EFL in Moscow
Following the rising international trend, in the business world of Moscow, there’s an opaque ceiling for people who cannot speak English. Because of this, many are willing to shell out money in order to improve their professional standing or improve their children’s chances for success. To capitalize on this growing demand, language schools operate all over the city, providing instruction to zealous learners. This booming business requires finding foreigners to do the crucial part of teaching – foreigners who are perhaps not so savvy about the ways of Russia, but looking to market a natural asset to make a living. Unfortunately, they are easy targets for exploitation by the unethical.
Caroline, a 22 year student on her year abroad from Cambridge University, responded to an ad in the Moscow Times last fall looking for native speakers to teach English. ‘Great Pay,’ the ad promised. When Caroline arrived for an interview, she was hired on the spot and asked to start teaching that day. She thought it odd, of course, that a company billing itself as Harvard English would hire her on the spot with no inquiry into her qualifications, but she was mostly just excited at the chance to teach and pick up extra money. After two weeks of teaching classes, Caroline was approached by other teachers at the school, who informed her they had not been paid in several months. A quick tap into the Expat.ru forums revealed that not only had a number of teachers been taken into the same scam, but that the individuals running Harvard English were potentially dangerous. Rather than stick around to find out, she left quietly.
Sadly, as a population set, English teachers in Moscow are vulnerable to exploitation. First of all, many visitors to Russia do not have work permits, so all teaching must be done ‘under the table,’ which means no formal contracts and no legal protection. Moreover, any move to involve the authorities necessarily creates trouble for the foreigner who has been working illegally. Luckily, in an egregious case such as Harvard English, there were enough disgruntled former employees, as well as Russian students who were cheated out of money, to alert the authorities and the company was shut down.
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. Harvard English recruited Neal, 33, from the United States, with the promise that the company would provide housing. After several months, they stopped paying for his apartment and, finally, his salary altogether. Neal relates a horror story of a recruited- employee who arrived in Moscow, eager to start his new career, only to find that he had no arranged housing. He was extended the offer to sleep in a classroom, but opted for a hotel instead. Other teachers lost their apartments due to lack of payment.
Another factor marking English teachers as easy prey is that they are often a transient population, primarily young foreigners looking to experience a new country for a short time while supporting themselves. In terms of payment, it becomes a waiting game – the scam language school knows that if it strings the teacher along long enough, with continual promises that the paycheck will be ready ‘next month,’ he will eventually leave the country, either due to a pre-purchased return ticket or expiration of visa or simple lack of finances. Once the teacher has left the country, there is virtually no chance of receiving that last paycheck.
The Harvard English scandal stands out as a uniquely horrific example of how unwitting English teachers can duped. However, it does not take such extensive con-artistry to get away with cheating teachers. Head to Silver’s Irish pub off Tverskaya, a popular hangout for teachers of English, and you’re liable to hear drunken grumbling about low pay, long hours and overfull classes. Brock, 26, moved to Moscow to teach English for language school franchise giant BKC after graduating from college a few years ago. They paid for his visa, and set him up with an apartment a fifteen-minute walk from Rechnoi Vokzal metro station. The monthly stipend, $450 at that time, was certainly livable, especially in comparison to the average salary of a Muscovite. However, Brock felt that the demands placed on him by the school were unfair. The contractual 30 academic-hour working week did not factor in time for lesson preparation, correcting homework or transport to the far recesses of the city. He humorously relates how, during a lesson, he asked city-wise students to talk through how he could get from the class location to his own home in the cheapest, fastest way possible.
Doing the math between his own salary and the amount the students were paying, Brock arrived at the natural conclusion: cut out the middle man. Rather than work through a language school, he struck out on his own as a freelance English teacher. This meant that, first, he had to repay BKC the money for the visa, plus start paying for the apartment, but Brock found that after a few months teaching English on his own he had make back the loss. Neal employed a similar strategy after his experience with Harvard English, which fortunately left him with contacts of students still eager to learn English. “If you establish good relations with the students, they will follow to be with you, not the language school,” Neal relates. “I went from making $15 dollars an hour, when I was paid, to $25 to $30.” Enterprising freelance English teachers can earn upwards of $2,000 a month.
