TEFL qualified Gemma Toovey found struggles and triumphs when she opted to teach English in Belarus, a lesser frequented part of the former Soviet Union. I asked her more…
1) What are your first impressions of teaching English in Belarus? What is the first thing you noticed? What’s the part you have found most challenging?
Like lots of cultures, Belarus takes a much more ‘relaxed’ approach to work, especially where there are foreigners and therefore visas concerned. My pay arrangements were slightly…improvised. I didn’t really have any idea what I was going to until I arrived and met up with the director of the school. Nothing dangerous but just a little unnerving for a Brit who quite likes to know what’s going on…
There wasn’t really much support or training offered as to how or what I taught; no resources, colleagues or on the job training.
Having said this, there is something great about being the only native English speaker these students had ever met. I clearly did things in a different way from what their education system had taught them to expect from such a course, and their appreciation of that was clear to see. A really nice rapport developed over the course of the semester and there wasn’t one student I wasn’t sad to leave when the time came.
2) Was it hard to find and fix up a job?
The way things are done is very much still word of mouth and someone who knows someone…and most of my work emerged that way once I was in the country. The initial contract which enabled me to get a visa was arranged through an existing contact I had. International organisations like International House would probably be the best bet for securing a visa and getting into the country.
3) Can you give me an idea of a typical working day?
My week consisted of two lessons in a primary school teaching 7 year olds from scratch, two lessons at an IT company doing advanced conversation practice with businessmen and women, two evening classes each with two groups of young adults at intermediate and advanced level, and one free conversation class for any of the language school students who wanted to come. It was a bit of an odd working day, but left me lots of time to plan lessons and also meet up with friends. I definitely didn’t feel overworked, but could’ve taken on private students or probably other classes if I had needed the money.
4) How did you find your students? What is the biggest challenge in your teaching and where have you already seen success?
My students were great – they were the real plus of being there. One group especially really adopted me and in the classic Belarusian way, went out of their way to make me feel welcome in their country. They worked hard, but once we had built up a good rapport, I think they really enjoyed the lessons too, and made them enjoyable for me. The kids were the only challenge as far as teaching was concerned – it was my first experience with children and my first experience with low levels, and I still look back and slightly wonder why I ever said yes!
5) If there is one piece of advice you could give to someone coming to Belarus to teach, what would it be?
You have to be thick-skinned to cope with the initial frustrations and the fact that nothing seems straightforward. But it is so worth it; once you get to know them, the people are the most generous and open I have ever met.
Find out more about Belarus.
Why not share your experiences, struggles and joys about teaching English in a largely forgotten location below?