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Why I stepped back from full-time teaching in the Gulf

February 18, 2020 17 Comments

After four years of teaching in the Middle East, I walked away from teaching as a full-time career. My partner wanted to continue his career here and I supported him so we have stayed in the region. However, after my third year teaching in a school in the Middle East, I knew that my fourth year would be my last in a classroom here.

I taught full time for ten years in total to students of various ages and abilities. I taught in South Africa and South Korea for a few years each and while there were challenges, nothing was unbearable. But I reached a point while teaching in the Middle East where I felt that I even my salary wasn’t bringing me joy. I dreaded the start of the work week. And worst of all- I felt that my constant efforts were pointless. I used to feel nauseous with severe stomach cramps every day of the working week. I couldn’t eat until the cramps subsided when I got home at 4pm. That left me feeling weak and drained all day. I was in this vicious cycle until I woke up on the 13 November 2019 and handed in my one month’s notice. Suddenly I could breathe again.

Now I know that for many of you, teaching in the Gulf is a dream- it sounds like a great way to earn a tax free salary, pay off debt and travel to exotic places. It definitely was a good 4 years for me where I achieved all the things I wanted to in my personal life. But this was very much at the expense of my professional happiness as a purveyor of education.

In all the time I have taught in the Middle East, it has been without integrity or growth. It has been a real struggle to do things I was told rather than what I felt was beneficial to students.

And yes I know that I am writing this post from a position of privilege- privileged because my citizenship classifies me as a NEST (Native English Speaking Teacher) and privileged because English is my mother tongue. However I am not ashamed of those things considering what my ancestors went through in order for me to hold South African citizenship and how my parents displaced their own native languages so I could speak English flawlessly.

I have lost my passion for teaching and I have sacrificed too much of my mental health for schools who didn’t care whether I lived or died. If you want to know why I have walked away from full time teaching in this region, please read on where I share my experiences and experiences that are often shared by many. They aren’t everyone’s experiences of teaching in the Middle East but these have been mine.

Please note that the two Middle Eastern countries I’ve worked in are Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. I have taught in both private and public schools. My observations are not applicable to all schools but are relevant to most. My observations are not a reflection of any of the countries that I have worked in.

1. How can I teach this?

My qualifications and experience have primarily been in middle and high school with a specialisation in English which is the subject I am qualified to teach. Whenever I’ve done an interview it was the expectation that I would teach grade levels that I was equipped to teach and had a passion for. But upon arrival to the schools here, I was in for a nasty shock. Schools here will place you wherever they lacked a teacher regardless of whether you felt confident to or had the desire to teach a grade. When I first arrived in Kuwait, I signed a contract for grade 8 & 9 English. When I arrived they told me I would teach kindergarten or buy myself a ticket back to South Africa.

Here’s the thing- you don’t expect a dermatologist to deliver your baby so why do you expect a teacher used to teaching teenagers to teach young children? Why are our talents and experience not appreciated?

It happened again when I went to teach at a private school in Dubai. I was placed in grade 1 and while it wasn’t my first choice, I adjusted. Thereafter I specifically requested not to move from grade 1 (since I wanted to become more familiar with this level of students and content), they moved me to grade three without even asking whether I was comfortable to do so. Spoiler alert- I wasn’t happy and made formal requests not to have to move to a grade where I had to teach long division and fractions but my requests were pointedly ignored. I was told I would have to leave if I didn’t like it. But it wasn’t that I didn’t like it- I genuinely felt uncomfortable teaching things I myself am not 100% confident in doing. I mean, would you ask a plumber to dry clean your clothes? We all have our strengths and weaknesses. So yes, I left after 3 months.

What also confused me was when they increased our hours with the students by making us teaching Physical Education (P.E.) and Moral Education. As far as I know, in order to teach P.E. you should be someone that understands exercise and anatomy in detail to prevent injuries. And what can a teacher from another hemisphere/culture/religion possibly teach you about Islamic morals? No sense was made in undertaking these decisions other than saving costs (since the school wouldn’t have to hire 2 more separate and actually qualified educators to do this).

2. Why is everything just a performance?

Its common practice for schools in this region to be evaluated on an annual basis by the governments regulatory authority on education. For the most part of the year, the school would be a disorganised mess with the timetable being changed every 2 weeks, a high turnover of teachers leaving and arriving and a general lack of direction from school management. But for that one week of the year when the school was being assessed, the school would transform into a different institution altogether. You see, the schools knew weeks in advance when they would be inspected; so they’d hire extra staff, buy plants, suddenly call meetings to prepare staff, practice health and safety that was largely ignored throughout the year and ask teachers to prepare their most engaging lessons for the period of inspection. Suddenly we were given some resources to make it seem like the school was invested in providing quality education.

