This is a year I’m never going to forget. It has been a rollercoaster of major lows and major highs, sometimes within one or two days of each other. In so many ways I am not the person I was this time last year. Thankfully, there have still been many more highs than lows, even though sometimes it might not feel like that.

The lows

The in-betweens

  • Being able to see my grandad before he died, and to say goodbye to him in my head
  • Adjusting my view of the media, and not always trusting it as implicitly as I may have done before
  • Becoming a more creative cook because of my diet
  • Visiting Kiev

The highs

  • Learning so much more about my grandad’s life, and how he touched the lives of so many other people
  • Getting my Delta exam results
  • Becoming a CELTA tutor
  • Travelling to the United States and Canada, and to new places in the UK
  • Doing a Pecha Kucha at the IATEFL conference
  • Getting my first materials published
  • Teaching M
  • Losing lots of weight, so that I’m now in the ‘healthy for my height’ category rather than obese, and feeling much better for it too
  • Improving my Russian enough that I can have a decent conversation in it (although need to get back to studying it more!)
  • Making good friends in Sevastopol, and exploring Crimea with them
  • Knowing that two of my very good friends will be having babies next year
  • Christmas with my family

The blog

As every year, the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog. I particularly like the posting patterns and the map showing where people read my blog – it’s amazing to think how widespread the readership is. Thank you for being there and for supporting me in this ongoing project.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 220,000 times in 2014. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 9 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Happy New Year everyone!

Existential angst

It’s just after midnight at the close of Christmas Day 2014 and I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about my future. It’s not the first time this has happened recently, but it is the most persistent. Normally I can fall asleep within 10 minutes of going to bed, but now it’s been nearly an hour and I seem to be falling deeper into my thoughts, rather than drifting off to sleep. I hope writing will get this out of my system, at least for tonight, although I don’t know if or when I’ll ever publish this*, and certainly not until after I’ve spoken to Olga, the director at IH Sevastopol.

For the last month, my feeling of uncertainty about my future has become more and more persistent.

This time last year, I knew I would be in Sevastopol for at least a few years, helping the IH there to grow and flourish, training up a team of teachers and working to make our school the best in the city, and hopefully in the region, making it a place to be admired and looked up to in the area.

Now, I don’t even know if I’ll be there after the end of this academic year.

Whatever people may think, it’s nothing to do with the political situation. I know that Sevastopol being part of Russia may scare or upset many people, but for me it’s a fact, and I believe the city is better off there, even if I may not agree with the way it all came about. I love the city and the beautiful region of Crimea, and I’ve made many friends in the area who I will miss deeply. I’ve just started crying as I write this because I feel like I would be abandoning them and the school if I left.

However, the economic situation worries me greatly. When Sevastopol first went on to the rouble in June, there were 60 to a pound. Now, there are 80. A couple of weeks ago it got as high as 105. All this instability will settle down at some point, I know, but our school needs it to be settled soon. We rely heavily on Cambridge exams, the fees for which are paid in pounds. If the prices go up so much, our students won’t be able to afford them, and we will suffer. That’s not to mention the already so-expensive-it’s-difficult-for-anyone-to-contemplate CELTA course. And that’s all providing British businesses are allowed to continue working with a school in Crimea, and that fresh sanctions won’t ban trade with the area. Locally, prices have risen, including the rent on the school building, a fact which has caused a lot of headaches.

With such economic uncertainty, it is difficult to find any kind of reliability with student numbers. Our school is young, and we were just beginning to build up our reputation when the crisis hit in March. We are also expensive, and who’s to blame students for going for a cheaper school if there’s one available, when they don’t really know the difference?

When I was in Sevastopol last year, I was one of very few native speakers in the city, a number which reduced even more after March. Although I know it shouldn’t matter, and it frustrates me that it does, that does make me a selling point for the school, and a sought-after commodity. That could help. But I am also very expensive: my salary is paid in the equivalent of dollars, and I get accommodation too. My visa and flights also cost money. There are only so many hours I can teach, especially since I am supposed to be doing DoS work too, and no matter how much I may want to throw my heart into the school, in the last couple of years a lot of things have taught me that I need to keep a healthy work-life balance.

