In August of 2014, we published a blog post about one of our talented teachers, Angela Roberts, who was about to head overseas to take on the challenge of teaching in the NIS program in Kazakhstan.
As promised, Angela updated her own blog regularly while she was away, sharing an awesome inside perspective on what it’s like to teach in an experimental school while embracing the bitter coldness of a Kazakh winter (read her blog here). We loved being able to check-in and read about her experience in Pavlodar - thanks Angela for sharing!
Following her school year abroad, Angela returned to the United States with a new wealth of knowledge and experience. We recently checked in with her to touch base and chat about how her experience in Kazakhstan has helped to shape her career as an educator. Check out my Q&A with Angela:
How did teaching in Kazakhstan help you grow as an educator?
Angela: In so many ways! The NIS students are super enthusiastic and attentive. They understand class procedures, goals, and consequences thoroughly. So, as the educator, you rarely address classroom management issues. As a result, you practice other methodologies and pedagogy extensively. I understand differentiated instruction in a whole new way. I had the opportunity to collaborate and experiment every day, on every lesson, with every teacher. It is a master class experience with instructors from all over the globe. Responding to students needs comes much more naturally for me now. I have more activities and resources at my fingertips and in my bag of tricks. I feel like I am more of a facilitator of knowledge than I am “the sage on the stage.”
Also, being a minority in a place where you do not understand the language or the culture is a real eye-opener. I see my minority, special needs, and disenfranchised students so differently. I realize how long it can take to grasp a concept that is truly foreign to you and how many different ways you may have to attempt to explain something for it to be understood.
Being a teacher comes with all sorts of rewarding experiences. What were some rewarding elements of your time overseas that were unique to teaching away from home?
Angela: I loved being a part of a school that really took care of student needs. Students were supplied with free uniforms, school supplies, on-site dental and health care, and food. I made a lot of language and culture mistakes at times, but the students and I could really laugh about it. Since the students and I were all learning a new language, we could bond over our struggles. And we always laughed about that instead of crying. I would see students when I was at the market and out shopping, so often they would help me to make purchases and translate for me. Again, it was a unique way to bond with students and get to know them. It gave us a chance to use English, Russian, and Kazakh in real and meaningful ways.
Frequently, I would solve a real “mystery” for students and teachers. They would read something or see something in the media about the US and they would be obsessed, wanting to know about that topic. When I could fill in the blank for them, it was so exciting. They wanted to know about the Kardashians. I told them we were not all Kardashians and we didn’t all dress or act like Kardashians. They wanted to know why we were always suing each other and how many times I have been sued or taken someone to court. Trying to give them some idea of government and the legal system was challenging, but fun and rewarding.
I had one student who was accepted to film school in the US. He was an amazing visual storyteller. Helping him through the application process and preparing him for school in the US was very fulfilling.
Why did you decide to apply to teach overseas?
Angela: I have always wanted to travel, and I am a heart patient. I knew that my health would likely decline in the coming years. If I was going to do something like this, I had to do it soon. I had teacher burnout as well as some life changing events and needed something to refresh me.
How did you decide upon Kazakhstan?
Angela: A friend, and coworker, took a position teaching in the Emirates. I was trying to get a job teaching with her. She and her husband were living in Al Ain. While researching the position and preparing for the interview, I saw the posting for Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools. Their approach to education appeared to be very progressive and experimental. The more I found out about the school and the country, the more interested I became. There is a space science center at the university in my hometown. There were some people there who had been to Kazakhstan to work with satellites and such. They all told me interesting things about the country and were very positive about what my experience could be.
I grew up during the Cold War. I watched the Berlin Wall come down on TV while I was in college, and then I shed a few tears when I had a chance to touch a piece of the Wall at an exhibit a few years ago. Visiting a nation that was formerly behind the Iron Curtain was very intriguing to me.
It was a chance of a lifetime to experience something totally different than my life here.
What was the most challenging aspect of your time abroad? How did you learn to deal with this part of the experience?
