Kazakhstan: Local customs in an international setting

In the second year of my study to become an international primary school teacher, we had to do a teaching practice abroad. School asked us to give a top three of where we wanted to go. All the teaching practice places on my list were already given away. There were two places left in Astana, Kazakhstan and as a classmate and I wanted to go abroad together, this was about the only option left for us. Initially, we were not excited about this country. A lot of people that we had told where we were going replied “Is that safe?” We were wondering this ourselves too, but after some pre-research we learned that it should be safe there. Also because you kind of live in an international bubble when working in an international school. Mostly, the people that work in the same company are the people you interact with. It took quite some time to arrange everything we needed. When we heard where we were going we only had 6 weeks to arrange everything. My classmate didn’t have a passport so she had to get that first, then we had to take care of the visas. We couldn’t buy plane tickets until the visas were arranged, as we had to leave the moment we would receive the visas. Eventually, we went about 1,5 week later than planned.

Kazakhstan is a very safe place to be. We arrived in our apartment at about 3.30 in the morning and our fridge was empty. We went to the 24/7 supermarket across the street to get some groceries. Two young girls alone on the street in the middle of the night and it was perfectly safe. If you need a ride across town, just hold your hand out like you are calling for a taxi and random civilians stop to take you anywhere you need to go for about 500Tenge, which was around 2 euros at that time. You do need to speak Russian for this. You can try it in English, but if they know you are a tourist, they will rip you off. But hey, even if you would pay double to get across town, it would still be way cheaper than regular taxis. I do need to say, however, that we were in the wealthy part of Astana. Some neighbourhoods there, I wouldn’t feel safe walking.

TIP: If you don’t speak the language, try finding your native community. When we were there, there were about 15 Dutch people living in Kazakhstan at the time. We came in contact with them and even celebrated a native holiday. They can show you around or give you some advice in a language you understand. As not many people there speak English.

This blog is mostly about my time at the international school where I did my teaching practice in, the customs of the local teachers and the differences between local and international teachers in this particular school.

First impressions
In the holiday week – the first week we were here –, the school had set up a welcome program where we had activities during the daytime to see the highlights of Astana, guided by a member of the staff of Miras. They all made us feel very welcome and were happy to show us around the city during their holiday. Astana seems like a very big city, but we have the idea that we've already seen most of it in one week time. Which is a good thing, because it is so cold here that we will probably stay inside during most of the time in the weekends.

The Friday before, we paid a visit to the school (day after we arrived in Kazakhstan). General impression of the school first of all is that it's huge! At first I thought I would get lost in here many times, but after a week I already know the way from the entrance to all the locations that I need to know. The staff in school is very friendly and open for conversation, they are all willing to help and say every time “Whenever you need help with something, you can always ask me.”

General overall schedule
Every morning on schooldays, we're being picked up at 6.45 by the schooltaxi. Which is quite early, but we are happy that we don't have to arrange our own transport. This schooltaxi brings us back to the apartment at 17.00, where we arrive at about 17.45. So the days are quite long, but this means that we spend a lot of time in our teaching practice so we will learn more of the culture, the school, the teachers and the children.

The principal told us that it would be wise to visit as many meetings as possible to get as much as information about things that happen in an international school. They have meetings nearly every day, so information enough I guess.

School's system
I'm introduced as an English teacher in Kindergarten. This school, secondary as well as primary, works with the same system that we – in the Netherlands – work with in secondary schools. One teacher teaches one subject. So children and teachers move from classroom to classroom during the day. My mentor, Ms. B. is an English teacher. English is the only subject in Kindergarten and lower primary – where I'm doing teaching practice in – which is taught in English. Kindergarten is officially the group that I will be doing my teaching practice in, but because it is very hard to do all of the assignments there due to the language barrier, I might be able to do some of my lessons in other lower primary classes. All of the other lessons are being taught in Russian. When I found out about this, I realized that the assignments were much more of a challenge now. Especially because only one of the Kindergarten pupils speaks English (he is being raised bilingually). The other pupils are spoken to by the parents in Russian, as most of the children in this school are local. Because all of the other lessons are being taught in Russian, the only place where they pick up on the English language is during the English lessons which they get at school only a few hours a week.

