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What to Expect Teaching English in Ukraine
Being an expat teacher in Kiev is something of a novelty, and so students often ask me questions about how I got here and if Ukraine matches up to my expectations. I wish I had better answers for them, but to be honest I had no notion of what I was getting into when my plane first touched down on that gray, drizzling February evening. I was hopping around the world with someone else based on where their opportunities could get us, excited just for the adventure, plying my English teaching trade wherever I could. I had no idea I’d fall so hard for this country and that I’d keep extending my stay little by little by little. I just consider myself pretty lucky to land a sweet gig teaching English in Ukraine.
However, the secret is getting out that Ukraine is not just a fantastic place to visit but that it also offers great opportunities for English teachers. Since the expat teacher community is still relatively small, there isn’t a lot of information out there to guide people through a potential move. So if you’re considering uprooting and heading out on an adventure, here are some of the things you can expect teaching English in Ukraine.
Legal Employment in Ukraine
Legal employment is a major concern for English teachers, so it’s lucky that Ukraine offers legal opportunities to most nationalities. Yes, Ukraine is one of the few places in Europe where Americans can easily get an employment visa – in fact, it’s cheaper for employers to hire American English teachers than British ones! Keeping this in mind, there’s no reason why an employer should ask you to work without proper documents, especially since you have to obtain your initial paperwork outside of Ukraine.
Ukraine used to be… erm, more relaxed when it came to allowing visa runs or giving out slaps on the hand for overstaying your visas. Now, as the country moves towards the European Union, they are becoming stricter about border control.
Do you need a TEFL certificate to teach English in Ukraine? It’s highly advisable, as the most reputable schools — the ones who will help you with your legal paperwork — will expect that you have one. Ukrainian English teachers are highly qualified with lots of experience, so the employment standards are pretty high. Everyone at my workplace had a CELTA, so make sure you’re investing in your career before you start pursuing jobs.
Political Issues and Safety in Ukraine
One of the first questions people ask me about living and working in Ukraine is if it’s safe. Absolutely! Obviously, stay away from conflict areas and be wary of attending any protests or demonstrations – which are infrequent and typically quite small anyway. Other than that, I feel just as safe in Kiev as I do in other big cities. Maybe even safer!
Politics is on the mind of every Ukrainian, whether it’s their relationship with Europe, their Soviet history, or their domestic anti-corruption efforts. Most Ukrainians have an opinion and, in a social situation, are willing to share it. However, I recommend staying away from politics in class. Especially if you teach in Kiev, it’s not uncommon to have people of wildly different opinions all in the same class. Be mindful of the current situations when you come to textbook units about politics so that you can keep a peaceful, learning-focused environment.
A Teacher’s Salary and Cost of Living in Ukraine
To be frank, you won’t be stockpiling cash by working in Ukraine. You will probably even take a pay cut if you’re coming from your home country. Most schools are very interested in bringing in expat teachers, which you can use as leverage. You may earn just about minimum wage, but you can also negotiate for extras like housing, medical insurance, and flights. And, of course, the higher your qualifications and more varied your experience, the better salary you’ll be able to secure.
On the plus side, cost of living is also incredibly low, so even though my income has dropped my quality of life has skyrocketed. I have my own apartment for half of what I was paying for a windowless room in Brooklyn. I regularly take weekend trips all around the country and didn’t worry about pinching pennies while enjoying myself. I can get a bottle of wine for $3, a loaf of bread for less than a buck, and dinner at a mid-range restaurant for less than $15 unless I go all out. When my family came to visit, the most we spent on a meal was $55, including tip, for four people. I don’t think you can get fast food that cheap in the States anymore.
Travel within Ukraine
One of the best things about teaching in Ukraine is being able to travel around this diverse and magnificent country! Ukraine has jaw-dropping nature, hip cities, ancient history, medieval charm – basically anything and everything you could want. It’s just a matter of getting there! The train is incredibly efficient and my preferred method of travel. Buses are ok for short distances, but there are only a few companies I would trust for long-haul travel. To reach some of Ukraine’s natural gems, you’ll need a car or to hire a taxi.
