Friday, March 8, 2013

What it's like to work at American English Center

A snapshot from training days!
*Note: I'm no longer with this school. This post covers my experiences up to early 2013. For the most up-to-date info, try contacting the school directly. Happy job hunting!! :) *

There's a lot of negativity on the internet about working at American English Center (AEC). Before coming to Ukraine, I scoured the internet for clues about what it's like to work at AEC. Perhaps a similar search query is what brought you to this post. Now that I've spent 19 months teaching at this national chain, I'd like to balance all those venomous forum threads with my experience. After all, lasting 19 months at our local branch of AEC puts you squarely in the "old-timer" ranks, if not the ranks of "ancient elder".
My first encounter with AEC was back in 2007. At that moment I was living in a dorm in Yakutsk, Russia. I'm not sure if there was even wi-fi in the dorms yet so Jon the recruiter interviewed me via a scratchy phone connection on the communal dormitory phone. He put a job offer on the table but when I said that I only had a few months to spend in Ukraine, we hung up amicably. Before the interview I'd done my research. The bulk of the literature available at the time? A few glowing references and a slew of vitriol on Dave's ESL cafe.

Not much has changed since then.
Ukrainian textbooks
If you've read my About page, then you know we tried for over a year to get permission to live in Russia.
Didn't work.

But Ukraine? Ukraine is easy to enter. As a US citizen, you don't need a visa to enter and you're free to stay in the country for up to 90 days. After putting the Russia plans on ice, I started looking around for jobs in Ukraine. AEC is so heavily advertised online that it was hard not to apply again with them. By the way, my superhero power is reading really, really fast, so I reread all the old stuff and found a lot of new stuff written by ex-employees. You can find some of it here and here. There was even a guy who opened up a competing school and said he got ominous threats from AEC management, but his claim has since been removed from the internet. It's easy to see that the school's got a lot of haters.
Typical Ukrainian elementary school, after hours
But, can I be honest with you?

It's really not that bad.

I'm not saying it's the perfect workplace. There have been a lot of times I wanted to throw my hands up with frustration and quit dramatically. A lot of those times have been documented on this blog :p But the school is more or less upfront about what it is. And seriously, if someone is going to offer a teaching job to you even if you have zero classroom experience and no certifications, what do you expect? Think about it.

Here's what will happen: you have an interview, probably over Skype, possibly in person if you're already here. It seems the school does most of their hiring online. I had an interview with an HR rep living on the East coast of the US. She was pleasant and very honest about the job. The scenarios she presented me with were things I later had to actually teach in the classroom, and while I had been sweating to prepare for questions like "How would you teach the present perfect continuous to beginners?", fortunately there weren't many questions of that caliber.
This was a smart, fun class
So, you get the job. You fly to Kiev, and there you'll undergo between 2 and 10 days of training. Training is pretty intense. The days are usually at least 8 hours, a combination of classroom lectures and observations. In my opinion, the school does a good job of training newbies in their methodology. There's a lot of hand-holding, but they're not afraid to call you on it if you're being an idiot.

During training you'll stay temporarily in an apartment with other trainees. We lived 5 to a three-bedroom apartment. Apartments are luck of the draw. Some are decent, clean, and modern; others not so much. Some people will whine no matter what the apartment is like: "where's the maid?", "why won't the landlord come fix the burnt-out lightbulbs?". I'm not even joking about those comments! Anyways, training is unpaid although the housing is free.

I love these guys, wish I could teach them forever!
By the end of training, you ideally will have taught or co-taught several "real" classes yourself. You'll probably have grown close to the other trainees (bonding under stress, eh?) but soon you'll be split up and sent to different cities around the country. Last I heard, the school books your ticket and tells you when to be at the train station.

Once you arrive to your destination city (or perhaps you've elected to stay in Kiev), you'll meet your school director and immediately be thrown into the lion's pit start teaching. If needed, the school staff will help you find lodging (usually shared). And again, it's Ukraine, people. Don't come here expecting a penthouse. No one gets a penthouse.

The classes you'll teach are a mix of two-hour core classes (intermediate to advanced), one-hour conversation clubs, and possibly a wild card (business English or TOEFL class). You're not expected to plan anything from scratch. All classes are based around books the students have been given. The core classes even come with a teacher's guide. Working hours are 4 PM - 10 PM Mon-Thurs and some unique schedule of beginner classes between 10 AM - 7 PM on Sundays.
More great students
So, congrats, you're teaching!
The next thing you should be aware of: how to get fired.

