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International Teaching: When Good Schools Go Bad

August 8, 2023 4 Comments

Please note that the sentiments in this post are based on my own personal experiences at one school and do not apply to every school.

When I left the UAE, I was 100% done with teaching abroad in the Gulf. After horrific experiences in Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I had reached my limit of racism and abuse by both students and administration. You can read about that time in my life here.

But- like most things in expat life- things didn’t work out the way I planned, the Covid 19 pandemic led me in another direction and I was put into a situation where I was compelled to start teaching abroad again in Qatar. So I signed a contract with a school and hoped for the best.

Despite my harmful past experiences at schools in the region, there was a part of me excited to be back in the classroom, doing what I loved and pursuing my passion.

The school itself was clean, modern and had an abundance of resources and supplies. You can watch a tour of my classroom here. I knew which classes and subjects I would teach before I started and that didn’t change when school began. It was a far cry from my time in Kuwait where I accepted a job teaching English to grades 7-9 English and then arrived and had to teach kindergarten. Also a far cry from when my school in Dubai couldn’t afford to provide teachers or staff with any stationery or books (but the owner of the school had a customized Lamborghini). Many people think that teaching in one of the richest regions in the world means we lack for nothing; but that is simply untrue. Just like in other places, a “mismanagement” of funds tends to occur when schools become businesses and not a place to educate young minds. 

In that first year at this school in Qatar- while many things were flawed- so many things were good based on what I had to endure in the past.

  • I was given complete autonomy and freedom to teach whatever I wanted as long as it aligned with the curriculum standards. 
  • Testing was at a minimum and students could thrive on fun activities and new ways of learning. 
  • Paperwork was a suggestion rather than a requirement and I wasn’t compelled to spend hours tweaking a lesson plan to make it seem perfect on paper.
  • Parents weren’t rude or demanding and displayed a level of respect for my profession that surprised me. If I had any issues with the parents, my principal always backed me up.
  • The school had a community atmosphere and if you needed help, there was always someone to help you. 
  • I was not treated like a bumbling fool simply because I was brown and from an African country.
  • My salary appeared like clockwork on the same day every month. The correct amount with no deductions. Plus I was reimbursed for anything I had been promised to be reimbursed for. 
  • In the first year I learnt a lot particularly about teaching online, using software to enhance my lessons and all the fun digital activities that I could do. These were things I couldn’t even dream of doing in previous schools whose technology levels had been seriously lacking. 

There is no doubt that in that first year of teaching in Qatar, I became a better, more creative teacher.

But as it is with schools in this region, contracts end and people have to leave. A high turnover of staff and teachers is quite normal in international schools. And so two key people in the school leadership team decided to leave; the school director was retiring and the curriculum director had accepted a new job elsewhere. I wondered how this would impact a school that was (for the most part)- organized, transparent, inclusive and collaborative. 

The new school year started and we realized that the new school director was not the person that was initially hired for the job. Due to a series of HR issues, the original hire was unable to come and so someone else was hurriedly hired. Not the best sign but I kept an open mind. 

I was not surprised to find a 60+ white American man at the school when we returned. In general, white people with American passports usually filled leadership roles purely by virtue of their skin colour and passport. I only hoped he would stay out of teachers’ way. 

My first real shock came when- a few weeks later-  the director of school declared that he would come into every class to “teach teachers how to teach”. This floored me on 2 levels-

  • This was a school that didn’t hire newly qualified or inexperienced teachers. So every person hired at the school had a suitable teaching qualification and years of experience prior to starting. What was the need to teach such individuals how to do their job?
  • How did the school director have time to pop into classrooms and teach? Surely the administration of running a profitable school kept him busy enough?
  • What made him think we didn’t know how to teach… he had never observed anyone teaching?!

But I supposed that once you reached a certain point in your educational career, you no longer were in the classroom and you missed it. So this was his way of regaining that. Many teachers were insulted but honestly, I know I’m a good teacher. So this didn’t shake my ability or confidence in any way. In fact when he came to my classroom of grade 11 girls and proceeded to teach them as if he was in a grade 5 classroom, I was entertained. My students were confused as to why this was necessary and deemed it a waste of time. I privately agreed.

