Bits and bobs, Lined notebook

Work experience never hurts

There is no such thing as work experience which was just a waste of time and has not taught something important. All those little bits and pieces come together and form our personality at work, attitudes and decisions taken.

This post is going to be pretty personal: I want to outline, first of all for myself, what I took from my earlier positions and how it formed who I am now. Here we go!

Train conductor

Yes, my first work experience was nothing related to what I do now till you look closer. I was 18 (the age one can legally start working at such a position), joined a student club at my university in hopes of having fun, earning money and enjoying some time travelling on trains. Oh yes, my wanderlust has never been that satisfied (and probably never will). We were spending weeks on the way; luckily, Russia’s vast lands have no shortage of space to cover with railroads.

  • Taking care of about 50 people (an avereage number of passengers) of all ages and walks of life. Making sure that the safety requirements are met, everyone is with tea and not disturbing others.
  • Ability to work long hours and focus on different aspects. Day shifts – night shifts. One endless shift for two days in a row because your co-conductor is really ill and with fever. Paperwork, cleaning, casual chats with passengers, technical knowledge tests, service quality checks, you name it.
  • Road. Considering that I do not live in my country anymore, the sense of the Road (that’s right, with the capital R) could have been taken to a level when it actually affects my life a lot.

Visa centre/office work

This one was actually along with the language school below in the list but as it is not teaching, I will keep it here. A few months after my graduation I had an amazing idea that teaching is probably not exactly what I want. probably I want a stable office job, nine-to-five, leave the office and forget about it, you know what I mean. I managed to stick there for three months; I could not do it any longer even for a good payment.

  • Here is my main lesson: I hate paperwork. Doing it once in a while for myself is tolerable; doing it for weeks in a row, tens in a day, comparing the document numbers, spellings, checking that each signature is in place – no, thank you.
  • Working specific hours gives structure to life and less time is lost. Also, traditional working hours allow you better sync with other people while teaching adults usually happens on weekday evenings and weekends – not always suitable for personal plans.
  • Patience. It taught me patience for the reasons mentioned above.
  • Working with people under stress. Unlike trains where people have all the time and nothing to do, people in the visa center have plans and no time. Even though we were the third men between the applicant and the embassy which was actually approving visas, we had to face the visitors whose plans were on the brink of collapse because of late visas or visas with mistakes.

I was the happiest person when I finished my work there. The place itself was good, colleagues great, payment suitable, but the type of work was a living hell for me.

Language school / teaching / adults

I started my first teaching job a few months before my graduation. I thought that I am amazing, that I was a ready-made teacher and the fact that that language school was requesting each teacher to go through a long and laborious training process was not great news to me. Now I accept that I was doing lots of nonsense and that training gave me the understanding of what planning lessons, preparing materials, and following a program means. My university course was never even close to that in practical terms.

  • I learned that teaching should be a system, not a set of random lessons for randomly assigned gaps.
  • It was the first (and so far the last) place where there was regular staff training on teaching-related topics. The two I will never forget and I keep returning to are ‘Giving positive feedback’ and ‘Group dynamics’. Why, why don’t schools have such training? Why universities don’t teach about groups and how they come together and develop with time?
  • Time management in class and the ability to switch swiftly from one group to another.

In that school, I first had the experience of getting to know my students better than I ever expected. With some I still stay in touch with; from some (and they were all older than me) I learned a lot. One person totally changed my idea of ‘good enough’ and how far a person can go when working in the right field.

University/teaching uni students

One year after graduation I returned to my Alma Mater as a teacher. Well, it was a part-time job which I took for the title of a university teacher. I was there for one academic year and all that time it was part-time work along with the language school mentioned above.

  • Students have different motivations and improving their subject knowledge is not necessarily one of them. And it is normal. Passing a course is a reason as good as anything else and sometimes as a teacher, you have to accept this truth.
  • Colleagues matter. I was a new, part-time teacher. I was not accepted as a part of the department and the only time I was actually invited was a big meeting about some uni policies. It was me, occasional emails with instructions from the faculty, the schedule coordinator and one teacher who was sort of responsible for me but nothing more. As long as I submitted the term grades it was fine and no one was interested. There was no program, no coursebook, nothing which taught me the next bullet point.
  • I learned how to do minimum with something to share as if actual work is being done. Not the noblest skill but we all learn it at some point.