Here's how to get fired:

1. Be boring. This is the kiss of death. If students complain about you, you'll be gone or black-listed faster than you can say до свидан.... oh wait, it does actually take pretty long to say goodbye in Russian. Anyways, don't be boring. Being boring means teaching straight from the teacher's guide. I know, I know, they did give it to you, but you really have to go beyond it. You'd better get up there and sing and dance, damn it. Also boring- winging it. Students like to see preparation. Wouldn't you?

2. Activities such as: being late repeatedly, sleeping with students, or going on lengthy drinking binges. All these things will get you fired eventually, but not as fast as being boring will.

3. Be boring. Did I mention this yet?

So as long as you're not boring, you've got a decent shot at making it through your first semester. If you make it through the first, you should be good to go for the rest of the contract. By the way, the halfway stage to being fired is being switched to conversation clubs only. If this happens to you, better shape up soon.
Kharkov's branch of American English Center (it's actually an elementary school during the daytime)
Maybe all this is scaring you off. I don't mean to do that. I just want to be honest with you. Overall, my past 19 months have been fairly positive. On a scale of 1-10, I'd rate it a 7 most of the time.
Decorations in the elementary school for International Women's Day
Here are the cool parts:
  • The students, the students, the students. This is what they tell you during training and it's true. The students who choose to study at AEC are, as a whole, pretty amazing. 
  • The pay is okay and IT'S ALWAYS ON TIME. To actually get paid when you're supposed to get paid? Priceless. The base pay isn't bad- it's currently around $10/hour and there are several bonus schemes in place. Yes, schemes, because you won't always manage to get them. Also, if you make it to one year with the school, they'll add an 800 uah bonus to your paycheck once a semester. Another great plus is that you have the option of having your salary deposited into your paypal account. The only thing about the paychecks?- be sure to calculate them yourself independently, because it's not uncommon for mistakes to happen.
  • Limited ageism. Look at any local newspaper and you'll see that Ukraine is very upfront about ages: you should be 18-22 for this job, 25-45 for that one. There's often a cap for English teachers at age 30. AEC, though, isn't afraid to hire people of all ages and backgrounds. If you want to be a teacher, you're over 45, and you want to get a job before coming- this may be your best shot.
Arrr, decrepit blackboard and old sponge. I hate you both!
The technicalities to consider:
  • You get your teaching schedule about 24 hours before classes start. This can be really scary at first, especially if you're a perfectionist like me, but it gets easier over time. Again, the material is rather repetitive so it takes significantly less prep after teaching it the first time. 
  • Midterms means that you'll need to hand-write progress reports for all of your students. If you're teaching full-time and have over 60 students in core classes, hello writer's cramp. (On the other hand [get it? haha :p] progress reports are a chance to interact more personally with students and give needed feedback.)
  • Supplies. It's not a big deal, but always have your own tape and your own chalk. Also, since you teach in an elementary school classroom rented out for the evening, be prepared to battle with ancient Soviet blackboards of evil. If you wear black, you will lose. And always bring wet wipes to clean your hands of all that chalk dust.
 Although, on a global scale, this is easily a 5-star facility!
For a less pleasant experience, read The Perfect Ukrainian Toilet
  • Another thing about working in an elementary school? The bathrooms are squat pits. Doors, toilet paper, and soap are as rare as unicorns, but during 4-6 PM you may encounter small children running amouk though the restrooms : )
  • All printing is done in a central office so along with the scheduling chaos at the beginning of the semester, there's a lot of supply chaos. Books may come just in time or "it'll be here sometime next semester."
I think AEC tries hard to keep everyone- employees and students- happy. The school staff and director here in Kharkov always do the best they can with what they have. And the students really seem happy with the program. If you know Russian, you can investigate Kharkov Forum to get students' opinions on their experiences and on the individual teachers.
Whiteboard alert! Whiteboard alert! Whiteboards have become a rare and beautiful experience in my life.
Now that I've shared all this info with you, my dear reader, it feels like it could be more or less about any English school in the world: Thailand, Turkey, Poland, they're probably all more similar to American English Center than dissimilar. No matter what you've heard, teaching English overseas is not a glamourous occupation. If you're still with me at this point, still thinking about teaching English in Ukraine, I recommend that you read English Teacher X's How to Survive Saudi. This is solid gold advice. Copy it down 9 times by hand and then eat the paper. Seriously, I mean it.

One last note about Ukraine, a topic that doesn't only apply to AEC: work visas.

