Inside the classroom of a public school teacher in the UAE

I’ve been at school for the past 4 weeks and since I began teaching, my most requested topic has become, “Panda please write about your school experience! Tell us how you feel now that you have started teaching! What is teaching in Abu Dhabi like?”

When did I become a blogger that took requests anyway? I’m seriously getting soft!

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The point of this post is mainly to clear up some rumours and share a snippet of my personal experience with you, bearing in mind that no two experiences are the same.

I have been placed at a cycle 3 girls school and yes, this is EXACTLY what I requested. I have been extremely lucky. ADEC can place you wherever there is a need for a teacher so even if you requested cycle 3, you may end up teaching cycle 1. Just a heads up:

  • Cycle One: Grades 1 to 5
  • Cycle Two: Grades 6 to 9
  • Cycle Three: Grades 10 to 12

It’s not my first time teaching all girls and I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be back in this environment. Other teachers may argue against it but as a female educator (that looks a certain way), it’s kind of a pleasure not to be teaching adolescent boys again.

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There are a lot of conflicting accounts/posts/articles written about the experiences of working in public schools across the UAE and that is because EVERY EXPERIENCE IS DIFFERENT. My frequent readers are rolling their eyes because they are SO used to hearing me say this. But it is the absolute truth- the only thing you can count on when moving abroad is that your experience will be different to someone else’s. People email me in a panic saying that they have read such awful things about working in public schools here in the UAE and while I am not discrediting the experiences others have had, we need less panic on the internet and more real experiences. So let me address some of the questions I have received:

 

1. Do you seriously have to commute up to an hour to work- at your own expense?

To be blunt- YES. Ok so I don’t commute for an hour, just under 40 minutes, but yes it can be a long drive fraught with traffic and yes, I cover the expense of my own transportation. Unlike me, it’s most likely that you won’t have a choice in where you end up living but if you do- and you don’t want to commute for too long- try and find something closer to your school. I am simply besotted with my home location and would quite happily prefer a long drive over staying anywhere else in Abu Dhabi!

 

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2. Do you really wear an abaya to work?

I’m going to break this post up into a few other mini questions because this is one of the things I get asked about most frequently.

Yes I wear an abaya to work. It’s loose, easy to slip on and off and I wear super comfy clothes underneath. Although wearing an abaya isn’t compulsory, loose clothing (think full length dresses, long tops and long skirts) is. When I think of how I wore dresses and belts and stockings and heels and accessories to work in other countries, I’m astounded!

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These days my biggest conundrum in the morning is what earrings to wear. Which brings me to the next question:

Do you have to cover your hair?

I personally don’t. It’s not required by ADEC or my school. When the girls are at school- in an all female environment- they remove their hijab and thus, all of us have our hair uncovered for most of the day. However if my principal asked us to all cover our hair, I certainly would with no complaints. But that’s just me, I’m easygoing and would rather be respectful that try to maintain some sort of… style?

Can I wear make up/lipstick/nail polish?

Yes, yes and yes. If you haven’t set foot in the Middle East before let me tell me that the word BEAUTY takes on a new meaning here. I’ve never seen so many beautiful women and of course, so much of make up. I still barely wear anything on my face but I do love admiring all the products and women.

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Make up is actually encouraged at work- one of the Expat Felines has a principal that said lipstick is compulsory at their school! I wear nail polish to school (purple was last week’s colour) and no one has batted an eyelid. I have also tried my luck with some dark lipsticks and received only compliments. The best advice I can give is this: during your first week at school (PD week) wear an abaya and simple, conservative make up. Suss out what other local and foreign teachers are wearing. Ask what is acceptable or not and take your lead from your colleagues. This is how I figured out that I could sandals to work (thank goodness!) and other teachers even wear sneakers and flip flops!

 

3. Is it a nightmare in the classroom? I’ve heard that the discipline is non-existent.

Let me answer this rationally. In every country, every district and every area, there are schools with good discipline and bad discipline. As educators we know that how our students behave is as a result of many different factors not least of all, our classroom management techniques.

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However, the girls at my school are sweet and mostly eager to interact with me. We have had some great lessons in the last three weeks and this is because I did not go in as a drill sergeant- I treat them as young adults and they seem to be responding well! I find positive reinforcement works well and they love sharing information about their families/culture/religion with me. Their level of English varies from class to class so it also surprises me when people say to me, “I heard “they” can’t speak a word of English!” My grade 10 girls can have meaningful conversations with me just fine. Don’t believe everything you read online (I say, as you read this online!).

 

4. What will working with Emirati people be like?

Unlike working at my former private school in Kuwait where 90% of the teachers were from foreign countries, the majority of staff at public schools in Abu Dhabi are local. Of course each person is different but just to share my experience: on the first day that all the teachers (both old and new) arrived we were treated to a party organised to welcome everyone to school… huge buffet lunch, music and a whole lot of warmth. It has set the tone for the rest of the school year as the local staff members have been generous, accommodating, friendly and helpful. Sure there are some times where language fails us in mid-conversation but there is always someone else on hand to translate, assist to just laugh at the hilarity of the situation! Why are people so afraid of Arabs though? You don’t really believe that every Muslim is a terrorist do you? Seriously?

