My first TEFL experience turned sour

By Justin Wiley

You get what you deserve

I wanted to teach in Russia. This was to be my first job abroad after taking the CELTA and a few months working in Summer Schools in the UK. When choosing a school my main criteria was that it shouldn’t be a big international concern. It sounds unfriendly perhaps; but I didn’t want to be surrounded by other ex-pats. I wanted to experience a more ‘authentic’ Russia. I thought I’d get this authentic experience if I chose a small school, not part of a chain. It turned out that I choose only too well; the school I applied for, and who accepted me, was so small they were operating in the black economy.

The scam

Basically; I was subject to dishonesty. But I brought it 100% on myself. The scam worked as follows. At the initial interview (online) it was mentioned that if the school could not get a Work Visa (required for a UK Citizen to the work in the Russian Federation) in time they would arrange a Business Visa as a temporary measure. After the interview the school sent a contract and despite the contract saying it was “governed by Russian law” it made the same provision.

Of course this is illegal under Russian law. I didn’t pay it too much attention. In the months following the school gave the impression that they were progressing the Work Visa application. But at the very last minute they sent an email explaining that due to the “FIFA World Cup and holiday season of our officials” it had not been possible to complete the Work Visa application in time and could I come in on a Business Visa as a temporary measure, “as we agreed”. They would of course “take all the additional costs on themselves”.

At this point I was fully committed; not just because I had given in my notice on a flat in the UK but also because I was emotionally committed to this school. Conceptualising it as a very temporary bending of the rules, I agreed. It was a bad decision. When I arrived it soon emerged that the process of the school applying for a Work Visa had barely started. A shock. After a few weeks more truths emerged.

It became apparent that there never was an intention to organise the Work Visa before my arrival and that the emails that gave the impression they were doing this had just been about stringing me along. I never did quite get to the bottom of it but it seemed that the problem had something to do with the fact that the proprietor of the school was a self-employed individual, and not a company.

For this reason getting a Work Visa for a foreigner seemed an especially complicated procedure. I think that her specific problem was that she could only apply for the necessary Work Permit once I was in the country and she could see my physical passport. This view is confirmed by the fact that after I left the new advert placed by the school specifically mentioned “registration of Work Visa during the period of the contract”.

At the end of the day I was deceived. One can feel sorry if she has some bureaucratic limitations which make it hard for her to employ foreigners – but there is no reason why you should carry the can for her.

Once I realised that I’d been deceived I left. (I tried to negotiate a solution that would allow me to stay – offering to work as a volunteer until the Work Visa was organised, but the school proprietor did not seem able to accept this). This was heartbreaking. All the students had been amazing. Hard-working and fun. The small town itself was just right for me. But I felt that I didn’t want to start by career as a teacher in a new country on an illegal basis. My decision to accept this even (in my mind) as a very temporary measure was foolish. But I can see how the “scam” was well-managed, putting me under pressure at the last minute to make the wrong decision.

Are scams normal in the EFL World?

This has been my first experience of working abroad. Before taking the CELTA qualification I’ve spent 20 years working for large companies in the UK in IT. I have asked myself – are scams a normal part of the TEFL world? One answer is that I am 100% certain that of the 25 adverts for schools in the Russian Federation which I saw advertised on a well-known TEFL jobs board this was the only one that involved dishonesty. Since leaving my first (bad choice) school I’ve talked with several; they are all professional and 100% legal. I just picked the bad apple.

Some advice

What advice would I give someone looking for their first job in a country they are not familiar with?

  • Firstly; I would do as much preliminary research as possible, before contacting schools. Look at a number of online advertisements. What is normal practice in terms of pay, visa arrangements, accommodation etc.? If you can establish a sense of what is to be expected that will help you to be alert to deviations from the norm. – For example; if a school is paying more than 1.5 times the market rate (as this one was) that itself should raise questions.
  • Secondly; thoroughly check out all the Visa requirements – contact the embassy directly. Don’t rely on the schools themselves for this information.
  • Thirdly; ask a lot of questions. A legitimate school isn’t going to mind. Fourthly; do some background research on the school itself.

For example, with a little effort, I have been able to find some Russian government websites which have enabled me to check that a school is a properly registered company. And, it should be obvious, (but wasn’t when I was in idiot mode); don’t do anything even slightly illegal, even if it just sounds like “bending the rules” a little. Your bending the rules may turn out to be someone else’s opportunity to rip you off.

Looking to the future

So. I hope I’ve learned from this. I have applied for and been accepted by a new school in the Russian Federation and am looking forward to starting soon. With a Work Visa.