Teachers as leaders in modernizing kazakhstan

Abstract. Despite the vast amount of research about educational leadership found in international literature, Kazakhstan has not yet developed an extensive discussion about leadership in education, including teacher leadership. This study explores teacher leadership at secondary schools in Kazakhstan, looking specifically at how important it is for Kazakhstani education to promote its teachers as leaders, and what facilitates or challenges teacher leadership in this country. Because Kazakhstani education is inevitably connected to its Soviet Union heritage, the typical costs of the "traditional" system are still present in society and thus have an impact on promoting teacher leadership in this currently independent country.


Modernization of public opinion has been announced as key for Kazakhstani people. Now that the Republic of Kazakhstan is rapidly developing its public and private sectors, the country has also set a clear goal, i.e. “to reach the top 30 most developed nations of the world” [1]. This ambitious target includes a number of directions that are to help Kazakhstan achieve prosperity and recognition in the world arena. These directions are marketability, pragmatism, national identity cultivation, knowledge cult, evolutionary (vs. revolutionary) enhancement, as well as open-mindedness.

In order to modernize public opinion, a country needs to invest in not just material resources but primarily human capital consisting of knowledge, skills, services and certainly labor market. As those become desired in practically any sphere of a human activity, education can be regarded as a platform that ensures all mentioned resources are in place. It is teachers who are entrusted to educate young people and thus raise all necessary knowledge and skills in them.


This paper is based on the review of literature that originates from different sources. Those include official decrees of the government, as well as research described by national and international authors. It should be noted too that this article is only a part of a bigger research of mine where I use a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods such as surveying and interviewing.

With the upcoming editions of this journal, more results and reflections are planned for publishing.


Now that more than two decades have passed since the USSR collapsed, the role of teachers in Kazakhstan is starting to change as well. I observe that the current demands of secondary education necessitate that teachers take a more active part in preparing children for real life conditions outside of their classrooms by managing instruction properly and exercising leadership continuously. However, the lack of appropriate literature about teacher leadership in Kazakhstan precludes, to an extent, my fuller investigation of the issue. I must therefore presume that the story of Kazakhstan – a country that made the transition from one system to another – needs continuation in terms of developing a higher level of discussion about internal teacher leadership. Bringing teachers’ voices to the forefront is needed to turn the general perception of teachers from being inactive to active writers of this country’s history.

Despite the scarce literature and lack of attention to educational leadership in Kazakhstan, this topic is inevitably becoming more and more central in the discussions of international researchers. Shigeo Katsu, President of Nazarbayev University, reflects on the educational reform in Kazakhstan:

The evolution of Kazakhstan’s education sector since independence reminds the reader of two characteristics that stand out when deliberating the direction of future reforms: the centrality, in the thinking of the nation’s leadership, of education to any development strategies; and the country’s openness to study, adopt and adapt international good practices, often in a fearless manner. [2, p. xviii]

As Kazakhstan has been evolving through the period of Soviet Communism to this new millennium, the tasks set for secondary education in this country have been changing as well. In this process of change, `a new generation of leaders in power` [3], i.e. those who view the term `leadership` more broadly but yet more profoundly have been in high demand. Following Huisman and Currie’s idea, the scope of teacher leaders’ roles goes beyond any conventional list of teacher duties. In contrast to a highly centralized management approach that the Ministry employs in relation to schools in Kazakhstan, teachers, in my view, need to be better heard by policymakers, and make the most of their leadership potential. Ultimately, re-orienting the teachers’ role in the current Kazakhstani education system could also invite many other possible stakeholders to bring their own voices and opinions to the table of reform in this country.

In hindsight, it is clear that the Soviet legacy as well as the critical period of establishing itself as an independent country has meant that Kazakhstan has not hurried to invest in developing teacher leadership. The topic remains unvocalized and hence unclear to many teachers in the same way as it is for many principals, parents, students and even policymakers. Apart from NIS, the majority of schools in the country do not engage broadly in dealing with questions about leadership as raised by teachers or other educational agents. It is unclear whether they do it consciously, deliberately or maybe routinely.

