Russia: Underrated Teaching Location?

Note: Moscow at one point earned the title of World’s Most Expensive City; that’s no longer the case, but it is undoubtedly more expensive than Kazan. The information herein relates to our experiences in Kazan, rather than Russia’s huge capital.

Russia–what a storied place. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Leningrad, multi-hewed onion domes atop brick towers, Red Square. Having had time to reflect on our year in Russia, a few things really stand out about the experience.

First and foremost, it’s a country that can aptly be described as Second World. Google the phrase and you’ll find that it refers to the former Soviet countries (and a handful of others). While the term Second World is a relic of a bygone era of Cold War, it is still used to describe a country’s level of development–between underdeveloped (Third World) and developed (First World). Perhaps we’d be better off using the phrase “developing” instead of Second World. At any rate, whether we call it Second World or developing, sometimes Russia is as modern and wonderful as can be–spacious new apartment complexes, glittering towers, high speed internet, glamorous German sedans, and all the luxury you might imagine of a country that, as some say, is experiencing a type of resurgence. And yet, those glamorous Teutonic cruisers zoom over potholed pavement, suspension slamming against the stops in a most unglamorous fashion, and despite blazing quick internet, the hot water quits working for days at a time whilst undergoing yet another round of maintenance and repairs. The fancy apartment complex’s landscaping consists of tires as planters, poorly pruned trees and helter-skelter shrubberies. The newly paved parking lot has a section ripped up and poorly repaved scarcely a week after being finished. The parking garages in this complex have never even opened because they are both a terrible deal–one has to pay extra to park in them, as opposed to simply parking on the street level–and also because they are dreadfully constructed. Consequently, navigating through the overcrowded street level parking lot is sometimes impossible.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Oct 25, 2015 at 10:47pm PDT


It would seem #winter is ending.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Feb 29, 2016 at 9:24am PST


Second, it’s an inexpensive place to live, assuming that one makes an otherwise competitive Western salary. While it would be classless to share how much I was making, it was in line with a typical IB/international school salary, and included the usual benefits for those sorts of jobs. Suffice it to say that we were able to send up to 70% of our money home monthly. Cab fare using Tap Taxi would run around $2-3 for a typical middle-length ride (Kazan is cheap compared to Moscow or St. Petersburg, by the way), and while eating out could be as expensive as anywhere else if we didn’t use some discretion, we found fantastic delivery sushi, and groceries were inexpensive. During August and September, the fruits and vegetables were surprisingly fresh and delicious. We had trouble finding decent cheeses, though, and settled on Cheese Gallery offerings as usually tasting best. Home DSL internet is inexpensive. Mobile phone service is marvelously affordable–we paid around $3 a month for our MTS internet-equipped phone plans, for instance. A month’s expenses for water, gas, and electricity, as well as whatever fees the apartment complex included, cost around 5,000 rubles (the ruble hovered around 60 to a dollar while we were there).

By some measures, then, teaching in Russia is a great experience. Financially, it was very good for us. Other things made it hard, though. There’s virtually no English spoken on the street (even though some road signs feature both languages), making exploring more of a challenge. Of course, that also helps one be motivated to learn some Russian, and acquiring a foreign language is no small feat.

What about teaching itself? There is a range of opportunity available for an American to teach English. Language schools are one option, although they are basically their own animals as compared to public or private schools. I was able to get a job working at an international school, which, we shall wait and see, may help open doors to other international schools in the future. The school I worked for was brand new, and had its share of growing pains, which made the work environment a bit more difficult than it probably would have been if the school had been established for a while (there’s a good lesson, I think; find a school that’s been around for long enough to be stable, with administrators who have plenty of experience in their roles). In most ways, the work place was nice–it must be said that the new building was generally world-class; having meals (they even accommodated my vegetarianism happily) provided was super convenient; and having transportation to and from work included was a definite perk.

Coming out of the Emirates, I found Russian students to be much easier to work with than the over-privileged Emirati youth, and that was a welcome improvement. Also coming out of the Emirates, the long work days (7:45-4:45) were not a pleasant adjustment, and seriously ate into my quality of family life, while also making it harder to fit routine things like going to the gym into my schedule.

As was the case in the Emirates, and as is usual of international schools and many teaching jobs abroad, living quarters were included as part of the salary package, and the apartment we had was nice and plenty roomy. The location in the Sun City area wasn’t very convenient, which meant we relied heavily on taxis to get around (we could travel by bus, but it took forever and a day), but as I said before, taxi fare is cheap in Kazan, so that was alright. Of course, Russian taxi men are a mixed bag, and you might get a jovial driver one day, and a horrendous jerk the next. Uber has made its way to Kazan, by the way, but I never had any luck finding a car with Uber.

Everyone always asks about the weather. In short, the temperatures only got extremely cold for about a month around January, and only about 2 weeks were truly frigid (-25 c or more). August sucked–it was cold and dreary, but September was made great by Indian Summer–beautiful and clear–and snow fell and stuck from October. In general, after that, winter arrived and it was an overcast crap fest with terribly short days, especially in December, making the arrival of spring and frequent blue skies most welcome around April. May was okay, and June quite nice.

