Life As An English Teacher In Moscow

By Simon Green

Little did I realise when I came to Moscow on a six month ‘suck it and see’ sortie, that I would still be here 15 years later — this syndrome is not uncommon among fellow long term expatriates here. The latter half of this period has been spent teaching English, and previously I was engaged by a slightly dodgy Russian office equipment company which announced my arrival to this great country. A spell in the Real Estate market was followed by time with an International Relocations company where I was Country Manager in Ukraine and Sales Director in Russia. All was going swimmingly until the crash of 2008/2009 left all of us reeling, a mass exodus by many, and some serious soul searching by those who remained as to what to do next.

By then it was 2010, and a friend of mine had been doing English teaching and seemingly unaffected by the downturn, so he coerced me into the business and I had an interview with a school called Soho Bridge, and a few days later found myself standing in front of a group of expectant students, wondering what to say — being lost for words is anathema to me, so I took a deep breath and the rest, as they say, is history.

There are three types of teacher here: firstly those who are recruited by established secondary schools like The British International School; then you have language schools like English First who recruit from abroad and bring teachers to Moscow; and finally you have freelancers like myself, who are die-hard Moscow expats, who start with a school, then gradually branch out into private clients via referrals and networking. There is in fact a fourth type of teacher: namely those who are drifting through on the Lonely Planet dream, looking for some extra bunce to line their pockets. Any established school should avoid these people like the plague as they have no experience, no knowledge of the country, and are merely looking to finance the next stage of their journey which is more than likely a marijuana filled trip to Bali or equivalent.

It’s no secret that most freelancers will attach themselves to two or three schools as it’s extremely unlikely that one school can give you enough clients to survive financially. The one major advantage of teaching via a school is that in the event of a late cancellation (an all too frequent occurrence), you’ll still get paid. Teachers at schools like the aforementioned British International School are professionally qualified teachers, often with a degree, and are brought in from the UK, USA, Australia and South Africa etc., on salaries of around 3500-4000 Euros per month plus attractive benefits such as return flights once a year and full medical coverage with visas. Schools like English First (EF) expect their teachers to hold a TEFL certificate and have a year’s teaching experience, but herein lies the conundrum. EF’s core business is via students who have to sign up for a minimum one year contract costing around 120,000 roubles, and those who can’t afford the course (a sizeable proportion) are directed to a bank that’s in cahoots with EF, to obtain a loan, so the debt is now not with the school, but with the bank so reneging isn’t an option! The course itself is predominantly online and it’s up to the student to work his or her way through the myriad of topics on offer, and only every 10 days do students get the chance to meet a native speaker for just 45 minutes, and in groups of 10-20 people.

In my opinion, this is a totally unsatisfactory way to learn English, and 45 minutes three times a month in a large group means little personal attention is received, and does not a good English speaker make. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the teachers who are recruited on the pretext that EF will deal with the ‘complicated visa procedure’ and assist you with accommodation via a salary advance, are already suffering with the comparatively low salary offered which is 70,000 roubles a month plus compensation for exchange rate swings — little wonder after two or three months of living on a shoestring, they give up the ghost and go back home. In fairness to EF and other similar companies like Wall Street English and Language Link, this is a system that works well in theory but not in practice, though it’s easy to see why EF are still around as their marketing is without equal, and they’ve been trailblazing for others to follow in their wake.

That leaves the final batch of teachers which is the category that I find myself in. We combine private tuition and corporate groups which some schools provide. We have one major advantage compared to novices recruited from abroad, who are a bit wet between the ears and have no experience of dealing with Russian people and the values they hold dear, nor do they have any grasp of many underlying cultural differences that a seasoned expat does, especially if he’s been lucky enough to enjoy a relationship with a Russian lady. There’s a bit of a paradox here in that the majority of native teachers are male, but the preponderance of Russian English teachers are female. I can’t teach beginners or elementary people as my Russian isn’t good enough, and besides, a Russian teacher can explain the intricacies of grammar so much better than us natives as they’ve been through a more structured learning process.

I myself am attached to two or three of the 15-20 major private schools in Moscow, and they operate in two fundamentally different ways for both client and teacher. The ‘Native Speakers’ Club’ has given me many clients, from whom they take their commission in advance, then the client pays the teacher each lesson at the agreed rate (3000-3500 is par for the course for 90 minutes). They major at individual clients, not the corporate market, and have been successful at this for many years. They have a dedicated team of ladies handling enquiries, setting up trial lessons and the client can choose a teacher whose profile is online. The fact that we get paid on a lesson by lesson basis is an attractive feature, and they also have their own cafe (Native Speakers’ Cafe) near Kievskaya metro where we can meet clients for lessons in a pleasant atmosphere.