This past week I did not give any lessons yet, I just observed different classes and different grades. Mostly English lessons of different grades and different levels. Each class in lower primary is divided into 3 levels of English, with A being the lowest level and C being the highest. I also thought it would be nice to see a Russian lesson in Kindergarten and one in grade 6 (which here is officially secondary school). Maybe I could see some differences. The lesson in Kindergarten was quite hard to follow because the teacher did not speak English at all, but with Google Translate helping me a little and a teacher that uses hand gestures and visualization on the white board, I managed to know what the lesson was about: Cutting up words and seeing what letter certain words start with. The Russian lesson in grade 6 was totally different. The teacher translated some things that she was talking about in English to us and the children could also speak English quite well, so part of the lesson was done in English. The also have Kazakh language lessons, which I observed one of in grade 6. I asked some people what the difference was between Russian and Kazakh, all of them gave me more or less the same answer; Kazakh is a harder language. I noticed this during my observation. The lesson was taught in Russian and you could hear when the teacher used Kazakh words in her Russian sentences. They had a spelling lesson where the children needed to write Kazakh sentences on the board which the teacher would read to them. I am trying to learn Russian a little here and know the pronunciation of the letters and all the letters of the Russian alphabet. I noticed during Kazakh that a lot of letters were pronounced differently than in Russian and they have more letters. Before I thought that the languages were very much alike and people could understand each other a little – like German and Dutch –. But now I think otherwise, not sure yet though.

In this culture, it is not common to take children on your lap. The principal here is Dutch, so he warned us for that because he knows how normal that is in our Dutch culture. I also heard that when children cry, even patting them on the back or comforting them physically is not common for a teacher to do here. I noticed this during one of the English lessons, 2 children were crying during this lesson and the teacher said “Ah, why are you crying?” Then waiting a second and said “Go work on your assignment.” This really got my attention during observing and I thought this must be a culture thing. I received the information that I mentioned before – not comforting children physically – after this observation, so it got clear to me then.

The last week was still full of observations. I observed teachers that have teaching styles that noticeably have a positive effect on the pupils and others which don't have a particularly positive effect. My mentor starts with singing songs at the beginning of the lesson, which is a good way to make the children be in a good mood. She is also full of energy and seems enthusiastic in her teaching. What I like most is that she involves me in the lesson, for instance asking me to have the children read to me and grade them. All of the other lessons that I've observed, the teachers don't do that. Which makes sense, because I ask if I can observe the class.

The funny thing is that the teachers teaching with energy and enthusiasm are the overseas teachers, the local teachers seem to have less fun in teaching. I don't know if this is a cultural thing (Kazakh teaching education teaches different styles?) or just coincidence.

There are Russian speaking assistant teachers present in the classroom most of the time, which comes in handy if you're teaching the lowest level of English to a lower grade. The assistant teachers can be asked to translate important information and tell this to the children. I noticed that the English teachers use a lot of exaggerated hand gestures to make the children understand what they're talking about.

Thursday after school hours, I was sitting in the teacher's room. I was working on my assignments when one of the teachers came in and told us that we could come for tea in the cafeteria. One of the teachers sitting in the teacher's room, who is American, warned us for this gathering. He said that the brother in law of one of the teachers died a few days ago and in this culture they then have a gathering with a lot of snacks and tea to think about the deceased person and pay their respect to family members. He said it was something like a wake. If the American teacher wouldn't have warned us, we would be sitting there laughing and having fun like “Oh this is nice, a cup of tea with all the teachers”. Until one of the other teachers had a little speech to pay her respect. It was kind of an awkward situation because we are not used to it and a lot of people there were crying. But it is definitely a good thing to have experienced.

Final days
In the final week of our teaching practice, we wanted to leave something behind of our own culture. We had pepernoten, stroopwafels and Mentos drop (liquorice) which we put on a tray in the teacher's room with a note explaining what it was. Everyone reacted positive about this. But of course, who doesn't enjoy free food.

The last night, we will be picked up from our apartment at 1.30am to go to the airport and fly back to the Netherlands. Our time here is over then, which is a pity. I had a blast here and the hospitality here is great! We've been guided in the best way imaginable and if I look at my learning process, I wouldn't have wanted to change my experience here in any way. I can honestly say I have learned a lot of helpful things which definitely can come in handy in my career as an international primary school teacher!


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