Teaching in Siberia
It was my first day teaching high school in Aginsk, Siberia to Teach English Abroad in Russia, and eight pairs of dark eyes stared up at me from wide Buryat faces. I opened the textbook to where another English teacher told me she’d left off and asked a girl named Serzhena to read.
“The All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, or Komsomol, is a mass public and political organization of young people from the age of 14 to 28. The date of birth of the Komsomol is October, 1918,” she read out loud.
I looked out upon the students, expecting to see some snickering or signs of ennui, but there was nothing. With each paragraph I was more astounded to hear the full-blown Communist pride that I had thought disappeared over a decade ago. Is this what they usually read, I wondered. It was a standard government textbook used all over Russia, the teacher had told me. Another student continued.
“Under the political guidance of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union the Komsomol teaches the younger generation to live, work, and struggle for the triumph of Communist ideals. The aim of the Komsomol is to build communism.”
I paused before calling on the next reader. I didn’t want to challenge their system in the first hour, but the present-–tense writing didn’t seem to fit with these 16-year-olds, who weren’t even in kindergarten yet when the Komsomol disintegrated.
“Is this interesting for you?” I asked them.
Serzhena answered. “It’s old-something that used to happen in the past. It’s important for us to know about but it’s not relevant to our lives today.”
I sighed with relief.
By our next meeting, I’d replaced the textbook with stories such as Frankenstein and Gone With the Wind, adapted versions for English learners that the children were wild about. You mean we can actually read something interesting in English?, their shy, smiling faces seemed to say. Suddenly, many of them developed a renewed interest in this required class.
FEET ON THE DESK, BUT NO CHEATING
For most of these children, who lived near the Mongolia-Siberia border, I was the first Westerner they’d ever seen, and new books weren’t the only surprises I brought them. I was the first teacher they’d ever met who was called by her first name, who let them bring food to class, who’d sit on the desk and put her feet on a chair, and who wouldn’t hesitate to jump around or get on the floor to show what something meant, rather than just translate. While I didn’t fit the formal student-teacher relationship they were used to, in other respects I was stricter than they could have imagined. My first rule was to ban cheating, which is rampant in Russian schools. I gave copied homework zeroes and penalized those who were late. I set high expectations for my students and gave poor marks to those who didn’t progress. Their community connections or good grades in other classes, usually a ticket to an A or a B in English regardless of how they studied, suddenly didn’t mean anything. I pushed them to speak out, to think independently and to express their opinions through writing, while they’d been taught to respect their elders and that the opinions of youth were not important. In the process of learning to work together, we all learned a lot more than language-a lesson in cultural adaptation and acceptance.
Teaching in Siberia was incredibly frustrating some days, immensely rewarding on others. Overall, it was one of the best experiences of my life.
I conducted classes in a one-story wooden schoolhouse, heated by a wood-burning stove. There was no running water and the toilets were outhouses, used throughout the frigid winter. Most students owned only one school uniform and wore it six days a week. Despite the lack of such basics, they had a well-stocked computer room complete with a printer, scanner, VCR, and knowledgeable staff. These also had regular discotheques, and frequent opportunities for award-winning students to travel to Moscow and other cities for competitions.
The students and teachers of the Aginsk Gymnasium welcomed me into their cattle-breeding community on the forest steppe with great hospitality. I’d found my village school after spending a few weeks in the city of Chita. The Gymnasium invited me to teach fifth through eleventh grades, hoping that contact with a native speaker would help their students compete with more privileged urban youth on university entrance exams. With household incomes of US$100-150 per month, these students didn’t have the resources to pursue special training themselves. In addition, having a foreign teacher was a mark of prestige in the region. The Gymnasium, a special regional government school for talented children, was happy for the attention.
My school gave me one room in a two-bedroom apartment that I shared with a female Buryat accountant. In addition, I was paid a level #14 teacher’s salary, the salary paid to the most experienced and qualified teachers. It came to about US$150 for 24 hours of class time. This was more than enough to meet all my daily expenses, including weekend trips. Health care, while poor, was available for free at the local clinic.
I had traveled through Siberia the previous year and was intrigued by the people and the nature. Few foreigners come to Siberia at all. Very few stay for an extended time. I wanted to understand what life was like for average Siberians and thought that now, when the area is still in the midst of political, economic, and cultural change, would be a unique time. I also hoped to contribute something to the community I was learning from, and English skills are in high demand. It was a plus, especially given the global events, that Siberia is one of the safest places in the world.