Some researchers such as McLaughlin et al. [4] concluded in their investigations that the reform happening in Kazakhstan does not allow teachers to develop as leaders, let alone invite those teachers to participate. One can say that schools are doing many things assigned by the Ministry. However, one can ask: do any of the Ministry’s assignments involve teachers in discussing, recommending or critiquing the state’s messages? If yes, how deeply and on how many levels? McLaughlin et al. dwell on the lack of teacher participation in reforms by considering a number of factors that have been hindering the development of active involvement of teachers in the process of change in Kazakhstan:

Teacher performance in the Kazakhstan education system is very public with teachers being expected to compete in Olympiads to demonstrate their abilities. Teachers are also graded at different levels and have to demonstrate their competence through various tests as well as maintaining a portfolio to show that they are worthy of promotion to a higher level. Given this view of teacher learning and professionalism, the dominant perception of the teacher as expert and the high stakes of nature of the reform process, it was surprising to see that teachers who were not involved in the programme were initially reluctant to take risks as they feared failure [4, p. 251]

The “failure” that McLaughlin et al. mention here might be partly found in the teachers’ histories that hark back to the Soviet management style which dominated and prevailed in the development of teacher leadership for a long time. The policy of positioning teachers as passive deliverers of knowledge resulted in insufficient chances to uncover the sleeping potential of Kazakhstani teachers and invoke their capacity to lead.

Meanwhile, teachers in Kazakhstan, like any other agents involved in education, ought to have a right to question what teacher leadership is and how it should work for them. More substantially, teachers need to become primary enactors of multiple changes that take place throughout Kazakhstan’s education system. Understanding their role in reforms could empower the teachers to lead their schools and re-energize their own enthusiasm for contributing to the improvement of secondary education in this country.

Results of the literature review

As the updated content of the present curriculum of Kazakhstan necessitates taking more effective approaches and requires more action from teachers, the paradox of hierarchical distribution of duties to teachers is also a problem. In order to better understand what underpins the situation, it is necessary to fully understand where the teachers’ place in the system is; how the `teacher-state` relationship works in practice; and what the country does in order to evoke effective and whole-hearted teacher leadership.

Centralized Governing and Teacher Leadership

The former Soviet education system forced public schools to favor performativity. Our current system also focuses on that same performativity, and therefore, schools are tied mostly to teaching knowledge rather than teaching and learning leadership. One of the main documents stipulating education in the country is the Law on Education (Law on Education in the Republic of Kazakhstan. № 319-III ЗРК. (2013). Astana. Retrieved from http://online.zakon.kz), which outlines the content and management of education; state regulations; financial provisions; and other important points. Moreover, the Law contains the definition of the term `teacher status`. However, neither the definition nor the Law in general includes a clear dimension that might be conceptualized as teacher leadership.

Consequently, the State Educational Mandatory Standard of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan. (2012). State Educational Mandatory Standard of the Republic of Kazakhstan. № 1080. Astana. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov. kz/), developed on the basis of the Law on Education, sets the norms to regulate teaching and learning in schools and focuses more on the requirements for educational organizations rather than the role of teachers in building capacity and leadership. Besides this, the Standard promotes production of knowledge and portrays teachers as professionals who will demonstrate excellence in fortifying the knowledge base of their students. Of course, there is nothing wrong if the schools produce students with a good, solid base of knowledge. However, this could be achieved without accentuating performativity and thus sacrificing teacher leadership.

The International Bureau of Education (International Bureau of Education. (2004). Challenges of curriculum development in the XXI century: perspectives from Belarus, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine. Geneva: IBE. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/ images/0014/001472/147206mb.pdf) explains in their report on secondary education in postSoviet countries that the teachers’ perception of change often differs from the perceptions of government officials and policymakers when approaching the topic of teacher leadership. This is true in Kazakhstan, largely because teachers “receive only brief and superficial training and guidance” [p. 5]. The report suggests that professional handbooks and supplementary materials should be developed in order to help and support the teachers transferring from the `traditional Soviet education` [5] to a new professional educator identity. In addition, the IBE investigators specify:

Leaving teachers out of the design and development of curricular change is likely to result in little, if any, real change. Teacher involvement in curriculum development can be a motivating factor for the teachers themselves … raising their morale and giving them a sense of „ownership” of the curriculum [5, p. 5]

The level of involvement that teachers have in the developmental processes that shape secondary education in Kazakhstan is low, and there is little research evidence showing cases that have engaged teachers in the reform process. In this respect, the situation in newly independent Kazakhstan is not very much different from the old Soviet system. Kerr [6], for example, reflects on this question in the following manner:

Soviet educational management was highly centralized. There was no tradition of teacher-generated curriculum development. The curriculum was developed in the center and disseminated through the bureaucratic structure. In the Soviet Union, curriculum was an area of total control by the central educational authority” [6, p. 32]