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5. Will I be ok/Can I do this? I am seriously worried.

If this your first time teaching abroad, then it is natural to be worried about your new working environment. ADEC, as I mentioned earlier, can place you wherever there is a vacancy for you regardless of how you may feel or what you may want for yourself. Even if you do get exactly what you desire, there will be the stress of adapting to a new curriculum (which will need to be adapted to your students’ needs), a new schedule (which is subject to change at anytime), a language barrier with students (or you may be pleasantly surprised), new colleagues (they will be your biggest help if you let them), new resources (or none at all), new management techniques (ones you may not be familiar with) and in general- a totally new experience for any teacher regardless of where and how you taught before.

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The truth is that there are few instances in life in which you are simultaneously playing the part of an experienced educator and wide-eyed student. One moment you are utterly lost in the maze of corridors trying to read the Arabic signs; the next moment you are standing in the front of the classroom—all eyes on you—guiding your students in the quest for bilingualism. Just remember that at the end of the day, it’s always about more than subject-verb agreement and subordinate clauses. It’s the human connection, the lasting relationships that you will build in the classroom with your students. It is the increased choices and opportunities your students will have access to as a result of speaking English in this globalized world; it’s the benefits your students will reap from having a bilingual mind and being exposed to a new culture through their new teacher. You will be challenged and you may be frustrated at times but being open to the challenges that may come your way will mean that ultimately- you’ll be as ok you want to be.

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At the end of the day, as I sink into my comfy couch with my pint of Ben & Jerry’s, I do believe that every experience is what you make of it… moving abroad to teach- to the UAE or anywhere else-  in a public or private school- is always a gamble and you have to be prepared for whatever comes your way!

 

Tips for settling in to your new school:

– Students studying English as a second (or third) language are not at all like the students you may be used to teaching in your home country. Read up on ESL strategies and always try to make English learning fun. Incorporate educational games as often as you can, and always keep a positive, upbeat attitude to set the atmosphere in the classroom. If you can create lesson plans that are so fun the students forget they are learning, you’re in for a real treat. Your optimism will become contagious, and hopefully students will be excited to come to your class and participate.

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-Don’t compare yourself with other teachers at other schools or teachers at your school.  Focus on our own classes, and being the best teacher possible. If students remain engaged and learning when they come to your class, then you’ve done your job well despite what mayhem may be going on in another classroom.

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-You may not have a formal orientation or much guidance when you first arrive at your school. Be proactive and ask where the resources are. Find out who your team leader is and ask them for support and guidance. Use the internet as a great tool for resources, such as lesson planning ideas and forums. Ask the other teachers who’ve been there longer for guidance on the using the curriculum. And, most importantly, pay attention to your students and what they need. It’s possible all of the above won’t be enough and your best bet will be to use your own judgment in the classroom.

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7 thoughts on “Inside the classroom of a public school teacher in the UAE

  1. As a former ESL teacher abroad, I absolutely 100% agree with you about how personal experience impacts everything when you move abroad. I had a tough time in Thailand when I lived there, and people are always so astounded to hear this. “But you lived in Thailand, why wasn’t it amazing?!?!?” While yes, I did have many amazing experiences and yes, I’m 100% grateful for the time I spent there, the struggles I had in Thailand had 100% to do with myself and who I was at that time. I also believe I had to go through those struggles to become who I am today. You are absolutely right–in the end, you ARE as okay as you want to be.

    It sounds like you’re having quite the amazing experience in Abu Dhabi. It’s such a shame that the Middle East has such a bad reputation in the international community (specifically, the west), because I’ve heard such good things about it from travelers and expats alike. Looking forward to reading more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wait what? You didn’t have an amazing time? You MUST HAVE DONE SOMETHING WRONG. Haha I am just kidding… people always generalise and never seem to realise how subjective moving abroad is for everyone. Like you latter point about the Middle East having a bad reputation… people always fail to realise that this isn’t one big war torn region and that each country is very different hence different experiences will be had by everyone 🙂 Thank you for sharing your experience and feedback in your comment… as always it is appreciated 😀

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      1. Haha, I read your comment and laughed out loud. YOU GET IT! Most recently, I had someone tell me they’d pray for me when I told them I struggled in Thailand…and this, mind you, for a life experience that happened nearly two years ago now. They meant well, but I found their earnestness amusing considering the subjectivity of experience and the length of time that had passed since this particular experience.

        I’m always happy to comment. Your blunt honesty, particularly about living in the Middle East, is refreshing in a world where people are increasingly seeing only one perspective of many.

        Liked by 1 person

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