What I Learned Teaching English to One of the Wealthiest Families in Russia

by: Guest Author | Last Updated March 1, 2020

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You may have heard that Russia isn’t the most desirable country for ESL work.

Pay is usually quite low, living costs are high (especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg) and conditions are generally poor in many of the jobs you’ll see advertised on job boards.

Most teachers settle for easier options like South Korea or Japan, unless they have a specific interest in Russia or its culture.

But before you throw out the idea of teaching in Russia, I want to share my experience with a lucrative job marketplace few teachers know about or consider which offers some of the highest ESL salaries and perks on the planet.

It sounds great – and it can be – but it comes with serious caveats (which I’ll share below from my experience).

I was approached by a hiring agency for the Russian elite which I originally thought was a scam

I had just finished a one year ESL job posting in South Korea (I took a job there primarily to learn Korean).

My goal after Korea was to take a high-paying Saudi oil company position, teaching English to Arabs (the money and perks were far better than Korea). I was accepted for a job in Saudi Arabia that paid over $3500USD a month which at the time was hard to beat.

I applied for the Saudi visa, had all the paperwork and contracts signed, and basically just had to wait for approval from the Saudi government to go.

However, there were processing delays which forced me to wait several additional months for clearance.

During this wait, in what seemed like a fateful opportunity (if it weren’t for the delay, I would have missed it), I was approached online by an agency operating out of the UK called Chelsea Clarke, which hired private teachers and governors for the Russian wealthy.

The opportunity?

Teach English to a 4 and 7 year old, play games with them, take them on excursions, and teach them British etiquette (manners, basically).

Seemed easy enough.

The package?

Here’s where it didn’t seem real and I had to verify it wasn’t a scam.

6,500 per month. Not USD.

£6,500 GBP. Every month without any tax withholding.

On top of that, the job included:

  • Flights there and back
  • My own ultra modern downtown apartment
  • A private driver
  • All meals (not the cheap kind)
  • Regular trips to Dubai in business class to stay in the family villa on Palm Jumeira (the artificial island in the shape of a palm tree)

Not to mention the opportunity to hang out with the rich and famous at opulent parties and exclusive events.

The job in Saudi Arabia (and certainly my previous job in South Korea) didn’t even come close to this offer, as you can imagine.

I abandoned the Saudi gig and accepted the job in Russia.

Within a matter of weeks, I had my Russian work visa in hand and a plane ticket booked by my new employer (who I had not seen or spoken to yet).

A note on requirements and qualifications

I should inject a note here on requirements for these kinds of positions.

I have an MA Applied Linguistics.

The MA (I believe) is what got the attention of the agency to contact me and offer me a position (my availability was listed on various ESL job sites at the time).

However, although the Master’s degree attracted the agency, the Russian family who hired me did not actually consider it when offering me the job. It wasn’t on their list of expectations, I was told.

My hiring agent informed me that the most important thing on my entire job application, and the thing that impressed the family the most, was a photo I included of myself with some of my Korean students. So, a simple photo of me with children in a classroom ended up being more influential in determining my outcome with a hiring mother than my university qualification.

Russian language proficiency was not necessary either.

So how was the job?

I’ve spoken at length on my blog about what the Russians refer to as “the new Russians”.

This a mega-rich class of people in Russian society who live far above the average Russian person. The divide between rich and poor in that country is enormous which I often describe to people as a caste system.

I arrived in Dubai for my first day of work (the family were on vacation at the time) and had a private driver meet me at the airport.

He drove me to Palm Jumeira, the man-made island in the shape of a palm tree where the cheapest villas go for $7 million a pop.

Work started immediately.

I was greeted by a maid who took me to the mother and children, and after a few minutes of pleasantries, I was left in charge of the kids.

I’d say 90% of the job entailed finding ways to amuse the children while speaking and correcting their English.

Not going to lie – it was exhausting being on vacation with them.

You’re on constantly.

I couldn’t wait to finally get to Russia and move into my own apartment to start feeling a little more autonomous.

Which I did.

Things definitely improved in Russia – the apartment was gorgeous and well-equipped. I was able to have a social life and do my own thing.

I had set work hours during the day and my driver would pick me up and drop me off.

Much of my schedule revolved around the school hours of the kids.

The day-to-day tasks of the job didn’t change much although we had more structured learning time due to the kids being back at school (I would help them with their homework).

The caveats

So I mentioned caveats.