A work visa from the school is about as likely as a nice fluffy roll of lavender-scented toilet paper in a bathroom stall at Barabashova market.
I am in no way advocating breaking the laws of any country (did you really dream of growing up to be an illegal immigrant in Eastern Europe as a child?), so just do the best you can to get things straightened out before you come or immediately after you arrive. It's pretty much all on your shoulders.

No cell phones during school hours

More tales from former AEC teachers, these ones with a positive (or at least neutral) slant-

Teaching English in Ukraine by Steven
Questions About Pay for Teaching English in Ukraine with AEC by Brooke
Embarrassing English (Saved by the Grunt) by Brendan
Interview with a 2013 Odessa Teacher

And for whoever stumbles across this entry in the distant future, the best place to check for updates from current teachers is probably glassdoor.com.

Good luck! : )

45 comments:

  1. I envy you your students! You meet interesting people every single day, what a great way to get to know the country you're living in!

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    1. They are definitely great people to know. They teach all of us foreign teachers a lot about Ukraine!

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  2. Don't fool people, KAatya...

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    1. Explain how she is fooling people.....

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  3. Nice! Liked reading that :)

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  4. Hi there! I'm a US Citizen and I just had my interview for AEC. The hiring manager said it's likely she'll offer me a job, so I'm looking into details should that actually happen... I just have one major concern, which is the lack of work visa. You mentioned that Americans are free to stay up to 90 days, leave, then come back, but the last I read online was that this is only within a 180 day period, so once you have used up 180 days you have to leave for 90 days before you can enter the country again. I'm very confused because the hiring manger told me the same thing that you wrote, but everything I have read online says the 180 day thing. Also, can you get a work permit while you are there, or register for residency? Thanks in advance, and thanks for the great blog-reading experience :)

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    1. Hi! I'm really glad you came across this post : ) Teaching for AEC and living in Ukraine are pretty cool experiences overall but there are definitely some things to consider before accepting the job and crossing the border. I'll respond to your email to answer everything!

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  5. Thank you so much!! : )

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  6. Hi, I also was offered a job and am curious about the 180 day re-entry and the other questions the other poster enquired about. I met a few people who work for this company and they have been with it for a year and two years and they really like it. I think if you are the adventurous type and you are wanting to explore other cultures it might be easier to over look the little issues because your main focus might be different than someone who is just looking for a job and to make money. I want to do this because I love traveling and experiencing new cultures, the second awesome plus about teaching is sustaining myself so I can have those experiences. Nothing is perfect in life so finding the joyful moments in each day can really help.

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    1. Hi! Thanks for stopping by. Nice words, it's always a good reminder to find "the joyful moments in each day" no matter where you are and what you're doing. Best wishes to you if you decide to come teach in Ukraine! It's definitely a great base for travelling to other areas of Europe.

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  7. Wow, spot on Katherine!! I can't believe I hadn't read this one till now... this brought make memories! And I totally agree with you on all counts!

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  8. "back", not "make." Great english teacher I am :P

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    1. Brendan, you were/are an awesome teacher! You are still missed here : ) Btw, your conversation club post is still one of my favorites ever to read... those things certainly could drag on! :p

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  9. Hi! I am hoping to go to Ukraine in a month to work at AEC, but I am wondering whether or not I should get a visa. Renie, the admissions person I spoke with, implied that I wont need one, but I was wondering if this is true, and if so, will they give me trouble going through immigration? I was hoping to book a round trip ticket, with my return in May 2014, but I am afraid that the immigrations people will see that and require me to have a visa. Also, if I should get a visa, which kind should I apply for? And where can I find that application and requirements? Thank you so much for your help! I was starting to book my flights and realized I hadn't given this enough thought and now I am worried.

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    1. Hi Maxine! First off, congrats on getting the job : )

      That whole visa situation is such a tricky thing with the school, but honestly it's the same with most schools here. If they can help you get a visa, it's going to be a big hassle but definitely worth going for. I don't interact much with AEC these days so I'm not sure what kind of assistance they can provide at this point in time. If you decide to just show up, you'll have 90 days in country to try to get things squared away by visiting your local OVIR office (although in that case, technically you'd be here as a tourist and shouldn't be working). If you stay longer than that without permission, you'll almost certainly be fined (about $100?) and reprimanded when you do leave. Here's one teacher's story about that- http://mylifeintransit.com/2013/01/07/how-to-get-banned-from-a-country-an-instruction-manual/.

      Try checking here (http://www.expatua.com/forum/index.php?board=60.0) for the latest on immigration issues, or even posting your own query.