While the development of professional and subject knowledge is somewhat important to and even demanded by all teachers, the dominance of the top-down governing system is generally known to distance state policymakers from schools. I agree that a teacher’s role is certainly to teach, and teach well. However, the educator’s role needs many more facets. It seems to me that demanding the best results and doing little to achieve them is simply issuing a dictum rather than creating an opportunity for any school. The approach that we observe in most cases in Kazakhstan raises a wall of misperception and misunderstanding between the Ministry and the teachers, to the point where the latter rarely volunteer to go beyond their actual teaching purview due to the pressure of producing the `best` results for the Ministry.

Devotion to `Traditional` Soviet Values

Kazakhstan strives for developing a new paradigm for its education. However, I find that the immaturity of the independent Kazakhstani state is experiencing many flashbacks to the traditional Soviet system of education while it develops.

By `traditional`, scholars in Kazakhstan often mean Soviet [5]. Even though the twenty- five-year period since Kazakhstan transitioned from the USSR to an independent republic has already produced several new generations of teachers, a large proportion of the teacher population in the country is represented by 50-60 year-olds; that is, those who were born in the Soviet era and who accumulated years of experience working at Soviet schools. My point here is that this category of teachers is unique from the perspective of educational researchers. Firstly, schools in Kazakhstan generally value those `experienced` [5, 7] teachers by recognizing their expertise and professional wisdom. Secondly, it is important for schools to blend their teacher contingents by having not only `young` but also `experienced` teachers. Thirdly, I have witnessed the general perception that the `experienced` teachers accept the requirements that come from the Ministry more easily and are therefore entrusted to fulfil those centralized requirements more frequently.

In comparison to the experienced teachers, I can say that younger teachers are often lost when they have to deal with ministerial orders to schools, especially in terms of the ways the requirements are delivered to them. This may be so partly because due to their youth, these young teachers cannot understand that despite Kazakhstan becoming independent from the Soviet Union, the culture in the schools has not changed as radically as the status of the country. More specifically, I can share that when a newly graduated person comes to work at an institution, they often hope to see that the old Soviet school will have gone. The young people expect to see a change, a spirit of innovation that will be ready to recognize, accept and support the hidden capacities of all teachers. What they meet in reality, however, differs from their expectations, as most of the public schools are still struggling towards a shift to a new paradigm.

Interestingly, the majority of my `experienced` colleagues with whom I worked in public schools seem to be reluctant to change any aspect of their Soviet-style mindset. To analyze a similar case, Fimyar & Kurakbayev [8] depict the concept of `Soviet` in the memories of Kazakhstani teachers by addressing a certain degree of the teachers’ nostalgia about the Soviet era and discovering that `the Soviet` still sits deeply in the minds of many Kazakhstani teachers. In other words, a substantial percentage of teachers in Kazakhstan reminisce about the Soviet Union and apparently regret the loss of the Soviet pedagogy. To this effect, Fimyar and Kurakbayev propose to regard the teachers’ devotion to `traditional Soviet` as a historical and evidential background on the way to creating a new paradigm of bringing leadership to the country.

Meanwhile, international experts from the OECD and the World Bank (OECD (2007). Higher education in Kazakhstan: Reviews of national policies for education. Berlin: OECD Publishing). Higher education in Kazakhstan: Reviews of national policies for education. Berlin: OECD Publishing) point out that the culture of Kazakhstan’s education favors conservatism and achievement in only specific specializations but prevents innovation, creativity and leadership. Challenges regarding the lack of authentic leadership in schools have also been addressed in the country’s profile by UNICEF (Education in Kazakhstan. Retrieved from http://www.unicef.org/ceecis/Kazakhstan. pdf), that accuses a “crumbling Soviet school infrastructure, a shortage of trained teachers, as well as the outdated teaching materials and the national curriculum which largely date from the Soviet period” (p. 4).

Yakavets [9], in her study of educational reform in Kazakhstan, illustrates that modifying the curriculum in this country while it experienced its first decade of independence has been a major issue because of the longevity of the Soviet educational system and lack of expertise in forming and formulating a new orientation to leadership:

Firstly, there was a challenge of pedagogy which involved a shift of emphasis from the content of teaching to the complexities of student learning. Secondly, there was the challenge of introducing new subject-matter which often had no precedent in the region … And thirdly, and by far the most complex, the challenges in the teaching of Social Studies, Languages and History [9, p.12]

While building a discourse about `traditional education’ in the USSR, Klarin [5] implies ways, methods and techniques that focus closely on reproductive learning rather than reinforcing teacher and student capacity for leadership. Klarin considers lack of leadership in teaching and learning as a traditional aspect of the status quo, which valued only knowledge, models and actions. Krasnukhina [10] adds to this with the fact that within traditional education, teachers rely strongly on memorizing knowledge, and keeping and reproducing this tradition as a replica of their past practices.