The pressure on the teachers to pretend that the school normally looked and ran like this was astounding. You were usually promised a week of extra holidays should everything go smoothly. It felt like blackmail to get us to participate in these lies. When the school inevitably got improved whatever farcial grading system they were using, everything went right back to normal. I don’t know if upper managements’ jobs depended on this or if their salaries were increased… but they seemed really invested in getting this ‘improved grade’ which was largely BASED ON LIES.

This isn’t to say that the inspectors themselves knew what really went on in a classroom. One inspector would suggest an improvement that would directly contradict what another inspector would say. It was confusing and ridiculous. The inspectors themselves were almost always white people in their 50’s or 60’s from the USA or UK. How can such people have an understanding of what an Arab Muslim child needs to learn effectively? Its white supremacy at its finest. And their complete insistence that students should NEVER speak their home language in the English classroom is also garbage. Go read a few recent studies old white American man.

3. Marking and assessing… for what?

When I taught in both private and public schools, marks were always altered and changed. But here’s the funny thing- I have never seen a more rigorous marking and grading system before. Each exam paper was marked three different times by three different people in three different colours- even at a grade 1 level! However, it was all for show again. The management frequently asked us to increase grades or sometimes just curved the entire grade’s marks without us even knowing.

Once I administered a science exam to my class. I was absent the next day and when I returned to school I found out that the supervisor for my grade and noticed that there weren’t enough ‘A’ grades. So she gave the students back their exams and helped them to improve their grade by obviously telling them the answers. I had spent 3 hours marking all their papers only to go back and re-mark while pretending this was all real.

This is how you frequently find students in grade 6-12 who cannot even read. Because they were just pushed through the system with fake grades instead of focusing on developing their core skills.

Before I left my last school, I carefully spent days drawing up report cards for each students based on their skills level and the outcomes learnt. I found out a month later that my replacement was asked to redo them in order to give them high numerical grades- a woman who had barely known them for a few weeks.

Parents would frequently waltz into school and complain that they weren’t happy with their students’ grades. Sometimes they wanted an 80 to change to a 90. Sometimes they couldn’t understand that their child was only capable of a ‘C’ and demanded an ‘A’. No matter what parents always got their way. Even when I refused to change grades, those higher than me, changed them anyway. It was all so pointless. I felt like a useless teacher. why were we using standardised testing (which I ABHOR) if we weren’t going to maintain the integrity of it anyway?

4. What must I use to teach with?

It shocked me to see how little schools actually provide for students here. The public school system spends millions of dollars bringing teachers from foreign countries to teach in their system but provides little to zero teaching materials other than some books which don’t even correspond the level that the students are actually at. The emphasis in public school was always just to keep the students in the classroom and prevent violence. I never felt that they expected us to teach anything as the grades were all adjusted anyway.

Private schools have high expectation for teachers but they were extremely unrealistic considering what we had to work with. Most of my classroom decor came out of my own budget including colour printing which the school claimed they couldn’t allow teachers to do (yet expected us to print in colour anyway). While I was initially ok with this, thinking it was a one off event- I realised the school was giving us nothing else. Not a single board marker, not a magnifying class, not a bottle of paint. I started the school year with nothing in my cupboard. They expected us to produce lessons where we used manipulative and reading books that were levelled to students’ abilities but where would I find those things? I made as much as I could but I didn’t have a 3D printer and there was a limit to what I could produce/afford. I was observed and asked to build sensory play stations… but when I enquired where I would get the resources to assist me in making these stations, the answer was vague and noncommittal.

Then the school forced project based learning down our throats but we had no training on that method of teaching neither did we have any resources for projects.Parents went out of their way to purchase supplies for our classroom after we had to ask them for resources. It was embarrassing really.

Not to mention that the curriculum books we were provided with were either completely irrelevant to our students (aimed at a first language English speaker) or the level was way beyond what they were capable of (because again, these books were targeted at first language English speakers).

I couldn’t possible pay out of pocket for reading books for my class of 25. If you’re thinking that I am being unreasonable, please remember that in a private school here, each child is paying approximately 20,000AED per year in school fees. We should have access to BOOKS for that price. I remember begging and pleading as a department to get books to help us to teach our grade ones to read. We never received a single book or any online reading programs. The fact that some of those students left my class not being able to read still fills me with shame. Where is the money from school fees going exactly?

