The Mature English Teachers

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Selection_022Why do people with business careers start teaching English? Simon Green, who has been living in Russia since 2002 told his story: “I came here to work for a Russian office equipment company because they needed people to knock on the doors of international companies, that a Russian account manager simply couldn’t get into. I did that job for nearly three and a half years, which is longer than any other expat they’ve employed. Then the company predictably went bankrupt (nothing to do with me I might add). I didn’t know what to do, so I moved into real estate, and then started working for a relocation company. I also tried executive search, but the trouble with that was that the money wasn’t regular; high spots and dry spots would sum it up. None of these occupations really worked for me. I thought I can’t go on like this, I knew somebody who was teaching and he said you’d be great at teaching. I said that ‘I’ve never done it’, he replied: ‘neither have most people here.’ So I started my first lesson very nervous, I didn’t know what the students would think of me, whether they’d spit me out alive! But suddenly I found myself really enjoying it. I’ve been doing this for almost three years now, and I’ve got almost more clients than I can handle, which is a lovely position to be in, long may it continue.”

Mike Winn, another Brit, has an interesting story: “I came to Moscow as a banker, working in a high level post for a German bank. I resigned from that post in 2006, when the economy was booming to form a new company. At the time there was a lot of demand for financial services, corporate financial restructuring, advisory services etc. We were doing OK and were starting to make some progress when BANG, the crisis happened. Coming from a poor background, a big part of my motivation was simply to earn some money. The other part was a genuine desire and interest.”

Can anybody teach English? All teaching needs an outgoing personality. Timid English teachers don’t last very long. Beyond that, in Russia, where there are so many opportunities that it is still possible to reinvent yourself every few years, being a native speaker and having a degree – any degree – are the only basic qualifications necessary. Because most expat native speaker teachers teach spoken conversational English, a TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) qualification does not seem to be necessary. As Simon Green commented: “I teach business English; how to write business letters, that sort of thing, and general conversational English. Because of my rather limited Russian, my audience is from pre-intermediate level upwards. I can just about teach elementary, but beginners, certainly not. The truth of the matter is that a Russian grammar teacher will explain things so much better than an English person can.” Mike Winn said: “I invested in an online TEFL course, I received the certificate, but it was of very limited use. I don’t think they really teach you the essential skills, particularly at the level I wanted to teach at, which was upper intermediate and advanced. Also, I wanted to bring into play business skills and things I’ve learned on my MBA and other courses I’ve been on. Whilst still in London I taught Russian for three years and had already developed my own teaching style. I had been bitten by the teaching bug.”

Selection_019Interestingly, it is the qualified teachers who have previously taught younger children who think they need a TEFL qualification. James Martin is an American with a degree in sociology and a licensed teacher who taught in the US, before leaving to ‘see the world’. First stop: Azerbaijan. That was 17 years ago. James, whose favourite course at university was Linguistics 101 has taught adults and children in Moscow for 2 years. James commented: “previously I had been teaching mostly elementary students at general schools when I signed up for a CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) course in Moscow, in September 2012. Because of visa problems, I didn’t take the course until the following January. The language school I was contracted to teach at after completing my course let me teach without the qualification, so it turned out that I didn’t really need it. But it was a fantastic course, it helped me a lot. As a native speaker, I knew WHAT to say, but not WHY. Things are not so mysterious now. I know that there’s a rule for just about everything, and where to find the rule.”

There is much debate as to whether it is better to teach in a language school or strike out on your own. Most teachers started at schools and established their own basis of private students, however the visa, and who pays for it, is a crucial issue. Russia’s visa system is tightening up, but still allows just enough room for individuals to work here on a private basis. James Martin commented: “All the time I was here, I worked for language schools because they sponsored my visa. Last year, I received a tolerable salary. This year, my boss said I have two options: work 30 hours per week for the school, and they would pay for my visa; or work 20 hours and pay for the visa myself. I took the 20-hour option because over and beyond the school hours, my time was my own. I filled the remaining hours with private students who are much more profitable. I ended up working for six different entities this year. Teaching English in Moscow has been rewarding both financially and professionally. It’s also been fun.”

