Adventures in Kazakhstan – Meeting the Students

Last Thursday, I finally got to meet some of the students I will be working with this year and it was a real pleasure getting to know them! I started off by introducing myself as one of the new international teachers at the school. Teachers go by a first name basis at the school, so the students call me “Ms. April.” Since I will be working with them for the entire year, it was only fair that we take some time to get to know each other. I passed out two pieces of paper to each student (one white, one blue), and my first task for them was as follows: 
The first unit we are covering has to do with series and sequences. The blue paper I passed around to students contained a sequence with a missing number. The idea is that answer to their sequence problem would determine the order in which students would speak. In theory, this seemed like a great way to tie in bits of math instruction along with my introductory spiel, but since all of them were English Language Learners, this part of the activity took longer to explain than I had anticipated. While the students worked on the Starter activity, I passed my camera around and asked them to take a #selfie of themselves so I would be able to better learn their names. The students had a lot of fun with this, and I got some pretty nice pictures at the end: 
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Picture modified for privacy reasons.
I had a professor in university who started off his very first lecture with the statement, “Ask me anything,” and it’s stuck with me since. I appreciated how he did not choose to just hide behind all the abbreviations attached to his name (trust me, there were many), and owned up to the fact that he was a real life human being who eats, poops, and sleeps just like you and me. So, I let my students ask me anything they wanted to know about me. I figured they were all curious to learn more about the new young and beautiful looking international teacher at their school (ha!). 

Most of them wanted to know where I was from, what I thought about their country and their city, how long I would be staying at the school, and what my hobbies were. I answered their questions in earnest and they shared some facts about themselves. I am from Canada; I’ve had a very enjoyable time in Taldykorgan so far and I love seeing the mountains as I walk to work everyday; my current contract allows me to stay for one year; and I enjoy reading, playing volleyball, badminton, and drawing. I learned that most of the boys enjoy playing football (soccer) and basketball while the girls had a wider range of hobbies, including playing musical instruments, watching anime, and reading. I got the feeling that the students wanted to share more, but their limited English language prevented them from sharing any thoughts that may have been too difficult to express. 

After the sharing, I showed the students some pictures that represented me and where I am from. In particular, they were very interested in my grade 8 class photo. I explained to them that I grew up with people from many different ethnicities, and that there was no single colour of skin that defined “Canadian.” Also posted some examples of my artwork from high school since drawing is one of my hobbies. I got a big reaction from the boys when they saw my pencil crayon drawing from the cover of “World of Warcraft” which I wasn’t expecting. I think I gained some massive cool points for that. 
I shared with the students what my reasons were for teaching, and talked a bit about my teaching philosophy in language that was more accessible to them. I framed my classroom expectations within a brief talk I called “How to Ace Math Class.” There are only three rules in my classroom and they are not optional. They are: listen ACTIVELY, take good notes, and participate! I took some time to talk about what each rule entails, and explained the rationale behind each one. I chose these specific rules because I learned from the experience international staff that the students will often chat among themselves during instructional time, and that they are used to being spoon-fed information so it is not unusual for students to sit passively in class. I think if I were to teach in Canada, I would have to rethink these rules a bit. Keep in mind that many teachers in Canada and the US will spend at least the first week discussing expectations and classroom procedures, I only had 20 minutes – and that is longer than most local teachers spend on this topic. The culture here is just different, and the norm is to jump right into curricular content. The good news is that there are no major behavioural issues with the students. As I learn more about my classes, however, I will continue to introduce and rework new routines and procedures on an as-needed basis so that we can have a successful year together. 
My concluding message? “Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous,” (advice from one of my teacher idols Tina Seelig).  

Adventures in Kazakhstan – First day of classes!

Today was the official first day of classes, and I did absolutely nothing. As someone who values organization and preparedness, I am left feeling adrift. I feel like I’m stuck in a cycle of restlessness and unproductive-ness, and I’m itching to get out of it. But since everyone is assuring me that this is normal, I am doing my best to just go with the flow. 

Flexibility is Key
To give you a little bit of context, all international teachers are paired with local Kazak or Russian speaking teachers for every class we teach. An international teacher may be working with anywhere between 3-7 national teachers each year. As a result, curriculum planning is arguably one of the most difficult  parts of the job. Aside from those who teach English, a majority of national teaching staff only understand limited English. Google translate is not always the most reliable, which means I have to muster all the charades skills I have just to communicate simple sentences with the local teachers whom I work with. To add to the challenge, the school timetables are still in the process of being finalized since every school within the *** network (acronym omitted in case of publishing issues) must wait for a set of directives from the headquarters in Astana before the real planning can begin. This means that everything is currently being run on an ad hoc basis, and will likely continue this way until mid-September. Since I’ve had so much free time in the last two days, I’ve mostly been reworking my introductory powerpoint and reviewing key concepts for the first unit I will be teaching (whenever that may be). 