When I taught in a public school in South Africa, I expected nothing and got nothing. There was no budget for it because the school fees were minimal. But for 20,000AED child I was shocked at how little these students received. Remember that all of this was happening to me while I was teaching grade levels I had no training to teach and material I was completely unfamiliar with. I was drowning.

5. Please help me, I don’t know how to deal with this..

Teaching students with special needs require a set of skills that the average teacher does not possess. Some universities offer specialist degrees in inclusive and specialist education but at the bare minimum, you should have a separate certificate or qualification which has trained you in the skills, strategies required for these students. Not here though. Every teacher I knew had children that very clearly didn’t belong in this school for mainstream students.

I don’t mean the odd case of ADHD or dyslexia. I mean full blown autism, developmentally delayed students in grade 3 who should be in KG1 and learners with severe physical disabilities. Inserted into a class with other students who are on or approaching level whereas this student needs one on one help to function. Sometimes you’d have 3-4 special needs students in one class, each with different learning challenges in addition to the rest of the students. How can I manage all of this in one classroom with no training and no support?

Why is the school accepting students they clearly don’t have the skills and resources to help? Surely they can’t be that desperate for profits?

Just before I left I had a boy who had undergone some severe mental trauma. His home situation was dysfunctional and it was obvious that there were some issues that caused him be consistently violent towards other students and teachers. No one informed me that this students had any issues despite the fact that the school management was aware of his turbulent home situation and his destructive behaviour. He had been in the school for a year prior, and received no help. When I eventually caught wind of the situation, I begged and pleaded for assistance from my head of department and head of pastoral care. I wanted to give this child the help he needed but also to stop him from attacking other students. I was promised that he would go for a psychological assessment but up until today that has not happened. And in the meantime he continued to slam students’ heads in to desks, kick and spit at me, push my assistant so hard she fell over and make the classroom an unsafe place for everyone. No one seemed to take me seriously and when I reported incidents of violence I was asked to prove them. The head of department would watch CCTV footage and ask me to watch it with her to prove that I wasn’t lying. My word wasn’t enough. My pleas for help fell on deaf ears. How would I stay in such a toxic and abusive environment?

If we are talking about a system that can spend thousands on hiring foreign teachers to travel to and live in a country miles away from their homes, surely we can reallocate some of those funds to helping students who need extra help by providing them with the correct facilities, psychological care and knowledgable educators.

Will I have a job next year?

I guess my biggest issue was the complete and utter lack of job security. If students did poorly- it was the teachers’ fault and more often than not- they were fired. I know of a teacher who got fired because her accent was too thick (they couldn’t pick this up when they interviewed her?). I remember when I was laid off for no apparent reason in a job where I had never even received a single warning. More often than not I saw people who were related to school management or people who just said ‘yes sir’ and never complained retaining their jobs despite a complete lack of motivation and interest in their actual performance. I know so many people hired purely because they’re white and speak English (no experience of qualifications in education) keeping their positions just because the school likes to show off their ‘western teachers’.

Essentially this is a system where teachers are commodities- administration is aware that for every position there is at least 20 applicants who would be thrilled to be in such a position. So there is no emphasis on staff retention, professional development, teacher support or providing a healthy environment for teachers. At one school I worked at, we didn’t even have a staff room for a whole year. I used to eat my lunch in my car because I had nowhere else to go (especially if my classroom was being used for Arabic or Islamic lessons).

Nothing is certain. Contracts mean nothing. The company could offer you housing one year and then take it away the next year leaving you scrambling. You could return from your summer vacation only to find out that the company has been taken over and that you no longer have a job. What kind of life is this?

Lastly,

I could talk about how I had a rampantly racist manager who would question my every move but leave the white staff members alone. I could discuss how my well researched teaching methods were always doubted but white people with no training in education were praised for doing little to nothing. I could discuss how I was cheated out of my full end of service payment by both private and public schools (in fact I was asked to pay a penalty when I was the one who got laid off for no reason!). But these things are just personal. They’re not as prevalent as the issues I discuss above.

Ultimately I couldn’t stomach any of these things anymore in this defunct educational system. I just kept moving schools in different cities and hoping the next school will be better but it never was. It was literally the same nonsense happening over and over again in different locations. Perhaps I am naive and they happen everywhere. I just so happened to be in this region when the same events kept occurring that eventually wore away at me until I couldn’t take it anymore.

