Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Ukraine

By Nataliya Kharchenko

When I was a child, adults used to ask me about my dream job; they would get a number of different answers, but, as far as I remember, I never mentioned being a teacher as my future dream. It may seem very strange, but I remained unaware of my future professional career as an EFL teacher up to the very day of my graduation from a linguistic university in Ukraine. In my country at that time, being a school teacher was not considered a prestigious career due to the very low salary and a high amount of stress and challenges associated with this occupation. As a result, graduates from pedagogical linguistic universities, despite being trained as teachers, were trying to find a job in some private companies to make enough for living. In my case, I was offered an EFL instructor position in my university, so I accepted the offer long before my graduation to secure a job, but at that point, I did not think of it as my life-long career, maybe more like a transitional stage in my life before finding a permanent and well-paid job.

My graduation ceremony was in June, and my first working day as an instructor at the same university was on the 1st of September when all schools and universities in Ukraine traditionally begin a new academic year. Fifteen years later, I still remember my first day when another new instructor and I were standing in front of the classroom door, full of hesitation and scared to see our students’ faces. We felt very inexperienced and inadequate; several months of school teaching practice seemed insufficient, and we were not ready for our new role.

Despite all my fears, my first day and six subsequent years at that university were very successful, and I always remember that time and my former students with some nostalgic feeling. In every group I had about 10-12 female students and only a couple of males (that is a peculiar feature of all pedagogical universities in Ukraine). Although my students were only 5-6 years younger than me, I never had any issues with the discipline, and I think that insignificant age difference bothered me more than my students. I remember when I shared my anxiety with one of my senior colleagues, she said something like “Youth is a drawback that does not last long”. All in all, by the end of my first year of teaching, I was very confident in my skills and knowledge, and I was looking forward to another academic year. Thoughts about a more prestigious job vanished, and different positions in commercial companies were no longer tempting to me. 

When I started my second year of teaching, we had a new young teacher at our department, who was a recent graduate eager to start teaching. Shortly after her appointment, she initiated a new project for our students. She had some friends who were native English speakers on mission, so she suggested having weekly meetings with our students to give them an opportunity to improve their communicative skills in an informal atmosphere. Having received a permission from our Department Head, she passionately advertised this new project and invited all the students from different faculties to join these weekly meetings with native English speakers. She also brought a lady who was supposed to be in charge of this initiative. Her name was Carol (a pseudonym); she was in her sixties, already retired, and her experience in Ukraine was just an adventure. Prior to launching their regular weekly meetings, Carol asked me and my colleagues to arrange a meeting with our students in order to get to know each other and invite them all to attend these weekly conversational gatherings. We all happily agreed; in fact, we did not have any English speakers at our department at that time, only some infrequent guest speakers, who would come and go. We welcomed our American guests, and we were very excited to finally have some experts.

My colleagues, who were also teaching first-year students, decided to combine a couple of groups so that Carol could have a bigger audience for her first introductory class. She said she had planned enough activities to spend a whole class with our students. While my colleagues were staying in our staff room, out of curiosity, I asked Carol if I could stay in her class with our students. She willingly invited me to join them.

After a brief introduction, Carol and a couple of her friends began to actively interact with our students. They were playing some games and talking about Ukrainian and American cultures. At some point, one of my students mentioned the word “haberdashery”, which seemed very confusing to Carol. She asked the student to repeat the word, and my student was willingly demonstrating her knowledge of our vocabulary list from the textbook. Carols’ reaction was priceless: she burst out laughing and said, “What a funny old word! I think my grandmother would know it! People in the United States never use this word”. My student was a bit confused; she gave me a quick look, but then she quickly regained her confidence and asked Carol what was the English word for this special shop. Carol replied with a bit of irony, “American people buy everything in the mall!” I did not interfere in this conversation, but I felt helpless and could not come up with any explanation to justify the fact that we did have the word “haberdashery” in our vocabulary list. At that moment, I wished I had my colleagues to support me.

Unfortunately, that was not the only embarrassing moment for me. Somehow, they switched topics and began talking about food, and one of the students (at least this time not my student) mentioned the word “roly-poly pudding”, which again provoked a strange response from Carol, “I have never heard this word? What is it?”. The student explained in detail that it was a kind of dessert (this word was also from one of our textbooks for the first-year students). When the class was over, I was happy to leave the room and spare myself the embarrassment. I felt ashamed and confused; I think our students felt cheated— they were trying to demonstrate their knowledge of English, but instead they were laughed at. 

This was my first and last experience with Carol’s classes. As far as I know, none of my colleagues attended these conversational classes. However, one of my first-year students became a regular participant in their activities, and I was challenged by that student every Friday (the day after they had their weekly Thursday meetings). She would ask me the meaning of some American idioms and colloquial words out of context, which I had no clue about. At first, I diligently checked out all the words and tried to find adequate Ukrainian translations, but then I told my student to ask Carol who was in charge of those conversational classes. My student said that Carol and other native speakers were not able to explain the meaning of the new expressions; obviously, there was no way they could find a Ukrainian equivalent.

The same student also questioned our curriculum on a regular basis; for example, she said there was no use in studying assimilation and reduction in our classes on phonetics because even Carol, a native speaker, did not know that. The student also complained that we were studying too many grammar rules, too many words, etc. I had to come up with some reasonable explanation about the things I had always taken for granted; I needed to emphasize that future interpreters and translators were supposed to know all those rules and details in both languages, English and Ukrainian, in order to become professionals in their field.

Fortunately, only one of my students attended those classes with Carol, so I could cope with her questions, but I never knew what to expect next, so every Friday was another battle. By the end of that academic year, this student stopped attending conversational classes. She said she was too busy to stay after our regular classes for another couple of hours. She also mentioned there were not too many students, and those who came were all from different departments (French, Italian, and Spanish), and they could not really speak English, so for my student it was boring to interact with those students. Our staff room was just next door to the room where Carol had her informal classes, and I also noticed their poor attendance. 

Looking back from my perspective as an immigrant teacher, I think I can better understand that situation. Analysing it from retrospection, I can definitely see some causes of our alienation with that foreign native speaker. At this point in my life, ruminating about Carol’s reaction to all those old-fashioned British words during her first interaction with our students, I can relate better to her confusion and irony. I probably had the same feelings when I first heard how Ukrainian-Canadians speak their heritage Ukrainian language. I remember I was really surprised to hear the Ukrainian language I had come across only in some classical books written by famous Ukrainian writers at the end of the18th or beginning of the 19th century. I was amused by this old language because nobody in a contemporary Ukraine speaks like that anymore.

Learning another language is always a challenging, and time-consuming endeavour, but your tremendous efforts may yield some pathetic results if the language is acquired in an artificial environment without any exposure to a real life communication. There are so many pieces that should fit together to produce a confident speaker of another language, so both native and non-native ESL teachers should ideally complement each other for the sake of their students’ success.