New Teacher Tales – Aleks

In our New Teacher Tales series, we interview people teaching English abroad, about how, why and where they started out, about their experiences teaching abroad, and what advice they have for new teachers.

In this post, British teacher Aleks tells us about how he changed from being a lawyer to teaching English, working in Uzbekistan, Oman and Russia, about paying for a meal with coca cola and living in a haunted flat in Uzbezistan.

Where do you work now?

I’ve been the Director of Studies for Windsor English Language School in Moscow since 2018 . I’m also an online CELTA trainer for a school in China, a committee member for the IATEFL LAMSIG (IATEFL is a large English teaching association and the LAMSIG is their special interest group for leadership and management) and I run a website and a Youtube channel.

Tell me more about the job?

In my job as Director of Studies, I am responsible for the academic side of a school so my duties include hiring and training teachers, dealing with student feedback, designing new courses and making sure we have the necessary materials and equipment to deliver them. I also still teach some hours but I am usually teaching IELTS or other exam preparation courses or legal English. I actually quite miss teaching general English classes, so I love when I get the opportunity to cover one.

What’s the best thing about living in Moscow?

I can’t really speak about all of Russia, because it’s so huge and there is a big difference between Moscow and other cities. I love living in Moscow. I never considered myself a big city person; London never appealed to me and I wasn’t very keen on Beijing. But something about Moscow really speaks to me. I think it’s the people I love most. When westerners think of Russians, they always think about Vladimir Putin but there are 140 million other Russian people here! I find the Russian sense of humour close to my own as it is dark and sometimes self-effacing.

Aleks Volls Moscow

To find out more about teaching English in Russia, read our post on different types of jobs.

What did you do before you started teaching English?

I wanted to be a lawyer ever since I saw Tom Cruise in the film A Few Good Men in the famous “you can’t handle the truth” scene with Jack Nicholson. When I first saw that scene (aged around 10 years old), I remember telling my parents that I wanted to do that for a job, and so they told me I wanted to be a lawyer. On reflection, I probably wanted to be Tom Cruise or just the smartest guy in the room. But anyway, I pursued a career in law for several years, before I realised that I didn’t want to be like any of the partners I worked for, and if I was going to work 70 hours a week or more, I wanted it to be on my terms.

Why did you become an English teacher?

As I say, I wasn’t happy with where a career in law would lead. I wanted to have more enjoyment in my work experience. I am a hard worker, but I didn’t want to just turn up and grind out paperwork. Teaching English looked to me like an escape. I have to admit I was initially drawn in by the kind of “teach on the beach” advertising that I now despise. But I did relish the challenge of moving to different countries, communicating to culturally different people and experiencing more of the world.

Where have you taught English?

I started in Uzbekistan of all places. I didn’t really know anything about it before I went but I had a friend working there and so it seemed a good idea to start somewhere that I knew someone. I only left Uzbekistan because, at the time, it was a closed country and I needed to get some of my salary back to the UK to pay off my law school debts. So, I went to China for a year and I was able to clear not only my law school debts, but also my student loan too.

Read more about real teachers’ experiences of teaching English in China.

I then joined the British Council in Oman, where I worked for two years. Again, I didn’t really know much about Oman before I went there, which was a large part of the appeal for me. I quite enjoyed my two years there, but then I saw an opportunity to move into management in Russia and so I’ve been here since

What’s the best thing that’s happened to you since you became an English teacher?

For me it is the amount I’ve grown as a person. That might sound a bit cheesy to some people, but I’ve learnt a lot about myself and made some changes. I value people being genuine a lot more than I used to, and I’ve learnt to be more assertive and give my true opinion (if it won’t offend someone) or ask for help where I need it. And I’ve learnt to be more resourceful and innovative.

Of my actual experiences though there is a lot to choose from. In Uzbekistan, I visited Samarkand, which is very impressive. In China, I saw the great wall. In Oman, Wadi Shab and the Bimmah sinkhole were some of my favourite places. And of course in Russia, seeing the Kremlin, Red Square, Gorky Park, the Hermitage, Peterhof and many more. And I got to see England in the semi-final of a world cup, even though we lost.

Presneting at an ELT conference

What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you since you became an English teacher?

I guess the same as everyone else who has been teaching in 2020 and 2021 – Covid-19. I haven’t had it so far (touch wood) and I have been vaccinated, but this had a massive impact on my own mental health and that of my teachers. We had to put all our classes online at the drop of a hat and I had to assist teachers to use Zoom remotely, one of which is 80 years old! We had staff get very ill, had several months where we weren’t supposed to go outside, and of course many of us were worrying about our families back home. And we have to remember that this still isn’t over. We can’t even say that the worst is behind us, although hopefully everyone is better prepared if something like this happened again.

Tell us a bizarre story that’s happened to you as an English teacher.

There have been a lot of strange moments. In Uzbekistan I once had to pay for a meal with bottles of Coca-Cola. Basically, you are paid about 60% of your salary onto a card there. You can’t withdraw cash on this card, so you have to pay with it and most places are supposed to accept it. So, I expected to be able to pay for my meal with this card, but the restaurant’s machine wasn’t working. I paid the cash that I had and they agreed that I could buy a few bottles of Coca-Cola from a nearby shop for them to make up the difference.

I guess there’s also the haunted flat I lived in Uzbekistan. The landlady was convinced that her late husband was haunting it. Two of my colleagues had actually lived in the flat before and they did tell me a few stories that almost talked me out of moving in. Anyway I decided to move in and the landlady spent about half an hour telling the ghost to leave me alone (in Russian of course). I never experienced anything remotely ghostly there, and my colleagues just concluded that the ghost couldn’t stand me and left!

Is there anything you would change about your time as an English teacher?

Not really. I’ve had things happen that I didn’t like and I’ve made the same mistakes as anyone in my personal life, but ultimately you come out of these things and hopefully you learn from them.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about getting into English teaching?

Teaching English attracts a broad spectrum of people so it’s difficult to give generic advice for everyone. Certainly everyone has something to offer, but not every position might be right for you.
If you are going to do it, you should do it for the right reasons though. Teaching English is a fantastic opportunity to travel and to learn about other cultures and languages. However, you should remember that when you get to your destination, you have a room full of people who probably earn less than you, paying a large part of their salary to be in that room. That thought should fill you with a sense of responsibility to do your best for these people. If it doesn’t, please don’t become a teacher.

If you really want to go far in this field, it’s not hard. This is what you need to do. Firstly, get a CELTA or Trinity CertTESOL. Then work in some good schools that can offer you ongoing training and observation. Make sure that in some of your jobs you renew your contract at least once – don’t bounce from job to job every year. Get a Delta or DipTESOL after a few years. Keep attending training, webinars and conferences if you get the opportunity and ask to run a training session as soon as you feel confident enough.

We connected with Aleks through his really useful videos about teaching English on his Youtube Channel, so go and check that out and subscribe to his channel! You won’t regret it.

If you found this interesting, don’t miss our other New Teacher Tales interviews, with teachers from all over the world, including Ukraine, the Philippines and India, giving their stories and advice to new TEFL teachers.

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