Slowly, that initial event set in motion a series of events that spiraled from annoying to downright appalling. 

At this point I should say that if you don’t have a beverage, go pour some wine and boil that water for tea.

Because you’ll need it.

The “my way or the highway” approach began to take shape. Meaning that we had to implement all of the new director’s ideas, his teaching strategies, his way of creating unit plans, his desire to have frequent meetings and just generally agree to this one-man-show he insisted on having. He ignored previous school policies which were collaborative in nature and imposed a dictatorial law. 

During this year I served as the Head of the English Department. As a result, I was expected to attend monthly meetings where we would meet with the principals and director to work together and collaborate on things we could improve as well as discuss logistical issues. What this turned into was the director coming in; lecturing us and then seeming surprised when people brought up issues or made suggestions. As if we weren’t allowed to have a voice. When actually, that was the entire point of the meeting.

People whose tone was deemed ‘aggressive’ were called in for follow ups to discuss their alleged lack of decorum. Funny how those people were always women.

In a school that prided itself on a ‘family’ atmosphere, things were slowly disintegrating. Whereas previously staff were invited to sit on panels when hiring new members of the upper management team, under this director’s leadership, that was no more. When the curriculum director at the time resigned, there was no opportunity for staff to play any collaborative role in the hire of a new person. He announced the resignation and the person’s future replacement in the same email. He just hired someone he liked. I am not saying this person wasn’t a good fit for the job, but I was taken aback that the procedure of involving staff in such an important decision was disregarded. 

One of his ideas was for a select few- people he liked- to come in on a few Saturdays to learn how to write lesson plans in a way he preferred. The idea would be to train us and we would train others. He made it seem like a treat, because afterwards he took us to expensive lunches at fancy restaurants. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t just take the money and pay us overtime instead of forcing us to socialize with colleagues. Coming to school on a Saturday was not what I signed up for. In fact I remember asking if that was an expectation when I was first interviewed for the job and I was told no. I probably wouldn’t have accepted the job if it had been a requirement. Thankfully, that phase didn’t last long. 

What followed was an expectation that every Thursday afternoon, we would meet with our departments and write out lesson plans in the format he wanted them to be written. On the first Thursday, he patrolled around the school and found people not doing what he requested in the way he requested them to. So he yelled at them until they did. 

You read that correctly.

As a consequence, the expectation was changed so that we would gather as a whole school in our school library and work on writing these plans under his watchful eye. He would walk around and examine what people were doing and listen to conversations. It was micromanaging at its finest. 

The pièce de résistance was when he informed us of an urgent meeting he needed to have at the end of the school day. Called at the last minute, no agenda given. Again, something that was not a part of the school’s culture prior to his arrival. Nevertheless, we gathered in the auditorium and waited to see what foolishness awaited us. He announced that one of the principals was leaving and that he had already found her replacement. Wait what? 

While I was a bit taken aback that all of a sudden a key player in the leadership team was leaving, I was also surprised that their replacement was already found. But what really shook me was learning that the poor principal was asked not to return for the next academic year a mere two hours before this meeting with the entire staff and then simultaneously finding out publicly that he had been recruiting for her position without her even knowing she wouldn’t be returning. 

How was that ethical or fair? It was the worst professional practice. Bear in mind that this announcement was made very late in the academic year (around May), so it was late for a principal to look for new jobs. 

When she upped and left in the middle of the night a few weeks later, I didn’t blame her. She was betrayed. How could she continue in such a toxic environment? 

The next blow was when my own principal resigned (of her own free will thankfully). She was a strong leader that I greatly admired. Her only issue is that she did not blindly agree to the director’s wishes. She questioned many of his decisions and was not always compliant if she didn’t feel that something was in the best interest of the teacher team and students. I started to understand that she was protecting herself, her mental health and her career by not continuing on in her capacity. While this was saddening to me, I understood it and supported her.

Now at this point, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t resign as well. Everything probably sounds like a nightmare for someone teaching abroad.

And in some ways it was. But I had made a commitment to my students that I was unwilling to break. My promise was that I would take them from grade 10-12 and see them graduate. This was a class I really loved and these students treated me like a family member. Besides that, I still felt that many things were good about the school and I loved what I taught. My personal life was also very fulfilling. So me- and my cat- stayed put. 