Nevertheless, I do not intend to investigate whose fault it is that the schools in Kazakhstan still rely closely on the old system of educating students. I do recognize that our `experienced` teachers were born and raised during the Soviet era; and that everything they learned and taught about has been tightly connected to the traditional Soviet ideology. Since our schools have not changed much either, the Soviet tradition continues its life in there as well. I also observe that the `new` curriculum, which is delivered by the Ministry, often alienates the schools, because the way the Ministry treats the schools, and teachers in particular, seems old-fashioned itself to me. I must conclude, therefore, that this vicious cycle of a deeply rooted tradition looks quite powerful, but the situation is not hopeless at all. In saying this, I imply that researching reform in Kazakhstan’s education system requires a certain degree of attention in order to study the perceptions of both `young` and `experienced` teachers, and obtain a clearer picture of the situation.

Discussion of literature review

Current objectives of the Ministry, such as a switchover to 12-year learning or the promotion of trilingual education, are certainly important for the country. At the same time, looking at the current situation on a larger scale, I notice that very little is spoken when it comes to the empowerment of teachers in Kazakhstan. The country keeps on pushing teachers to be the executors in their classrooms – who produce the best performance indicators based on the results of the Unified National Testing rather than those who have a say on whether the UNT [as an example] works in practice.

This sea of the top-down relations is not endless to my mind. Even though the teachers’ credentials for leadership remain unclear in most cases of the reformations, there appear to be a few recent indications of teacher leadership arising in Kazakhstan’s society. For instance, the Ministry established the National Center for Professional Development `Orleu` (`Orleu` National Center for Professional Development. Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Retrieved from the official site at www.orleu- edu.kz) in 2012 to fulfil the State Program of Education Development for 2011-2020 (Ministry of Education and Science, 2010). According to its strategy, `Orleu` is to become an alternative to the National Teachers’ ReTraining Institute, publicly known as `IPK`, that provides in-service teacher training in every regional center of the country. In contrast to IPK, who are frequently criticized for their poor quality of teacher preparation and organization of in-service programs, `Orleu` offers teachers a leadership module asserting itself as “the leader in developing teacher training for Kazakhstan’s education as it enhances the quality of teachers and improves their professional skills” (Orleu Strategy of Development for 2012-2020. Astana: Orleu, p. 5). Among the key activities of `Orleu`, which include focusing on public education to innovation, continuity, diversification, transparency, autonomy and academic freedom, there is an allusion to teacher leadership, worded as “an aspiration for leadership in improving the skills of teachers; introduction of a single vertical management system; as well as creation of new management principles.” (Orleu Strategy of Development for 2012-2020. Astana: Orleu, p. 5).

Moreover, the `Orleu` Center identifies some of the current issues and challenges in the secondary education system of the country, and thus reveals certain breaches in the system such as (a) fragmentation of the national training system; (b) lack of corporate governance; (c) shortage of and noncompliance with the current training system and content to meet modern challenges and trends in education; (d) an insufficiency of existing teacher training programs; (e) the underfunding of continuing education; and (f) the poor resourcing of training institutes. Following these identified breaches, `Orleu` has targeted modernizing the system and thus looks primarily at creating of a new teacher training scenario for the country that promotes professionalism and leadership among teachers. At the same time, I think that all the issues identified by `Orleu` do not address the teacher leadership situation extensively. My logic is that the increase of the number of training institutions and the re-orienting of others could be directly linked to the current needs of teachers. For example, the “lack of corporate governance”, according to `Orleu`, refers mainly to the system, whereas the system is formed not just by training institutions or the Ministry but mostly by those who work and teach at schools.

