Flags and territories of Arab states.

Maureen Titheridge on teaching in Arabia

How long, and where, have you been working in the Arab states? I’ve been in this part of the world for 3 years. I began at a school in Jordan…

Maureen-TitheridgeHow long, and where, have you been working in the Arab states?

I’ve been in this part of the world for 3 years. I began at a school in Jordan which was a truly awful experience and was˜rescued’ by a school here in Dubai after a term, initially in a part-time capacity, which then turned into fulltime.

Why did you go to work in the Arab states?

My partner and I had friends who had worked in Jordan and were working in Lebanon at the time and they encouraged us to come to this region of the world.

Also, my partner had lived and worked in Europe before and was keen to leave NZ again. I had been been a wife and mother for many years, only going to University and becoming a teacher in my forties, so I was keen to leave NZ for more exotic fields abroad.

How have you found it – generally?

I’ve found it both exciting and challenging all for a variety of reasons.

Getting my head around new curriculum systems, learning new ways of doing things according to the culture of the schools and the country, and learning that the rest of the world has many and varied ways of behaving and interpreting the world around them that is very different from our New Zealand way, has been an ongoing experience.

Another plus, is the ability to travel to many other parts of the world as it feels like Arabia is in the middle of the world.

What are the schools like? The working conditions?

In Jordan we worked at a school that was one of a large chain of international schools with their own systems of teaching and behaviour management, based on a failed French system. Rote learning was the order of the day, as well as formal weekly tests in every subject. Children who failed to achieve a satisfactory result were brought back on a Saturday morning to resit the test. Marks were often fudged (adjusted) to suit the school’s purposes.

The teachers moved classroom, and had only one small room in which to prepare lessons or have a cup of tea from a polystyrene cup (which we had to supply) and a hot water dispenser. If all the wooden school chairs were taken you couldn’t go in, and if there were a large number of Muslim women in there, ex-pats were often frowned at and the ensuing silence would make it so uncomfortable I would leave and go to the foyer to prepare.

No laptops or resources of any kind were available as it was a chalk and talk environment, no whiteboards or even over-head projectors in sight. One text book and one work book was supplied to teachers and students alike. Very primitive, as was the method of teaching at the beginning of the lesson a teacher was expected to put a list of points to be covered in that lesson on the board and tick them off as they were covered.

If I tried to do anything beyond talking, getting several students to summarise what I had said, then answering the appropriate question in their books, there was mayhem. As a result of this antiquated method of teaching students of the modern technological age, behaviour was shocking. However, a teacher was not allowed to punish, there were˜Supervisors’ who patrolled the corridors and they removed offenders. But, these supervisors were Arab and didn’t like upsetting the often very rich, very indulged children, and as children are revered in this part of the world, little or nothing was done to amend behaviour. Often the supervisor would have them do photocopying or get them tea and coffee!

My partner, who has been teaching for over 30 years walked out on 3 classes as he, a large, imposing man, with great rapport with students normally, couldn’t control the bored, overly confident students. They had removed ceiling tiles, broken class in the door. I, on another occasion, had my eyes (I wear contacts) filled with splinters of chalk as whilst writing on the board had missiles of chalk thrown at the board from behind me, which exploded in my face. I later found out that that particular class had been through 17 (yes 17) English teachers in a year. I also had fruit thrown at me, and I was abused by children for reporting their bad behaviour.

But the piece-de-resistance was when a student I had told off during class, snuck upstairs during break and tipped a bottle filled with his own urine under our door!! That was it we were out of there!! The individual school management had no control over events, as they were governed by head office in Lebanon, and parents at the school would complain directly to them, and as it was all about bottoms on seats and cash in the cow, nothing changed. What’s more, the school principals (2 in 3 months) often didn’t care as all they were interested in was the cash payment at the end of the month and their first class tickets home.

The most tragic thing was there were some truly lovely kids at this school, who were well brought up and wanted to learn they didn’t have a hope. It is not surprising that so many jobs are available at Choueifat Schools at any one time.

So to Dubai! Here we work in a very British style International, where resources, including laptops, are phenomenal. Text books, interactive whiteboards, absolutely everything is available. Management is, as mentioned above, very pro-Brit, but sometimes they are desperate enough, or the qualifications of the applicants, are such that they do employ non-Brits.

Management is very hands off, and often you find people here in Dubai who have risen up through the ranks very quickly as the pool of experienced people is so small that they employ whoever is on the ground. This particular phenomena is not just particular to teaching, and will become even more so, I suspect, as local contracts are much more desirable than overseas contracts in the current economical situation.

The students tend to be extremely focused here as they generally come from up and coming Brits and other ex-pats who appreciate the quality of education, and the˜refined’ social context of Dubai compared to say Britain, India, Pakistan, or South Africa, and encourage their children to take full advantage of what is on offer. Also, as many of these ex-pats are having their children’s private school education paid for by their employers, something they would never have at home, they are especially keen to gain all they can from such opportunities. As a result the academic standard is very high, even in the lower streamed classes, and here in Dubai I have been able to fully enjoy teaching and reflect my passion for my subject(s).

Finally, the schools in this part of the world are mostly fairly new so big classrooms, lots of space, light and resources such as libraries, swimming pools, IT, DT areas are pretty amazing. Air-conditioning is everywhere very useful in 40 plus degrees of heat in the summer!

What are the living conditions like?