IH Sevastopol has taught me a lot about adaptability and flexibility. It has called on my creativity and problem-solving skills. And in practical terms, I have built on my management skills, learnt to do observations, and started to do more teacher training. Most importantly, it was there I got the amazing opportunity to become a CELTA trainer, working on the basis that I would be the second trainer (with Olga) on all courses run at the school.

If I stay, I will be working with a school where the future is uncertain. The core team of three teachers, including me, are very committed, and between us we have a lot of experience to draw on. The rest of the team is still settling and changing as the school’s and their needs change. I have no idea whether we will be able to stay in our building, and whether Cambridge will renew their contracts with us. I don’t know if we will get more students. No matter how much Olga, Anna and I want the school to succeed, wishes alone can’t make it happen. As I write this, it makes me sound as if I have given up, and I don’t want that to be true, but at the same time I have to be realistic.

I know that if I stay in Sevastopol I will find work for myself, whether at IH Sevastopol or elsewhere. I know I will make the most of it, and be able to create opportunities for myself. But I’m no longer sure that that’s what I want.

So what do I want?

In three months, I will be 30, and right now stability appeals a lot.

I want to choose somewhere I know I’m going to stay for a while. When I went to Sevastopol, that’s what I thought I was doing, Now, it feels less right. I want to get my own flat and start to settle down. I have no savings at all, so I need to be somewhere where I can afford to save up a deposit. I want to live in the same place as my things, instead of having them scattered around three or four different places in two or three countries. I’m sure I could live much more minimalistically, but the memories encoded in my possessions are incredibly important to me. I want to have a place to call my own, because in the last nine months I haven’t really had that in the UK any more (although family (and a lot of my stuff!) still live in the family home, I don’t – it’s a long story, and one with no animosity at all, but it is a fact). In the last two months I have felt particularly rootless, because when I was in Sevastopol, at least I had my own flat. People asked me again and again where I was from, and where I was going back to for Christmas, and I repeatedly thought how nice it would be to have an easy answer to that question, and to be fairly certain it would be the same next year.

I want to get married and have a family. I don’t know where, when or if that will happen, but it’s a thought that’s always there.

I also need stability and consistency for my health, now that I have been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a condition which needs to be monitored. In 8-10 years this monitoring will have to be stepped up to another level as it leaves me with a higher than average risk of bowel cancer. It is also a condition which is triggered by stress, and uncertainty about my future doesn’t help me to reduce my stress levels.

But most of all, I want to be true to myself professionally. I have worked very hard to get where I am now.

When I went to Sevastopol, I truly believed that it was perfect: to be part of a growing school, with the chance to influence its growth. The opportunity to develop my management skills and become a CELTA tutor, while still being in the classroom regularly. Working with people I had heard a lot about and already admired before I met them. Living near the sea (one of my dreams), in a beautiful area. Good weather all year round. Learning a new language.

Sandy in Sevastopol

Now I think I want something very different. I’ve really enjoyed CELTA tutoring over the last few months, and while there’s no way I will do it that intensively again, I’d like to keep it as a major part of my portfolio. Whatever else I might decide about my future with relation to Sevastopol, they will always be my first priority when it comes to training on CELTA, since they made me a tutor, so even if I don’t do anything else there, as long as they want me and I can get a visa I will be back to do that.

But I also want the opportunity to go to conferences regularly. I love presenting at them, and I know it is something I am good at and can develop in. Getting to conferences from Sevastopol is expensive (even more so now with the rouble as it is) and time-consuming, and means longer absences from the school than I would like.