Aside from wanting to just hit the ground running (a sentiment I’ve been warned I might later regret having), my experience at *** have been very positive so far. The staff are supportive and the students are extremely talented and well-behaved. 

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A little snippet from my “first day” introductory powerpoint.
Some Background Information About the School (‘Shkola’)
For those who are new to my teaching journey, I am a new teacher at the *** school of Math and Physics in Kazakhstan. *** is a network of schools around the country whose aim is “to increase the intellectual capacity of Kazakhstan as well as to implement the best Kazakhstani and international practices.” The locals usually refer to *** as the “President’s School.” *** is an extension of the public education system in Kazakhstan, but students must pass an exam to get into the school, and they must  maintain their grades to stay.  The schools have a trilingual policy in which students receive instruction in Russian, Kazak, and English. 

The facilities are clean and well maintained. The hallways are MASSIVE compared to the schools in Canada. There is a canteen that is open all day, where teachers and students can have lunch for cheap (a regular meal at lunch would cost me no more than 3 USD). In all, there are over 300 staff members that assist with various upkeep activities at the school; from security to plant maintenance (they take their plants very seriously here). 

The Teachers (‘Uchitelya’)
International teachers are invited from around the world to help shape the new educational models and introduce innovative teaching practices into the country. Out of the 170 or so teaching staff, there are about 20 international teachers. One of my favourite things about teaching in Kazakhstan is getting to know the other international teachers in our staff team. A lot of people back home think I’m crazy for coming here, but it’s good to know I’m not the only one! I have colleagues from England, South Africa, the United States, Canada, Germany, Kenya, the Philippines… and now we’re all in Kazakhstan! They have all different types of accents and have taught all over the world. I love listening to their stories and hearing about the experiences they’ve had prior to teaching in Kazakhstan.

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The moment you realize you just fit right in.
That’s all for now. Stay posted for updates about my teaching journey, and what it’s like living so far from home. Leave a comment below if you have questions or words of encouragement, they will be most welcome. =)  

Adventures in Kazakhstan – Day 1

I’m so grateful to have the support of my school and colleagues for my transition from Canada to Kazakhstan. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was met by a school representative and driver at the Almaty airport who accompanied me on the trip to Taldykorgan. Then, when we arrived at my new apartment in Taldykorgan, I was met by a VP (one who deals with the international teachers at the school) and a friend of mine who also works at the school. They helped me move my belongings into my new apartment, and later that day, two of my colleagues took me on a basic tour of the town.  

My New Apartment
As someone who has been living the student life too long to have high expectations, the apartment I have been assigned is more than I could have asked for. While the decorations are a bit on the lavish side, I definitely have more space than I need! My apartment came fully furnished with a kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom, and spare room. In addition, I have  a few updated appliances including a plus size fridge and a new washer.  I was also left with some some kitchenware (likely from the previous owner), and given new bedding and bath towels to help get me started. The VP also bought me some food items like bread, yogurt, water so I wouldn’t have to starve on my first day.

A Festival
What a treat on my first day! We managed to run into a festival/celebration (of what, I’m still not sure) in the streets across from my place. There were tents of cultural displays, people playing music, and someone even brought in their pet eagle! 

The School
About a 10 minute walk from my apartment, the school is large and spacious with a swimming pool (the only school with one in my city), tennis courts, a gymnasium, auditorium, library, canteen. . . you name it. The hallways are also incredibly spacious, contrasted to the narrow ones I’m used to at the public schools in Ontario. There are many pictures and statues of the President Nazarbayev throughout the school.

Adventures in Kazakhstan – Travelling

Some things I learned on my trip from Canada to Kazakhstan :

1. Not all travel pillows are created equal. I was cheap, so I just took the one my mom and brother used on their trip earlier this summer instead of buying a new one. My brother had warned me against this, but I was convinced that he was just using it wrong. It was one of those firm, memory foam travel cushions and probably the most uncomfortable thing I could have used on the journey. Luckily for me, Turkish Airlines provided mini-pillows, a blanket, and a “comfort pack” that had things like toothbrush and toothpaste, a sleeping mask, a pair of socks, slippers, and lip balm to all its passengers (Air Canada really needs to step up its game). What I can say for sure though, is that having an uncomfortable travel pillow is better than having no travel pillow at all because after I arrived in Almaty, KZ, I had to take a 5 hour ride to get to Taldykorgan, the city where I now work. Since the bus I rode in was more spacious than the seats in the airplane, I was able to try out different configurations until I figured out the optimal pillow-to-head ratio and positioning to be comfortable for the trip. 