      Also, if you haven't already stumbled across this- the Ukrainian Embassy's website in the US (http://usa.mfa.gov.ua/en/consular-affairs/services/visas). The classes of visas are detailed there as well as how to apply for them.

      You'll probably be fine entering the country. I know of only one case in which a guy wasn't allowed to enter: in that case, they stopped him as he was getting on the plane in the states because he didn't have a visa and didn't have a ticket to return to the US within 90 days. He had to buy a return ticket and then they allowed him to fly here several days later. But that happened...hmmm... over a year ago. Haven't heard of anything similar happening since then.

      I hope you'll get the chance to experience Ukraine (the good stuff, not the visa hassles)... it's really a cool country! Any thoughts as to which city you want to live in?

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  10. Thank you for this post. I am an American strongly considering employment with AEC for next year (fall), and it's good to see a more realistic and objective testimonial about AEC as opposed to all the hate posts on various ESL forums which, as you probably noticed, are all several years old. Apparently, AEC has changed a bit.

    What worries me most is the visa situation. From what I have heard on the aforementioned ESL sites, the invitation letter they issue is no good, and will get one nowhere with obtaining a work visa. Again, this could be outdated information, but I'd rather be safe than sorry. In light of what you said in your response to Maxine's post, regarding the guy that was forced to buy a return ticket, I was wondering if it would be a good idea, in the case that the invitation letter is indeed useless, to apply for another kind of visa. Again, better safe than sorry, but working illegally in Eastern Europe sounds like a really bad idea.

    Again, thank you for a realistic picture of AEC.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read the post and to leave a comment : )

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  11. Hi,I just took a job with them as well, and I'm concerned about the visa situation too. What did you do? Did you have any visa-related problems?

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  12. Good luck getting paid if you work for AEC...

    They'll cancel your classes in the middle of a semester and not pay you for that class. You will not get the guaranteed minimum hours they promise and you have to fight every time to get paid if you fill in for another teacher.

    Also, they'll try to charge you for more than 12 months of rent a year.

    AEC also does not provide the required documents for visa support and they will not do what is required since it costs about $1,000 per teacher for them to sponsor you for a visa.

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    1. Hey anonymous, you're absolutely right. Not all AEC stories have a happy ending. I think some cities are prone to that kind of stuff than others. About the rent thing though, that shocks me. I've never heard of that happening in Kharkov, at least. The staff here are pretty good people.

      Honestly, all those things you mentioned contributed to my decision to move on from employment with the school.

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  13. Huh??? Your last comment totally contradicts everything else you've said along with the attitude in which you wrote it. I notice you've avoided directly answering the questions regarding work visas after the first one or two above. Why is that?? You have a nice site here with good info, but now you're contradicting yourself which makes me wonder what can be believed on here. I was going to ask a couple of questions, but I think it's best to find another source.

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    1. Hi Cheryl! Nice of you to drop by and read through all the comments here. I don't think I've contradicted myself at all; there's nothing to say about work visas because the school no longer offers them.

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    2. But of course, for the most up-to-date info, why don't you try contacting the school directly? That would be the best source of info.

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  14. Is it possible to teach English privately in the Ukraine. I am a South African who intend to marry a Ukrainian lady.

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    1. Hi Wim! It is possible, but demand for such lessons will depend on where you live within the country (ie, a big city vs a village). Most settlements of a decent size have at least several English schools so teaching there is also an option. Good luck to you and your future wife! : )

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  15. Hi everyone. Nice to find a site where expats are trying to make it in Ukraine. I have probably been here longer than anyone so I am a good resource for advice. I have just about come across every possible situation that a foreigner can run into in Ukraine and I have always managed to figure out ways to resolve them.

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    1. Anon, it would surely be very interesting to hear your story! : )

      Is there a way people can contact you if they need advice?

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  16. I am an American that has lived in Odessa, Ukraine since 2007. I strongly recommend that any Expat coming to Ukraine take some serious time to learn the culture (read up a bit..) and learn some basic Russian. Dont worry about learning Ukrainian, as most people speak Russian and Ukrainian is mostly only used for official documents, etc. If you are paying anything more than 400-500$USD for rent in the center of Odessa, then you are getting ripped off! Most locals dont mind foreigners. Overall, Odessa is an amazing city... just know your place!!

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  17. Teaching for such little money and coming as a westerner here is really the most stupid thing you can do. While you may be enriched by the experience, you will not be saving anything. The beautiful women might be a positive but even that's not enough. Don't come here unless your gonna earn 2k plus per month after rent. I used to be a broke teacher here and figured out how to live the vip lifestyle like the 10 percenters of Ukraine.

