“Why We Teach Overseas” (Part II)

Yesterday I started a short series of why my husband and I live in Astana, Kazakhstan. My first reason is we have both learned to become flexible with the Kazakh culture.  We met each other in Almaty, Kazakhstan back in May of 1993, my second day in country. Fortunately, I had learned about this strange land from my former pastor, John Piper.  I think I first heard that it existed as a country from Dr. Piper in the mid 1980s when it was still under Soviet Union rule. I had just returned from doing my two year Peace Corps stint in the Philippines. Below I have listed several other reasons why my teaching experience and skills gained in the former Soviet Union of 12 years duration (seven years in Kyiv, Ukraine) plus the five years collectively in Central Asia keeps us challenged.

1. I care about the country and reputation of Kazakhstan. I believe the Kazakh people have been maligned and misunderstood by many people, westerners and Asians alike.  Yet Kazakhstan has a rich and deep history that should be known by the rest of the world. The Kazakhs should be taken seriously as a viable country. I want to help meet the Kazakhs’ goal of being one of the top 50 developed countries by the year 2030. Slogans, billboards and adverts in Kazakh and Russian are everywhere to remind the Kazakhs of their duty to get a good education and thus to perform better to help develop their country.

When I taught in Harbin, China back in 1986-1988, the Chinese students I worked with had a mantra “I will study hard for the Motherland.”  Work hard they did! I saw with my own eyes the success of the determined and industrious Chinese people when I re-visited Beijing and Tianjin, China in 2000 and again in 2001.  Materially, the Chinese have come from behind in these last 25 years due to their strong efforts to catch up with the modernized world.  I believe that the Kazakh people are capable of the same kind of achievement.

2. I enjoy teaching the Kazakh students. Despite the fact that many of these young students do not know any better, unfortunately they DO cheat and plagiarize. That is a problem everywhere, the U.S. included.  What is most baffling is that sometimes these same Kazakh students who cheat or steal others’ words boast about it.  Some spend more time being “clever” in knowing how to pull one over on the teacher than if they would simply read the textbook or do their own assignments. These same students have been taught under Kazakh or Kazakhstani teachers who have turned a blind eye to this behavior because they have not known anything different having been trained under the former Soviet system.

Many of the Kazakh teachers I taught with at the university in Almaty admitted that a careworn, Soviet saying “Initiative was punitive” was true and that being creative was verboten.  Better to keep within the box and only write what was considered standard party line rather than risk the withering displeasure of Moscow where the Ministry of Education had very set parameters by which to teach.

I believe new standards against cheating and plagiarism needs to be adhered to in order to eradicate this problem.  The hard working Kazakh students would love to see their work receive the merit it deserves while the slackers, who want to get by not doing the work, would be punished instead.

I know the new university in Astana that just opened wants to set high standards of learning for the development of their country, they hope to train doctors or surgeons to know how to use cutting edge medical technology correctly. This new university needs knowledgeable technicians or engineers in the oil business who do not fudge on the facts, who can make judgments according to their expertise, not according to fulfilling a five-year plan.  The new university wants to train the young Kazakhs to take over the jobs that highly trained physicists; geologists and chemists from western countries are doing now.  That means they need rigid, high standards that start in the university classroom where grades are not changed just because a young student has a father who can buy the grade to help his child graduate.

3. I have had the good fortune of teaching some very hard working Kazakh and Kazakhstani students in Almaty. I saw good results from my students when they clearly knew what the required assignment was.  They needed examples from me and they also worked well in groups.  The Kazakh students are curious and open to new ideas, they are much more malleable than a few of their older teachers who were considered “refuseniks” when it came to computers.  But that is true also in the U.S. where older teachers are afraid and refuse to learn the latest technology. The Kazakh students know all about the computer and in many cases know more than their teachers.

I had no problem turning over the classroom computer so that a willing student with computer know-how could get a DVD or CD to play correctly. All for the sake of completing the lesson I had planned for that class period.  Often they knew how to fix the problem before I would send a student off to find a computer techie to help solve it.

I found the Kazakh students are much more demure and compliant than my Ukrainian students.  The Kazakh students are much more talkative and expressive than my Chinese students. Teaching in Kazakhstan, I have enjoyed the best of both worlds with teaching a student-centered approach while having students who have been taught under a teacher-centered academic environment. I have learned to teach in both styles but have used that to my advantage.

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