Michael Kogan has an undergraduate degree in history from Indiana University. He plans to attend the University of Toronto next year to study Soviet history. In the interim, he has been teaching English at the American Home in Vladimir, Russia for almost one year now.
His insights below should be valuable to those contemplating using teaching jobs to supplement their income during their Russian travels. While it is generally easy to land a job teaching English in the increasingly international Russian economy, it is not quite so easy to actually teach. For those who take pride in their work, who wish to fulfill a greater purpose than being just a “warm body” in the classroom and drawing a paycheck for it, who wish to impart to their students meaningful and educational lessons, teaching is hard work. As any teacher of any subject will likely tell you, teaching requires first of all, a confident and thorough knowledge of the subject matter, secondly, an engaging presentation style, and thirdly, the ability to adapt to different students and the group dynamics of a classroom. Simply having spoken English one’s whole life does not make one qualified to teach English.
Michael’s thoughts on the subject are presented here as those of a first-time teacher who has pursued the more honorable course of teaching. We hope that his words will help encourage students who need the extra finances to consider this option but also encourage those students to take their short-term jobs as true opportunities to excel in a challenging profession.
Teaching and living in Russia is characterized by an almost daily variety of adventures. I have been working in Vladimir, Russia since the beginning of August as an English teacher, and my time here has been one of the richest experiences of my life. As a senior in college I decided that I wanted to pursue my interest in Russia by going there after graduation in some capacity. Teaching English provided a means to do that in a productive way. Working at the American Home has allowed me a chance to interact with dozens of talented students and interesting coworkers, live with a generous and caring Russian host family, and vastly improve my Russian language skills. Nonetheless, I cannot say that teaching and living here has been an entirely positive or easy experience. Teaching, I have discovered, is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming job; one that cannot not be taken lightly if you care about the progress of your students. Although my experience has been overwhelmingly positive, teaching and living in Russian has been full of challenges as well.
I arrived in August nervous and unsure of what to expect. I am originally from Ukraine, and consequently the cultural adjustments to life here were mitigated a great deal. But teaching proved quite a challenge for me. I had no background in education prior to my time here and it became quite obvious after the first few days of our orientation that you can not simply “wing it” when it comes to teaching. This is one of the many examples of the excellence of the American Home program. While the school recruits teachers without requiring teaching experience, they do a superb job training and preparing people for the job once they are hired. We have a very friendly teacher’s consultant who works full time to give us advice, pedagogical guidance, and inspirational ideas whenever we struggle with preparing lesson plans. Furthermore, there is usually at least one returning teacher every year who takes the role of “lead teacher” and acts as another source of advice. These resources helped me gauge what to expect from my students, who vary in age from 14 to 60-plus, and from the job. After several weeks of preparation I managed to make it through a nervous first week. I have found that experience is the key to being a good teacher. All the theoretical things we learned in orientation were helpful in organizing and writing lesson plans, but the actual work of teaching a group of ten to fourteen Russian students involved a whole set of different challenges.
First of all, teaching demands a lot of preparation. Frankly, the time-intensive nature of teaching English is quite frustrating when you are in a place like Russia and you feel a strong urge to explore your environs. Luckily, the gratification of teaching active and interested students is a good elixir for such pangs. To be specific, I spent at least five or six hours a day preparingmy lesson plans in the first semester. With added experience I have been able to put together my classes in less time, but the first few months were quite busy. The plethora of resources available in our library and teachers office certainly made my job easier, as did our teacher’s consultant. Another important element of teaching that I have discovered is that it is very much like a performance. You are in front of your students for the duration of your class and your actions are often scrutinized by them. Moreover, teaching requires miming to elicit various ideas or words. This also contributes to the exhausting nature of the job. Teaching is a physical and mental enterprise that demands a great deal of understanding and knowledge of the subject matter involved. This is important to those of us (like me before August) who think they know English, but are surprised to find there are twelve verb tenses.
Teaching English to Russians has it own unique challenges. Everyone who learns a new language has to deal with mother-tongue interference, but Russian presents some special difficulties. Word order is rather flexible in Russian, but not nearly so much so in English. There are also some false cognates that confuse students who are learning English. Another difficulty with teaching English at the American Home is that we teach American English. Most Russians study British English (pronunciation and all) in their schools and universities. This makes for some vocabulary and expression confusion for teacher and student alike. Another problem is that many students study or work full-time and can only come to us in the evening. In consequence, they have little time or opportunity to practice their English outside of our school. There are few foreigners in Vladimir; while this is good for those who want to learn Russian, it is quite frustrating for Russians who want to practice their English.
The positives of working at the American Home and living in Vladimir are numerous. The people who work there are universally helpful and caring. They go out of their way to give us advice and help us make the transition to life in Russia. For the most part, the people I have encountered in this modest sized historical city have been superb as well. Vladimir is only three hours away from Moscow by train. This is far enough to escape the astronomical prices of the capitol while being close enough to make day trips feasible. The compensation that teachers receive at the American Home is on par with the average income in the city (about 250 dollars a month) and more than what local teachers make. Nonetheless, the salary is not sufficient to fund a lot of traveling or a very indulgent lifestyle. Of course, if you are working five or six days a week you don’t have many opportunities to spend a lot of your money. Having a host family (which the American Home arranges) provide you with two meals a day and housing also makes your money go further.
During my time in Vladimir I have been able to learn an immense amount about teaching, Russian culture and language, and myself. I have traveled to Turkey, Estonia, and Latvia, not to mention all the places I have seen in Russia itself. Every day here provides me with new perspectives and experiences that I know I would never have had if I were still in the United States. Coming to Russia as an English teacher is a powerful experience, one that will test you in many ways. It is a great way to immerse yourself in a new culture and to get some valuable teaching experience in the process.
*Headshot courtesy Michael Kogan; all other photos courtesy Serendipity-Russia.