Aspects of Kazakhstan (and Britain)

The schools I am teaching at, Haileybury Almaty and Astana, are offshoots of Haileybury in England, which is one of those fancy British schools. Just relate everything I say to what you know from Harry Potter. Haileybury Almaty has 650 students ages 5–18, with only about 40 students in the sixth form (last two years of high school) because most families send their children to the UK or US for those last two years of high school. The school then has to recruit more students and get some scholarship students as well for the sixth form. Those students are doing their N.E.W.T.s A-levels.

The students are divided into four houses (and the colors are red, yellow, green, and blue, of course). They all wear uniforms – the upper school boys are in suits and the girls in suits with skirts. The girls complain about not being able to wear trousers. Currently, there is no boarding option, but the school is building dorms for future years. The school has a headmistress, and almost all of the teachers here are from the UK.

On Tuesday, the upper school had a morning assembly. The headmistress, upper school head, and we MIT students formally walked up to the front in some kind of procession. (It works a lot better to imagine that this is happening in some English cathedral instead of a modern-looking school atrium.) The headmistress and upper school head congratulated the Year 13 students who got into Oxford and Cambridge (ooh) and gave the rest of the students a reminder of the merit of hard work and personal growth. Then, Alex and I each talked about our journeys to MIT and gave some general advice. Alex talked about the differences between high school and college. I encouraged the students to pursue interests outside of classes.

There was a parent session after school on Wednesday, and we spoke again at that assembly. The parents were there to help their rising Year 10 students pick IGCSE subjects for next year. Afterwards, several parents remained to pick our brains about the admissions procession and what their children should currently be doing. I don’t mind talking about this stuff, but I am starting to grow weary of it. I am also not used to talking about myself, and having to give monologues about me and my past was quite the instructional experience.

We arrived in Kazakhstan last Friday, and we visited the school on that day to get settled. We went through a “safeguarding” training, which is pretty much Haileybury’s version of ESP’s minors policy. (Don’t be alone with the students, don’t act inappropriately, etc.) All the classrooms and offices have windows for hallway-facing walls, so you could see everything that is going on. The school is very serious about safeguarding; they even flew in a safeguarding consultant this past month. Interestingly, we are also not allowed to take pictures of the students, because some of their parents have not consented for that. However, the school photographer (yes, there’s a school photographer) knows which students to take pictures of.

Essentially, parents send their children to this school to give them a good chance of getting into universities abroad. I am frequently told that the universities in Kazakhstan are terrible and that there is no much opportunity here due to governmental corruption and a failing economy. If someone wants to do something that matters, they need to go to the US or Europe. To that end, the school focuses on high-level instruction and also tries to emphasize the idea of a holistic education. (One thing they do is force all students to participate in an after-school activity, which is met with some disgruntlement.)

This week has been a whirlwind of prepping, teaching, eating, and meeting people. I am exhausted every night, but I wake up early (around 6 am) to do more prep for the day. It’s been great, and I will have more thoughts to share about teaching later.

Some fun tidbits / incidences:

🏠 My co-teacher and I are both staying with the same family. They have a nice big house with a glass elevator. The two older sisters currently study computer science (!) at the University of San Francisco, and the father has his own finance-technology company. The three daughters have all taken their father’s first name as their last name. This is in an effort to dissociate from the –ov, –ova naming convention that is a remnant of the Soviet era.

🐕 The family has a husky named Java with complete brown / blue heterochromia.

🚗 Before the days of Uber and Yandex (Russian Uber), you would hail a ride by sticking out your arm at the side of the road. A car stops, and you determine if your destination is somewhat on the driver’s route. If so, you and the driver agree on a fare, and you hop into the car. Apparently this was a very common practice and a nice way to make a quick buck.

🏰 “I am pretty sure there is not a Disneyland in Uzbekistan…”

🧭 The city of Almaty has hills and higher elevation in the south. Instead of telling someone to go south or north, you would tell them to go up or down the street. An Almaty native currently studying in Boston tells me he also tends to do this in Boston, where it doesn’t make as much sense… This up / down thing also causes some maps to be printed “up-side-down,” where south is at the top.

🍣 Sushi is apparently popular in the world’s largest landlocked country.

🍵 However, boba is nowhere to be found, much to the sorrow of David (the counselor who has been in charge of our stay), who is from California. The Kazakh people drink tons of tea though, often with milk. I am offered tea several times a day.

🇬🇪 Alex, my co-teacher, and I both grew up in Georgia. David took us out for Georgian food our first night here, which he thought was hilarious. The food was pretty good.

🐎 Horse meat is traditional here. Our host family made beshbarmak for us!

Until next time,



One thought on “Aspects of Kazakhstan (and Britain)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s