I needed more flexibility with my career; I didn’t want a job where I needed to fill out 2 forms every time I wanted to step out of school to withdraw money from the ATM. I didn’t want to be deducted if I was 4 minutes late due to unavoidable traffic despite coming to school 30 minutes early every other day. I didn’t want to feel like I wasn’t worthy of receiving a salary on a set date every month so I wouldn’t default on my bills… And that’s what teaching in the Middle East had been reduced to for me- an ordeal. So I left.

My saving grace has been my partner- Expat Polar. If I didn’t have him, I probably would’ve had to institutionalise myself in order to deal with the frazzled state that I was in- coming home from work and crying everyday. It’s taken me some time to be able to write this and share with you the traumas I experienced as a full time teacher in the Middle East. As I write this, I am hibernating in a small seaside town on the coast of Oman, looking back on my previous life where I will truly miss teaching students while simultaneously looking forward to a life without the lies and the pressure.

As always, I never write these posts to discourage anyone from teaching in the Middle East but its good to know what can & does happen so that you are better prepared.

Will I return to full time teaching again? Perhaps. But will I ever teach full-time at a school in the Middle East again? It’s a HELL NO. If you’re currently a teacher in the Middle East dealing with these issues and just trying to get by so you can pay your bills or save up some money, I see you. And I salute you. I know how hard it is to be devalued and work under such conditions where you know that what you’re doing for the students is not benefiting them in the long run. If you work for school in the Middle East and you are able to successfully cope with these and other such issues for numerous years, count yourself lucky- you are in a small minority. And if you are a teacher in the Middle East thinking that you’ve never had any of these problems happen to you then (you are probably white and just here to make some money while you return to your cushy developed country) maybe you need to open you eyes a bit wider.

For more on my experiences teaching abroad, click here.

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

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17 Comments

  • Ravihansi Fernando February 18, 2020 at 11:40 am

    OMG this is truly traumatizing 🤯

    • expatpanda February 18, 2020 at 1:59 pm

      I just had to leave as a result of it all.

      • Wendia_lia February 22, 2020 at 10:28 am

        This is my exact story I also came back after 4 years … end of 2017

        And I really felt like I alone felt this way , thank you for encapsulating my feelings in words.

        • expatpanda February 23, 2020 at 3:11 pm

          Thank YOU for reading and sharing!!

  • Tasleem Alli February 18, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    I went through similar experiences and I quit my job in KSA. You are not alone sister. There are many who feel you, who know the struggle, who know exactly what you went through and unfortunately, for most of us, we are put in a position to gain good life outcomes only if we leave South Africa. We think life is glamorous in the Middle East, but we had no idea. I won’t complain much. I hated my job, but I loved my experience outside of work. I met my husband during my stay and there are good outcomes sometimes. I wish you find what you have been destined for. Much love.

    • expatpanda February 19, 2020 at 9:49 am

      Thank you so much for your comment Tasleem. I am glad that you said I am not alone because our the longest time I felt like I was the problem! Yes I agree, there are benefits to this lifestyle; I also started dating my partner while I taught in Abu Dhabi and of course I have to travelled to an endless amount of places. But at the end, if you are passionate about really educating students then you have to draw the line somewhere. As much as I suffer abroad, I can’t return to SA either so I am curious as to where life will take me. Thank you and do take care 🙂

  • Zoya Kubra February 18, 2020 at 1:43 pm

    Ahh I’m so sorry you had such a crappy time teaching in the Middle East. I had to chuckle while reading some of this because I could relate sooo hard to it (3D printers – if only!) but at the same time I feel lucky my experience hasn’t been as tough out here in Qatar. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I want to cry but that’d be the case back home in the UK too. I think it really does depend on a whole host of factors, not just the school or country. I was happy to read you haven’t let it deter you from teaching as a profession. I hope you manage to put the bad behind you and get some sense of closure – I’m guessing writing this post may have helped in that field a bit lol! Wish you all the best for the next chapter of your life 🙂

    • expatpanda February 19, 2020 at 9:46 am

      Thanks so much for your comment Zoya. Teaching is challenging yes, but it shouldn’t drive us to tears on a regular basis. Thats when you know you have to leave. I am glad your experience hasn’t been too bad in Qatar! I am happy to take a step back from the profession and pursue other passions for the time being. But definitely not closed the door on teaching forever!

  • Lizzy G February 18, 2020 at 2:38 pm

    Oh wow. This is bleak and I’m sorry you had such a rough time.

    I’ve seen similar during four years in Vietnam and can totally sympathise re project based learning, resources way, way beyond the level of English the students can cope with, lack of respect for teaching expertise etc etc. In one role, our ESL teachers were sent off to deliver a Maths curriculum armed with their arts BAs and a TEFL…because apparently they were best qualified to do this (in Vietnam, a country which regularly outstrips most ‘developed’ countries for Maths attainment). So I felt very ‘seen’ reading this, which totally echoed my frustrations.

