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Weaving a learning community from silk in Almaty

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

People often travel to Kazakhstan to discover the ancient Silk Road, the trade route that linked China to Europe between the second century BCE and the middle of the fifteenth century. Not me though. I was visiting Almaty to advocate for teacher leadership, so I didn’t have time to explore the Silk Road, but when I went to the Kazakh National Women’s Pedagogical University (QYZDAR), I did experience a ‘wave of silk’. This is how the great Kazakhstani poet Gafu Kaiyrbekov described the sight of all the young female students walking along Gogol Street in the spring moonlight to get back to their dormitories before the curfew. I observed the modern equivalent of this wave of silk as it floated along the corridors of the University.

On their way to classes, students passed by portraits of the Rectors of the university since its inception and paintings of powerful females from Kazakh folklore and history. There were also posters with photos of alumnae who had become school principals, politicians, singers and actors. Role models in abundance.

The current Rector of QYZDAR is Dr Gulmira Qanay who has been responsible for bringing non-positional teacher leadership to Kazakhstan. As Rector, she is a great role model for the students. She is a young woman who has shouldered great responsibility and courageously led innovation in challenging circumstances.

Conjuring up a learning community

The two-day conference about school-university partnership was a triumph for Gulmira and her team. What I found most striking was how so many people – academic staff, administrative staff and students – were taking the initiative to make this complex event work so well. Some were performing in music and dance. Some were staffing the registration desk. Others were standing by their posters to present lesson study projects. Others were making impromptu speeches and posing challenging questions. This was an excellent manifestation of distributed leadership practice as described by James Spillane and colleagues (Spillane, Halverson & Diamond, 2001). Students, and both academic and administrative staff, were taking collective action – some of it carefully planned, some of it spontaneous - to create an environment in which ideas could flow between people and in which knowledge could be co-constructed.

This feeling of community was powerful. It seemed almost magical. I was fascinated by the way this worked. Some of the key ingredients were obvious. For example, the warmth of the welcome to visitors from other countries and other institutions in Kazakhstan. We were bathed in copious kind words and smiles, but these gestures of friendship were overlaid with explanations of the meaning of the symbols, artefacts and portraits on display in the corridors and the university’s museum. It was also a two-way street in which there was an openness to dialogue and a thirst for knowledge from elsewhere. I felt a strong sense of fellowship. Another ingredient our Kazakhstani hosts sprinkled over everything like fairy dust is a sense of celebration. The ubiquitous music and dance was awe-inspiring of itself, but, when coupled with frequent congratulatory announcements, the effect was to create a sense of celebration into the process of knowledge exchange and learning. The usual doses of cynicism that some of us carry around like excess baggage were entirely banished from these proceedings. The joy of learning prevailed.

Launching a book

During this conference, a group of advocates for non-positional teacher leadership (NPTL) including myself hosted a session to launch the book ‘Teacher Leadership in Kazakhstan’ edited by Gulmira Qanay, Saule Kalikova, Gulbadan Zakayeva and myself. The book documents the initiative funded by the Soros Foundation in which we helped to establish a network of support for NPTL across the country.

The edition of the book we presented on this occasion was in the Russian language. A further edition in Kazakh will follow in September. The session was packed. Many people had to stand. People were very engaged and keen to know more about how teachers’ voices could come to the fore and grassroots activism be cultivated. Members of the audience insisted that this book has to be seen right across the country and throughout neighbouring Central Asian republics. The book can be downloaded from a number of websites, but there are still many of us who like to have a hard copy book. Copies will be distributed strategically around the region and links to the digital version are being shared.

The day after the conference at QYZDAR, the editors of the book, together with a staunch advocate of non-positional teacher leadership from Nazarbayev University, Duishon Shamatov, headed for the UN building. We were hosted by Nurbek Teleshaliyev and his UNESCO colleagues who had organised a webinar to enable us to spread the word about the Teacher Leadership in Kazakhstan project to the other Central Asian republics. The project addresses UNESCO’s commitment to education reform through support for strategies to improve the quality of teacher education in the four republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The webinar was introduced by the Acting-Director of UNESCO in the region, Amir Piric, who repeated the mantra that the quality of education cannot be higher than the quality of its teachers. He said that education reforms can only be successful if they are led by teachers; empowering teachers and creating conducive environments for them to practice leadership are vital. He welcomed the TLK initiative because it has evidently enabled teaches to become agents of change in Kazakhstan. He ended by saying that he hoped that: “this meeting will be a starting point for a regional collaboration on teacher leadership to support teachers as agents of change… across our countries." The webinar was recorded so people who were not able to participate could access it.

Implications for policy and reflections on community

As I left Kazakhstan, I reflected on my experience in Almaty. A pleasant feature of this was being greeted like a hero. Of course, I doubt that my celebrity status could be attributed to any personal qualities; actually, I think it was because I was bringing to the region a message about teacher empowerment for which there seems to be a tangible hunger. Policy makers would do well to recognise this and understand the enormous potential to mobilise the deep wells of moral purpose and agency within the teaching professional and those who support teachers, to transform the quality of educational provision across the region.

I also reflected on the extraordinarily powerful community building that I experienced at QYZDAR. I recall that when we at HertsCam were seeking a new accreditation for our masters degree programme in 2015, we consulted teachers who had previously experienced the HertsCam approach. This consultation led to a set of pedagogical principles which included: ‘Principle 3: our approach should enable the development of a learning community in which enhanced social capital allows critical friendship to flourish’. These principles were subsequently discussed in an article for the International Journal of Teacher Leadership (Frost, 2018). So, the concept was already familiar to us, and we have tried to enact it in our practice, but what I experienced in Almaty was far more advanced. Maybe this is because of the nature of Kazakhstani people and their cultural traditions; whatever the explanation, it is clear to me that we can learn a lot from our friends in Almaty about how to create the conditions for learning and knowledge exchange.

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Svetlana Shakirova
Svetlana Shakirova
Jun 06, 2023

Dear David,

I am glad that you liked to be in our university. I envision that your paper will be actively read and cited after publishing in our journal.


Dear David,

It is so nice to know that you enjoyed your trip here in Almaty and you reached your home safe and sound. I am impressed with your reflection you described the things that doing every day we, ourselves do not notice. In fact, it is life’s gift to have an opportunity to study and to belong to the community of learners and creators. We should appreciate what we have, our strength and be more supportive to each other.

I was privileged to accompany you during sessions and it was my pleasure. I learned from you what being generous means. You’re the person who is motivated by the ideas, and you do things because they are important to people.…

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