Saturday, April 3, 2021

What It's Like to Work at American English Center (AEC) In Ukraine

The view from the window at the Dnipro
office of American English Center.

I have been teaching English at AEC in Dnipro for about a year now.  Before I began teaching at this school, I read the blog by Katherine or "Crazy About Ukraine" as her blogger profile states.  I recently went back to this blog when searching about getting a visa and I thought to myself, "I need to write about my experiences here in Ukraine more" so I decided to write this entry about my experiences working at American English Center (AEC) in Dnipro, Ukraine.

As of this writing, I am about to take a break from teaching and go explore some of Ukraine and work on some side projects.  I have been teaching at AEC during the COVID19 pandemic in Ukraine and business seems to have slowed down a bit.  However, I never taught here outside of COVID (I arrived in Ukraine three days before quarantine began), so I don't know what "business as usual" looks like at AEC.  

When I arrived in Ukraine, I trained and did some teaching practice at a school in Kyiv.  As I have taught at another school in Ukraine (English Language Center - ELC), taught high school English in Egypt, have a master's in TESOL, as well as a CELTA, I am guessing that the school thought that I didn't need too much training.   After about three to four days of training, it was time to go to Dnipro to begin work.  However, at this point, the quarantine began, so the manager had me come back to Kyiv as the schools were all closed down for a couple of months and the school would begin to transition to online learning.

I taught online for a couple of semesters.  The classes went pretty good.  I am not a fan of teaching online, but the course material that is provided by AEC gives enough activities to work with and there's always the benefit of adding supplemental material and conversation.  After three or so months of teaching online, I went to work in Dnipro.

Dnipro is one of Ukraine's largest cities but is quite different than Kyiv.  It has the feel of a smaller city in some ways, but a lot of big-city amenities.  There are a few big malls with lots of shops, such as Most City and Dafi (one of the two AEC schools in Dnipro, and the one that I teach at, is near Dafi).  There is a nice downtown area with many shops, restaurants, and parks.  Most of the students that I teach tell me that they like Dnipro more than Kyiv and many other cities in Ukraine.  In fact, other than about half sharing their want to leave Ukraine, most of the students really like Dnipro.  

American Engish Center then and now

I am going to compare my experience with Katherine's, as quite a few years have passed and there have been some things that are different now, and probably different in Dnipro from the Kharkiv office of AEC.

  • You get your teaching schedule about 24 hours before classes start. This can be really scary at first, especially if you're a perfectionist like me, but it gets easier over time. Again, the material is rather repetitive so it takes significantly less prep after teaching it the first time. 
This is still true.  Each semester lasts 7 weeks, with a week "break" between semesters.  Generally, I would get my schedule for the week the day before class.  Sometimes you don't get your full schedule until halfway through the week.  For example, I may not know what I am doing on Sunday until Wednesday or Thursday.  
  • Midterms means that you'll need to hand-write progress reports for all of your students. If you're teaching full-time and have over 60 students in core classes, hello writer's cramp. (On the other hand [get it? haha :p] progress reports are a chance to interact more personally with students and give needed feedback.)
I can't imagine having sixty students.  Most of my classes have 4 students, and I generally teach 6 to 7 classes at most.  I have been the only native speaker working in our office (other than my wife when two classes need to be taught at the same time.  I have not written progress reports, but give a final exam score based on students speaking.  It's super easy to do.  
  • Supplies. It's not a big deal, but always have your own tape and your own chalk. Also, since you teach in an elementary school classroom rented out for the evening, be prepared to battle with ancient Soviet blackboards of evil. If you wear black, you will lose. And always bring wet wipes to clean your hands of all that chalk dust.
I work in a rented office building, but the other Dnipro AEC location is in a high school near the center of the city.  We still use blackboards and chalk, but I don't use them too often.  I like to focus on conversational English and teaching the lessons.  As a native speaker, I do very little grammar, except when the students have a problem with grammar or if there is a question about grammar.  Otherwise, there is a local Russian and/or Ukrainian-speaking teacher who does the grammar portion of the lesson.  
  • Another thing about working in an elementary school? The bathrooms are squat pits. Doors, toilet paper, and soap are as rare as unicorns, but during 4-6 PM you may encounter small children running [amok through] the restrooms : )
Yes, this is still true if you don't work at a rented office location.  If you are working at one of the schools, this is how it is.  It's kind of interesting though.  I have learned to like squat toilets.  
  • All printing is done in a central office so along with the scheduling chaos at the beginning of the semester, there's a lot of supply chaos. Books may come just in time or "it'll be here sometime next semester."
I have not had this problem at all.  There are many books now and they have all been given to me far ahead of my first class.  We reuse the same books and finding the laminates are easy enough as well.