Apart from that, I’m not really sure. I’d like to do other teacher training, not just CELTA, but I don’t want to be completely absent from the classroom either, since I don’t believe you can really train properly if you are divorced from it like that. Maybe I could do some writing too, but that is a lot of work for not much money, and a lot of being solitary. I can do it, and I was so proud when my first materials appeared recently, but I’m not sure it’s financially worth it.

In the best of all possible worlds, I’d still be working for IH, because I love the ethos of the organisation. Maybe I could look for a management position at another school? But would that give me the chance to continue with the CELTA training?

There’s no easy resolution to all this. I’ll be talking to Olga tomorrow, and maybe that will change my mindset completely. I’ll be applying for my visa on Monday. Maybe that will do it. Maybe going back to Sevastopol will make all the difference – being away from it, it’s easy for me to over-analyse. Maybe I should look for a mentor to see if they can help me.

Ultimately, though, I need to do what is best for me in the long run, however much I don’t want to leave Olga and the team in Sevastopol in the lurch. Even writing this post, even knowing it might not be published, feels like a betrayal of a kind. I’m going to send it to Olga to read before I speak to her, and I’m going to hope that now I’ve written it, I’ll be able to sleep better. Good night.

Three days later

I spoke to Olga the day after I wrote this, and we decided that it’s better for me not to go back to Sevastopol at the moment. Things are getting harder there, with blackouts and transport links being cut off. The situation is changing constantly, and my being there won’t help at all.

People boarding the Kiev to Sevastopol train, Tuesday 8th April 2014
People boarding the Kiev to Sevastopol train, Tuesday 8th April 2014

We hope I’ll be able to return in the summer for a CELTA course, or earlier if things settle down faster. I’m thinking about my friends there all the time, and I hope the situation improves quickly, for their sake more than mine. My letter of invitation is valid until November, so there’s still time for me to get a visa when I need one.

That means I’m currently unemployed and looking for work, at least for the next 6 months. My only plans are going to the IH DoS conference in London from 8th-10th January, and the IATEFL conference in Manchester 10th-14th April. If anyone knows of any work they think I would be suitable for, particularly CELTA training, please let me know. All help is gratefully appreciated.

I’ve also spent some time looking at MAs over the last couple of days, and I think I’ve found one I’m interested in for the 2015-2016 academic year. It focuses on materials development, which is an area I’m interested in, and this unintended break in my career seems like a good opportunity to do it if I can get the money together. It’s somewhere with a lot of language schools, so I may be able to get a few hours of part-time work if I’m lucky, but if anyone else has ideas about how I can fund the course, I’m happy to take suggestions.

Whatever happens, I don’t regret the decisions I’ve made, and I’m still very happy with my life. I’m lucky to be in a position where I have every likelihood of getting work, and where my family will support me until that happens. I’m still a very lucky person, for which I am grateful.

So that’s the answer to the question ‘What’s next?’ which I posed in my last post, if you can call it an answer. Watch this space for what happens next…

* I decided to publish this unedited, as it’s how I felt when I wrote it. I know that I’m not abandoning my friends or betraying the school, but at 1:30 in the morning, that’s what it felt like. Editing it feels like editing my thoughts and I don’t know what to change, so apologies for the length and the rambling nature of this.

Four CELTAs (OR Excuses for not blogging)

The last five months have been pretty busy. Here’s what I’ve been doing.

(You can click on any of the collages to see larger images.)

28th July-19th August

Train to be a CELTA tutor
The place: Sevastopol, Crimea
The trainees: 9 Russian native speakers; 8 women, 1 man; early 20s-mid 30s
The tutors: two Russians
The assessor: from Moscow
How I got the job: training as a CELTA tutor was one of the reasons I moved to Sevastopol
The accommodation: the flat I’d lived in all year
The evenings: writing a couple of input sessions; meals and evenings at the beach with my co-tutors; relaxing; packing
The weekends: exploring Crimea; packing up my life into boxes ready to move out of my flat and leave Sevastopol for an indeterminate length of time until I get another visa
The lows: basically sitting non-stop for four weeks watching other people do things, at the hottest time of the year in Sevastopol; not knowing when I would be back in Sevastopol
The highs: redoing my CELTA and remembering so much I’d forgotten


20th August

Return to the UK, via Moscow, where there was a slight blip with my passport because I had a Ukrainian entry stamp, not a Russian one. The supervisor managed to sort it out in ten minutes though.

