Impressions from a trip to Astana
Andrew Wigford, Director of TIC Recruitment, visited Astana for four days from 26th to 30th March 2012. During which he spent time at The Nazabaeyev University, and the Nazabaeyev Intellectual School Astana. He met with teachers, students, team leaders, Principals and the Human Resources team. Here's what he found:
This was my first trip to Kazakhstan and I arrived with limited expectations. Having spent time in Russia, China and Eastern Europe I expected similarities in terms of people, architecture and culture. However what I experienced surprised me. Astana is a new city, most of which has been built in the last 10 years. The architecture is striking and unlike anything I had seen before in some cases. The city has a very different feel and you immediately sense that you are in a very unusual country.
The infrastructure is good, driving relatively calm compared to other places I had been. The buildings are well spread out and there is a sense of order to the city lay out. It’s a small city of just over 1 million people and there is real sense of space. The roads are wide and there is a good traffic system. The drivers even stop for you at zebra crossings! The apartment I stayed in had all mod cons. Good internet connection, satellite TV, excellent heating and hot water and was very spacious.
The big shopping centre I visited was amazingly well stocked and inhabited by well known chain stores from all over the world including Debenhams, Addidas, Next, Mexx, Swarovsky, and many others. In the basement of the supermarket was a French chain superstore which stocked lots of western goods and plenty of imported items from around the world. Prices for imported items were a bit higher than you would find in your home country but this is not unusual. Common commodities such as milk, bread and juice are very cheap.
The people of Kazakhstan were amazingly friendly. I was so very warmly welcomed by everyone I met. They were incredibly helpful and inquisitive at the same time. As a foreigner you do stand out and people in the street do notice you. Most of the teachers and students I met had a good level of English but those in the street and shops had little or no English. A basic grasp of Russian goes a long way here.
The social scene is varied in Astana most of the teachers I spoke to had embraced the local culture of entertaining at home but had no shortage of friends both local and international. Expat pubs and restaurants are limited but those that I visited offered great food at reasonable prices. There are no McDonalds in Kazakhstan but KFC and other chain restaurants and coffee houses are easily available.
The weather was cold during my visit the temperatures plummeted to -17 on one night and there was still snow on the ground. During the day a warm 4 degrees was cooled by a cold wind from Siberia. Temperatures can drop to – 40 at times with wind chill in the middle of the winter and snow storms are common. But everyday during my trip there was bright sunshine and clear blue skies and the city looked beautiful. Nothing stops here during bad weather. Good clothing is a must and you can get told off by concerned locals if you go out without a hat (only because they are concerned for your good health)! In the summer though the temperature sores into the high 30’s and for 5 months the weather can get very hot and sometimes humid.
NIS in Astana is housed in modern building offering lots of community spaces and good facilities. The first thing you notice as you walk through the door is the friendly atmosphere. Students mostly dressed in uniform look busy and well disciplined. Though, according to their teachers, not always angelic they are very studious and highly motivated and all want to get into university. They do not pay for their schooling and have all won scholarships to attend the school based on academic achievement. They are very friendly and most have a very good level of English. They hold the overseas teachers in very high esteem. Those that I interviewed (see podcast) were very proud of their school and all had entered when it had opened three years previously. The school is in the process of International Baccalaureate accreditation (not the case with all NIS schools). The school actually had two sections one that taught the Kazak curriculum and the international section that taught a mixture of IGCSE from Cambridge and the IB. Around 200 children attended the international section. International teaching resources are scarce and though the classrooms are well appointed they are traditionally arranged.
The teachers I interviewed (see podcasts) were very happy working at the school. All had arrived in September 2011 and all were renewing their contracts. They were quick to point out how much they enjoyed living and working in Kazakhstan. The school is developing its curriculum and has limited western style teaching materials and resources. They advise new teachers arriving in September to bring as many of their own teaching materials as they could fit in their suitcases. All described the work as hard, all worked long hours but described it as incredibly rewarding – a place where you can make a real impact. They worked alongside their Kazak counterparts and were heavily involved in mentoring and professional development as well as curriculum writing. Overseas teachers, they said, needed to arrive with an open mind and be prepared to be very flexible. Being the first cohort of overseas teachers they were working hard to develop programmes and resources and were extremely proud of their achievements.
The teachers I talked to all said they lived very well on the package. They were able to save nearly $1000 each month in some cases and sent money home regularly. They described their living conditions as very comfortable. Most had been housed in apartments very close to school –within 1 minute walking distance in some cases and had no need for a car.