Want to know what working overseas is like? Jane Hicks shares her experience of setting up a Learning Support Department in Kazakhstan. Read about the challenges she faced and how she overcame them here.
Jane Hicks (also Archer Education Services). Originally trained as an English teacher, she has worked in Special Needs for over 30 years. As SENCo, Inclusion Manager, Head teacher, CEO and freelance Consultant, Jane has worked with children and young people in a wide variety of alternative and mainstream settings; from Secure Assessment Centres, Pupil Referral Units and with Independent residential services for Looked After Children. Creating ‘outstanding’ units and schools for pupils with SEN; particularly those with emotional, behavioural and mental health difficulties is her particular area of expertise.
I had got to a stage in my career when I was looking for a new challenge, so when I saw an ad in the TES for a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator to set up a Learning Support Department in an international school in Kazakhstan, I impulsively applied, terrified and excited in equal measure. Within weeks, I got a phone call from the Headmaster saying he was currently visiting the UK and suggesting we meet. We got on well immediately and he offered me the job.
So, after several fraught months of planning and worrying about what I had got myself into, I agreed to start in the October half term on a 12-month contract.
When I told family and friends what I was doing they were concerned but intrigued, some were envious. Nobody seemed to know where Kazakhstan was, although they had all seen ‘Borat’ (which is banned in the country and not to be mentioned if you value your visa).
Communication was regular and reassuringly professional. I was assigned a mentor from the school who contacted me to confirm she would meet me on arrival and take me through all the logistical issues related to moving to a foreign country. The fantasy of a new job teaching in Central Asia began to feel like a reality.
The culture shock was immediate. Everybody spoke Russian; and all the street signs were in Cyrillic and impossible to decipher. I was living in an old Soviet apartment block on the 3rd floor. The apartment itself was lovely and spacious but outside, the concrete stairs and corner shop with its dirt floor and sparse groceries proved I was far from home. The local people with their headscarves and impassive stares were hard to read.
The school itself was a futuristic white block made of glass and flooded with light. It was surrounded by an awe inspiring mountain range topped by snow all year round which never ceased to amaze me for the next 12 months.
As usual; the contrasts were striking. The school buildings sat in rough scrubland, where cattle were grazing, but nearby were emerging gleaming tower blocks and shopping malls.
The School and the social life
Most of the teaching staff were ex-pats and had travelled the world, moving from one 2-year contract to the next. Teaching assistants and ancillary staff were Kazakh nationals as were most of the pupils. The fees were very high, wealthy parents were paying a premium for a ‘British’ education which would lead to the all important IELTS certificate required for study in the UK or US. Twice a day a line of big black Range Rovers, BMWs and Mercedes would come to escort the pupils to and from school. It was a bizarre but welcome contrast to what I was used to, working in Pupil referral units and in off-site temporary buildings where poverty and deprivation were commonplace.
The school bus collected staff from various points around the city. Our meals were free and HR staff sorted out any difficulties we might have with landlords etc. There was always an opportunity to go out and socialise. Ball gowns and galas were a normality. It was like being at an exclusive boarding school and totally marvellous for a hard bitten teacher from the UK. Even when the temperature reached -30, life was good.
I gradually learned a little about the economic climate I was part of, in an expat ‘bubble’ of high salaries, free accommodation and health care (Bupa).
Very few teachers had contact with the local people, it was too easy to stick to English-speaking colleagues and gather in the comfortable bars and restaurants which were more than happy to cater for the rich foreigners and their demand for home comforts.
The work itself was not so different from that of a Senco in the UK; I had to put together an SEN register and programmes for all those who needed them.
The range was typical of any school; ASD, SLD, and failure to reach expected levels. A new complexity for me was working with pupils who were learning English as a foreign language.
I gradually developed systems for assessment, wrote Individual Education Programmes and created a ‘3 wave’ approach to intervention ( 1:1 support, in class support and overall guidance and advice) for approximately 20 pupils in the Primary and Secondary classes.
The pupils were a delight to teach, polite and obedient by nature and grateful for any support. There were no behaviour problems, which we in the UK would recognise; late homework, some bullying, etc. were the only issues teachers had to deal with. Pupils formally thanked me for the lesson as they left the classroom.
It was a marvellous antidote to the angry and abusive behaviours I was so used to in my work with pupils with social, emotional, and behavioural difficulties, where parents were resentful and suspicious of teacher’s efforts and the education system as a whole.
As I soon came to understand, learning English was the passport to a better life; a university scholarship abroad (or marriage) was one of the the few ways to leave the country, and was not available to many. My understanding of social inclusion took on another dimension in Kazakhstan. They were (and still are) struggling with the concept of inclusion, and can be ashamed and fearful of any kind of disability. The Medical model of SEN is still very much in evidence here and autism is sometimes referred to as a ‘disease’ which can be cured and where psychologists may diagnose ‘altitude sickness’ to explain behaviour problems.
It was difficult for anyone to move around and we had to have permission to leave. As temporary residents, we were able to overlook these strange opinions, practices and restrictions on our liberty.
As expected, we had the inspection I was recruited for, and I was asked to describe how we met the needs of ‘all pupils’ in the school. Inclusion was suddenly on the agenda with Ofsted’s involvement in the international inspection process. I was proudly able to describe the ethos and processes we had put in place easily having been so intensively involved in their creation.
We had a very good report and everybody was happy.
Eventually, I was able to appoint my successor, a Kazakh national, who I mentor still. I remained in regular contact with some of the families I supported during this time and continued to oversee their progress in learning English.
I recently returned to see these friends and was also able to take the opportunity to provide training in aspects of SEN as part of the school’s CPD programme. I took the opportunity, as a freelance consultant, to offer training to a nearby Kazakh school which is in the early stages of developing SEN provision; a contact I hope to sustain and develop in the future.
Working abroad can feel like real pioneer work and is extremely satisfying; especially for those of us who may have become stale and cynical.
The opportunities now through new technology to reach out to other teachers and pupils across the globe is exhilarating and I hope to continue as long as I can to provide the lifeline which an education provides for so many disenfranchised individuals and communities.
There are limitless possibilities for professional and personal growth beyond this country for people with a sincere vocation for teaching, especially those with SEN as a focus.