Teaching English opens up doors for adventure, a life abroad, a career change, and the experience to learn a foreign language. Language teachers come from all sorts of backgrounds, and in some cases the most interesting stories come from those who never imagined themselves in the position. Today we’ll meet Lucy, a Ukrainian-American who is currently teaching English in the Ukraine (Kiev, to be exact). Read up on her experience with the people, the ever-popular pickles and life in a post-Soviet country!
Lucy strolling a park plaza in Kiev
Lucy, I know that you’ve got a background in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; how did you decide to teach English in the Ukraine?
Well, my case is special—I wanted to and had taken on the responsibility of living with my ailing grandma in Kiev, where I happen to be from. Teaching English was the only thing I could think of that I could do without a work visa. Coincidentally, it turns out it pays twice as much as engineering would!
What is the typical English level in the Ukraine, and what is the demand for English education?
This is hard to answer accurately, but as far as I understand, everyone can read the Latin alphabet (Ukrainians use Cyrillic). As for level—I think everyone has taken some English in school, but few speak well unless they took the initiative to go to extra classes or they need it for work, etc.
Not a palace–this is actually a restored church
Tell us about your job—what age are your students? How are the lessons structured?
My students are mostly in their 20’s, with some ranging from 12 to 45 years old. I give classes to certain level students based on the school’s lesson plan and workbook. The lessons are all based on seven weeks of instruction: there are several rigidly-structured level classes as well as general “conversation clubs” after which the students can repeat a level, move on to the next one, take a break for seven weeks, or leave the school.
Lucy, I know that you’re actually from the Ukraine and have been there many times before –which cultural differences do you think take visitors off-guard? What things are still difficult to wrap your mind around?
Ukraine is a normal country for the most part, but they have some post-Soviet quirks that bug even me. In the Soviet times, there was a shortage of everything and people had to stay in long lines for bread and clothes—so now they still push and disrespect rules of personal space and skip lines. I’m talking about respectable-looking 50-year-olds!
Gotta love those pickles!
They also used to have to buy things in bulk because they weren’t always available—so now some street food vendors won’t let you buy just three cookies; they want you to take a kilo. Also, the young people can be a little too into fashion, a là go to Italy to shop instead of for cultural reasons.
Other than that, I can’t wrap my head around how varied and delicious their pickled veggies and flavored vodkas are! Oh yeah—and there’s a ton of drunk people everywhere—in the street, supermarket, metro—they aren’t violent but they’re reeking of liquor at every hour.
Honey-pepper vodka, anyone?
Sounds like a huge change from the states! Speaking of which, what items do you miss from the US? On the other side of things, what item or product would you ship home to have friends and family see/try?
I miss peanut butter. There’s no cheap milk alternative like soy/rice/almond for reasonable prices, though I was able to find TVP (I’m a vegetarian, which isn’t common here)!
There’s no Starbucks or Ikea or H&M or Forever 21, so it can be a little rough. They also don’t sell all brands of makeup and clothes here, but you can live without most of them. The specialty things here are food–usually homemade–so it’s not very ship-able. Maybe cheap cigarettes, though, which are ten times cheaper than in NY!
Pickles and varenyky, which are sweet dumplings with a sour cherry filling
Whoa! Speaking of duty-free items, have you been able to travel while based in Kiev? Where have you visited, and which places are next on your travel list?
I’m headed to Vienna/Bratislava/Budapest next week, then Sofia in Bulgaria and Ljubljana in Slovenia in the winter. I mean to visit Lviv and Odessa and Krimea in the Ukraine, when it gets warmer, and as much of Eastern Europe as time and money permits!
Making a pit-spot at an underground vodka-seller
Best of luck to you in that endeavor! In visiting the Ukraine, how important is it to have a working knowledge of the language? Also, what recommendations do you have for visitors to Kiev?
Since the EURO 2012 there have been a ton of signs placed in Latin characters and the metro and landmarks are signposted in English. I think you could be a functional tourist with zeo knowledge of Russian/Ukrainian, but you’d be more comfortable if you could read the characters and know some basic words.
Ok, good to know! I think I’ll plan a trip for the summer, though. So, what have been some of your most challenging moments?
My directors think it’s better that I not tell my students I speak Russian/Ukrainian so that they are forced to talk exclusively in English. Our school has American teachers only and so the lesson is expected to be entirely in English. BUT I DO SPEAK IT! It’s hard not to react to their jokes or comments or incorrect translations made in the language. Also, it can be hard to make a group of tired 25-year-olds be excited about repetition drills when it’s frigid out and I lost my voice two hours and three cups of tea ago. But they tend to cooperate well.
Also, sometimes I remember that I am not a teacher and don’t actually want to be doing this. But it really isn’t a bad job—at least at my workplace it isn’t; we have enough structure and resources that we don’t feel totally lost and awkward in front of a group of people. But that’s the hardest—keeping constant control of the situation without appearing like a tyrant, because I am basically a peer of most of my students.
Rolling around tanks, helicopters, submarines at a WWII memorial park
What humorous or unexpected questions have students asked you?
When they ask me about typically American things, I have to remind them that the US is a humongous country with very different people and views. A lot of them are super excited about the US and want to know if NYC is like they saw it in the movies and TV shows. Someone asked me if I came to the Ukraine to find a Ukrainian husband… They are all very curious about what touristy things I’ve been doing and how I like the city. And they wanted to know about pumpkin pie—I might have to arrange a show and tell!
In Peyzanjnaya Alley, which roughly translates to “a sight to see”
It’s quickly growing colder in the Ukraine; if you visit the county now, our interviewee highly recommends horseradish vodka to keep you warm. Finally, many thanks to Lucy for the interview!