The first I’ve already mentioned: vacations aren’t vacations.

In fact, whenever the family planned a Dubai trip, I dreaded it. It meant two things to me: a) Limited privacy. b) Serious overtime.

It was worse for the Russian employees (maids, nannies and drivers) who were basically working longer hours than I was for miniscule pay.

There are three major caveats:

  1. Extremely high expectations that you as a teacher will never live up to.
  2. Children’s attitudes and behavior.
  3. Turning a blind eye to injustice.

Dealing with unrealistic expectations

You’re working for Russia’s elite.

You’ll shake hands with politicians, famous sports players, movie stars and some of the wealthiest tycoons on earth.

The children you’re teaching are the heirs of this opulence – they’re princes and princesses.

No matter how good you are at your job, how highly qualified you are, how devoted you are to getting the right outcomes, Russian high society parents will ask for more.

I found it incredibly difficult to be met with irrational criticism time and time again, but in the end I just learned to accept that this comes with the role. You’ll find that placating the mother of the family should be part of your job description.

Don’t let it get to you. Every Russian employee cops it (far worse than you do, in fact).

Behavior issues

Because you’re teaching the heirs of the Russian mega-rich, be aware that you’re teaching children who have likely never experienced discipline.

They’ve never gone without.

I would often see the Russian children in the dead of winter (-40 degrees outside) demand the Russian workers drive to the other side of town and buy them some McDonalds because they wanted a snack.

Grown Russian men bossed around by little kids.

No employee can object to this if they want to keep their job.

If you try and discipline the children (which I did on occasion), you may find yourself getting disciplined by the mother.

What I learned was this:

In order to survive the job, you just have to accept that these children are going to be raised as royalty and you have very little, if any, control over their behavioral outcomes.

Going back to my previous point, the parents may end up critiquing you for not improving their behavior (while actively undermining your efforts). All you can do is apologize and continue doing your job.

Injustice

You will witness grown men and women, working 80-100 hour weeks, on-call 7 days a week, getting paid almost nothing and treated like human garbage.

While you earn £6,500 a month + perks.

If this kind of injustice is unbearable to you, take another job.

It’s incredibly difficult and in the end, this is the primary reason I gave up my position (after I’d saved a nest egg).

I could have stayed in Russia for two years and left with enough to buy a house.

But seeing the horrendous conditions that ordinary Russian people have to endure day-in and day-out was just too much.

Dealing with high expectations and misbehaving children is doable, but feeling as though you’re playing a role in exploitation of poor people with their own families to take care of is another thing altogether.

Fantastic salary and perks, but the job is a moral choice.

What you should watch out for if you apply for these positions

As with any ESL job (or job in general), do your homework thoroughly before signing a contract.

Always consider the interview process a two-way process.

You are interviewing them.

You’ll probably never get an opportunity to interview the Russian family (it’ll be an agent).

When dealing with overseas employers such as ESL schools, it’s usually just a matter of searching teacher forums and Googling the name of the school for previous complaints made by disgruntled former employees.

In the case of wealthy Russian families, this is usually not possible.

These families tend to be high profile celebrities, CEO’s and politicians so everything is kept tight-lipped about their private lives.

The best thing you can do is request the contact information of the former governor/governess or private teacher from the hiring agency.

This is what I did.

I contacted the teacher who worked before me and asked for detailed information about the family and working conditions.

If the hiring agency won’t divulge this info, then there’s a good chance the previous engagement didn’t end well and you should look elsewhere.

Where to find these jobs

I’m not sure if the agency I worked with is still in operation but there appear to be loads of options if you search for “Russian governor/governess jobs”.

I can’t verify the quality or safety of any of these agencies so I’m not going to make recommendations or link to any.

But certainly make some enquiries.

From time to time, these opportunities will pop up on reputable ESL job boards (e.g. TEFL.com which is where I had success) so keep a lookout there.

Overall, if you have a strong character and can handle the caveats that I listed above, I highly recommend the experience. If you’re looking to spend an intense year or two saving piles of money, this is probably one of the best opportunities to do so.

It’s a chance to experience high society living.

More importantly, you’ll get to experience Russia, which is a seriously underrated country (one of the greatest countries I’ve ever visited) and the people you’ll meet will touch your heart in more ways than one.

Donovan Nagel (MA App Ling) is a language teacher and Arabic translator who runs a blog on language and cultural immersion called The Mezzofanti Guild – Language Learning Made Simple.

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