A Kiwi in KazakhstanAugust 2015
Education Review asks New Zealand teacher CHRIS SHORTER about his current job teaching in Kazakhstan.
Q Prior to teaching abroad, what was your teaching experience in New Zealand?
A: By trade, I am a qualified senior English teacher. I’ve taught in New Zealand for 25 years, including 20 years at Wanganui Collegiate. I also taught briefly at King’s College and Whangarei Boys’ High. Since 1994 I was in management positions, specialising in foreign students; my last seven years at Collegiate, two years as international manager at Christchurch Polytech and two years as principal of a new language school in Christchurch.
Q What prompted you to consider teaching abroad?
A: Having previously taught for three years in Japan, three years in Africa and a brief spell in Saudi Arabia, together with my New Zealand experience, I had developed empathy for foreign students aspiring to a Western education. I went to China in 1995 and eventually, after a brief foray into business, I was headhunted over the next six years to head up international schools, especially in Qingdao, where the principle responsibilities included foreign staff management, curriculum development, student pastoral care, and marketing.
Q What was involved with your agency registration process?
A: There were no registration issues in China other than the need to present my qualifications and details of my experience. These provided the necessary credentials to qualify for a ‘Z’ (working) visa. Initially I did not deal with an employment agency (in New Zealand) and just ‘found my way’ when I was overseas. I did have an excellent agent (it was required) when I applied for Kazakhstan: Teachanywhere.
Q Did you set out to teach in Kazakhstan, or were you open to ideas?
A: I had been asked to start a new school in Shenzhen by my previous Qingdao employer but it bore all the signs of a failed and professionally compromising project. At that moment one of my previous staff (an economics HoD), widely known for his generally cynical nature, wrote to me to tell me that he was now working in Kazakhstan, in what he described as the most remarkable school he had ever had the pleasure of encountering and recommended me to join him. There happened to be a senior management position available in the 20-strong network of schools (for gifted children) and so began the most extraordinary two years of my already extraordinary career.
Q How do you think New Zealand teachers are perceived at your school and overseas in general?
A: New Zealand teachers are well received. Their generally laissez-faire attitude allows them to more easily overcome culture shock, working with cultural challenges and adapting their teaching styles to fit the often different curricula. That said, attaining and maintaining true professional excellence (overseas) is not a task for the faint-hearted and good foreign teachers in general should not wish or hope for a highly recreational lifestyle. Too many of those who do, get lost!
Q How has working with other English-speaking teachers of different nationalities impacted on your teaching? A: Although as a senior manager I have not been contractually required to teach, I am a teacher at heart and always assign myself to a class. The main positive impact has occasionally been from excellent foreign teachers but more consistently, it’s been the impact of local teachers’ standards which has been most humbling, dramatic and professionally enriching.
Q Has working in a different academic year been difficult?
A: Not at all.
Q What has your experience of the different cultural aspects been?
A: Both Chinese and Kazakh work cultures share one virtue: diligence. In the case of China it might be reasoned that the austerities endured in their country’s historical background (of the last 50 or so years) has bred a focus and determination which creates admiration, envy perhaps (and even misguided resentment) amongst foreign onlookers. Those who try to emulate those standards are making the most of their experience and will emerge as teachers, all the better for it.
In Kazakhstan, while the culture overall is nothing like as dynamic and energised as China’s (having been somewhat cowed as a vassal state by decades of Russian domination), it nevertheless boasts a stunning history and vestiges of it are proudly celebrated. Some families are keenly aware of their lineage going back to the time of Genghis Khan and bear the appropriate aristocratic mark of it. I have become personally very deeply involved in researching this part of Kazakh culture.
Q Do you have family over there with you? How have they adjusted to the differences?A: I have no family overseas. Some of the staff have, however, and when their children accompany them, they either attend the employer’s school or more often, complete home-schooling courses. Several families have stayed for years.
Q Have your financial expectations been met?
A: Both China and Kazakhstan pay well. There is a wide variety of schools, and plenty of ghastly ones which pay as little as US$2,000 a month (even less on occasion), with no perks. Kazakhstan is currently the world leader in teacher remuneration. Front line teachers are salaried at US$4,500/month outside the two main cities (where they are paid US$3,500), together with excellent free accommodation and two return airfares. I was working in a provincial school this last two years and most of the teachers saved US$3,500–4,000 per month. One married couple I know was saving US$8,000 a month. Cost of living is low.
Q What advice would you give to New Zealand teachers considering teaching overseas?
A: Research as widely as possible where you are going and if possible correspond with foreign staff to get specific on-the-ground impressions. Standards vary enormously. Of this, beware. Don’t go overseas because you think it’s an easy option, or a way out. You should go, yes, as an adventure, but primarily as an opportunity to further develop your teaching skills. Professionally, you will be handsomely rewarded.
Q Would you consider teaching overseas again?
A: I am extremely happy in Kazakhstan. In September I have been asked to take on the role of international principal at the network’s latest school. Out of a pool of 6,000 clever applicants, the school has selected 600 truly gifted kids. Such a school, like my last one, does not have a disciplinary system; it is based on a system of student care. It is a ‘praise culture’, not a ‘blame culture’. There’s much to be learned from that... I’m not in a tearing hurry to return to teaching in New Zealand!