadian, maybe, but I wouldn’t take that for granted either. If the general attitude in the US is that the Russian political system, especially in the past but also now, isn’t very pleasant, the same attitude goes the other way.
If you’re American, I wouldn’t recommend making too many overly patriotic remarks unless you particular enjoy 'spirited' debates. Being critical of everything was the default position for most of the Muscovites I met. I thought I was cynical until I lived in Moscow!
Who did you socialise with? Are Westerners accepted easily or viewed with suspicion?
I socialized with other teachers, some of whom were Russian, some British and a couple from the States - some of the admin staff and some of my students, which I think is pretty typical. There is also a thriving expat culture for several countries including Britain and the USA, I suspect some people move to Moscow and hardly talk to anybody apart from fellow countrymen, which kind of defeats the point of working abroad.
However if you’re feeling a bit homesick, this does mean that there are plenty of pubs and the like where you can meet lots of other expats, speak in English and order typical meals from “back home”.
What about romance? Do foreigners tend to fall head over heels with a Russian? Vice-versa?
Not for me personally, mainly because I didn’t plan to stay very long, but relationships between Russians and immigrants were pretty common. You have the advantage of being a bit exotic, which probably doesn't apply back home in Texas or Scotland, and there seemed to be plenty of interest from both sides. At least two of the British teachers I worked with had married Russians. One of my students, who had booked a series of individual lessons because she was going to study in Europe, had developed a very specific picture of the handsome Dutch man she fully intended to meet.
Are there any dangers unique to Moscow?
I’m not sure. It’s a huge city and inevitably there’s a fair amount of crime, usually just theft. I got a several warnings from people saying to keep away from the police, who do not have a good reputation and, I was told, might harass foreigners. I have no idea whether that’s true or not. Anyway, I didn’t have any problems with crime during my stay and didn’t hear of anybody else having them, but obviously you should be alert, especially when commuting on the crowded metro.
Finally, just how cold are the winters really? Are we talking bears walking through a frozen wilderness?
They are cold but I didn’t think they were noticeably colder than say the winters in Poland or even the UK during a cold snap. Moscow is actually warmer than the surrounding countryside. I was told this was because of the air pollution, and it probably is not far from the truth. You also get some very nice sunsets for the same ironic reason. Pack some warm clothes or buy them here before the winter sets in and you should be fine.