So far all of the one-day teacher-training sessions and seminars I have done have been face-to-face. I’ve gone somewhere, set up, settled in, done my stuff, said goodbye and gone home. Sometimes I’ve done the same seminar in several cities in the same country. Something like that can involve a bit of travelling, which can certainly be fun, but if the country is the size of Russia, then the sheer scale of the place means that we’re talking about a LOT of travelling. At least for a non-Russian, that is. Russians themselves think nothing of travelling twelve hours on a train to visit a ‘nearby’ city for a day. It’s all a question of perspective.
I once took a train from Astrakhan to Kazan. You can Google-map it if you want to know where those particular cities are. I wish I’d taken the trouble to do a bit more research myself, because I had no idea what was in store for me. The train left Astrakhan at about midday. My hosts took me down to the station to see me off, and gave me a substantial bag of supplies for the journey (a loaf of bread, masses of salami, a wedge of cheese, water, etc.) I didn’t understand. According to my itinerary, the train was due to arrive in Kazan at 8pm. Eight hours is a long time, but I was hardly going to starve to death. Not wishing to appear ungrateful, I accepted the bag and prepared to get on the train.
If you’ve ever been on a train in Russia, you’ll know that speaking the language helps a lot. I don’t speak Russian. Typically, you’ll find yourself in a compartment with up to three fellow travellers, none of whom usually speaks any English. The extent to which that makes the whole experience uncomfortable is in direct proportion to the length of the journey. There’s only so much smiling and shrugging you can do before it becomes darkly absurd. If you can’t read Cyrillic script (I certainly couldn’t then) you will have the added challenge of trying to work out where you are each time the train stops. It can be a bit nerve-wracking, to say the least. So anyway, about to get on the train and realising that my hosts were probably the last English-speakers I would encounter before I got to Kazan, I blurted out a last-minute question:
“Does the train stop in any other big cities before Kazan?” After all, I didn’t want to get off in the wrong place, did I?
“Uhh,…not today, no…” my host replied.
“Not today? What? The train arrives at eight o’clock doesn’t it?”
“Eight o’clock tomorrow, yes.”
“Eight o’clock tomorrow morning?!’ I almost choked.
“No, eight o’clock tomorrow evening!”
I reeled. And the killer is, If I hadn’t asked, they wouldn’t have told me. They (rightly) presumed that I already knew. Stupidly, I didn’t. They, meanwhile, had been completely blasé about my upcoming 30-hour (!) megatrek. There was certainly no fretting on their part or any of the oh-no-will-you-be-OKing that I would normally expect in anticipation of a journey of such length. But this, of course, is Russia, where it takes longer than a week to get from Moscow to Vladivostok on the train. So what’s 30 hours? Nothing.
A long trip up the Volga
Speaking of Kazan, it was there that I had my first-ever taste of high-tech teacher-training. After the seminar I was asked to repeat one of my sessions in a specially equipped video conference room with a ‘live relay’ to groups of teachers watching in two other cities. That was pretty weird, but at least I had an audience in the room, as well.
Recently, though, I was asked by OUP to lead a webinar for teachers of English in Russia. That is to say, they were in Russia, I was in the comfort of my own home. That was a totally new experience. Not being much of a techie, I was extra-nervous on the day. The topic was writing and exam preparation, but it was the delivery rather than the content that I was worried about. I found the experience exhilarating – but exhausting. It’s quite a challenge. You have to battle with the essential weirdness of speaking ‘into the void’ via webcam for an hour, somehow trying to sound engaged and conversational even though you’re alone in a room. At the same time, you have to manage all the slides, keep an eye on the clock and also check the comments coming in from participants in the chat window and the direct messages coming in from the moderator. I’m sure one gets the hang of it after a while, but as a draining attempt at multi-tasking the only thing I could compare it to would be my first driving lesson. (Now, that was ugly!)
Towards the end of the my first-ever webinar
There’s nothing better than face-to-race sessions, I’m sure of that. But I can also see that webinars are here to stay. How convenient for both the speaker and the participants that they can take part without having to leave their own homes or workplaces. Great, too, that each session is recorded: no need to take notes, you can watch it as many times as you like afterwards. And there’s something about the interactive format that makes it so much easier to get involved. As a participant, it can be quite daunting to put your hand up in the seminar room, whereas in a webinar all you have to do is type your comment or question into the chat window.
And no 30-hour train journey home afterwards!
P.S. I’ll be going back to Russia again (for real) in March. Should be an adventure!