It seems that a lot has changed since Katherine has taught at AEC, but some things are slower to change.   Overall, I have liked my time at AEC.  There are some issues, such as you get so used to the material after a while that it can get boring to teach.  Also, when you have the same students semester after semester, you kind of run out of things to talk about, so you have to get a bit philosophical.  

When I taught at ELC, which was about five years ago in Kyiv, we had a lot of students from a lower-income background.  Now, Ukraine is going through a cultural shift and things are changing.  People seem to have more money, and the students are more "up and coming" in the world.  Many students work in the IT-sphere and can afford luxuries like private English classes.  This means that sometimes students feel pressure to conform or look a certain way, generally more upper or middle class, and are slow to talk about some things or admit to doing certain activities that may seem "beneath them."  This includes swimming in the Dnipro river (my daughter loves it in that water, and so do many locals), talking about shopping at a second-hand store (I do it!), or coming from families where there's a weird person.  Sometimes I seem to shock the students by talking about doing regular life things that are not strange (and were not strange for my other students or local Ukrainian friend) but are somehow very strange or embarrassing to my students.

 The management at AEC does a pretty good job of working with the teachers and trying to make everyone happy, just as Katherine says.  Now with COVID, things are harder, and I never got close to reaching the hours that I expected to, which meant that I had to take on a few side projects, such as teaching online with a Chinese school (which helped me to earn a lot more than I would have at AEC), going back to run my Etsy shop, and doing freelance writing on the side.  This made me quite exhausted to teach, especially when those long full-day Sundays came around.  As I started to do well in Dnipro doing other activities, I realized that I needed a break, so I decided that I will be taking a break at least for the next couple of semesters.  I don't know if I will go back to AEC (my contract ended a few weeks ago), and a new replacement teacher has been found for me.  

Getting a Ukrainian Visa

Katherine also states that:  

A work visa from the school is about as likely as a nice fluffy roll of lavender-scented toilet paper in a bathroom stall at Barabashova market.

I am in no way advocating breaking the laws of any country (did you really dream of growing up to be an illegal immigrant in Eastern Europe as a child?), so just do the best you can to get things straightened out before you come or immediately after you arrive. It's pretty much all on your shoulders.

Things have probably changed since then.  Getting the visa was a headache, but I was able to go to Istanbul and get it taken care of.  It has been a few months and I am just about to get my residency permit, but the school does help with it, despite what others have said on various forums.  You just have to really be proactive about it and be willing to spend quite a bit of money, especially if you come as a family, as I have.  

I have taught at a few English schools now, and they are not so different.   In fact, as Katherine says on her blog, this school could be anywhere:  Thailand, South Korea, Mexico, Egypt, and things would probably look and operate more or less the same.  I could have probably found a job, even in Ukraine, making a lot more money.  I could have probably found something with housing (such as the school where I took my CELTA -- London School of English), but I didn't go that route.  I also came during COVID which made things very challenging as well.  Having ended up teaching online with a Chinese company, I am now making more per hour than I would probably find anywhere in Ukraine, so there's that too. 

AEC Dnipro Ukraine

Would I recommend AEC?

Yes, I would recommend working at this school.  They give you all the material you need and it's very easy to prep for classes.  Living here has been a great experience.  I have liked living in Dnipro a lot and it has been very interesting.  It's a lot quieter than Kyiv, and there's a bit less to do, but I do like having the sea closer by and the feel of a smaller city is more interesting.  I also feel more exotic here, in the sense that there are far fewer ex-pats in this city.  The people are great and I have loved getting to know my students better.  

Honestly, my dream was to work in Odesa (the city where I took my CELTA, and my favorite city in Ukraine), but I never inquired about that and probably won't at this time in my life.  I honestly have no clue where life will take me, but I imagine that things are about to change as COVID ends.  We will see though.  Thanks for reading!

I am going to also link to some of the sites that Katherine linked to:  

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