But just when things couldn’t get worse, they did. 

The director made a decree that for the next academic year, he wanted a mirror schedule between the girls and boys divisions (this was a gender separate school). Meaning that whatever subjects one teacher taught the girls, another teacher would teach the exact same subjects to the boys and have the exact same teaching load. It didn’t matter whether these teachers were experienced, qualified or capable of teaching the same subjects. They just had to mirror each other. When the schedule was released, we had music teachers teaching high school english; high school teachers teaching middle school classes; and qualified English teachers having only social studies subjects on their schedule. It was a complete mess for some people. Again, I was lucky in that my subjects hadn’t changed. I was teaching what I wanted to. But I was in a small minority. 

Teachers requested changes and made suggestions for improvements. They pleaded their cases. Their words fell on deaf ears. The director felt that this was truly the best thing for our school. 

And so 40% of grade 7-12 teachers resigned just before the school year ended. They did not wish to teach subjects they had no clue about. I was devastated to see strong, committed colleagues resign but I understood. The school had descended into madness. 

I left for the summer break uncertain of what the next academic year would hold. 

When I returned to school, we had 3 new principals and a new curriculum director. The entire leadership team was different. Two of the people hired had never been principals before. The remaining one had never worked outside of America. I had never seen the phrase, “the blind leading the blind” play out in front of my eyes in this way . Every second sentence was, “In America we did it like this…” or “At my old school this is what worked…”; yet they never stopped to ask, “What was being done here- what worked and what didn’t?”

Remember the schedule that had pushed some teachers to resign? All the new principals agreed that it was a bad schedule that didn’t take into account the needs of the teachers. They insisted it be changed. I noticed that the director blamed the staff who had left for the terrible scheduling and never mentioned that it was his idea. We sat through pointless orientations not knowing what classes we would be teaching as they worked on creating a better schedule. The principals asked us to plan for our subjects… not knowing which subjects we should be planning for. 

The first week of school was a shambles; students didn’t know where to go. Teachers didn’t have enough information on where students should be. There were errors in schedules. Teachers were double booked and didn’t have lists of all the students that should be in their classes.

The highlight of the week was when the director called a staff meeting to berate us because there were students all over the place during class time. How would we know where students should be if we weren’t given the information that would allow us to do that?

In the second week of the school year, I registered with a recruitment site specialising in teaching abroad. 

I had never done this before- entered the school year knowing that I was going to leave. But I realised that I was not willing to contemplate staying in an environment I had outgrown. It was a weird sensation- knowing that I was so comfortable in my personal life and I loved my students. But, anytime I had to deal with the actual adults at my job- I felt defeated. 

Still, I tried to give it my best shot. I started extra curricular activities, tried to plan spirit days and organise field trips. Each came with its own set of obstacles and challenges. I was made to feel like I was doing these things for myself and not for the enrichment of the school. 

By this time I was still the English Head of Department, in addition to being the Advanced Placement Coordinator, the Head of the Student’s Newspaper and the Coordinator of Spirit Days for the Girls Division. Yet the school leaders never granted me a reprieve despite my numerous requests. I carried a full teaching load, had duties assigned to me and to add insult to the injuries, I was criticized for things I was doing without any assistance/feedback offered. It was as though I was expected to be a robot.

I had students crying in my class nearly every week after dealing with an unsupportive principal. I had teachers phoning me in the evening to rant about how unappreciated they felt.

I was so tired. So, so incredibly tired. 

I will not elaborate on the rest of the school year. Otherwise this post would be 30 minutes long. But did it improve? No. Did it get worse? Yes. Much worse. Please imagine what it’s like to work with 3 brand new principals whose only job was to agree with a megalomaniac school director. To work with people who believe that they know best and make up procedures and policies on the spot without informing anyone but expect you to adhere to them. While all of this slowly erodes teaching, impedes learning and causes students to transfer to other schools. 

