Whether an experienced ESL teacher, a recently certified newbie, or an ex-pat looking to teach abroad as a means to travel, if Russia is a destination you are considering, you probably already possess some of the qualities necessary to succeed. An appetite for adventure and a genuine interest in Russian culture (at least more so than the desire to make money), along with flexibility, resiliency, and independence, are qualities that seem to unite the teachers who survive to appreciate their experiences. And their experiences are certainly not all positive. A good deal of TESOL horror stories come out of Russia. Most echo other rants circulating ESL international forums and blogs all over the internet: unfair dismissal, late paychecks, less than adequate housing. Others, more harrowing, remind us of the reality that being in another country means playing by their rules.
Offhand, Russia probably doesn't top the list when considering EFL hot spots. However, the past 10-15 years has seen an increase in the demand for native English speaking teachers. Certainly the market is not yet comparable to, say, South Korea or Japan, but Russia is rapidly coming to appreciate the value of speaking English in the global economy. In the article Demand for Teachers Far Exceeds Supply, Robert Leitch, a former Russian EFL teacher, explains,
For a growing number of young Russians, English is the key to a better job and a ticket to a new life abroad, hence the EFL boom. Oil, tourism, and services outsourcing are among the major industries where good English is essential.
While an internet search of English teaching jobs in Russia may require at best a lot of sifting ( and at worst a Russian translator) to discover any real leads, opportunities exist for qualified candidates and, as in many other countries with a demand for native English speakers, they come in various varieties. Corporations and other private institutions often seek native English speakers to facilitate conversation practice. Basic qualifications for teaching English include a college degree and CELTA or TESOL certification, however, jobs specific to business English or other corporate firms may require a background in business.
Freelancing is also becoming more and more popular. Many earn more money and enjoy the freedom of private tutoring for individuals and businesses, but this requires obtaining a visa and building a clientele all on your own. While potentially lucrative, one former teacher from the School of Russian and Asian Studies warns:
Teachers will find private lessonsbe the most volatile option, however, asstudents can vanish when their willingness to pay or attend does. Also, arrangements must often be made in Russian, meaning that a grasp of the language (or pre-made contacts in Russia, are more necessary to attaining such employment.
Landing a job with a private language institution is probably the best chance for a foreigner wanting to teach and experience Russia for the first time. Some smaller schools scattered throughout the country as well as larger international chains with branches in and around Moscow and St. Petersburg advertise visa sponsorship, provided housing, and sometimes paid airfare. The three major English schools operating in Russia are EF English First, BKC-International House, and Language Link. So-called safe schools because they are well-known and easily searched and referenced on the internet, this trio of chain schools can boast an international presence that helps prove legitimacy. While smaller or lesser known schools may provide greater risk of breached contracts and other scams,
"Safe" companies include those with more international reach (companies with classrooms in other countries besides Russia). Those with international memberships such as with International House are also regulated by international standards. (Teaching English in Russia)
For those who sign contracts with an unreliable company, their experience can quickly sour. Poor housing and being overworked are the least of your concerns when your legal status in a country is in jeopardy. A feature on EFL in Russia from Passport Magazine Moscow describes,
Teachers who are recruited from another country can be held in a form of indentured servitude to the scam company, which provides visa support and even housing. If the teachers contest poor treatment, these benefits are taken away. For the new arrival to Russia who does not speak the language or have a support network of friends, to be homeless and in tenuous legal standing is a very scary prospect. So they often keep their mouths shut.
These private schools, unregulated by the Russian government, can usually get away with illegitimating visas, withholding paychecks, discontinuing housing payments, and unjustly terminating employees. The Passport Magazine article describes a scandal involving one such “scam school,” Harvard English, which has since shut down. The article advises
One clear indication that a school is a rotten apple is a high turnover rate for teachers. Other red flags are schools that have changed their names and/or location several times, or have not been around that long. The large franchised schools may have their drawbacks, but they are they are at least established names, and their reputations are easy to check up on.
Nonetheless, in a country without JET
equivalents, even the big guys don't always maintain the best reputations - Russian laws are far from hard and fast. As Cade Wilson puts it in Hard Times and Happiness,
[In Russia] The strong—those with connections and money—can do what they please with little worry about the consequences.
One needs to look no further than Dave's ESL Café Russia forum to uncover disgruntled employees venting their woes and warning others not to make their mistakes. Take, for instance, the epic tale of American English teacher Eve Lopez and her battle with employer BKC Moscow. Follow her posts on ESL Café to her personal blog and you will learn how BKC allegedly capitalized on her chance misfortune of losing her passport by telling her the visa regulations had changed and hers would not be replaced, effectively terminating her contract and refusing to pay her way home.
I make no attempt to comment on the facts and details of this particular case, but this story does bring up an important point about the stickiness of Russian visa regulations. Most recently, The Moscow News reports a proposal by Russian lawmakers to raise the qualifications for foreign teachers applying for visas.
Moscow's City Duma has put forward an amendment to a new law which would require all teachers to apply for work permits in addition to the work visas which currently allow them to teach here. In practical terms the proposal would mean schools and colleges have to spend up to three months processing the paperwork for new recruits, compared with about one month at present.
The reason is cited as “extremism,” which is referenced in the article as foreign teachers "inciting political and religious strife” in the classroom and is further explained as people with other agendas posing as teachers in order to secure a visa.
Although Russia may seem like the Wild West when it comes to EFL, to many this makes the experience all the more fulfilling. Even those who complain about their struggles with employers have nothing but fondness for Russian people and culture when all is said and done. Cade White writes,
I regularly went without hot water and occasionally without gas, heat, or electricity. And yet I miss being there, due mainly to the Russian people who overwhelmed me with their hospitality and openness. I sat in their homes, danced with them in their restaurants, listened as they ranted about the government or the police or sung the praises of their language, their literature, and even their bread.
Discrepancy in the workplace, lack of hot water, dirty and unreliable public transportation are some realities that one must be prepared, if not expect, to encounter in Russia. The phrase “Don't expect things to be like home” seems to be more appropriate here more than ever. But I hesitate to say it because, after all, since it isn't the glamour that is calling you to teach English in Russia, it must be the adventure.
For basic facts about teaching English in Russia, including salary information, see this information from Oxford Seminars.