21st August-13th September

Holiday and catching up with family and friends
Including a week at a caravan with family, and trips to Wolverhampton to sort out some of my stuff, Newcastle, Hadrian’s Wall, Beamish, Sheffield, and a London 2012 reunion on Piccadilly

UK collage

14th September

Mum driving me to Leeds, via a trip to Hardwick Hall with my grandma

Hardwick Hall

15th September-10th October

My first course as a CELTA tutor
The place: Leeds, UK
The trainees: 10 native speakers, 1 Iranian; 8 women, 3 men; early 20s-mid 50s
The other tutor: a Brit who’s been in Turkey for a while
The assessor: a Brit
How I got the job: on 10th September I got my first ever email from the CELTA mailing list, and Leeds were looking for a tutor. After discussing it with Sevastopol and knowing I probably wouldn’t get a visa any time soon, I applied straight away and it all worked out 🙂
The accommodation: a very nice attic room with a homestay couple
The evenings: chatting to my hosts, putting together input sessions, cooking, going to see Paco Peña
The weekends: catching up with friends, exploring Leeds, visiting Ulverston and the Lake District
The lows: gettting home every evening and knowing I still had to work; walking away from feedback on some days knowing I might have been too demanding
The highs: staying in a great home-stay; the support of my fellow tutors (on both my course and the one running in parallel); realising I could tutor!

Leeds collage

12th October

Car back to my aunt’s, thanks to my mum

13th-14th October

Recovery/preparation time, including trying to get my hair cut, and to get enough prescription medicine for a trip of indeterminate length from a doctor in a random part of the country

15th October

Train to Manchester, an evening at my friend’s house cooking for my journey

16th October

Fly to San Diego, via Amsterdam and Detroit, arriving at 9:45pm SD time

17th October

Settle in, getting very lost finding the school because I decided to walk, but seeing 3 eagles because of my detour

18th-19th October

Trips to San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld with my co-tutor

Young panda at San Diego zoo
Young panda at San Diego zoo

Whales at SeaWorld

20th October-14th November

CELTA tutor: course 2
The place: San Diego, California
The trainees: 9 native speakers; 7 women, 2 men (1 man quit after the first day; 1 woman after the first week); early 20s-mid 50s
The other tutor: a Brit who’s based in the UK, but does training all over the world and loves the States
The assessor: a Brit, now based in Texas
How I got the job: via the CELTA mailing list. Until two weeks before I left, I’d never had any plans to go to the States!
The accommodation: at a residential hotel, with a microwave and fridge in the room, and shared kitchens
The evenings: putting together input sessions, cooking, planning my travels, basketball, exploring San Diego
The weekends: exploring San Diego, whale watching (no whales, but lots of dolphins!), Torrey Pines, Flagstaff, Grand Canyon, Lowell Observatory, LA, Hollywood, space shuttle
The lows: self-induced tiredness, having to cook all the time (due to my exclusion diet)
The highs: an amazing opportunity for adventure – it definitely won’t be my last trip to the States!

San Diego
San Diego
Flagstaff, Grand Canyon and Lowell Observatory
Flagstaff, Grand Canyon and Lowell Observatory
LA collage

15th November

Fly to San Francisco

15th-19th November

Staying at the Fisherman’s Wharf hostel, where I could see the Golden Gate Bridge from my window through the trees.
Whale watching (a pair of humpbacks 🙂 ), hop-on hop-off bus tour, Alcatraz, exploring, a cable car all to myself, a day in Yosemite

San Francisco collage

19th November

Greyhound bus to Sacramento, where I stayed in a beautiful hostel (bottom left in the collage). Visited the Capitol building – until recently I didn’t realise Sacramento is the capital of California, as I’m sure many people don’t!

