Teaching English in Kazakhstan

- Kazakhstan

The following comments are from English teachers who have worked, or are currently teaching English in Kazakhstan. If you are an English teacher and have some advice to share about Kazakhstan, please post here.

Kazakhstan is still not very open to the West or Western ways. English tends to be taught by Kazakhs (badly) and it is generally thought that native speakers aren't needed. The cost of living in Almaty, Astana and Atyrau is very high. Make sure any ESL job includes a base salary of at least $30,000 paid outside the country PLUS housing, utilities and local supplement and air fares (very high). Ensure any ESL employer gets visas sorted out in advance or you won't get into the country. Don't hand over your passport after arrival. Stick to a one year contract only. Very strict on visas!

Kazakhstan is still very Soviet with lots of bureacracy and red tape. English is not widely spoken anywhere and signs are all in Kazakh or Russian. It isn't a tourist destination as yet and they are not geared up for it. Alcoholism is a major problem - supermarket shelves are stacked with hundreds of different vodkas - the only thing apart from cigarettes that is very cheap here. Winters are cold and miserable and summers hot and dry. Avoid the police as you might be fined for just being foreign or not having your passport handy.
Jodie on 2 November 2007

That advice is pretty gloomy! There are some great aspects to life here, too. You will never feel as appreciated as you are made to feel by your students here. They are very respectful, and very interested in people from other countries. In the bigger cities, people are very interested in the west and western ways. Sometimes to a startling point (I've had three people in the last three days ask me if I could either help them get to America or help them study English because they (or someone they know) want to go to the west. It is pretty hot in the summer and can be very cold in the winter, but the spring and fall months are delightful. Plus, in Almaty, it is one of the few places in the world that has four healthy seasons. It is very expensive, with Almaty being one of the most expensive cities in the world (literally). And rental prices are also expensive. But, as a foreigner, you can also get a pretty good salary for teaching. Probably much better than you can in the west in a public school! But you do need to stay on top of things like visas and so on. And you need to be vigilant just like you would be in any big city. I would say come, if you are adventurous, and want to see a part of the world not many westerners have seen.
Chester on 15 July 2008

First of all, I have resided off and on in Kazakhstan for 12 years now, so I think I know the place reasonably well. To be fair, Kazakhstan can be quite daunting to the uninitiated. There is a great deal of bureaucracy, with regards to visas, registration, work permits, and generally walking about.

As regards the latter, this means that you should always carry your passport with you in case the local police (militsia), usually roaming about in groups of three or four, ask you to present it. Indeed, you are required by law to carry your passport on your person at all times. The U.S. embassy had worked out a deal with the Kazakhstani government to permit Americans to simply carry a notarized copy, just as they had for the Almaty registration office to allow travel around the country with only Almaty registration, but the police never seemed to honor, or maybe even know about, this rule. A friend of mine was forced to call his seven-month-pregnant wife to run over with his passport, which he had forgotten at home, when he was accosted by a band of police after leaving my office. They tried to take him away while she was on her way, but I kept blocking them for the approximately 30 minutes it took her to get here. They had asked for KZT 10 000 (at that time about US$80) to let him go, but as a general rule, I never pay bribes.

Indeed, though corruption is ever present, if you never pay bribes, you can still get done what you need to. After all, there are laws here, and everybody knows them (or should), so nobody wants a scandal, especially with a loudmouth American, like me. Should you pay a bribe, even unknowingly, you become part of the system, and you will find then that bribes become inevitable. Word of an idiot foreigner spreads quickly. Along those lines, never just go with the police if they just ask you to, always call a local, preferably a lawyer. Of course, if you have actually broken the law, or some other party has filed a formal complaint against you, then you will have to go with the police, but at least then someone will have been informed as to what is happening, and so can begin the process of helping you. It is of utmost importance to have a mobile phone.

A word of advice, if you go out at night, never walk home after drinking – you will be harassed. Always take a taxi trusted by the establishment, which can be done simply by asking security to take you to one personally. There are sort of unofficially designated places for foreigners to cut lose in relative protection, including Mad Murphy’s, Guinness, Dublin, Stetson’s, the American Bar & Grill, and several others. The safest places are of course in the elite hotels, such as the Intercontinental and the Hyatt Regency, but unless you are out for the regular Whiskey and Cigar night (by invitation only by the way), those places do not really hop, and are more for formal or official events.