In addition to the financial considerations, Brock prefers freelance English teaching to teaching within a school because it affords him a greater flexibility in his work schedule. Rather than having to show up for prearranged classes at the end of the metro line, he works with students to find a time that suits everyone and the group meets at a convenient central location, usually a coffeehouse. Also, he can maintain a high level of instructional quality by capping the class size at five people and choosing the class materials himself. His favored tools of the trade are the Macmillan Third Edition ‘Inside Out’ textbook and a stuffed animal students toss around when practicing verb conjugation.
There are, however, downsides to the life of a freelance English teacher, the primary one being lack of job security. “Some months I am turning away students, other times I wind up giving solo lessons,” says Brock. At a language school, a teacher always has work, and will be paid regardless of whether the students show up. Brock asks students to pre-pay at the beginning of each month so that when a student suddenly has to stop lessons, which happens quite frequently, he can still make rent. Neal seconded this concern. “I dread national holidays because, categorically, when we resume classes, I’ve lost two or three students,” he says.
Also, Brock and Neal were able to start up their private practices based on previous experience in the Moscow teaching English ‘industry.’ Despite the ever-present demand for English instruction, it can be difficult to find consistent clients without lan guage school connections, especially for a new arrival to Russia. And there are, undoubtedly, numerous other benefits to teaching in a language school. For every sour grapes ex-language school teacher, there is another more than willing to sing the praises of their employer. Despite the horror stories, many schools are ethical establishments, with scams such as Harvard English the unfortunate exception.
For many, language schools provide a modest, stable life in another country. Brad, 37, has thoroughly enjoyed his experience teaching for BKC, which he calls the ‘furthest from a scam organization that exists.’ It’s the only teaching organization he’s worked for in Moscow, and he’s on his second nine-month contract. As he sees it, most of the complaints come from teachers who have come to Moscow with unrealistic expectations, such as enjoying an expensive standard of living. Unfortunately, a teacher’s salary cannot pay for nightly trips to expensive restaurants and bars, but whose salary does? “They [BKC] told me right off the bat that I would not be able to save money as an English teacher, but I saved $3,000,” Brad relates. What BKC does best, according to Brad, is function like a ‘parent’ in a foreign land, inviting hundreds of people a year for the unique opportunity of teaching and living in Moscow under their auspices. As for freelancing, Brad calls finding clients not only intimidating, but virtually impossible for someone who’s newly arrived.
Another satisfied teacher is Mark, 37, assistant director of studies at Lingua language school, an offshoot of BKC. Having spent the last seven years teaching English around the world, he’s found his Moscow experience to be no worse than anywhere else. In fact, it’s even better, on account of the motivation level of the students who see a real correlation between their English expertise and their success at work. He concedes that, of course, the pay could be better, but teaching English is not a profession in which to get rich.
To ensure a positive experience, potential teachers of English, as well as students, are strongly urged to investigate the legitimacy of a language school before agreeing to start work or take classes. Talking to other teachers is perhaps the easiest way to find out what your own experience will be like: Do they get paid on time? Do they like their job and the management? Are the students happy with the quality of instruction that they are receiving? One clear indication that a school is a rotten apple is a high turnover rate for teachers. If none of the other teachers have been there over a few months, chances are you will not like your new job. 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.
High-quality schools also require the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) or some other form of certification of their instructors, or else train them extensively. Getting the CELTA is both a costly, and time-consuming process that can set the potential teacher back nearly a thousand dollars before he can even begin making money. For this reason, most language schools in Moscow do not ask for this internationally-recognized certification, and will hire anyone who simply speaks English and has a pulse. But, contrary to popular opinion, it takes more than native proficiency to make a good language teacher, as one must have a considerable working knowledge of grammar – why a language works as opposed to mere instinct – as well as some idea of how to plan a lesson. On your first day, a roomful of Russians who have paid good money will be looking up at you and waiting, so you better have something insightful to say. Teaching English can be an immensely rewarding experience, providing you don’t get taken for a ride.