“Good afternoon, sunshine” I smile at him. “Time to get dressed, we have a snack to eat!
Without skipping a beat, and in perfect English, he pushes a strand of hair away from my face (future ladies man, for sure) and announces “You’re my princess”.
My heart melts, but then –
“This is ugly” – he points at my headscarf, giggling. “You look like babushka.”
Toddlers – can’t deny their honesty…
Yes, Moscow, Russia, I would confirm. There’s a village around 30 miles away from my hometown in Scotland which shares the same name; but with a total population of around 25 humans, a scattering of sheep, and a horse or two, for someone as travel and adventure hungry as myself to announce a departure for Ayrshire would, I’m afraid, be nothing short of disappointing.
“But what about the COLD? Isn’t Russia dangerous? They don’t even have the same alphabet…what will you DO there? Aren’t Russians so unfriendly?”
I’ll happily give my opinions re the cold, the danger, the alphabet and the population later in this article, but first of all, I feel it is necessary to explain what exactly it is I am doing here.
During an average Monday-Friday here working as an English teacher at a bilingual kindergarten, I am responsible for anywhere between 5 and 20 small people (2-4 year olds, to be exact) where I teach, play games, dry tears, resolve lego distribution disputes, feed children, (attempt) to settle them for naps, plan lessons, organise walks, participate in concerts, and pretty much everything else in between. I’d be lying if I said my job were easy; it isn’t, and sometimes I come home from a day at work and fall into bed. It is, however, the most rewarding job I have ever had so far in my twenty-six years of life, which has comprised of living in many different places with an equally diverse work history to match.
So now, we come to address two “whys” – Firstly, why are there so many employment opportunities in Moscow in particular? And, second of all, why do I choose to give private lessons when I already work as a kindergarten teacher 5 days per week?
Muscovites, as inhabitants of the biggest city in Russia and also one of the greatest cultural and political centres of the European region, are much more forward-thinking, progressive and liberal than any Western newspaper would lead you to believe.
As an avid traveller, and having lived in and explored territories such as Southeast Asia, South Africa, and the Balkans, one thing I find to be universal is any given society’s love for its children; its future. The vast majority of parents, regardless of social status, ethnic background, or religious and political beliefs, just want their children to be happy, and to succeed in life. Recognizing that Russia has increasingly opened up to international relations in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the vast majority of Russian parents I have encountered now understand that learning a second language benefits their offspring enormously in terms of offering them future prospects for travel, study, and cross-cultural education.
Although demand for Chinese and Spanish teachers is also high here, it cannot be denied that native English speakers are the hottest property in the city. Aside from parents requesting my phone number for extra lessons and agencies getting in touch to ask if I require any work, many people – from my nail technician to the man who works in the kebab shop beside my apartment – has reached for Google translator upon hearing me speak and has asked, via their phone screens, if I have time to give any more private lessons – everyone is desperate to learn English. The answer I have to give at the moment is no, I don’t have enough time – which should show you the sheer extent of opportunities you will find yourself faced with should you choose to move to this (fantastic) city. I genuinely don’t have enough personal time to meet the demands of prospective students.
So now, on to the second question – if my free time is already limited to late evenings and weekends, then why do I choose to work extra hours in order to provide private lessons? My job pays reasonably well, especially by Russian standards, and my apartment is free with the role (standard practice for those employed as language teachers here) – what drives me to go the extra mile?
My answer to this is two-fold. The main reason is that I genuinely love my job, and that children never fail to amaze me. I have, for instance, a 3 year-old student who is bilingual to the extent where she has been known to interpret for me when another child is looking for something and the Russian classroom assistant isn’t immediately available – she is simply INCREDIBLE, a mini genius, with a brain like a sponge and a personality and smile that could win over the hardest of hearts. On the other hand, it is just as satisfying to begin teaching a child with no knowledge of the English language – which can be challenging, I’ll admit – and to hear them say their first sentence in their new language or to point at an object and identify it with perfect pronunciation. Knowing that this is the first step in a journey towards a possible bilingual level of understanding is exciting and, to me, it is a privilege to help them on their way.
Another, more practical reason for taking extra work on board is, if I may speak frankly, the financial gains from doing so. After 4 years of study and perhaps 2-3 years in the job, the average teacher in the UK will earn £24,000 per year before tax. By British standards, this is a decent wage, but if you are able to look on the jobs board section of this website you will see that it is possible to earn anywhere between £600 to £1500 per week – NET – working a governess job in Moscow, Dubai, or similar cities where the demand for educated, professional native English speakers is high. This, on top of the fact tutor and governess jobs are usually centered around a group of 4 children or less – meaning you are better able to work on an individual basis to help gain the trust of the child and assess learning and development needs – means that there is really no contest as to which type of job strikes the best balance between financial gain and work satisfaction.
Children are just tiny people, people who do not always have the patience or emotional tolerance of their older peers, and to say that working with them in any capacity is easy is a lie – however, I personally find there is nothing more rewarding than passing on knowledge which you know will enhance life skills. And, to top it all off, children can make amazing friends. They might not like your headscarf, but you can also trust that when they tell you look beautiful, or that you love you, they are telling the truth.
And about the reservations you could have about coming to live here? Well, it did get to -34 degrees celsius one night in January, which was also most conveniently the night I left my keys on the sleeper train home from St Petersburg – however, thanks to the fantastic circle of friends I was able to make easily through expat groups and international events held regularly throughout Moscow, I was able to find a sofa to sleep on for the night before obtaining a spare set of keys from my boss the next day. Heating is also heavily subsidized by the government, as is water and electricity, meaning than my most recent bill for a 2.5 month period came to the total of a whopping 1500 rubles – around £20. I don’t even have to think about bills.
With regards to danger, I live in one of the outer suburbs of the city and, despite living in a slightly intimidating-looking 25 floor apartment block identical to the other 10 surrounding blocks, I can honestly say I have never once felt threatened walking alone in the city, even late at night. I’ve spent time in the “Western” cities of Dublin and Barcelona and had my phone stolen, but here, if you drop money on the street, it is more likely than not that someone will pick it up and come running after you with it. People in the suburbs may have little to no knowledge of English, but will assist you in any way they can should they see you are looking for a particular bus to catch, or need help carrying your shopping upstairs; people are people wherever you go and, I like to believe, mostly have good intentions.
The Cyrillic alphabet is actually very easy to learn as it is phonetic – it’s the grammar you’ve got to watch out for.
There are more things to do in Moscow than I can list on one hand but I tend to detail this in a private blog of my own – all I will say now, though, is that you will be neither bored, lonely, nor disappointed. The first time I saw St Basil’s Cathedral in real life I was in awe; restaurants are fabulous; there are international events held on a twice or thrice weekly basis at any given time of year and the theatres, parks and museums are out of this world.
And lastly? Well, Russian people aren’t fake -but this is precisely the thing I like about them most. Sure, customer service isn’t smiley and happy like in the West, but then again, should it really have to be? Alternatively, however, you can be sure that if a Russian person smiles at you, engages in conversation with you, or invites you places, then they really do like you – it’s unlikely they would do it just to be polite. They are genuine – just like children.
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