Simon Green commented: “I started teaching at a language school, and obviously there are advantages. With schools, you get regular money and, you are protected if the students cancel, which they do tend to do a lot. The cancellation rate can be as much as 30%. At first it might seem a big risk branching out on your own, but you can get to a stage where you have almost too many clients. I get my students almost entirely from recommendation, so I don’t have to go looking for clients anymore, and that’s nice.” A few teachers go straight into teaching private students. Mike Winn commented: “All my students came from contacts, one was a friend of mine who was the managing director of a leasing company.”

Working in a school is clearly a lot easier on the travel front. You don’t have to travel all over Moscow. Private students means teaching in apartments and if you are lucky, on a company’s premises. If a class is arranged within the company, there will be fewer cancellations. But travelling between locations can take hours each day, as much as the actual teaching. This can seriously eat into hourly rates. But seasoned teachers say that teaching privately, especially at the ‘nouveau riche’ level is worth it, as rates for individual students range from can from 1500-3500 roubles an hour, as compared to 600-1,000 roubles an hour in a school. Going private means no paid holidays, but paid holidays are not exactly common in language schools either. For newcomers, getting a job in a language school is clearly the way to go.

The successful English teachers all say that they enjoy teaching, that is, those who don’t quickly move into other areas of communication-orientated employment. Teaching on a private level appears to appeal to people who enjoy their freedom, and provides room for creativity in the form of lesson content and materials. Time management skills and a basic business sense; to make sure you are actually paid are vital, and these are skills this group of expat teachers have already attained in their previous occupations. Teaching has one other key benefit. It allows one to do other things. Once a teacher has hit the private student circuit he or she can shift work hours around to provide time for other things, like setting up a new business, reading books and/or writing.

Selection_020Most English teachers say that it is becoming easier and not more difficult to find students. There are a large number of Russians and Russian companies who realise that to succeed they have to speak good colloquial English, despite reports by some international observers that Russia is becoming cut off from the rest of the world. Mike Winn who used to work at a senior level in a large German bank commented: “When I came here, I was working for a 100% German bank in Moscow, but the working languages were Russian and English, not German. It’s only when you work in a foreign environment do you realise how truly far reaching and powerful the English language is. All the sales and communications at Bank Austria for example, were in English; I think that’s a worldwide phenomenon. When you have a truly international organisation, you don’t have the time to translate everything, English has taken over.” The fact that there are fewer expats working for Russian companies only plays in the teachers’ favour. Apart from business people, English native speakers are in demand to teach a sizeable group of children and spouses of the Russian nouveau riche. Parents are prepared to pay well, in some cases very well, in the hope that their children will speak English without a heavy Russian accent if they start young. In a flip to pre-revolutionary practices of hiring servants, many well-to-do Russian families now hire live-in nannies, helps and private tutors to look after their children. However there are fewer private tutors being hired and more nannies, and one of their many tasks will be teaching English to their wards. It is possible to save up a large pile of cash in a short time, as most positions involve a live-in situation, expenses are paid and the salaries are good.

Mature English teachers welcome the relatively unregulated Russian EFL market. But how does this reflect on teaching standards, particularly when teaching adults? James Martin commented: “People ask me: ‘who do you like to teach more, kids or adults?’ I’m not avoiding the question when I say: both. With children, it is easier to get them to like you, but it is easier not to make progress in the lessons, because the children won’t know it. With adults it is harder to make them like you, but you can talk about really interesting stuff, that you are interested in yourself. It’s so great when students do like you, they’ll remember you and spread your name around, it’s really nice.” Mature students are often highly educated and may know a lot more about history, for example than the teachers. Such students are difficult to teach, although they appreciate simply being able to talk with a native speaker. However keeping such students is not easy, as they complain that they are not really learning much. Classroom situations present their own problems, such as mixed ability classes. Lack of consistency of classes makes it very difficult for the teacher to move things forward.

What do established English teachers do after years, or in some cases, decades of teaching? Most carry on doing the same thing, which says something about job satisfaction, or that it is a rut, which is difficult to get out of. Some venture into ‘educational consultancy;’ helping arrange visas and courses for their students abroad. The increasingly inhospitable visa departments of some countries only make the services of such people more important. Others open up their own schools, or prefer to run courses for companies without facing the hassle of state educational regulations. They, in turn, employ some of the many new, younger expats who come here in there twenties and thirties.

For the foreseeable future, the going looks good for teachers of English as a foreign language.