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  18. Hi Crazy about Ukraine,
    Is there anyway to contact you for advice about Ukraine for an American coming there soon?

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  19. Hi Anon! Sure, drop me a line at katherine at english-ghoti dot com and let's talk : )

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  20. I used to live in Ukraine till 1995 (born 1984) and I used to live on Gvardeytsev Shironintsev. I have been seriously considering a permanent move back. I have lived in the US since, so maybe teaching English is a way, I'm almost 30 tho. My normal occupation is engineering.

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    1. 30 is not too old! I'm 30 ; ) And having a background in something other than teaching can be a great asset, as it can open up ESP (English for Specific Purposes) opportunities for you.

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  21. The TRUTH about working visas at AEC! All American teachers at AEC work in Ukraine unofficially! Just like when I lived in CA and saw many Mexicans working illegally there! lol. This is the only real problem with AEC! They have no means to help teachers get a working visa! They sort of pretend they can assist teachers with visas to lure them over to Ukraine then basically trick you to work and stay illegally by telling you how expensive it is and how much trouble it is to get a visa. Problem is after 90 days the police can deport you if they catch you in Ukraine, more serious problems if they catch you working. AEC suggest if your lucky enough not to get caught then you just pay a fine when you leave at the airport. But according to the rules they have the right to ban you from coming back to Ukraine up to 5 years depending on how long you overstayed. So if you want the adventure just accept this fact and just stay out of trouble when you come to Ukraine and good chance you won't get caught! Now you know how the illegal Mexicans in California feel! lol

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  22. Ok, here's the deal. I'm 47, I currently teach Veterinary Assisting at a local community college which I have been doing for 10 years. My question is, everything I have read say that this person or that person taught for 8 months or 10 months. You, yourself said you were considered an old-timer. If I decide to do this (which I am starting to really want to) is it something I could do for the remainder of my life? Maybe be there 20 years, or is that just not possible?

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    1. Hi Steve! Thanks for dropping by. It's great that you have teaching experience so you know that side of things. As for Ukraine, have you spent much time here before? Before planning a big move (for 20 years or for the rest of your life), you should make sure that you really do want to live here at all, because Ukraine is definitely not a country for everyone. If you've made some visits and you're pretty set on this place, I'm sure you'll find teaching opportunities once you're in the country. AEC is just one of many, many, many schools that look for native speakers. Good luck!

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    2. Also, I'm sure you've heard about what's going on in Ukraine at the moment. I'd recommend waiting a few months to see how things go (especially with the upcoming elections) before visiting/moving.

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    3. Hi Steve. Did you get an offer to work at AEC? What salary did they propose you? What about promising to help you get a visa? You have no chance to live here for a very long time illegally. Just for a year or two maybe before they will catch you.

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  23. For anybody interested in coming to work at AEC or in general the currency exchange rate as of today is about 12.4 grivnas to the dollar. That means if you will work for AEC they will pay you just under $6 US dollars per hour. At the beginning of this year teachers were making $10 US dollars per hour but they did not adjust the pay since they pay you in the local currency. Plus inflation will hit Ukraine hard this summer and prices for many products such as groceries have gone up significantly in the last few weeks!

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    1. Yes, I noticed their ads in Feb/March were at $9 an hour and now... eek. Can't imagine new teachers will be flocking to work at the school for that pay (even though it's still more than many Ukrainians make). But money aside, now's not a good time for foreigners to come teach in Ukraine in the first place. English schools will probably have to make do with fewer native speakers.

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  24. For anybody who doesn't want to do the math you will be making just around $600 per month working at AEC as of today's date. Prices have started to increase on many items in the country due to inflation and the uncertainty of war with Russia so living in Ukraine now will not be so easy like it was before!

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  25. Call me Al. I am 54 and receive a small pension. I used to teach high school English but my certification is no longer valid because I did not renew. I am considering going to Ukraine to teach and explore. Earlier it was mentioned that a work visa costs the school $1,000. If I offer to pay for it, do you think they would be more willing to take on the task?

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    1. Hi Al! For this particular chain of schools, I doubt it... but it's definitely worth asking them ( or any potential employer) about. You may have the best luck with schools in Kyiv, especially since you have a professional background in teaching English. Hope you find what you're looking for : )

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    2. Hi Al! BE CLEAR if AEC will help you with a visa it will be a RELIGIOUS visa ONLY! It is NOT a WORKING VISA and there is NO WAY for them to get you a working visa! So you will be working unofficially (illegally) in Ukraine!

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