Thursday, 10 November 2011

Doing it Privately

So it snowed properly yesterday. Big fat wet clumps of white settled on the ground for about two hours and then disappeared again. No matter, they are the first of many and their appearance means that it is now officially the start of my first Russian winter. It's time to strap in (or wrap up) as I feel the honeymoon period is drawing to a close and my thus far unwavering commitment to this fascinating city is about to be tested to the limit.

I'm not exactly frightened by the prospect of -20°C nights, or navigating ice-rinks to get to the metro, but I do worry about their effect on my social life. I am nothing of a skater at the best of times, and I imagine it's much like driving; a couple of pints will not help the situation. Also, my landlady has asked me to vacate my room by mid-December (she says because her 'family situation has changed' but I suspect it may have something to do with the lecture she gave me a few weeks ago about the risks of a young single girl staying out past 10pm at night) so I have begun the painful process flat-hunting, and the idea of trudging around in the slush viewing apartments does not fill me with joy. 

But more of that later. Right now I want to talk about private students.

Most English teachers in Moscow teach students privately. For most it's either moonlighting on your days off like me or, perhaps more sensibly, working for a school part time and privately the rest of the time. I do know a few teachers who are full-time freelancers but, as far as I can see, it requires some hefty balls and/or good networking skills.

My initial attempts at finding students proved rather successful. In fact, I didn’t find them, they found me. My colleague put me in touch with an Armenian biology teacher with a fourteen year old son who, from what I understood, had won some sort of prize for discovering exciting things in a Petri dish and needed to present his findings in English at a conference. I enjoyed our lessons; I was welcomed by the whole family, was invited to stay for dinner on several occasions and got schooled in Armenian culture. Did you know that the characters of the Armenian alphabet are all based on religious iconography and have hidden meanings when arranged in order into certain patterns? Yeah, me neither.

The Armenians in turn referred me on to a family friend, Masha, a graduate 'working' in her uncle’s Italian restaurant and basically having it easy. She wasn't so much fun, except for when she was rowing with her colleagues during our classes. Inevitably, over the summer more and more lessons were postponed or cancelled and I found myself without any private students as well as very few in school. I wasn't very upset.

When the new school year started to get underway I decided to be proactive and get myself some more work. There are several ways to go about finding students, but you have to be wary of the fact that there are often other people looking to make money out of you. I was introduced to one such individual by a friend of a friend. He was taking full advantage of his position as head of admissions for an English speaking school by arranging tuition for those students who didn't quite make the grade. It seems to me that Russia often attracts a certain kind of ex-pat businessman, and it's not one I particularly care for (the image of a thuggish used-car salesman springs to mind). When I met um...let’s call him Brian, he was very enthusiastic; promised me lots of students and even tried to convince me to work as an art teacher at his school, It seemed like an alright set-up, even if he did want around 20% commission.

In fact Brian was so enthusiastic that he called me several times a day, usually while I was working to offer me students at times at which he already knew I would be unavailable. Then he sent me to meet with the manager of a commercial bank on the assurance that although they had asked for classes at specific times, they would be flexible and happy to negotiate a different schedule. This turned out not to be the case. The manager was not a happy bunny when he realised that I couldn't teach when he wanted, and even though I didn’t understand it, his phone conversation with Brian in my presence was pretty uncomfortable. I didn't hear from Brian again.

The friend of a friend did also refer me to a Korean family whose daughters attend an another English speaking school and needed help preparing for the TOEFL exam, and their friends, with two adorable kids of 3 and 5, to whom I teach art. The pay is pretty good, I pay no commission to anyone and it now seems I have an in with the Moscow Korean community (I have no idea how big it is). I have come to the conclusion that, for me at least, personal referrals are by far the best way to get good private students.

Some things I have learnt:

  • Koreans measure age starting from 1 not 0 and by the number of New Years a person has been alive for. My students for example are 4 and 6 in the Korean calendar
  •  It is actually easier to return clothes in Russian shops than it is in the UK.
  • Why some of my kids’ class are such brats. When their mothers are having slanging matches in the corridors and making each other cry, how can you expect their offspring to be well-adjusted?
  • Drunken Russian guys dancing are hilarious.

My friend who teaches privately full-time has given me permission to blog about some of her experiences, so next time I'll share ssome of her stories.

Until then, до свидания x

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