The contract was signed. I was joining a British Primary School in Dubai as their new Grade 6 teacher. Like most people in the UK I thought Dubai was a country somewhere in the Middle East. They had oil, they were Muslim and they have huge buildings. That was the start and end of my knowledge of Dubai.
The summer months before I set off were filled with the same comments from my friends, ‘you can’t do that in Dubai’. Now considering none of my friends had ever been to Dubai or couldn’t find it on a map, I am not sure why I let their comments worry me.
The Middle East is dangerous. You have to cover up in public. They don’t have alcohol. The police are bias. The roads are wild. They let camels on aeroplanes. You can get in trouble if a local simply does not like you. They hate white people. It is a boring place.
Five years on, I have fallen in love with the United Arab Emirates and proudly call it home. The UAE has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, shorts and tee shirt is the norm, some of the best nightclubs I have ever seen are on my door step, the police are helpful and honest, I haven’t seen a camel on the plane yet, although I have seen falcons, I have many local friends and I am never short of something to do.
So the first thing I would say as a teacher who has been in the Middle East for five years is, do not listen to anyone or believe what you read. Sensational stories make for better reading and garner more interest. There is nothing I did in Liverpool during university that I cannot do here in Dubai. It is as simple as that.
As far as my experience in school goes, this is by no means the norm and your school experience depends very much upon the school you are appointed to.
The school I am employed by is a leading school in the city. It achieves high grades, attracts high fees from the parents, and advertises itself as a British school. If you have read this on the school website and expect to walk into a school similar to the one you did your teaching practise in or the one you currently work in, you will be in for a huge shock.
To start with, you have to remember schools are businesses. They don’t have a headmaster, but a director. The schools job is simple; to make the owner money. This does not sit well with some teachers. Some come out and think they are going to change the school ethos and approach. Those teachers are usually sent home disappointed at the end of their first year.
Inside the classroom you are left to use your own approach to teaching and mould your class. As far as material studied and assessments go, they are pretty rigid and universal across the year group. Differentiation is almost non-existent and all students must have the same word inside their books they take home. The schools biggest fear is parents comparing books and wondering why a child in one class has different work to a child in another.
Now this does not mean you can’t make worksheets for students based on their ability. It just means those worksheets are not to be stapled into the books they take home. A file in the classroom is how I overcome this issue.
The next major difference are the parents of the children. They like to be involved and have a personal relationship with you. Due to the extreme wealth most of the families have, the mothers will rarely work. Leaving them with lots of free time to fill with worrying about their child. Embrace it! At the start of every year, I set up a WhatsApp group with the parents of my students. You set the limits from the start, let them know what times you are available to discuss school and these groups are very useful. They also work as a great discipline tool as the children know you talk to their parents every day and have instant access to them, before they have time to go home and make up a story.
I still have regular contact with the parents of my children from five years ago. Once they see you are doing something a little extra and genuinely care for their children, these parents will do anything to make your stay in their country as pleasant as possible. Everything from; advice on where to get a good deal on a rental car, which places are good to eat, use of their holiday homes or a simple invite to go and dine with their family. A lot of teachers come to Dubai for a break and don’t treat their job as seriously as they would at home. The children and parents can see straight through this and will not be as helpful as they could be. It may be two years of your life before you move home again, but remember you are still their child’s teacher and they expect the same care as you would give a child in your own country.
The final thing I would like to talk about is the school administration. Like I said above, the school is a business. They make decisions based upon the interest of the business and not the child. Again this is a huge shock to the system for anyone who has taught in the UK. Choices for promotion, for example, are usually based on those staff who will say yes and not on ability. The school will put more resources into extravagant events that the parents see, than they will into more classroom resources or better equipment. This will always be the case and complaining or trying to change it will only be a waste of your time.
Instead, make sure you do all you can for the children in your class. Show those children what a British education is about. It may not seem like much to you and you may feel like they are being short-changed. They will remember you for a long time and remind you of the little things you did for them for years to come. Tell them stories about your life, take an interest in their way of life and give just as much as you would if you were working in the UK. The children and their families will love you, remember you, and will do all they can to welcome you to their country.