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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
2. If you have an online or phone interview, don't wear pants. Check out my version of "letting it loose" below.
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:
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
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.
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.
So I've been reading a lot recently. Nothing new there. The most recent title being How children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. Tough explains the science and psychology behind the power of character and how it is a more accurate predictor of future success (in academics, health, family relationships...etc.) than IQ or socioeconomic status. This then got me thinking about my own character and how it has informed my thinking and my decisions; my experience in schools and how well my teachers prepared me for the Real World; and lastly, it got me thinking a whole lot about chess.
From the young age of 8, I had learned enough to know that I was not gifted, nor did I possess any special talent for the subjects like English, Math, and Science, which are valued by our school curriculum. I only needed one standardized test to figure out that in my teachers' eyes, I was not considered special. I remember feeling overlooked as some of my peers were exclusively "selected" for specialized gifted programs. I now realize how misplaced those feelings were. At the time I was considered an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner (the acronym now more adequately replaced by ELL for 'English Language Learner), which meant that my reading and comprehension levels hindered me from performing at my true ability. Secondly, even if my English skills allowed me to perform at grade level, who is to say the test could accurately predict my academic achievement anyway? Maybe 8-year-old me was not able to comprehend the severity of the tests and the bearing it would have to my future academic success. Or perhaps I was bored and just began filling out bubbles at random because I couldn't read the damn questions anyway.
Somehow, I managed to pull myself out from "struggling ESL student" status to "straight A student" by the time middle school rolled around. That was a transformative period in my life for me, because that was when I consciously attained what researcher Carol Dweck refers to as "growth mindset," the belief that intelligence is malleable. I was able to experience firsthand that hard work and dedication could get you the results you wanted, which in my case was good grades. My obsession to prove myself in school, however, led to a complication later down the road - a loss of creativity and independence. The school system is set up in such a way that only certain students are seen as "good" - those who conform to the school rules, listen to adults, follow instructions, and can memorize facts for a test. Not to say that these traits are not valued, but it was not until high school that I encountered teachers who really pushed me to think critically and creativity. To put it bluntly, teachers liked me because I was easy to teach. Oftentimes, I find myself looking for the same traits in my students as a teacher, but those are not the only qualities I wish to value in my future classroom.
So, what is this thing about chess anyway?
Reading about chess coach Elizabeth Spiegel and her students at IS 318 in Brooklyn was kind of . . . awesome. And inspiring. Not knowing much about the chess culture myself, I found it fascinating the amount of rigor in which Spiegel and her students put into their work, and also the incredible amount of strategy involved in the game itself. I mean, I always knew chess was a game of strategy, but I never really gave it much thought until now. I am probably the worse kind of chess player out there, only thinking about my own moves one step at a time, moving pieces with no real motives or reasons to do so, and seldom stopping to analyze my opponents tactics. Personally, when I play games, I prefer those that require minimal mental effort. Yet, I am also a little envious of Spiegel and her students, and disappointed at my own lack of determination. But what I am determined to do, is apply the same amount of determination and rigor into my own teaching, and I think blogging is a good place for me to start.
In his book, Tough poses a question that I often ask myself, Is it better to be a little interested in a lot of things (like I tend to be), or a lot interested in one thing (like Spiegel)? For Spiegel, the answer is obvious. Being deeply dedicated to one pursuit allows full immersion and to understand what it is like to be passionate about something, an "optimal experience" by the words of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Optimal experiences are "those rare moments in human existence when a person feels free of mundane distractions, in control of his fate, totally engaged by the moment (136)." I wonder, how many people can say they have had experiences like that, and better yet, how many are able to set themselves up to have more of those experiences?
International math educator who writes, occasionally.