Russia is unlikely to be right across the border from you and requires a fair amount of wading through paperwork to get your stay organised.
Spending a year or more teaching there is a pretty major commitment, so if you made your choice through stabbing at a map of the world with a pin and your eyes closed, there are some questions to ask yourself before you get started. None of these is necessarily a deciding factor, but they are worth thinking about before you rush off.
Consider the Following Before Packing:
What Sort of Teaching Do You Want to Do?
In certain countries, Greece for example, ESL teachers are expected to teach mostly children and teenagers, perhaps with a sprinkling of adults. In Russia things are the other way around, which certainly suited me as, although I don’t mind children, I prefer them in small doses. In most Russian language schools, you’ll be expected to teach a variety of classes, including some children, but there is often an emphasis on adults, especially for business English. Think about the sort of classes you are most comfortable with before going, and have a list of questions ready to ask each school that you talk to.
What is Your Teaching Experience?
How you are expected to teach varies from school to school – students do expect you to know your grammar but you’ll probably have a great deal of freedom in how you organise your classes. This is not a country where you’ll normally be assigned a textbook and just expected to work through it, which is great for experienced teachers but might not be so good if you are new and unsure.
If you are new to ESL teaching but have a solid background in some other sort of teaching, such as through working in a college or high school, you should be fine. If you are struggling with teaching itself, Russia is not where I’d recommend finding your feet.
This also applies to finding a job in the first place. Japan, for example, has well-organised programs for young graduates, not necessarily teachers, who want to work there for a year teaching English, but Russian schools, especially the better ones, value experience.
In fact, if a school seems overly keen to employ you despite you having virtually no experience, this should sound a warning bell indicating a disreputable set-up or a school on the verge of bankruptcy. The reason management are so keen to get you signed up is because they intend to pay you very little indeed - experienced teachers tend to negotiate and ask lots of awkward questions while new ones are a lot easier to take advantage of.
What is Your Travelling Experience?
If you are well-travelled and adapt quickly to new places, you’ll find Russia pretty straightforward to navigate. On the other hand, if you have never been further than the capital city of your own country, and once, when you felt very adventurous, just over the border to the next one, you might find it somewhat intimidating. You’d be flying a long way to a country with a noticeably different culture and completely different language. You’ll also probably be working in one of the world’s largest cities. All this could be a bit much if you are also new to teaching.
What Do You Like Doing in Your Spare Time?
When moving to a country for an extended period of time, it pays to consider what you like doing in your free time. Obviously, there tends to be plenty of places to eat, drink and generally socialise, but think about your other interests, if you have any. Russia is vast, but chances are you’ll be based in either Moscow or St Petersburg, which are both marvellous if your tastes run to art and architecture. You won’t, however, get many chances to go surfing, scuba diving or snorkelling and your wildlife-watching opportunities will be pretty much limited to feeding the sparrows outside McDonalds.
How are Your Language Skills?
While not the most difficult language for English speakers, that honour probably goes to Mandarin Chinese, Russian is certainly not the easiest either. There is little vocabulary in common, you almost certainly don’t already have a scattering of passive knowledge of the language, there is a new alphabet to learn and the grammar is different (and complex). Since speaking a language adds enormously to your experience of a place, and might be essential in the smaller towns, be honest about whether you could learn it to a moderate level in the time available. Easier languages for English speakers are Spanish, which is pretty similar, German, French, Italian and their relatives.
How Do You View Russia?
North America (and Western Europe to a lesser extent) and Russia have a long and not always especially amicable history. Stereotypes rub off on the general population of both sides, and while actual experience changes your views, the ideas you start with colour your perception. If you have a fairly strong default feeling of Russia as being somewhat sinister, probably because you read way too many 80s spy novels, you might not have the best time there, at least not if it is your first ESL job. Your first experience teaching abroad is going to be way out of your comfort zone under any circumstances, so you may wish to consider a country you already know well (and not from Le Carre novels) and feel comfortable in.
What Do You Want to Do Next?
I am not great about planning beyond next Tuesday but lots of people, I hear, have rough plans of how they want their career to pan out. This is worth thinking about while you decide on the details of your Russian sojourn, and indeed whether it is the right country for you just now.
Consider the sort of teaching experience you want to get.
For example, do you plan to work up the ladder in teaching business English, do you want the opportunity to start training colleagues, do you want experience managing teenage classrooms, and so on. Note that smaller schools might allow, or expect, you to take on a wider role than big ones, which may or may not be what you want.
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