The trickiest thing about traveling in Ukraine is the language. Kyiv is basically a bilingual city, and whenever I’ve used Russian (correctly), it’s been easily understood. Travel east, and you’ll still be able to use Russian. Travel west, and using Ukrainian will become more important. And then, in some southwestern regions close to Hungary and Romania, there’s a more complicated dialect that confuses even Ukrainians. I recommend printing out all your tickets and confirmations out ahead of time and downloading translation apps.
Teaching Ukrainian Students
One of the reasons I love teaching in Ukraine is working with Ukrainian students. They are (in general) motivated, hard working, curious, and – in my opinion – pretty funny. The students I have worked with originally studied English in a very teacher-fronted way, so they are eager to work on their communicative skills. Still, they want a lot of constructive feedback.
They do tend to have high expectations, both of you and of themselves. They will tackle the tasks you set out for them, but they can also sense if you’re slacking. They appreciate understanding the practical uses for what they’re learning. Sometimes they can be too hard on themselves, especially at lower levels, so it’s wise to be encouraging and point out specific ways they’ve made improvements.
Social Interaction with Ukrainians
Slavic people have a reputation of being cold and distant, which is a sweeping and unfair generalization. Ukrainians can be a bit shy and tend to keep their personal life private, but they are also incredibly hospitable. When I’ve met new acquaintances for coffee, they rarely let me pay. However, if you don’t speak the language, it can be challenging to make friends with locals. Make a concentrated effort to build a relationship with a few individuals, without expecting too many invitations back. It just might be more challenging for them to integrate an expat into their life than for you to invite them into yours.
Saying hello when you walk into a store is considered polite, as is frequent use of please and thank you. Whenever I’ve approached someone on the street with a question, they’ve been happy to help in any way they can. The only time I’ve had a Ukrainian get frustrated and yell at me is at the bus station. Which I think is universal.
The Politics of Language in Ukraine
One day in class I was teaching present perfect continuous and wrote on the board, “I have been living in Kiev for nine months.” A student got up immediately, took a marker, and erased Kiev to write Kyiv, softening her correction with a light joke.
I was mortified. I knew better. Kiev is the transliteration of the Russian spelling, while Kyiv is the transliteration of the Ukrainian. Ukrainian is, obviously, the official language of the country, and some citizens feel very strongly that the country should work hard to promote it in all situations.
However, when I explain that I chose to learn Russian because I don’t plan to live permanently in Ukraine and Russian is spoken in other countries I plan to visit, most Ukrainians seem to accept that with no animosity. But they also love when I throw out a please or thank you in Ukrainian.
(You’ll see when I write articles about Ukraine I mix Kiev and Kyiv. This is because non-Ukrainians typically don’t know to spell it Kyiv,and spelling it Kiev helps articles show up in search results.)
As for using English in Ukraine, in Kyiv you’ll in general be able to get around fine. Younger generations get taught it at school and have its importance drilled into them by their parents. Older generations tend not to know English, which makes doing business at bus stations or train stations difficult, but I’ve always had a friendly Ukrainian jump in to help me. One man even phoned his wife to translate for me at a train station! Outside of Kyiv, you will find fewer people who speak English.
Ukrainians take a lot of pride in their national cuisine. Last year, for Independence Day, there was actually a borshch cook-off in Kyiv! Other popular traditional Ukrainian food is varenyky, dumplings stuffed with savory or sweet fillings, banosh, a cornmeal dish popular in the Carpathians, and salo, pig fat that’s frequently paired with homemade liquor. Chicken Kiev is actually not a traditional Ukrainian dish, but still it’s very popular here! Vegetarians in Ukraine will have options, but vegans will struggle much more, in part because Ukrainians love dairy products like sour cream and mayonnaise.
Ukrainians are also obsessed with sushi. I don’t eat it myself, so I can’t voucher for its quality, but you can find it almost anywhere in the country.
I hope this answers your questions about what to expect teaching English in Ukraine! If you have any others, please leave them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to provide some insight.
Amy snagged a CELTA from Teaching House New York in 2013 and since then has taught on three continents (and counting). Having a CELTA has made her dream of moving abroad possible, and currently she is slow-traveling through Europe. She loves getting to know students, wandering around cities, and trying to find the world’s best donut. You can check out her travel adventures and mishaps at The Wayfarer’s Book.