Teaching in Saint Pete: lying in English class is ok

The first job any foreigner can probably think of when coming to St. Petersburg is teaching his mother tongue. Prospekt Magazine is presenting a series of interviews with these teachers: their expectations and findings, with tips and inspiration for newcomers.

David Traub came from Washington DC to St. Petersburg 11 years ago with the idea to write a book about Russian bikers. The book didn’t work out but this trip was life-changing for him: he met a girl that later became his wife and they are now raising two beautiful kids.

Back in 2003 David had no idea he would be living and teaching English in St. Petersburg.

david“I don’t think most people who come here and end up staying here, at least people from the West don’t wake up and say ‘you know what, I am moving to Russia forever’”,  said David, who is rather sceptical about the current political situation in Russia. “Certainly not 10 years ago, and most likely not now, especially now, I would say.”

When David’s friend got him a job teaching English he hardly had an idea of how he was going to do it.  In the beginning, he was learning English grammar along with his students, and quickly understood that language classes are all about preparation. “Usually most of the time for preparing for the class is cutting down little pieces of paper. I joke sometimes: you can see how good of an English teacher somebody is by how much time do they spend cutting little pieces of paper.”

Initially a way of earning a living, English teaching became David’s passion.  He learned to love it and understand its importance.

“I help people to prepare for things like IELTS or TOEFL… because they want to do it for very specific reasons, usually connected with studying something some place abroad. And you know that by helping this person get the score they want to get in IELTS or TOEFL, you make a huge difference for their future. It is a pretty big responsibility.”

The teacher as a god

In Russian society the figure of teacher is usually very distant from the class, the teacher has authority and students are not used to arguing with them. David says that he does his best to break down that image in every class.

“I am not god, I am not some Olympian figure spreading knowledge in a form of thunderbolts from the mountains.”

Being a native speaker can benefit you struggling with Russian formal traditions. “I don’t have any kind of otchestvo [patronymic], you can’t call me by imia and otchestvo [name and patronymic – the traditional way of addressing teachers in Russia] even if you wanted to, so you have to call me by just my first name. For a lot of people the perception is already that I am not so much their teacher even though I am, but that I am an  acquaintance, a friend”, said David.

People learning English in Russia

David says people who come to learn the language are mostly already open-minded and because they are willing to communicate and understand other people’s points of view.  A native speaker therefore shouldn’t be afraid of revealing his views of Russian politics, in front of a group of students for example.

“I can’t think of anyone who has ever been in English class who hasn’t had fairly wide and non-consequential contact with foreigners. They aren’t the kind of people whose only contact with foreigners is a Finnish shop clerk in Lappeenranta where they are buying groceries or something or the hotel personnel in Turkey and Egypt and Thailand.”

Local market and schools

This summer David has experienced the quietest season ever, but he says the reason of that is not politics, but economics. There are still a lot of language schools in St. Petersburg, but they all are different.

“The good English schools, the ones where you want to work are ones where the school administration and the teaching side have a strong relationship, where the administration does not hold itself above the teachers. The schools you would want to avoid are those where the relationship isn’t fully complete or schools where administration seeks to prove that it is totally in charge.”

In the teaching community they gossip a lot about schools and about teachers,  David said. “If you are a bright stand out character, people would know who you are, and if they have to avoid you or not avoid you.”

Legal issues

David’s first teaching job was “as official as someone with a tourist visa in Russia could have”. Now, he stresses, working unofficially is a big no-go. Russia is increasingly enforcing its employment regulations and raising the fines for the schools who pay teachers under the table. David thinks particular attention is paid to this kind of illegal workforce now. “I am pretty sure that catching illegal working Westerners is something that every migration service inspector who wants promotion is looking for and Russian jail is not a place where you would like to end up”, David joked.

Tips from David

Lying is ok in English class

Sharing your experiences and family life it can be very personal, but usually on the first day of my class I tell the students “you are not required to tell the truth, you can lie, you can make up a story that is even more interesting sometimes than the truth.”

Forget explaining grammar

“At the very early levels it comes down to recognition and practicing set phrases, you can explain with pictures, drawings and that is the thing, even with high level I try to avoid saying things like ‘it is the present perfect tense.’”

There is no perfect pronunciation

“As a global language with 3 billion who speak it, the idea of perfect pronunciation in English no longer exists. My standards of pronunciation basically come down to ‘did I understand what you said to me?’. The idea of make everybody sound like newsreader on the BBC is impossible, I don’t sound like that.”

No speaking Russian in class

“As much as possible it is your students who are talking and not you. Lots of times what happens is that it turns from you teaching them English to them trying to teach you Russian.”


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