    Reading about the middle-aged white ‘experts’ made me fume even more tho. I’ve had my fill of this trying to manage older white dudes who’d just ‘decided’ that they would be absolute experts in teaching (uniquely qualified by their age, gender and..um..whiteness, despite never having stepped foot in a classroom before). I can’t even imagine having to tolerate these people giving you FEEDBACK on your teaching. Just..wow…what is wrong with these people?! I’m so sorry you had to put up with that.

    To some extent I can sympathise with the private schools – at the end of the day, these are run as a business and many of the local staff working there have probably been hired for their sales / customer service experience etc, rather than any education or child development expertise. However, I find the arrogance and level of unrecognised privilege displayed by unqualified ‘experts’ from overseas utterly disgusting. It is unacceptable to be in such a position of privilege and simply prioritise taking home a nice fat paycheque. These jobs will probably always exist but if you’re going to do them, at least go get some teaching experience and qualifications first and then use your power to try to improve the situation for students and teachers.

    For all of the reasons above and more, I’m taking a break from the ESL world at the moment. However, for what it’s worth – as a super privileged white person with a strong passport and some actual teaching qualifications – if / when I’m back in the position to do so, I promise to continue to champion teaching colleagues based on their skills and qualifications and stick up for students and teachers struggling with these situations. I urge anyone else in the position to do so to do the same.

    • expatpanda February 19, 2020 at 9:44 am

      Thank you so much for you detailed comment Lizzy! It makes me sad that these same/similar things are happening in other pats of the world. It seems like the education system globally needs a major overhaul. The business of people being qualified to teach with a BA and TEFL makes me quite literally SICK. And as for the experts problem- these people are probably qualified in some way or the other but at the end of the day, living in a country for a period of time- no matter how long it may be- does not mean you understand the local population or can adequately support them. It perpetuates the white supremacist/white saviour ideology that we need white people to come in and ‘advise’ or ‘save’ us. Another thing that makes me ILL. I wish you all the best with your next chapter and again, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with me.

  • Ari February 18, 2020 at 6:25 pm

    Yoooo. This is insane. During some parts I felt like words were just being pulled out of my brain. I think that there is a lot of that here in Thailand, but the locals are too passive to really say anything to disagree with you. They just kind of send you round and round in circles until you stop pressing them for answers. My school is about to go through their accreditation check and the things that are happening around the school right now to make everything nice as possible while simultaneously leaving teachers in the dark and lying to them about what’s actually happening.

    I just recently accepted a job in KL and everything in my gut is telling me that I dodged a bullet by not going to the middle east.

    I appreciate the honestly in this post. You’re a stellar human.

    • expatpanda February 19, 2020 at 9:40 am

      Thank you so much Ari. I am so happy shared that its happening in different parts of the world which shows how flawed the profession is becoming globally. I think KL will a great move for you but if you ever do find yourself visiting the Middle East, swing by Qatar so we can grab some bubble tea!

  • Oscar Dass February 18, 2020 at 7:53 pm

    Absolutely true. I think that anyone that sees a contract through knows this! And one contract or part thereof is MORE THAN ENOUGH 😂

    • expatpanda February 19, 2020 at 9:39 am

      You are so right. I kept leaving and accepting new jobs thinking that I was the problem or that the particular school is the issue. My perspective changed when Irealised that the entire system is deeply flawed. That’s when I had to say my goodbyes!

  • higgledypiggledymom February 26, 2020 at 2:41 am

    So glad you are out of that difficult situation. Our son left his job when he became part of the administration-way too much politics-and that was small town Wisconsin. It got to him as it did you. He’s in a better place now, and he too loved the teaching but got a job from his hobby of software designing. I think when you’re ready you’ll find what you want to do and it’s good you have your partner. That’s always helpful. Sending “Mom” hugs!

  • Ayah Renea March 15, 2020 at 10:18 am

    Oh my goodness. I felt all of this! I so agree that students with special needs require levels of support that can’t always be attained in the general education setting. I’m working with these students now, so I totally get it. I, too, had to go through the complete lack of support in Egypt and China and was expected to make it happen somehow. I miss you!

    • expatpanda March 29, 2020 at 4:07 pm

      Girrrrl. I know you felt this one. Lack of support is hard on the teacher yes but oh so damaging to the children themselves. I have been on a blog hiatus for a while but bouncing back finally. Will send you my new number!

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