Preparing yourself for teaching in the Middle East: The questions you NEED to ask!
While the process from interviewing for a job at a school in the Middle East to the time you fly into your new country can seem very quick if you’re moving for the first time, there are a few less glamorous things you should know.
This is NOT a post to encourage or discourage you from teaching in the Gulf. It’s just a raw and honest one that will prepare you for the behind-the-scenes of working here. Many people thinking that the Gulf is some sort of utopia for teachers- IT IS NOT.
One of the things that no one mentions but you should know is that teachers are often treated as a disposable commodity- to be used and gotten rid off when they’re no longer suitable/look good/have become too expensive/for no reason. Therefore, a teacher’s happiness and satisfaction is often at the bottom of the list when it comes to some schools and somehow even fundamental things are overlooked. I have spoken to numerous teachers across the Gulf and from their responses formulated the questions in this post to save future recruits from disappointment and surprise!
Here are a few questions to ask before and after accepting that job in the Middle East which can help you make your decision or prepare you for whats to come:
“Will I be expected to come in as a tourist and then have my visa converted? Or will I enter the country on a work visa?”
To put it succinctly- NO teacher should enter the country as a tourist if you’ve accepted a job offer prior to flying. WORKING WHILE YOU ARE ON A TOURIST ENTRY VISA IS ILLEGAL. If the school is not sending you a work entry visa for you to print out and show at immigration then ask for it. (A stamp in your passport when you enter a country counts as a tourist visa even if you didn’t pay for it).
Say, “I would really prefer not to come in as a tourist because I know that working while on a tourist visa is illegal. If I forward you all my documents, can you arrange a work visa for me?”
Once they have your documents (usually just scanned attested qualifications and a passport copy), a work entry visa takes 1-2 days to generate. It will be emailed to you, you print it and present it when entering. Make sure to get a stamp in your passport and on your printed visa!
Remember: You are well within your rights to refuse a job offer from a company that insists you work on a tourist visa. If you come on a work visa, your company has sponsored you and you are their responsibility. If you come as a tourist, you are no one’s responsibility and have no rights as an employee should things go south.
“What is the school’s turnaround time of residency visa processing and how soon can I have an ID & medical card after I land?”
This may seem like a strange question to ask but if you’re in a new country for the first time, you want to have your life settled as soon as possible. Schools often drag their feet when processing paperwork when teachers are not a priority for them. If your school is a good school, they will have a clear procedure and strict timeline for issuing you with a residency visa (sticker in your passport enabling you to leave and re-enter the country with no problems) and an ID card. Once you have your ID card, you can open a bank account. If your school does not give you a definitive answer about how long paperwork processing takes and how you will be paid while you don’t have bank account be prepared for a roller coaster of emotions as you realize your contentment means nothing to the school.
Say, “I would really like to speak to another teacher at the school before I make any decisions. I just want to know how quickly I can be settled in my new job before making such a big life change. Is it possible to send me an email address of a teacher at the school?”
If the school cannot provide you with a SINGLE email address for a teacher at the school, run. Run fast.
Remember: You only receive medical insurance once you have your residency sticker stuck in your passport. Up until then, if you have any medical issues or accidents, you will be liable to pay out of your pocket for medical expenses. Also, as tempting as it sounds to cash a cheque and carry around heaps of cash, this isn’t practical in today’s’ age of online payments especially if you want to pay your bills in your home country. The sooner you have an ID card, the sooner you will have a bank account and will be able to function as a normal human being. These things are important when you live in a foreign land.
“Are there opportunities for professional development outside of the school? I would love attend conferences and seminars not just within the workplace but also in different environments!”
A good school should be interested in investing in their teachers and will try to develop their skills as much as possible. Bottom line is that it is cheaper to retain teachers than keep hiring new ones (recruitment fees add up!). A lot of people move over to the region hoping to expand their skills and learn new ideas however, end up being disappointed. If the only professional development you are doing is within your school, I guarantee that you probably won’t be learning anything beyond what the school feeds you.
Say, “I am looking forward to learning many new things once I move to a new school and hope to continually develop my professional skills hence my reason for asking.”
Remember: If this is an important aspect to you or something you became accustomed to in your home country, its definitely worth mentioning because I know many teachers who came over and were bitterly disappointed with the school’s refusal to pay for or allow them to attend workshops/seminars/conferences outside of the school.
Once you land
The first few weeks at your new school will tell you A LOT about the way the school is run and what is a priority for them. It begins as early as your airport pickup. Another question you should ask before flying in is:
“Who will be fetching me from the airport? Will it be someone from the school that can answer my questions?”
I have NEVER heard of a good school that doesn’t send at least ONE staff member to fetch you from the airport. Best case scenario, its someone in management like your Head of Department or even the principal. At the very least, the person coming to meet you should be able to converse with you.
Not like the Sri Lankan driver sent to fetch me who didn’t speak a word of English and just deposited me outside my apartment building in Kuwait (I didn’t even know what apartment I was supposed to go to or who I could get keys from).
Say, “I am really hoping to be able to see someone from the school when I first land. I will have a lot of questions and someone I will soon be working with will help answer them and ease the initial culture shock.
Remember: You can request that someone that you will be working closely with fetches you from the airport or at the very least is waiting for you at your apartment/hotel. This person can explain to you how to get to school, how to get a working sim card and the MILLIONS of questions you will have. It is VERY RARE to be fetched from the airport without at least one colleague.
“What curriculum does the school follow and will I be be able to design my own classroom resources? How much of freedom will I be allowed in the classroom and will there be someone to guide me?”
Different schools have different policies. Some schools will have a structured curriculum, following a detailed set of textbooks that you will teach from; other schools will expect you to design your own resources and won’t have anything to work with. Depending on the kind of teacher you are, it would be nice to know the school’s expectations beforehand. If you are less experienced, you might prefer an environment with more structure and if you like your autonomy, you may want complete freedom to teach whatever you feel is best.
These are a few of the questions I wish I had asked before I accepted job offers. I have had so many nightmare experiences from a school that refused to process paperwork until I threatened to go to the Minstry of Labour, to a school that forced me to teach kindergarten when I actually accepted a high school English position, not to mention another time my passport was held by a school for 4 months. Believe me, you would rather ask and stay away from such nightmarish institutions.
I am also of the opinion that if the school is making excuses as to why they can’t process you a work visa or can’t pay for your flight, you might want to back out prior to arrival. These things all serve as an indicator of poor management, a lack of interest regarding staff morale and in some cases- the LAW.
Have you had any nightmare experiences while teaching abroad? Share them with me in the comments below!