This is an extract from my Russia diary which will be published later this year.
16-2-20 Production Targets
My language school has required (you cannot say asked) me to take on a new class. The new class is scheduled to run back to back with an existing class. Both classes are 1.5 hours long. So, I will have to teach one class and then immediately move to the other class. How exactly I am expected to complete the paperwork and tidy up after the first class and then set up for the next class in no time at all is not explained.
When I challenged the ‘Academic Director’ – the local manager in this branch of the private owned language school where I work – about this, the explanation offered was; this is the only time we can run this class, the students won’t come in the afternoons and given your timetable there is no other option. Something similar happened in my previous job, in a language school in Moscow. In this case I was given a timetable which contained some crazy scheduling; a day when I was expected to start at 9.00am, finish at 9pm and change location (by bus or taxi) four times during the day. When I asked it was explained to me by the manager that “The corporate clients must have a native teacher”.
In both cases the same pattern. There is an exigency and the answer is to simply do what is demanded, without thought. I imagine that this is how it was in the USSR. The production targets have come down from the State Planning Commission and the local superviser just sees it as her job to tell the workers to meet them. No matter what. In the USSR the dictates of the economic planners. In capitalist Russia the dictates of the situation. What is missing in the managers is an ability to consider the situation as a whole, to consider how the staff are affected by the decision, to think that that matters, and to have the belief that one can change the situation. In the USSR there was no choice; there were laws about labour discipline. But in modern Russia this is an anachronism. (I have considered that the managers understand all this and are just cynically exploiting people, perhaps especially the foreign teachers, but I don’t see any evidence at all of this. It is just a limitation). In Moscow when I challenged this and suggested a more flexible way of dealing with the situation, which struck a balance between the needs of the business, and what was comfortable for me, the manager was happy to go along with my ideas. (Though she wanted me to explain to the clients). In Kazan, where I am now, the local manager is impervious to any suggestions I may make – but I think this is a personal problem and not a reflection of a cultural facet. She is, on all points, determined never to accept my advice and in general, not just with myself, is someone who, in England, would be called a ‘control-freak’. But the inability to handle situations so as to balance the needs of the business and the welfare of the employees seems, to some extent, a “cultural difference”, to borrow a phrase used by my current manager to explain why she communicates new classes to me simply by adding them to the timetable, and not in person. How widespread this lack of management skill and absence of what in the UK would be called employee-relation skills, is in Russia, I simply don’t know. All I’ve known is language schools. Based on my limited exposure I would speculate that there is a different culture in large, European owned, businesses. I’ve met people who work in these businesses and they have struck me as being no different, say, from Scandinavians, in their attitudes to working practices. Possibly the lack of flexibility and absence of management skills would not be unusual in SMEs in Russia – of which my language schools are instances. I have heard that staff turnover in small businesses is very high because people are, in general, treated very badly. At any event my local manager seems like a real throwback to the Soviet Union; a piece of history; someone who really belongs in a “living museum” and not the real world where she can impact other people.
It is absolutely evident to me that the mind-set of most of the students I teach is completely different to the kind of latent Stalinism I am describing above. I would absolutely reject that here we are talking about “cultural differences” let alone any kind of intrinsic difference of nationality. Russians are, in general, a kind people. They don’t want to make their staff miserable. They, the managers I am talking about, just have no idea how to manage the employee relations side of a business, and no idea that sometimes the needs of employees should be balanced against the needs of the clients; something which is taken for granted in any UK business above third-rate. I can add that the vast majority of my teenage and young adult students are of a different order. They show flexibility. They are forward looking. They are conscious of their own autonomy. Even those who consciously want to stay firmly within their own Russian culture recognize that there is value in exposure to the West. But it has to be said that most of my students are either aiming to work for large international companies or leave Russia altogether.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, says that Europeans must drop the mentor tone. That is understable and natural. No one wants to be spoken to in a mentoring tone, unless they’ve asked to be mentored. However, the process may just happen by itself. At some point a critical mass of younger people, a generation born to people who themselves were born after the fall of the Soviet Union, will emerge. And these anachronistic attitudes will simply die out by themselves. From this perspective there is no need of “mentoring” (and indeed everyone knows that forcing a plant to grow rarely leads to good results).
These reflections of course raise questions about the political direction which Russia will take. Will it continue on its current path of development which balances a national political consciousness with selective adoption of European business forms (and capital) and social standards, or will it take a different path? Such questions may be the subject of another entry.