As regards the weather, this is a minor issue. Kazakhstan has great climatic swings. Having traveled about the whole country, excepting Shymkent and Uralsk, in winter I have both sweated in Almaty and frozen in Kostanai. Conversely, in summer I have found Pavlodar quite temperate and the cold mountain breezes of Almaty to be frigid. Americans, with our great regional climatic differences, should be used to weather swings.

The biggest problem you should fear is neither weather nor bureaucracy, but crime. Almaty, at least, is infested with poor young men, mostly from the outlying regions, who prey on the unsuspecting. They are known by the slang term “gopniks”. Often, they do not ask for your money and valuables, they just attack. They are known to hospitalize victims, and have even killed a few. Never walk in dark places at night, unless you happen to think you can defend yourself against four or more strapping farm boys who hate you on general principle. Remember, these guys are resentful they lack the opportunities that those who preceded them in the 1990s received, and have been relegated to low-wage, dead-end jobs, or to unemployment. Nonetheless, some confidence tricksters are also about, so if someone comes up to you on the street all friendly like, the best thing to do is to say “izvineeti”, and walk away.

I suppose, since this is a teachers’ forum, I should mention teaching here. First of all, do not expect a high salary here, unless you have a contract with a real company, like in the banking, petroleum or mining industries. Most of the schools are locally owned, and pay a fiddling amount. There are lots of great promises made of additional hours at better pay, but often you are just forced to work extra for nothing further. Some of this cannot really be helped, especially since the price of bringing in a foreigner has just increased, and become infinitely more difficult, under the new law passed that limits the number of foreign workers and how long they can stay in Kazakhstan.

As regards students, just like anywhere you have good students who need and want to learn, as well as bad ones who do it because they are forced into it. Some students will become your best friends and protectors – “krisha” is the term here. Others may just try to use you. On that last account, never issue a letter of invitation to the U.S. in your own name for a student. By doing so, you could end up with some hefty financial liabilities. Some students may just pretend to be friendly in order to get free teaching time. After a while, you should be able to tell the difference. Finally, keep work and pleasure separated. Never sleep with a current student, as it is bad for your reputation, just like anywhere. This is especially true if you are working in a university environment, as you will gain the same reputation as local teachers who have been known to give out good marks for money or sexual favors.

If you decide to come to Kazakhstan, I wish you the best of luck. Do not be scared off by what I have outlined here, as I am only trying to forewarn you. It really is a beautiful country, but just not one for the faint of heart.

For more information on Kazakhstan, please go to Travel.State.Gov
Bryce Combs on 12 August 2010

Hello, I am from Kazakhstan. However, I've been living in UK for a year, have travelled, worked and studied in different countries including USA, Italy, UK and Spain and can easily tell you that everywhere I found crime, buraucracy and horrible people. Regarding crime only UK could be excluded from the list. It is really safe, but I didn't feel safe at all while walking after 8 pm.

The other thing that you should understand is that all those things are common for all places. Regarding the comment about police, I totally agree and advise you not to break laws and minimise your communication with police overall.

Regarding people, I really can tell you that people are GREAT! Not because I am from Kazakhstan and so on. No! The thing is that I have travelled a lot and was residing for quite a lot of time in those countries. Especially English speaking countries like USA and UK, particularly locals were quite unwelcoming. I really do understand that we have different cultures and so on. However, in Kazakhstan, Almaty you will find it not difficult to find friends among locals and even practise your Russian or Kazakh. And YES, the cost of living especially in Almaty, Astana and Atyrau is VERY EXPENSIVE:(though if you are really adventurous and open-minded you will gain a lot more. Surroundings of Almaty and weather are absolutely fantastic and I cannot compare it to the weather in England which is so depressive. Just remember one thing while teaching and living in Kazakhstan, it won't be easy if you come here with all those stereotypes, BBC movies about Kazakhstan and stories of Borat. You will get a rewarding and invaluable experience in my dear Kazakhstan!
Anonymous on 9 October 2010

I'm reading this in Jan 2011. What ESL Teaching post pays you 30,000 plus added benefits of housing and bonus? What a strange post!
Anonymous on 25 January 2011

I am from Kazakhstan and I have been living in China for a very long time. First of all, being a foreigner in any country comes with a PACKAGE of problems, troubles and warnings (personally US has been the toughest for me in this matter). Visas, regulations and limitations - don't want to deal with it? Stay home, where you might not even need a passport. Should you decide to go abroad to teach English, be prepared to add some changes to your ways and habits, should you then decide to go to a developing country like Kazakhstan be prepared to almost rethink your whole lifestyle.