Angela: I thought that the extreme Siberian winter would be the hardest part. That was actually better and easier than I anticipated. Once I had the right clothes and a little experience, winter wasn’t bad and was even great fun at times. The two biggest challenges turned out to be the language and culture, and trying to manage my US affairs from halfway around the world.
Fortunately, I had family to help take care of US bank accounts and such. I wasn’t really homesick, but I was worried about my family and friends while I was gone. Staying connected via the internet helped. My family Skyped me during the early morning hours Kazakhstan time so that I could say the Thanksgiving meal blessing and share in some of the holiday festivities. Those types of communications helped tremendously.
The language and culture challenges were much more extreme and harder to handle. I studied as much language as I could. I asked lots of questions and made friends with locals who could help me. If I needed something specific at the market and couldn’t get a translator to go with me, I would have a local teacher write a note for me to take to the market. I drew pictures and acted out things that I needed in an attempt to communicate at the market. It was very funny at times. I have mooed and clucked in every restaurant in town to order beef or chicken. One of our team members said that we will be world champion Pictionary and charades players after our time as international teachers. I think he was right! Patience, persistence, and willingness to ask for help were key in successfully navigating the language and culture.
What are some takeaways from your overseas experience that have helped change or shape your career at home?
Angela: I have a much better understanding of struggling students. I have a better insight to those who feel they don’t fit into the community. But I think the biggest change is my attitude toward challenges and obstacles. I look at those who may doubt me and think (or sometimes say out loud), “I just spent the winter in Siberia where I didn’t know the language or any people. I survived and at times even thrived. I can handle anything you can throw at me.”
How would you describe yourself before your trip? How would you describe yourself after your trip?
Angela: I was a confident person before I left, but this helped me to learn confidence in a new way. I have always been proud of my country, but I definitely see the US in a new way. And my pride for my home has swelled. It is much easier to dismiss the small problems of everyday life now. My first world problems often don’t seem so bad. My interest in foreign affairs has increased and I have a slightly better understanding of world issues. Mostly, I feel bolder and more willing to take a chance. I wrote a blog post about trying horse meat, a local delicacy. Eat some horse meat and you will feel bold!
Describe the first few days in Kazakhstan and the first day of school. What were the standout emotions you were feeling?
Angela: Terrified! Everything was so new and so different! But the school did a good job of making us feel important and included on those first few days. We were rock stars. We were interviewed by the media, introduced at rallies, and went through a sort of initiation where we received the official school stole and lapel pin.
There was support, but the environment, curriculum, and students were so different. I didn’t think I would ever be able to wrap my head around it. It took a few days, but eventually I got into a groove and I could have sworn I had been doing this international jaunt all my life.
What would you say to other teachers considering teaching abroad?
Angela: Go! Now! I waited too long. If I had done this in my younger years I would have had a much different experience and would have positively impacted my life earlier.
Also, do your research. Learn everything you can about the country and city you will be making your home. There are plenty of negative things to say about the experience…there were issues with the apartments at times and stuff like that. You will survive all those things. Those issues end up being a really small blip on the radar at the end of your experience, but you should know about them before you go so you will be prepared.
Be willing to change your perspective. You will need to see this new place through the eyes of people who built that country and live and work in it on a permanent basis. Try to see what they see. It doesn’t have to become your belief system, but you will never get the full experience until you can shed your preconceived ideas and really immerse yourself in the experience.
How were your relationships with the other teachers at your school?
Angela: For the most part, relationships with other teachers were amazing. The international teachers become bonded as live savers. Going through this experience together cements friendships on a different level. At times, I felt these people knew me better than my family because they were sharing an experience and going through a metamorphosis with me. The people back home just couldn’t relate the way that these teachers could. And the other international teachers increase the global experience. I met teachers from many different countries.
The local teachers were very supportive and helpful. They tried to make us feel at home. They translated for us, told us where the best shops and restaurants were, and helped us navigate the educational system. I still keep in touch with most of the international and local teachers who I met.
See what overseas teaching jobs are available now: Teach Away job board
See what teaching jobs are available in Kazakhstan: Teach in Kazakhstan
Check out an awesome infographic on what it's like to live and teach in Kazakhstan: Infographic