High school in China/teaching/boarding school

Having tried different jobs in my home country I learned that I want to continue with teaching, but decided to change the environment. I did what was pretty common at that time: went to work in China. Those were the best of times, those were the worst of times. I should write about my cultural shock at some point, but here is what I learned (only the highlights):

  • Teaching without translation.
    No matter how much you can talk about the no-translation method but as long as you and your students share the same language you always have that safety net of a possibility of translation. You may never need to use it but it is there. My students knew only Chinese. I knew no Chinese and we had to resort to English at all times. It was hard, very hard. I had to learn how to explain pretty much anything to the students who are fluent and those who have very shaky language skills. By the time I went to do my CELTA in Thailand with a multilingual group of students, I was ready for it.
  • Teacher-student relationship.
    If you know anything about me as a teacher, you should know that I truly value connection with the students and I see open and honest communication as the key to successful school life. It’s an idealistic view but it has not let me down. What I do now and how I do it now directly comes from my experience in my Chinese school. It was a boarding school and along with a few other teachers I stayed in the dormitory. We were basically living, working and having rest in the same building within the small school community. That experience turned everything for me. I learned to trust my students; I know that everyone has a story to tell and I value when a student shares it. We were solving our problems together, helping each other, going out and having fun. My Chinese colleagues were there but it was nothing more than a polite interaction on work-related topics. A few foreign teachers who stayed in the same dorm and my students were the real support in those times.
  • High school students are the most suitable age group for me to work with.
    When joining that school, I only had experience with adults and university students. I was yet to try working with little kids, but my first impression was right.

Private school in Turkey/teaching/Primary school

After I moved from China to Turkey, I worked in a language school with adult groups for a few months but there is not much to talk about. There was a lot to learn from my next place of work though.

  • Teaching primary school kids is not my thing
    Two years in primary school made it clear that I am no good at teaching younger children. I can do it, but it lacks fun for me and I struggle a lot with classroom management. I admire teachers who enjoy it and can effectively work with younger children.
  • There should be clear policies from management
    This is something I need to remind myself of once I am a Coordinator and need to mediate the communication between teachers and students. In that school, there were lots of dangerous, potentially explosive situations in class and the school’s position was not to interfere in any way. There was no clear action plan for ‘what if’ and pretty much the teachers were left face-to-face with a rowdy group.
  • Use of materials
    We had a very specific set of materials (coursebooks, readers, test prep books) which we were supposed to finish no matter what. It definitely helped me improve my planning skills on a global level for a year and on a lesson scale.
  • Certificates don’t mean anything if you do not fit the profile.
    Blessing in disguise came from where I did not see it coming: the school did not renew my contract. At that time I was already relatively experienced. I had good language skills proven by IELTS certificate, teaching skills with CELTA and by that time one module of DELTA and was waiting for the results of another DELTA module. There were some other reasonably related to teaching qualifications but nobody cared about it.
    Now I am truly grateful that the management of that school did what I should have done myself: let me go and look for a better fit for work. Let’s be honest, I was rather miserable in that environment and all my qualifications were wasted as they had nothing to do with small children even if I were motivated to work with that age.

International school in Turkey/teaching/High School

This is my current workplace where I have been happily working. No need to lie, I love the school, the atmosphere and the student profile. My story in this place is just beginning (hopefully) but I will allow myself to write down the lessons from the first couple of years:

  • Team matters. It’s the first work environment for me where teachers and the administration actually work together. That support was indispensable when I just started and was not sure what and how things are done. During the Pandemic time, when we were online for most of the year it kept us all afloat.
  • The international school has its own group dynamics and communication features no one could prepare me for. Culture is not an abstract concept anymore, it’s something we consider on a daily basis.
  • Teaching quality is the priority. As our students take externally assessed exams, the way we teach and assess is not an internal issue anymore. My shortcomings are seen in the results and it motivates me to be more professional in my teaching, giving feedback, knowing the subject and exam structure.

I do not have decades and decades of experience. Yet I already can clearly see how much my own attitudes and self-reflection changed over the years. I skipped some short-term work experiences (they were all in teaching) but the big picture is here. Five or ten years from now I will think about my current work and most probably think “I had no idea what I was doing”. So, learning is in progress and none of that process is wasted.