Now that the Peace Corps is pulling out of Russia, finding a teaching job is the best way to live among the Russians. And the demand for English skills has never been higher. While some private or specialized schools may have specific requirements, the standard public school or university would benefit greatly from the presence of a committed and enthusiastic native speaker, even if you have little or no prior teaching experience.
So, how to find such a job? While several organizations send English teachers to Russian schools, many of them charge fees for the placements. The local school pays your salary and provides housing, so the fee you pay generally goes to the U.S. organization for administrative costs. If you’d rather get paid than pay to work, it’s possible to work out the arrangements yourself and to set up your own Peace Corps-type experience. And with a little preparation, it’s easier than it might seem.
YOU’LL SOON BE HEARING DA
Follow this step-by-step guide, and you’ll soon be hearing da.
Choose the area of Russia or Siberia where you’d most like to live and teach. Do you want a cosmopolitan location or are you interested in working in underserved, rural areas? Most foreigners flock to St. Petersburg and Moscow, the two largest and most culturally vibrant cities in Russia. However, the vast majority of Russians live outside these cities and their lives are considerably more spartan. If you want to know what life is like for typical Russians, choose a place outside the major cities. A few Siberian cities, such as Novosibirsk (the third largest city in Russia), Tomsk, Irkutsk, Krasnayarsk, and Khabarovsk offer modern city life, yet are still undiscovered by foreigners. Those with a true calling for adventure can easily find a village or small town where no Westerner has ever lived before.
Decide which type of school you want to teach at. Would you rather teach beginners in elementary school, work with teenagers in a junior high or high school, or teach advanced students studying English at the university? The lowest pay comes from the public schools and universities but they also provide the greatest opportunity to expose young people to a foreign language and culture they might not have access to otherwise. Teaching certification is rarely required your skill is your native language ability. Private institutes offer better pay and benefits, but often require a TEFL certificate and your interactions will be mostly with the elite.
Search the Web. Some schools will advertise for a native speaker online. These schools are among the most connected and are probably among the most knowledgeable about what it takes to bring a foreigner to Russia.
Contact everyone you know who has been to Russia, who comes from Russia, or who is in Russia now. Ask them if they can recommend a school in need of a teacher. Contact your university alumni office to find alumni working in Russia. Having somebody in Russia make an inquiry for you makes the offer more immediate to the school and you are more likely to get a speedy response. Assemble the contact information for several schools.
Contact the schools. Try to reach them first by email and fax, sending a copy of the letter by post. Tell them you’d like to teach and ask if they are interested in having a native speaker. State your expectations-typically a Russian salary at the 14th level (the highest salary allowed for teachers, it comes to about $150 a month for a 25 hour work week), housing (which is often included) and an invitation and ask if they can provide those things. Clearly write a date by which they must respond. Follow up your letter with a phone call. Writing the letter in English is acceptable, but a Russian translation might speed the response. List as many different types of contact information for yourself as you can: address, phone, fax, email.
Research the area. If you have received an offer from a place from which you have personal recommendations, try to find information about the area online. If you can find someone who has been there, try to find out:
What kind living, teaching, and recreation facilities are available?
What are the school director and/or the English teachers like? Are they helpful? Approachable? Honest?
What are the main industries?
What do the students do after graduation? Where do they use English?
Ask the school to send you a contract. It’s good to get as much as possible in writing. Specifically, you will want to know: the dates of the school year and holidays, your salary, the number of hours per week you will work, and the type and conditions of housing the school will provide.
Decide what to do about a visa. You have two choices: to have an invitation issued by the inviting school or to apply for a multi-entry business visa yourself.
If the school is issuing your invitation, monitor that process to make sure it is moving along. Ask them to notify you immediately after it has been sent. You can then call your local embassy to verify its receipt. If you are taking the agency route, file the appropriate paperwork to initiate that process. This can often be the biggest stumbling block, so be sure to leave plenty of time.
Make your travel arrangements and ask the school to meet you.
The sooner you begin the process the better. The time it takes will depend on the region you want to visit, how many foreigners have been to that area before, how organized and efficient the school is, and how many obstacles you might encounter. It is a good idea to start planning six to nine months before you want to leave, though you may be able to do it in as little as three months. Allow at least two months to obtain the visa.
Once you arrive at your destination, you can easily supplement your salary by teaching private or small group lessons. In rural areas of Siberia, students pay US$1.75 each for small group classes that are two hours long. A few hours of group teaching a week would earn a teacher enough to pay for food – usually a teacher’s largest expense. In urban areas with entrepreneurs and professionals who wish to study, the rates approach Western levels.
With housing included, the standard salary is enough to cover all other general expenses, except for the plane fare and visa costs, though some of this can be recovered through private lessons.
