International College of Economics and Finance

'I Learn More from ICEF Students Than They Do from Me’

Olesya Kondrakhina, ICEF Principles of Accounting lecturer, Assistant Lecturer for the Management Accounting programme at the University of London and three-time winner of the Best Teacher award at ICEF, spoke on how to keep a lecture hall full of students interested in accounting, the latest technical tools in her arsenal and a childhood dream.

'I Learn More from ICEF Students Than They Do from Me’

How did your career path develop? Had you thought about teaching before joining ICEF?

I have actually dreamed of becoming a teacher since childhood. I took the first steps towards realizing that dream a few years after graduating from the Plekhanov Russian Institute of Economics. After enrolling in graduate school, I was happy to teach for six months there and establish warm relations with my first real students. I even helped some of them start their careers because I already had a wide range of professional acquaintances by then. You could call it my first ‘delivery’ of interns to friends and colleagues.

I began my own career in the audit department of Deloitte as a third-year student. In a couple of years I went to work in the internal control department of an international tobacco company and later joined Johnson & Johnson as a financial department manager responsible for compliance (ensuring that an organization’s management/control system complies with internal or external requirements or norms – Ed.) in the pharmaceutical division.

I have always enjoyed leading training sessions at the companies where I’ve worked. At my most recent job, I was often required to do just that — explain internal control and compliance to the employees of various departments. I really liked it. I took a big step in 2013: I left the industry and my 9-5 job with Johnson & Johnson to try something completely new — teaching at a university. My family has helped me to follow my heart, to do what I really love and to turn my dream into a reality. My husband, in particular, has believed very strongly in me and given me good practical advice.

Why did you choose ICEF?

Because ICEF is a name and stands for a certain level of quality. I usually aim for the best right away, so I only sent my application to a handful of the top departments at the best universities in Moscow. My education, coupled with international certification (ACCA) and fluency in English gave me a certain advantage, and in my opinion, professional business experience and knowledge are essential for such subject areas as accounting, management accounting and auditing.

How did corporate work experience help you at ICEF?

It is mainly the serious development of soft skills, the training that all professionals undergo in the Big Four. In general, I think the Big Four are a great way to start a career: human capital is their key asset, and that is what they are willing to invest in. Those companies put enormous resources into education and professional growth during what we can call the ‘plentiful times’ when my friends and I began our careers.

The ability to work with different tools to prepare presentations, having public speaking skills and the professional knowledge needed for teaching financial disciplines and knowing how to build a chain of command in a team of young and ambitious specialists — all of this has always helped me a lot in my work and made me a successful teacher.

Last year saw your first graduating class. How did you collaborate with the faculty and the University of London throughout that period?

The students who graduated last year were the first that I taught in my role as a Principles of Accounting instructor, a required course for all second-year students. After all, I taught only one seminar a week when I first came to ICEF in 2013. After a couple of years, I had established myself as a reliable teacher and I was invited to become a lecturer and given the standard five classes per week. After a successful interview with the London Academic Committee that oversees the University of London’s entire distance learning programme, my candidacy was approved. This is now my fourth year as a Principles of Accounting lecturer and as an assistant lecturer in the University of London’s Management Accounting distance learning course.

You mentioned somewhere on the Internet that you had to ‘outdo yourself’ as a novice teacher. What did you mean by that?

Let’s start with the fact that I had to speak before 250 outstanding and intelligent students who tend to be critical, and to do so in the language of Shakespeare. That was a challenge. Even now, I feel stressed when I have to deliver the first lecture of the ‘season.’ However, when students applaud at the end of a lecture (as they do, according to a wonderful tradition, when they’ve enjoyed a class) those feelings disappear at once. I like to believe that I am able to connect with my students very quickly.

Only experience will enable you to overcome the fear of speaking in public, hold an audience’s attention, learn how to answer a question in the middle of a lecture correctly — that is, without getting into a one-on-one discussion that leaves everyone else bored. When I attend lectures as a student (and I’m always trying to study something new) I always try to remember the speaker’s techniques that seemed effective and to take note of those I didn’t like and that caused me to lose interest.

How do you manage to make accounting and management accounting — subjects that are usually considered boring — colourful and exciting?

You can make any subject interesting if you go a little beyond the academic framework of teaching and add real-life stories and a healthy dose of humour. I asked my students the same thing, and they answered: ‘Because a lollipop for answering a question at the blackboard is the best motivator!’, ‘Because you quote memes from Game of Thrones during your lectures’, ‘Because the assignment about Vanya and how he went over budget when he had a girlfriend is more interesting than faceless “products A and B”’, and, of course, ‘Because we laugh a lot.’

I think a good teacher never looks down on his or her students, speaks to them as equals and gives them clear explanations of difficult subjects. I always strive to ensure that everyone understands the topic and I try very hard to use cool examples taken from real life to explain this or that new concept. After all, accounting comes up in every aspect of life.

What helps you improve as a teacher and conduct winning classes?

First, the students themselves. ICEF students are absolutely amazing: hardworking, diligent, motivated and demanding. It is no exaggeration to say that I want to be good enough for them. I always say that I learn more from them than they do from me.

Second is ongoing self-education. HSE University provides excellent opportunities for its teachers to continue developing: you can always attend various workshops on teaching before a classroom auditorium. And if you don’t have time to attend one in person, online platforms such as Coursera and EdX are very helpful. I didn’t know much about those when I first started teaching, however, so I watched dozens of TED talks in search of the right public speaking and presentation techniques, and even those helped a lot at first. Last year, the university administration suggested that my colleague, Daniil Esaulov, and I take the LSE online course Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. This is not just about soft skills, but about modern trends in higher education, techniques and approaches to education. It was useful but difficult — the course is designed to last several months — and Daniil and I joked that we were no better than our students when it came to being lazy and waiting until the last moment to complete our assignments.

Third, I think it is very important to be at the forefront of technical innovations. For example, I was the first ICEF teacher to create a channel on the Telegram messaging service that I called ‘Bukh i Dukh’ (Accounting with Soul) where I post information, including screen recordings with step-by-step instructions for solving exam questions. For this, I had to purchase additional devices and learn a couple new applications. I also try to include some online innovations for teaching. For example, I give homework assignments with automatic grading using Google Docs, or else I choose students at random to grade each other’s work using the platform. Such techniques make it possible to, among other things, receive personal feedback quickly and upload seminars. I try to present theoretical lectures with, which is visually more attractive and dynamic than the old standby PowerPoint. 

What are your goals now?

Not to slacken my pace of development. I myself love to learn. I love languages. I speak Italian and am studying Spanish now with my daughter. I love to travel and live according to the motto ‘Never a month without a trip’. One of my short-term goals, for example, is to join the LSE summer school in order to bring back new ideas and insights for my own lectures. And this is something that I also really like about the teaching profession: the ability to study something new and travel frequently during both the academic year and the long summer holidays.

A well-known aphorism states: ‘Choose something you really love doing and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ This is definitely true of me. I don’t think of it as ‘work’ at all: I come to each lecture hall with pleasure and the teaching process is tremendously rewarding. It provides moral satisfaction, professional growth and a desire to move forward.

Anastasia Chumak, specially for HSE ICEF