There isn’t much of an expat scene in Kazan. “Single women we knew had a particularly hard time making any kind of connections outside of work,” Jenia says. There are a few small gatherings, there’s a little Western church homegroup that meets regularly, and with coworkers at the school, we had a bit of a social life, but nothing like the thriving one that we experience in Abu Dhabi. But then, as our world-traveling fellow expat-teacher friends the Casales once observed, it is incredibly easy to live in the UAE as an expat. Russia, or at least Kazan (Moscow and St. Petersburg have larger expat populations), doesn’t make it easy to be an expat, although as I said, that does have some benefits, including making it easier or at least more necessary to acquire some language skills. There are lots of events going on, though, with concerts, sports events, and more happening frequently, if one can just navigate enough Russian to figure them out (a task much easier these days with the mind-blowing Google Translate app).

Travel within Russia is inexpensive. We’d recommend visiting the Caucasus–it’s drastically different from the plains which dominate the rest of the Russian landscape.

#Dombay #Russia #Caucasus #caucasusmountains #skiresort

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Apr 3, 2016 at 2:41am PDT

A final observation is what Jenia calls spotty but inexpensive healthcare. There was only one hospital in all of Kazan, with its 1.2 million people, willing to allow me into the delivery room when our youngest was born, for example. This private hospital, Ava Kazan, did generally offer a Western level experience. “It differed dramatically from doctor to doctor,” Jenia says.  Ava had English-speaking staff, too, which was great, but even they couldn’t get Western-made vaccines (Russian ones don’t have a very good reputation).

Where we spent the last couple of days. #Kazan #россия

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Nov 28, 2015 at 1:02am PST


So is Russia an underrated teaching destination? In some ways, probably so. If you value a place where your dollars stretch a long way, then Kazan is certainly a place where they do. If you don’t need to be surrounded by a large community of Westerners, and if you value the chance to be immersed in Russian (and in the case of Kazan, Tartar) culture, then it’s a neat place to spend some time. So find an established school with experienced leadership, and give it a shot.

Should I Learn Arabic? Thursday List.

ADEC has a sales pitch for prospective teachers.  It’s effective: housing is provided, insurance is good, pay is pretty high.  They’ll tell you need that you should have some experience teaching, you should perhaps (or actually definitely, emphatically) be prepared to deal with some classroom discipline issues, and you have no need to speak Arabic.  You are, of course, also tempted by the exotic location and interesting sights.  This sales pitch is all true–you’ll have a nifty life here if you sign up.  They might mention in the interview that you should be flexible, too.  That’s the truth.  Living in a different culture is exciting, but it’s taxing, too, as you try to learn what is considered normal, abnormal, and basically try to adapt to a dramatically different way of doing things.

In fact, what ADEC tells you is entirely correct.  All of the things are true.  There’s much to commend the UAE to visitors and an ADEC job to expatriate workers.  English teachers will have good pay and benefits, and if they’re adaptable, they’ll learn how to work in the classroom here. The job doesn’t require them to speak Arabic either.  But, there is a difference between being required to speak the language and whether or not you ought to.

Today I substituted for a fellow English teacher.  I decided to practice conversational English skills with his students by talking to them.  I asked one boy about his rowdy classmates, and asked them why they behaved so badly.  He told me, more or less, “With Arabic teacher, it is Arabic and Arabic.”  He gestured with his hands, putting them side by side.  “But with English, it is English and Arabic.”  He moved one hand away from the other one at an angle.  He was saying, basically, that the kids don’t understand English well enough to get much out of having a teacher who only speaks English.  And after nearly a year here, I’ve got to agree with him.  After all, many of these young men speak only the most basic English.  The idea is that this will change as the New School Model comes of age, but that day is not going to happen for years yet.

What little Arabic I know I’ve picked up from my students and a few other people.  You ought to see the expressions these kids get on their faces when I use a new Arabic word or phrase.  They’re thrilled.  Their level of interest in what I’m doing increases dramatically, and they like interacting with me.  As a result, If I could recommend any one thing to a person considering teaching in the UAE, it would be to learn as much Arabic as possible.  The more you know, the more effective you’ll be in the classroom.  When it comes to learning Arabic, you might very well be put off to learn that there are many different dialects based on location.  When I found out that Emiratis use a rather different version of the language than most other countries, I allowed it to discourage me from learning much beyond “Asalaam aleykum” before I came.  Now it’s definitely true that the kids here speak a language that incorporates a lot of slang and words from Hindi and Urdu, but they know and understand standard Arabic.

So the question is, “Should I learn Arabic?”  The answer is, “Definitely.  Yes.”  With only a month or so left of the school year, I’m now setting out to actively try to learn more words and phrases.  Next year I may just find myself a tutor and start really trying to learn how to speak conversationally.

As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve also considered other reasons why it’s worth pursuing the acquisition of Arabic. Here’s a list:

1. It engages students.

2. It’s nice to know when students are calling you bad names or saying bad words, just so that you can respond somewhat appropriately (“What did you say?  Let’s go talk to the social worker about that, shall we?  Or do you want me to call your father?”) and scare your kids into better behavior.

3. It is a challenge–a fun one, if you feel inclined to learn a non-romance language.

3. It can only help you in situations outside of school when you interact with others, such as parents or people in important positions.

4. Learning a foreign language while you are teaching English as a second language gives you a much better measure of sympathy and understanding as to what your students are going through.