Meanwhile, `Orleu` is not the only agency that intends to improve leadership of Kazakhstani teachers. The Center of Excellence, which operates under the auspices of the aforementioned Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS), shares a similar vision in terms of reforming the current system of secondary education and advancing leadership among teachers and principals in Kazakhstan. The NIS program for leadership development (Center of Excellence. Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools. Retrieved from the official site at www.cpm.kz) has the aim to ensure success in and through collaborative teacher practices and professional growth of the teachers. The NIS CoE sees the success of their leadership training program in teaching and learning at each level of pedagogy. This relates to teachers, students, teacher assistants, schools and the system as a whole (New approaches in education. Professional development program for secondary school teachers of Kazakhstan. Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan; Pavlodar State Pedagogical Institute; Regional center for teacher professional development. Retrieved from http://www.docme.ru/doc/86653/ soderzhanie-kursov-cpm-kembridzh on August 18, 2014). Given this, a teacherleader needs to be continuously involved in self-reflection and self-guidance. They must constantly ask themselves: (a) what is successful in my classroom and what makes that success? (b) who are my students? (c) is anyone excluded from the learning process? (d) how does my teaching help their learning? and finally (e) how do I know I am not managing or leading the situation?

In order to achieve a high degree of professionalism, NIS coaches prospective educators to identify values, specify aims and tasks, detect issues and challenges, and coordinate and plan activities, including the evaluation of new teaching techniques, assessment, and life-long reflection (www. cpm.kz). Besides this, the Center helps teachers to develop leadership in and through research as well as to communicate efficiently in professional and social environments. Teachers attending NIS CoE courses are expected to interact efficiently in teams and engage fully in teamwork where they work on improving professional cultures in their schools by trying new leadership roles. As a result, the trainees are expected to change and enhance their leaderful practices of bringing innovations to their pedagogies as well as the system of secondary education in general.

NIS teachers also disseminate the expertise they have gained among the mainstream schools of the country. Their dissemination plan (Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools Conferences. Retrieved from the official site at conference.nis.edu.kz) aims to (1) promote the dialogue between teachers, administrators and international experts as an opportunity to introduce `best` practices in schools; (2) build leadership capacity; (3) develop additional strategies for improving schools’ understanding of leadership as a concept; and at the same time (4) increase the level of responsibility of all stakeholders engaged in the formation of educational change in Kazakhstan.


Despite the general situation in the country underestimating the great role of teachers in leading their schools to success, signs of change seem to be emerging in the system. This indication of reform has some good news too. The first is that the government and the Ministry do not just theorize but try to realize some change in the system. The second one is that teachers can now access not only the traditional IPK but also the modern training centers of `Orleu` and NIS to learn about leadership.

Summing up, this paper appeals to the idea that modernization of public opinion in Kazakhstan is hugely important – to be precise, as important as teachers in the schools. Sharing more voice and entrusting a larger extent of power to educators in this part of the world will not simply approach Kazakhstan toward the best international practice but mainly help the country respond adequately to the local as well as global needs of its population.



  1. Nazarbayev, N. A. (2017). Course towards the future: modernization of Kazakhstan’s identity. Astana. Retrieved from http://www.akorda.kz/en/events/ akorda_news/press_conferences/course-towards-the-future-modernization-of- kazakhstans-identity on February 15, 2018
  2. Katsu, S. (2014). The introductory foreword. In D. Bridges (Ed.), Education reform and internationalization (pp. 239-260). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Huisman, J., & Currie, J. (2004). Accountability in higher education: Bridge over troubled water?. Higher Education, 48(4), 529-551.
  4. McLaughlin, C., McLellan, R., Fordham, M., Chandler-Grevatt, A., & Daubney, A. (2014). The role of the teacher in education reform in Kazakhstan: teacher enquiry as a vehicle for change. In D. Bridges (Ed.), Education Reform and Internationalisation (pp. 239-260). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Klarin, M. V. (1996). Personal orientation in continuous education. Pedagogy, 4, 14-21.
  6. Kerr, A. V. (2003). Narodnoe obrazovanie. Novossibirsk: Novossibirsk State University Press.
  7. Silova, I. (2005). Traveling policies: hijacked in Central Asia. European Educational Research Journal, 4(1), 50-59.
  8. Fimyar, O., & Kurakbayev, K. (2016). ‘Soviet’ in teachers’ memories and professional beliefs in Kazakhstan: points for reflection for reformers, international consultants and practitioners. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 29(1), 86-103.
  9. Yakavets, N. (2014). Educational reform in Kazakhstan: The first decade of independence. In D. Bridges (Ed.), Education reform and internationalisation (pp. 10-16). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Krasnukhina, O. K. (2003). Traditional education and knowledge production.
Year: 2018
City: Almaty