Throughout Russia, foreign language instruction, including English, continues to be weak. English is mandatory nationwide from fifth grade, yet many students are still unable to speak after almost a decade of study. In the current situation, just about any school in Russia would be thrilled to have a native speaker. You just need to take charge to organize it and use the fees you would have paid for an organized program to purchase classroom supplies or to fund your holiday travel.
LOOKING FOR A SCHOOL?
1. Siberian Intercultural Bridges can help with placements in Chita city. One of the schools they work with is the Chita Technical University. The English program is run by a dynamic woman eager to have foreign teachers. The university offers an invitation, $150 a month for 18 hours instruction per week, and a free furnished apartment. In addition to English teachers, the university is interested in hiring Americans to lecture in economics, business and law. For more information, contact Tatyana Puchkova at firstname.lastname@example.org Michael Shipley at email@example.com.
2. Tomsk Polytechnic University has hired teachers from America, Spain, Italy, China and France. They provide housing, invitation support, about $100 per month and they use modern teaching materials from Oxford and Cambridge. Contact Julia Gouskova in the International Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. TEFL International job ads: www.tesolcourses.net
4. Dave’s ESL Cafe joblist: www.eslcafe.com
5. EFL Web: www.eflweb.com
ACQUIRING THE ALL-IMPORTANT VISA
Under the current laws, you have two options: get an invitation from the school, or obtain a series of three-month business visas from a travel agency.
Invitation from school:
Having the school issue the invitation is the cheapest option. The school has to pay a fee, file some paperwork, and then an invitation is issued by the local OVIR (the branch of the police that deals with foreigners) to the Russian embassy you specify. Depending on the area, and how often foreigners are invited by the local OVIR, the school may have to pay high fees or OVIR may angle for a bribe from the school, slowing down service without it.
One potential problem of a school-issued visa is that the invitation ties you to the school. If, for some reason, conditions are not as you expected, you are not free to move to another school. If you go this route, be sure you are comfortable with the school and what they have promised you. The school will register the visa for you once you have arrived. Those who have hosted foreigners before are most familiar with the process and can probably do it more quickly.
You can pay a travel agency between $40 and $90 to issue you an invitation for a one-or three-month tourist or business visa. The three-month business visa is the best bet, for it will allow you to live freely in Russia for three months. There are two options.
Come to Russia on such a visa and check out the schools where you are interested in teaching. When you find a school you are comfortable with, you can ask them to issue you an invitation and make sure it gets done. You’ll have to leave the country (taking a train to the Baltics is usually the easiest and cheapest option-no visa is required for Americans) and return with your teacher visa.
If you plan to teach in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or western Russia, you could get a new visa every three months for as long as you want to stay. This would require taking tri-monthly trips to the Baltics.
You’ll appear to be visiting that travel agency and they will write you a letter sending you on business to the school where you will be teaching. While more expensive, the business visa commands the most respect and can be useful at hotels and at border points. It also allows you the most freedom, including the ability to change schools if arrangements don’t work out as planned.
The laws on registration frequently change. Check into the most current requirements and make sure that you can meet them or that your school can help you. Andrews Travel House offers a convenient Web order system for visa invitations. They will register visas for free within three days of arrival at www.andrews-consulting.com. Several other agencies offer similar services.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
Things move at a much slower pace in Russia. The school may need some time to discuss your proposal and to determine whether they have the funds to provide a salary and housing. But don’t let up your monitoring. Long periods of silence can indicate problems or lack of sufficient commitment.
Things frequently don’t work out as planned in Russia, so pursue opportunities with at least two schools, keeping one as a backup in case of an unexpected problem with the first.
Most Russian schools are ill-equipped, especially compared with Western schools. You will likely have to supply your own paper for the photocopier (if there is a photocopier) and purchase your own supplies. General school supplies are easily available in Russia, though good English-language texts are scarce outside of Moscow. From the U.S., you can inexpensively ship books to yourself by using the M-bag, through the U.S. post office. A standard box costs about $30 to send and takes about three months.
If your goal is to learn Russian, you can arrange private lessons with a fellow teacher once you arrive. Few people in more isolated communities speak English, so you will quickly start to pick things up.
Once you are settled in the community, it is easy to find out about other volunteer opportunities in your field of interest, from working with an environmental nonprofit to helping run an orphanage summer camp to participating in an archeological dig.
If you are only available for one semester, you may still be able to find schools interested in hiring you. The Russian school year runs from September to early January, followed by a winter break, and then resumes in January or February, ending in May or June.
Make sure you bring a copy of your university diploma with you! A new law, while unevenly enforced, requires foreign teachers to show their university diplomas, proving they are qualified for the job.