Last September, a fortnight after moving to Riga to work at International House, I wrote New, New, New!, a post about how I’d settled in to the Latvian capital. So with Easter round the corner, and about a year to the day since I accepted the Senior Teacher job at IH Riga, it’s time to sit down and reflect on the same things I did 6 months ago.
As with the prequel to this, I’ll try to glean a few general tips for teachers in italics at the end of each section. April/May is a period of a lot of movement in the international EFL job market, so I hope the post can be useful for those considering a move (even to Riga – we’ll be posting job offers on IH World shortly). Feel free to comment with any ideas!
As I mentioned in New, New, New!, the chance to develop professionally was the main motivation for moving to Riga, and I’ve been pretty pleased with this aspect so far.
My previous job in a smallish private academy in Albacete, Spain was comfy but very professionally limited, so I’ve really enjoyed performing the roles of Senior Teacher: official observations, staff training sessions, being the third part of the Academic Management Team with Ian (DOS) and Sally (ADOS). I’m fortunate to have learned plenty from them about good staff and educational management to take forward myself in years to come, and benefit from their years of experience in various International House schools.
When people ask where I work, I say that International House is like “the Starbucks of language academies”, as it has over 160 affiliates around the world. These branches work together, and I just got back from giving a presentation at a teacher training day at IH Torun in Poland (on my favourite topic, feedback and mindset). Brilliant experience from which I learned a lot; looking forward to the next one! The chance to present a seminar at this sort of event was impossible in my previous non-IH job. I’ve also just finished my stint as a TiT (Teacher in Training of course) on the IHCYLT Young Learner’s course, so I’m just waiting for official confirmation that I passed and can work as a tutor on future courses in any IH school around the world.
In September, I wrote that I was expecting the language barrier to be more of a problem in class, and that my explanations were going to have to be refined. My rudimentary Russian has helped me translate the odd word, but I’ve also become more comfortable with students using online translators to help them. If it helps them understand meaning quicker and I check it, I shouldn’t let my teacher ego get in the way, right? Tech is there to help. Moreover, the students’ attitudes creates a more positive atmosphere, as compared to Spain, people are less afraid of failure, and understand that errors are just a natural step in mastering a language (this is growth mindset!)
It’s been a positive enough experience for me to be staying for the 2017/2018 term, and the decision wasn’t difficult!
- If you’re going to move countries to teach, move with specific professional reasons in mind (otherwise it’s a working holiday). Keep these in mind throughout the year, and make sure you make the move worthwhile.
- Say YES to as much as you can and be proactive to create opportunities. “I don’t have time” is a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to work; time management is the key! Working at IH provides a load of opportunities, so make the most of them!
Following on from the prequel and to re-quote my good friend Josh (via a bloke in the post office), “comparison is the enemy of joy”, so I’ll try to stay away from comparing Riga to my previous home in Albacete. The weather was better in south-east Spain, the people were generally friendlier, there were more public holidays, taxes were lower (OOPS!!).
But really, Riga is a fantastic place to live, and has so much going for it that I never imagined this time last year. In my head, anything east of Berlin had to be full of massive Soviet-style concrete blocks, but Riga’s nickname as “Paris of the East” really isn’t as ridiculous as it seems. It’s a very small city for a capital, but it has everything you need day-to-day and is easy to move around in. There is so much going on in terms of festivals and events, and hundreds of really cool cafes and restaurants to check out. It’s been interesting to go to reasonably-priced ballet and opera performances, for example, learn how to cross country ski, get into bouldering, and attend the Techchill conference in February. There’s a thriving start up scene here that I’ve been introduced to through my girlfriend Molly’s job at education start up Edurio (fantastic class tool, by the way), and their creativity and can-do attitude is infectious. There are also many great day trips a short train ride away: the beach at Jurmala (below left, wintry) and a load of adventure activities in Sigulda (below right – went bobsleighing a few weeks ago with my mate Brocky who was visiting; NEVER AGAIN!!) A few friends have visited already, and we run out of days before we run out of things to do here.
Of course, nowhere is perfect, and the winter was pretty brutal with some days at nearly -20. But the cold came and went, and was not nearly as sustained as I was expecting. Like everyone else round here, you just wrap up warm and get on with your life! Moreover, I’m still struggling a bit to find a sporting community to become a part of, as Rigans seem to be quite individualistic compared to Spaniards (OOPS). For instance, I’ve been in touch with a local triathlon club about training with them, but they only train together for 4 months a year!
- Keep an open mind in terms of teaching destinations. Like Riga, they could well surprise you for the better!
- As I said in September, patience! Everything is a process rather than a destination. Making good local friends, for example, won’t happen quickly in this culture.
Russian is widely spoken by the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians, most of my colleagues among them, although Latvian is the only official language. I’ve been dedicating as much time as I can to learning and practicing Russian by using videos, books, podcasts and chats with colleagues, although it’s often at the end of a long to-do list. Like anything worth doing, it’s proving to be quite a struggle at times, but learning Russian has provided a range of relevant insights into student errors in class, and also taught me a lot about learning English.
Although English is widely spoken in Riga, if you’re determined and creative, Russian can be used, although most of the time, my perception of my ability is superior to how people can understand me, as pronunciation (phonemes, but also stress) must be perfect to be understood. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to sustain a 15-minute conversation with my Russian friend in Moscow Marina by Easter, which means within the next fortnight. I’ve also started an informal language exchange with an acquaintance in Riga (45 minutes C1 English in return for 45 minutes A1 Russian once a week), and a few of my colleagues and I are due to start weekly Russian lessons with the DOS Ian tomorrow (Monday 3rd April).
- Rome wasn’t built in a day!
- If you’re keen, and aren’t afraid to be wrong, people may surprise you with how much they are willing to help out.
- The process of learning a language teaches you so much more than just another dialect. It’s a massive opportunity as an EFL teacher abroad, so don’t waste it!
The conclusion is the same as in the post back in September: A work in progress here in Riga (there’s never actually a finish line, is there?)