Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

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.

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Comments on: "Existential angst" (22)

  1. This is a very brave post about a difficult time in your life. I hope you feel a bit more settled soon.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and struggles with us, Sandy. I know it is a difficult time with all of this uncertainty and dealing with health issues, but I know you will get through this and be better for it. You have clear goals and have the tools to achieve them. I wish you all the best and look forward to hearing about your successes in future posts!

    It was also great just to hang out with you while you were in Vancouver. We might just bump into one another again!

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  3. I agree, it is a very brave post. I think things will settle down soon, perhaps this a turning point where new opportunities and the direction you are looking for are just around the corner. Hope to catch up soon!

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  4. I definitely agree, it is a brave post which stresses a hot and controversial topic!
    All the best ahead… I’m crossing fingers for you

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  5. I agree with Kate and Kim: a brave and deep post. I hope the writing of it helped sooth the angst a bit. I know writing helps me too at times. I hope you find your path soon and that the stability you seek is fast in coming to you.

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  6. Emily Deans said:

    I enjoyed the honesty of this post. You made the right choice not to edit xx

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  7. Sandy … This is a really moving account of the difficult time that you’re currently going through. It certainly puts things I’ve been whingeing about in perspective. Thank you – I needed this year end message and I hope better times are around the corner.

    You should check in with the British Council in India because when I taught demo lessons at the Celta earlier this month, the head tutor told me that they were looking for Celta tutors because they are terribly stretched with 8 batches across 4 cities each year.

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  8. Sandy,
    I certainly hope that you will be able to look back at this turbulent period and say that it led to good things afterwards. You are incredibly talented and resourceful and you have rightfully earned a great reputation. I personally believe it is good you are sharing the situation – the right people will take notice and good things will come your way.
    So glad you mentioned how important work-life balance is among the things you plan for the future.
    Wishing you all the very best for 2015!
    Naomi

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  9. I was going to suggest you come an work at my new school on a 6-month contract but then I saw you have plans for IATEFL, when the school will need cover for their only other full-time teacher (me) so that might not work!

    I appreciate how frustrating the whole situation must be. I took up my current job for similar reasons – the chance to be part of the establishment and growth of a school, the opportunity to train local teachers, the chance to make a difference locally – and I don’t know what I would do if circumstances beyond my or my employer’s control suddenly took that all away.

    I am sure you will find a solution whether that is Sevastapol or elsewhere. Don’t stress too much about it as it’s out of your hands.

    See you at IATEFL!

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  10. Hana Tichá said:

    What and honest and straightforward post, Sandy. I’m amazed by how much you’ve achieved before reaching the age of 30. Your life must have been fast and exciting all along the way, and maybe now you just need to slow down a bit – to take a breather so that you can sort out your ideas and let your body rest. I do not have the slightest doubt that you’ll find your dream job soon. As Nathan says, you have the tools to achieve this. Actually, I suspect you might soon be bombarded with fantastic job offers 🙂 Good luck.

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  11. Thanks for sharing this Sandy – it puts what we see every day in the news on a very personal level. And it shows you are a talented writer! Like others who have commented, I also think that you will succeed at whatever you choose. Keep smiling 🙂

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  12. This is a fantastic post. The uncertainty you’ve found yourself in speaks to me (only multiplied by numbers!). In any case, it’s unbelievable and impressive to me what you’ve achieved and how focused and confident you are. You seem to know how, when and what to do, and it’s inspiring for me personally, for strength and belief in myself.

    I’m certain that the right things will happen at their right time. It’ll be interesting for you to read this post at some point in the future to look back, I think))

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts unedited!

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  13. So good to know I’ll see you in London at the conference soon. Will keep a lookout in the meantime. I know it is hard to change when changes are not what you wish for. Give my best to Olga!

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  14. eannegrenoble said:

    Sandy we love you … no point in looking for a job in France, even though it’s conveniently close to the UK – the bureaucracy is a killer.
    Wishing you all the best for 2015.

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  15. A brave and honest post. Let me know if you want to sit down with me to go through things – I’m good at pros and cons, having got various people through career changes and whatnot! I know you’ll excel at whatever you decide to do in the future, and to me it sounds like you’re making good decisions about the Ukraine situation.

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  16. Sorry to hear all this. At least uncertainty brings with it opportunities. I knew someone who popped off to Africa a few times a year to run CELTA courses and was able to live the rest of the year working very little (she lived in a semi-cheap country).
    Having done the MA full time, I wouldn’t recommend doing more than teach part time alongside it but, then again, I had saved the fee and my basic rent before starting. It’s a shame on the industry that it leaves someone of your experience and qualifications with no savings at an age where people in other fields can be making plans. Though I appreciate in the UK, buying a house is out of a lot of people’s reach now.
    Good luck! I’m sure you’ll fall on your feet!

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  17. A bit of a late comment here, but thank you for such beautiful honesty in this post. I left Kharkiv about 6 months ago and felt a lot of the same things you’re feeling. Although it may not be easy, it sounds like you have many wonderful possibilities open to you in 2015. Best of luck to you, and to all of your friends and colleagues in Sevastopol!

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