2.  Starbucks is pretty much the same everywhere. If they don’t know how to spell your name, they will make it up. My first ever “butcher your name” experience was at the Starbucks in Istanbul airport: 

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When the barista asked for my name I said, “April.” He then proceeded to write down “Ibra.”
3. Not all customs officers will treat you like a criminal. Prior to the trip, I had been watching a lot of “Border Security” (on National Geographic Channel) with my younger brother. So, after I claimed my bags at the Almaty airport, I was mentally preparing myself for this lengthy inspection process where I would have to declare all the food items I brought into the country (I packed some comfort foods like candy, chocolate, instant tea and coffee), and to explain that the fuzzy peaches I brought with me were artificial peach flavor, etc. As I was bumbling about the airport with my bags looking for the bag inspection area, one of the officers noticed that I was struggling so she stopped me and pointed me towards a door. I tentatively walked through. . . and that was it! So, for the ten minutes I had been trying to figure out whether or not they would let me bring my fuzzy peaches into the country, the school representative who had been sent to meet me had been standing about 4 meters away from me the entire time. And all I had to do was walk through a door. What a relief it was to see him there!

4. The “enroutes” in Kazakhstan are very different than the ones in Canada. Now, Almaty is only about 250km away from Taldykorgan, but they are currently fixing all the roads so instead of a 2-3 hour car ride, it took about 5 hours, during which I drank minimal amounts of water to avoid making pit stops along the way. 

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What I’m used to.
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What’s it’s like here.
5. A little Russian goes a long way. Prior to the trip, I learned some basic Russian phrases to help get me started (e.g. ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘thank you’, etc.). Since I’ve arrived, these phrases have been tremendously useful in terms of basic communication with the locals and it’s actually helping me learn the language faster since I am at least somewhat familiar with some of the pronunciation. The native language here is Kazak, but I the official language here is Russian, and most people will know how to speak it. One thing I regret not buying prior to the trip is a Russian phrase book (useful for shopping, asking for directions, etc.). As an alternative, I’ve been writing down phrases and words in a little notebook I carry around with me, and now I know to look these words up ahead of time and write them in my notebook before going to the market. My next goal is to learn the Russian alphabet. 
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The basic phrases I learned prior to the trip.

Adventures in Kazakhstan – Getting The Job

To read the prequel, click here.

Before the school year came to an end, I spoke with a school counselor in regards to my worries about finding a job and having to fend for myself in the adult world. I asked for some practical advice on the job hunt/interview process, and the top five pieces of advice he gave me were:

1. Get a LinkedIn account.  It really works! Exhibit A: my current job. Unlike visiting individual job search sites that add spokes to your wheel, networking is like adding entire wheels to each spoke (see diagrams below). 

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Type of connections individual job search sites offer.
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Networking opens up more connections.
2. If you have an online or phone interview, don’t wear pants. Check out my version of “letting it loose” below. 

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An interview is already nerve-racking enough. Loosen up!
3. Always follow up. Call, email, or send a card to your interviewers to thank them for their time, and this could also be a good time to ask for feedback about the interview.

4. Practice, practice, practice, practice, and practice some more! There’s no way you can prepare answers to every single possible question they will ask you at an interview, however, you can think about situations in which you’ve exemplified a certain skill that’s relevant to the position, and practice telling that story in a clear and concise manner. If you’re like me, not practicing prior to an interview will only end one way:

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Word vomit.
5. After you’re done school, take some time to relax and do NOTHING (easier said than done). Then devote a good two weeks to the job hunting process – it’s a full time job! 

So, it turns out I didn’t have to spend the full intensive two weeks job hunting… I was haphazardly updating my LinkedIn profile when I saw that a friend of mine whom I worked with two years ago made a post about teaching positions available at his school. I sent him a message, and a few emails, a lesson plan, resume, and Skype conversation later, I managed to get an interview with the school! 

The interview was an important deciding factor for me, because it gave me the chance to ask the interviewers about the school culture, some of the things they enjoyed most about the school, and some things they thought could use some improvement. Their responses were genuine, and they didn’t give me stock responses that made me want to cringe (“Oh the students are great, yeah, really great! [Full stop. No further explanation provided]”). Another thing I appreciated was the fact that the school sent me a sample copy of the contract to review right when they gave me the offer instead of swaying me into an agreement before I could review the terms and conditions for myself. (SIDE STORY: During my time of post-grad panic, I accepted a part time position as a tutor for a tutoring company that was a two hour bus ride away from home. It wasn’t until after the first training session that the employer revealed to me that training was unpaid. Which, isn’t the worst thing if that was the whole story, BUT I was expected to attend monthly training sessions (an additional 5 hours a month, not including the induction process), AND that bit of information just happened to have been left out of the contract.) 