The other school I’ve been attached to for seven years is Soho Bridge, who have also been kind enough to give me a work visa for the last couple of years thus negating the need for me to return to London every 90 days to renew my visa. Soho Bridge go down the corporate route which has a major advantage if it’s a group scenario: if one person from the group can’t make the lesson, others present will mean you still have a lesson. It’s a well documented fact that cancellations are the bane of every teacher’s life, and you can expect a 15-20% loss each week on average. All schools in Moscow offer general and business English, but Soho offer specific courses for respective corporate needs, such as international finance or legal courses for those firms that require it. I myself was sent away for the weekend to Kolomna to assist employees of Pharma firm Gideon Richter in passing a specific formal English exam.

So, why do many people have English lessons? Well, for a start English is the business language of the world, and among my many clients I have a very senior board member of Rosbank who speaks super English and has to fly all over Europe as Societe Generale is their parent company. He attends meetings which are always conducted in English, so if someone uses idiomatic or slang English which he hasn’t heard before, he spends the next few sentences trying to fathom out what was meant, by which time he’s missed something crucial! He also has lessons with a native speaker simply to keep his hand in like many of my clients. Another client is head of department for KPMG and has to fly to London regularly for court cases where he’s exposed to the vituperative invective our rather overbearing barristers; so he’s using me to increase his fluency. Another of my clients, the well known international marketing firm, Millward Brown, use me for the same reason and I’m privileged to have a quite delightful group for general chit-chat and newspaper articles to discuss and read to assist with our sometimes illogical pronunciation. To that end I have to read the papers first thing in the morning to ensure I’m abreast with any breaking news around the world which could make for an interesting discussion.

I prefer not to do lessons at home, choosing instead to pursue an active lifestyle running all around Moscow to meet clients at their offices, occasionally their homes, and often in cafes near to their offices — I think I know the metro better than any local by now! Teaching has well defined high spots and dry spots: busy months are October, November and December, then February, March, April May and June. Actually I had an exceptional January this year, but that’s the exception not the rule, and was doing 20-23 lessons per week. July and August offer enough to pay your bills but not much more and you would think September would be good but it never has been: many take vacations as they become cheaper, and others are too busy with the shock of being back at work with a mountain of catchup to achieve, so English lessons are well down the pecking order.

So what are ‘the good, the bad and the ugly,’ as Clint Eastwood once witnessed in his iconic spaghetti westerns? I was asked what is a typical day? The answer in my case is there isn’t one — no two weeks are the same. Early mornings and evening feature heavily in most teachers’ diaries, but the trick is to fill in the dead periods, typically between 11:00-15:00 which I’ve enjoyed considerable success at. Clients suddenly become available again after an inexplicable absence, or suddenly disappear, in one case literally whereby a client left for a skiing holiday in that doyen of resorts for the rich and famous, Courchevel, never to be seen or heard of again either by me or the school. You have to be a master practitioner at juggling your schedule, often at the eleventh hour when a client has an urgent meeting to attend or has to travel abroad suddenly. This means your client relation skills are put to the test because now you have to persuade them to change their times in order not to lose lessons. This I actually thrive on as it fires the adrenaline and is a good litmus test as to how much clients like you, if they can be appeased by a whimsical change!

My often tight schedule means knowing to the minute what my arrival time will be and if you have several lessons on the bounce, there’s really little or no time to eat so you have to do this ‘on the hoof’— many’s the time I’ve had breakfast mid-afternoon or even at supper time which can’t be good for one’s metabolism. So in synopsis, the biggest problems on an ongoing basis are cancellations, sudden changes of schedule and your own skill as a time manager. If you learn to expect the unexpected, you won’t go too far wrong, and after a couple of years on the teaching circuit, the job does become easier, but I do try and stay off politics and religion which my late parents wisely taught me to avoid in life. Another point is that 80% of my clients are ladies and inevitably you can be the unwitting recipient of flirtatious behaviour. Most of it is just playful banter, but one would be private client insisted on lessons at my apartment, and I suspected there was more to her agenda, so I politely declined and never heard from her again!

My area of expertise lies in engaging people in conversation, hence I get to teach mostly Upper Intermediate and Advanced speakers wherever possible. The lessons pretty much run themselves so long as you have some material to fall back on just in case. I’m fortunate enough to receive many referrals from ex-clients or friends who know me as ‘the English teacher.’ Facebook gives me some clients as I’m quite active on there and enjoy expressing myself in my own inimitable style, and of course there are events such as the Business Networking Events where you can sometimes score a client as it’s a good place for propagating one’s own business in a convivial atmosphere.

Despite the vicissitudinal life of the Moscow English teacher throughout the four seasons, I wouldn’t swop it for the world as I truly love what I’m doing. Even better, I learn just as much from my various clients as they do from me so that’s great reciprocity. However, the earning potential is effectively capped, but is still perfectly good enough for me to be able to eke out a very comfortable and epicurean lifestyle here. As Alexander the Great said about his teacher, who was the legendary philosopher Aristotle: “I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well” — and so say all of us!