There is a ton of aspects that annoy and frustrate even Kazakh people themselves. However, for every frustration there will be a payoff. For example, it's tough to become an "insider" with locals, but once you are in, you are in for good. You will find Kazakh people to be cold and sometimes even mean to strangers, yet very loyal and sincere in their friendship, very respectful of traditions and beliefs, very caring and giving to people that they come to care about. It's extremely expensive to rent flats in Almaty and Astana, but there are quite a few families that would open their doors for you simply after becoming more comfortable and trust you, and the benefit of not being too developed and capitalism oriented yet? - money is not of great importance, so you won't be expected to pay for every step (which is the case in China). Dancing, singing and entertainment in general is very important, for everybody from teens to retirement, so learning to enjoy yourself even in a very different way than you are used to will help you a great deal. Alcohol IS available, true, and can be very inexpensive, but the store shelves are not packed with them (unless you walk into the specialized liquor store...), and alcoholism is not as bad as in neighboring Russia and Mongolia. Local police is not famous for being the most fair and objective to say the least, that's true. To this I personally think that "blending in" might be a great help. Kazakhstan is full of people of different colors and sizes, so don't walk around with a huge camera and open mouth and you most probably won't be bothered at all. Corruption is still quite an issue though, and even locals at times fall victims to it, to which I can only say c'est la vie, deal with it.

All in all, coming here with an open mind, a genuine interest in local culture and extra cash for the first few months should give you a chance to experience and be part of the growth and maturation of one of the youngest developing countries in the world. You can learn to accept and love the differences and have a blast or have it your way and go home watch discovery channel instead. Either way, good luck!
Mex Mama on 2 June 2011

I am a Filipino Teacher who has worked in Kazakhstan for almost 2 years now. In 2 years of my experience, never have i encountered bad moments nor annoying circumstance that would lead me to say... not a good place. Indeed for me Kazakhstan is one of the best places I've been. People are very nice, friendly, kind and hospitable.
Mary Jane T. Sevilla on 23 Feb 2012

I can sympathize with many comments that I have read on this site because I know alot of them to be true. I got lucky; My university (miras) is changing at an incredible rate and alot of it is coming from the English Language department where they are working on developing a better syllabus and bringing western-style education methods to the country. I have found the president of the university to be a hard working, open minded and fair employer. At first, I was in despair, but every year there have been monumental changes. They do create some chaos but such large administrative and executive changes always create moments of absolute craziness.

I would definitely recommend to anyone who wants to immerse themselves in another culture consider Kazakhstan. It is still very soviet and there are things that are out-of-this-world for a westerner but it will be an unforgettable experience.
Eugenette on 16 Dec 2012

I've been teaching in Astana since the end of June 2013 at an established language school with locations in a number of Kazakhstan cities. I haven't had any problems here. I don't get paid a lot, but it's more than enough for me to live on.

A lot of things are indeed expensive, but a lot of other things aren't - especially if you prefer to cook for yourself.

I admit that I was a bit worried about the winter weather, but so far it really hasn't been that bad - even when it got down to -37C. You just have to know how to dress for it. Extra layers, keeping the face, head and extremities covered, and having warm boots make quite a difference. As I write this, several places in the US are having much worse weather.

I've made a few friends here and even played Santa Claus for one friend's nieces and nephews. (Several people have been mistaking me for Santa Claus ever since I got here).

Don't be afraid to try the local foods. Personally, I prefer the little hole-in-the-wall restaurants you find in various parts of the city. Also, don't be afraid to explore your surroundings. You can learn a lot just by walking and observing.
Santa Claus 7 Jan 2014



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