Tangents aside, because I was able to see myself working well with the people at the Nazarbayev Intellectual School in Taldykorgan, KZ, because they had been honest and professional in their dealings with me, and because I knew I would have at least one friend at the school, I decided to take the job. 

Of course, my family insisted that I also do a sh*t ton of research before committing myself to the position, so I did my due diligence and asked as many questions as I could before accepting the offer. After that, the rest of the summer was spent vegetating at home and gathering all the paperwork that was needed to obtain my visa. 

Up Next: Adventures in Kazakhstan – Getting There

Adventures In Kazakhstan: Prequel

This is the story of how I ended up with a teaching job in Kazakhstan. Here, I’ve decided to include a “prequel” because, unlike getting a job in a local public board, the UK, Australia or the like, telling people that I’m going to Kazakhstan usually demands a more rigorous explanation. For one, people either assume I’m going to an extremely remote part of the world, or some sort of war-torn country. I’ve found that telling this truth generally elicits a visceral reaction that causes family and friends to begin to fear for my safety, and strangers to look at me like I’m crazy. My grandparents have already revealed to me that this fear has caused them to have regular nightmares of me in life-threatening situations across the world. The other explanation for a background story is that I also feel the need to justify, or at least consolidate some of the choices I have made that led me here. This post was not easy for me to write, because it meant confronting some ugly truths about the decisions I’ve made, and the after-math of living out those consequences. But I am writing with the self-assurance that “the truth will set you free,” so please bear with me.

                                                                                . . .

A Fear of Commitment

It was three months prior to my expected graduation date I was already panicking about the ominous and uncertain future ahead of me. Scattered about teacher’s college were select students who had already been offered teaching contracts in different countries overseas (and even public school boards for a lucky few!). One by one, as the pool of unemployment began to shrink around me, the reality of Life After School became more and more real. I began to question a lot of things, including the vocation I had chosen. University life had opened me to more possibilities than just traditional teaching. Throughout my time at university, I had the privilege of working within the student housing and academic affairs department. I learned that the skills I possessed as a teacher were also invaluable to positions I held outside that role. What if I had picked the wrong profession? Should I explore other options before settling down? Those were the types of questions lingering in my mind. Maybe I should have been asking myself why I was having those thoughts in the first place.

Those last three months before the end of the school year not only exemplified a period of great uncertainty, but also some of the worst decision-making I have ever done in my life. Wanting to keep my options open, I applied to any and all jobs I had the qualifications for, and yet I would find some excuse or other to not take the jobs I had been offered. Not really knowing what I wanted, I deluded myself into thinking that every job I applied for was going to be “the one.” I was desperate and picky; and because I did not take the time to truly understand the rationale behind each one of my actions, I was not able to act with honesty or integrity. I sought explanations outside myself, and rejected offers because my family did not approve, because I would not be able pay off student loans, because it was too far from home, because, because, because…  All of my excuses, compounded with a deep inner desire to make my family proud, ended up sabotaging the healthy connections I had created while in university.

Burning Bridges

To give you an example, there was a summer job opening within the student housing department at my school that would allow me to stay in town a few months longer doing work for the people which I owe much of my gratitude. I interviewed for the position and was offered the job. I, being stupidly short sighted, I only thought about how great it would be able to continue working at the university, and did not factor in any long term goals or plans. When I eventually went to turn down the job – (Okay, dramatic PAUSE here) I mean, who DOES that anyway? Not many new grads are lucky enough to find employment, let alone being able to afford the luxury of turning job offers down – I faced a painful reality check.

My interviewers were gracious enough to provide some feedback for the interview upon my request. To foreign ears, this feedback may seem unsolicited or unprofessional, but because these people had been my mentors for the last few years, I took their advice with an open heart. The conversation went something like this, “April, I think you really need to assess your own values and where they stand in relation to your family’s values, and what they want for you. This is not the first time you’ve turned down a position like this, and people will remember you for that. Employers invest a lot of time and energy into the hiring process, and when they make the decision to hire you, and you reject that offer, you are burning bridges in a way.” Those words struck me like massive blows to the head, and the reason I felt them so harshly was because in my heart, I knew them to be true.

It is not easy to confront the ugly, selfish, and completely idiotic side of yourself. People always have a tendency to deny its existence. Luckily for me, I had some pretty wise mentors who were not afraid of holding a mirror up to my face and showing me what I had neglected to see. When I think on this memory I am reminded of something a good friend said to me, “People of our generation think that just because we’ve gone to school and graduated with fancy diplomas, we are entitled to a well-paying job” – it simply isn’t true. It was lesson in humility that will stick with me forever.

After that episode, I gave up on the job hunt for a while, which eventually led me to a position as a senior math teacher in Kazakhstan. More on that later.