The end of the year took a long time to come. It ended on a very bitter note with a principal insisting I find ways for a student to pass and me telling them to “do what you think is best because I can’t do anything for a student who only attended class 10 times throughout the year”. I refused to let my ethical boundaries be obliterated. This job has taken enough from me.

When Polar would ask me daily, “What did you do at work today?” I almost always replied, “I looked for a new job”. 

It was like deja vu for me- each school I had worked in the Middle East ended up the same way. Constant turnover of leadership positions with the people hired not having any idea on how to be a good leader. Always white men/women with privileged passports who believed their way of doing things was the best way without being open to learning from a diverse staff or the culture they had found themselves in. While this time I was being paid on time and not being discriminated against or abused, I felt as frustrated as I had in previous schools. The worst part of it all was doing my PhD study on the experiences of South African teachers teaching abroad across the Middle East and listening to how many people were in the same- if not worse- position than me.  

Don’t get me wrong- teaching in South Africa was not a utopia… but it was not a recurring nightmare. Problems there were often systemic in nature and not due to egotistical individuals. 

When we talk about the experiences of teaching abroad- particularly teaching in the Gulf- we discuss the benefits you’re entitled to, the importance of respecting the local culture and the travel experiences you open yourself up to. But we never discuss the nitty gritty of what it means to work in a school abroad, what flaws there are in the system and how you’ll be treated as a teacher (based on your skin colour, nationality and the ethos of the school).

Due to the censorship laws and strict guidelines of each place it’s nearly impossible to be open while you’re in the country. People who speak out are silenced. They’re fired, warned, threatened, or deported. Or their lives are made unbearable so they are forced to leave.

Do I have regrets teaching at this school? No. I met a lot of incredible people who turned into lifelong friends. I regained a love for teaching that I had previously lost. My salary took me on adventures around the world. But do I believe that the educational system in this region is unequivocally broken? Yes. 100% yes. For many teachers, this wouldn’t matter. As long as they get their salary, rack up years of experience, live in comfort and aren’t asked to do too much, people can keep their heads down and manage it all. But for someone who really cares about offering a meaningful educational experience that equips students for life beyond the classroom… this is not the region for you. Money talks, grades are the only thing that matter, who you know is more important than what you know and being a good teacher doesn’t mean you’re trusted to do your job in a way that benefits students.

I can’t change the laws. I also can’t change the flaws in the system. But what I can do is share my experiences teaching abroad so that you’re more aware and so that you have a realistic view of what to expect. Not every school is bad and not every experience leaves you defeated but it’s better to expect the worst than expect a level of professionalism that sometimes… just doesn’t exist. 

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For more on my experiences teaching abroad, click here.

To read more about the racism of teaching abroad, click here.

Please share your experiences of teaching abroad with me in the comments below!

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4 Comments

  • RC August 9, 2023 at 4:35 am

    I’m not a teacher but I am friends with teachers who work in the GCC. I enjoyed your post. One thing I that struck me while reading is how that director will eventually move on after doing all this damage and how he will spin the experience to make it seem as though he is such a great leader and he’ll get some other high paying job somewhere else. And the funny thing is that it won’t even be spin to him, because he probably legitimately believes that he is a good leader. #whiteprivilige

    • expatpanda August 9, 2023 at 3:09 pm

      Yes 100% to everything you have said! A big part of this is that no one that he would actually listen to (like the Board of Governors) held him accountable as to why huge numbers of teachers were resigning and things were disorganised. So he will continue in his delusion!

  • Pree August 11, 2023 at 5:17 am

    Really found this post so insightful Aneesa! I’m sorry you had to go through this… I’ve personally dealt with awful leadership/closed-mindness in collaboration in academia research settings, but having to deal with this as a teacher sounds like an absolute nightmare.

    I remember when teachers in my middle and high school were always in constant battle with the district board members. It never occurred to me how political it was but looking back, those budget cuts were undeserved. The district board members never suffered during the recession. It’s just so crazy…

    • expatpanda August 17, 2023 at 12:26 pm

      Teaching IS POLITICAL. This is just how it is and anyone telling you otherwise is lying. There is a great deal of corruption and ego-stroking. Many at the top forget that our focus needs to be the children. Anyway, I am grateful that I was able to leave such an environment and seek change 🙂

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