Teaching English in Russia: Polly

I have only recently come across Polly’s blog about her time living and working in Moscow, and I love it! She keeps a sense of humor while navigating practical topics such as Dating in Russia, What my lovely, LOL-worthy ESL students say, and the fascinating culture of Tattoos in Russia. Now if I had only remembered to ask her for tips on how to brave the cold…



Polly, you must get asked this question all the time but–Why Russia? How did you pick this country for your English-teaching adventure?

Everyone always asks me this! I admit, it was a bit by chance. I was offered a language scholarship by my college and I had the choice of four critical languages: Russian, Chinese, Japanese, or Arabic. A little at random, I chose Russian and I dove into an intensive language program the summer before college began. After that, I was hooked.

After graduating a year early (with a double major in Russian Studies and International Relations!), I decided I wanted to spend some time in Russia. I took the first job I was offered and I’ve been here ever since!

 How much Russian did you know upon arriving in the country? How much has your level improved?

I studied Russian throughout college so I spoke Russian pretty well when I arrived. Obviously some things were difficult, but overall my experience was quite a bit easier than a lot of non-Russian speaking expats. I think my speaking levels haven’t gotten that much better (laziness!), my understanding is astronomically better.

When it comes to English, what is the typical level in Russia? Is English learning in demand?

In Moscow, most people (particularly the young and/or rich) have a decent level of English. It’s pretty rare to meet really fluent speakers, but most Muscovites have some level of English. Outside of the major cities, English speakers become really, really rare.

English learning is totally in demand! People are willing to pay a lot of money for native speakers, regardless of qualifications.


Winter in Moscow’s Red Square

What ages do you teach?

Last year I taught strictly corporate English. (Think me, a 24-year-old girl, teaching 40+ year-old businessmen and forcing them to play games!) Though the scheduling is really whacky, I really enjoy teaching adults. In the upcoming year, I’ll be totally switching gears and I’ll be working in an elite kindergarten!

Are there any taboos that you find you cannot talk about in the classroom?

Russia is culturally conservative so there are definitely some topics to avoid if you don’t know your class very, very well: homosexuality, gender roles, and politics can quickly become super-heated topics in the wrong classroom.

What tips do you have for aspiring ESL teachers who want to haul anchor to Russia?

Be prepared! If you’re headed to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, don’t assume you’re jetting off to a fabulous European city. I sound very pessimistic and I don’t mean to – I love Moscow! But most people who have fled Russia complained about the standard of living. Come expecting soviet-style flats, dirty streets, and a pretty non-European feel. Manage your expectations and be pleasantly surprised when you arrive!

How integrated do you feel in your new setting? What do you do in your free time?

I feel pretty integrated in Moscow (after three years, I should be!). It helps that I have a lovely Russian boyfriend which gives me an easy connection into the Russian social scene, while I also have plenty of my own expat friends when I need an English connection. As much as I may complain, I’ve felt really at home ever since I moved to Russia.

I’m getting lazy in my old age, you guys! When I first arrived in Moscow I would go out every weekend and party hard in the various clubs around Moscow. Now I’m more likely to be hanging out at a small house party or chilling in a bar. When the weather’s nice, I like exploring the many parks, churches, and other cool places around the city.


Russian winters

What have been some of the most difficult things to get used to in Russia?

Coming from a small town and a smaller liberal arts school, I think my biggest hurdle was coming to a big city. Moving 5,000 miles away without knowing anyone? OK. Not speaking English? No problem-o! Buuut… Noise all the time? People everywhere? That was tricky. I don’t think I slept more than a few hours for the first two weeks I was in Russia – the noise of passing cars and chattering people was too much for me. I think other people coming from larger cities would be able to integrate into city life much more easily than I did.

What stereotypes do you find that Russians have about Americans? What about those that Americans have about Russians that are just not true?

Russian stereotypes about Americans: That we’re all fat. (Not all of us!) That we’re all outrageously wealthy. (I wish.)

American stereotypes about Russians: That they drink a lot of vodka. (That is true!) That they’re all really unfriendly. (Russians are quite curt to people they don’t know, but not necessarily unfriendly. Once you’re introduced, Russians are really, really friendly!)

Let’s wrap up with a funny story from your time teaching English in Russia–it can be from either inside or outside of the classroom, but it has to be from your time abroad!

I have so many funny stories about the strange things my students say. Take for example, phrasal verbs (verb + preposition that make a different meaning). Russians have big problems with this because there’s nothing like it in Russian. My favorite mistake was from a young student. I asked him about his weekend. He was trying to explain that he went to his friend’s house, but he said: “Yes, I came out to my friends last night.” I was laughing so much I couldn’t explain what he said that was so funny. (Unfortunately for me, I make TONS of mistakes in Russian so I get my karmic retribution!)

 Keep up with Polly’s adventures at her blog, A Girl and Her Travels. Polly’s just arrived back in Moscow for a fourth year, so follow along!

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  1. what a little scholar! so glad y’all swapped stories – love learning more about you gals!

  2. Yay! Thanks for posting this!

  3. This is great. I tend to forget how much I lucked out with my liberal, progressive colleagues at RT. And you’re right. expectations management makes the world of difference in feeling comfortable in a country.

    • Cassandra

      Good point–expectations can really color the experience in some cases!

  4. I love that you do this series! When I was in Zagreb, Croatia this summer, I ran into two people who had been teaching in Russia, and it’s interesting to read about a third, since you don’t hear a lot about travels there. Thanks for sharing!

    • Cassandra

      Thank ya! And–that’s really cool! I hadn’t realized the scope of ESL in Russia until reading Polly’s blog, but it’s quite a big business.

  5. Great interview ladies! 🙂

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