Sacramento collage

20th November

Old Town Sacramento, underground tour, California Railroad Museum, river boat trip
Overnight Greyhound to Portland, Oregon

21st November

A very wet day in Portland, when most of my attempts to explore failed. The one that didn’t was the Wells Fargo museum, where I discovered they used to transport everything from wedding cakes to cattle!
Trip to the cinema with a Portland native who was in the bed next to me at the hostel in San Francisco 🙂

Portland collage

22nd November

Whole day on the bus from Portland to Vancouver, arriving at about 9pm

23rd November

Settling in, walking to downtown Vancouver, seeing the sun set from the Lookout above the city

24th November-19th December

CELTA tutor: course 3
The place: Vancouver, British Columbia
The trainees: 18! 14 native speakers, 1 Russian speaker, 1 Iranian, 1 French, 1 Chinese; 8 women, 10 men; early 20s-late 50s
The other tutor: a Brit who’s lived in Canada for the last couple of years
The assessor: a Brit based in Vancouver
How I got the job: via the CELTA mailing list and the connection between the schools in San Diego and Vancouver
The accommodation: week 1: in a shared house with travellers from all over the world, all in Vancouver on working visas; weeks 2-4: at a building which used to be a hotel and has recently become little apartments
The evenings: putting together input sessions (though not as many as before), cooking, marking assignments and more assignments
The weekends: meeting family friends and a fellow blogger, Capilano Suspension Bridge, Victoria, Butchart Gardens, Whistler, Stanley Park Seawall, exploring Vancouver, the aquarium, two hockey matches (one of which was a teddy bear toss)
The lows: self-induced tiredness and illness; problems with the first accommodation (although the people were lovely!); the fact that the assignments seemed to be breeding!
The highs: more adventures; fantastic wildlife sightings (bald eagles, a sea otter, raccoon, herons); the natural beauty of BC

Vancouver skyline
Vancouver skyline
Vancouver collage
Victoria and Butchart Gardens
Victoria and Butchart Gardens

20th-24th December

I wrote most of this sitting at Pacific Central Station waiting for the bus to Seattle. I’m now finishing it off at Manchester Airport where I’m waiting for the train which will take me on the last leg of my journey. I’ve spent 2.5 fun days in Seattle, relaxing and exploring the city, and I even got to see Mount Rainier.

It’s now 9:45am on Christmas Eve in the UK, and my body thinks it’s 1:45am, so I’m nicely jetlagged in time for Christmas with my family!

What’s next?

Who knows? I’m hoping to get a visa to go back to Sevastopol as soon as I can, but all that sits in the hands of bureaucracy, over which I have no control. It also depends on the situation between Russia and the West not getting any worse. The final factor is the opening times of the embassy, which is closed for both the UK and Russian public holidays. All that means I have no idea when I’ll be back in Sevastopol.
My only other firm plan in the near future is the IH Director of Studies conference in early January, by which time I hope to at least have applied for my visa!

So that’s why I haven’t really blogged since the end of July 🙂 I hope you’ve enjoyed the adventure and the photos!

Merry Christmas everyone, and I hope you have a successful and happy 2015!

Developing myself and others (Teaching English associates)

I haven’t had time to write on my blog in the past few months, but I did manage to do a couple of very short pieces for others while I was on one of my recent long bus journeys.

One of these was for the British Council Teaching English website as part of their monthly blogging challenges. I wrote on the theme of professional development, with the title ‘Developing Myself and Others‘. Click on the link to read the post.

I’m currently assistant course tutor on a CELTA in Vancouver which runs until the 19th December. I’ll then have a few days in Seattle, then head back to the UK for Christmas, where I’m hoping to apply for my Russian visa and get back to Sevastopol, at which point I might have time to blog again!