In Jordan we lived on campus, in a lovely top-story apartment, with phone, tv, internet all mod-cons, including water, supplied. The school was outside the city, and so the school paid for 3 taxi fares a week and we could travel into the city on the teacher’s bus any night after school. The cost of living was cheap, and international goods are reasonably readily available. The local people were very friendly, even though ex-pats are not all that common.

Here, in Dubai, we are supplied with an apartment in what was a brand-new building when we moved here 2 and a half years ago, but here we have to pay for our own amenities, which compared to NZ are very cheap particularly mobile phones. Our pockets cringe when we come home and have to top up our phones every 2 minutes. Because this is a major hub, that wants to be seen as the shopping capital of the world, everything you could possibly imagine is available here, everywhere. NZ beef and lamb is much better quality and a little cheaper than home, but NZ butter is very expensive (but then friends tell me it’s no longer cheap at home). A drive out of the city can take you to local produce markets, which are considerably cheaper and colourful. The cost of living has steadily increased since we moved here. We hire a car, which is expensive, as do most people despite the ready availability of loans, as they are difficult to on-sell and with people losing jobs owning too much can be a liability.

The Brits love it here, and having had a couple of trips to the UK since being here, I see why. The standard of living, the accommodation, the cheapness of running a car (petrol is 25c a litre), the availability of a good education, the so-called glitz and glamour of the place, could only be replicated in Britain at a huge cost. Many Brits come here and stay here until they have to leave at aged 60, unless they own property. But, many Brits also end up in huge financial trouble when, as mentioned above, they lose their jobs, can only stay 3 4 months looking for another (depending on their visas restrictions) and if they default twice they go to prison till the debt is cleared. Hence, thousands of cars have been left all over the city as people flee the country before being locked up.

However, Kiwis, Aussies and South Africans tend to stay only 2 -3 years as the quality of life here is not as good as˜back home.’ It gets too hot in the summer to do much, we generally get sick of living in air-conditioning, and don’t see shopping in the glossy malls as something we want to do for too long, despite the ski-slope and ice-rinks. We Kiwis are also generally incensed at the racism here, directed particularly at the construction workers, maids, drivers etc, and the dirty countryside, which we’ve encountered both here and in the emirates beyond Dubai and particularly in Jordan. People think nothing of throwing rubbish out the car window as they drive along. Jordan is particularly upsetting, as is Lebanon, where you can drive for miles and see huge tracts of land with thousands of plastic bags ploughed into the soil and swags of rubbish hanging from the trees and fences. Antipodeans tend to come, see, travel, save a bit, and go home to God’s own. The lack of greenness, rivers, creeks, lack of real culture and being unable to escape the endless desert draws us back. Although the call to prayer is lovely as it echoes across the cities.

On a more personal note, I’ve ended up in hospital in both Jordan and Dubai (Gallstones and mole removal) and was so pleased I was in this part of the world as the treatment was amazing and what’s more my employer paid for it.

How do New Zealand teachers compare to those from other countries who are teaching in the Arab states – in what ways?

New Zealand teachers are mostly seen as very attractive r. NZ teachers seem to take on areas of responsibility readily and adapt and adjust very quickly, they hardly ever moan, only perhaps to say they miss home, plus; they work very hard. They pop up all over the place, and are refreshing for their˜cut-to-the-chase’ attitude and ability to laugh.

How long are you planning to stay?

Funny you should ask that.

My partner has never been particularly happy at the school we are at, having been in senior management positions in NZ schools, and hasn’t adjusted well to being back in the classroom and watching other, less able and qualified people make silly decisions sometimes; moreover, not liking the plastic nature of Dubai all that much, we are heading to Hanoi in Vietnam for the next teaching year after a visit to NZ in July. It’s an IB school and though I’ve never been keen to live in Asia, I’m up for a new challenge and adventure in new (greener) lands.

Like most Kiwis, after 3 years, we’ve done our tour of duty in this part of the world.

What will you do on your return?

Well, that’s a hard one, as we have no idea when we will return. I guess being older and having lived all my life previously in NZ I’m keen to stay away a bit longer.

But do you know, the best thing about our situation compared to many that we have met since being away, is that we are extremely lucky as we don’t have to endure any rubbish situations, we can put our middle finger up and say,˜Nah thanks, I’m going home to good old NZ.’ I really can’t emphasise that point enough as there are so many displaced people in the world, not necessarily looking for paradise, just a decent standard of living in an egalitarian society; things that are so readily available, and taken for granted at times, in New Zealand.

Some people say, we need good teachers here in NZ, and the good money and conditions offered overseas, in places like the Arab states, take good people away from the NZ system. (is this an argument for better conditions here!)

I do think that you get what you pay for in life (well life in the western societies) and it is all to do with value systems.

Here, education is seen as the key to what the rest of the world has, entrepreneur ship, position, possessions, standards of living, etc, here people, from all over the world really, really value education; so hence, we get paid well and are afforded huge respect just by being educators.

We didn’t get a pay rise this year and no increments so the economic bite is having its effect, but that will have to change, as staff are voting with their feet away from our organization and picking up more lucrative packages elsewhere in Dubai. We are losing 22 members of staff out of 90 this year and our sister school is losing 62 out of 140. And it’s not over yet.

I’ve had a lot to do with the Indian schools here in Dubai in my debating capacity and teachers are becoming hard to get in those schools as apparently India has increased pay and conditions for their national teachers as they begin to realise the value of education; hence, it’s hard for the local Indian schools to recruit here at the moment. As a result the organization we are working for is investing millions in building new Indian Curriculum schools as an enticement to keep, and extend, their current hold on that particular market. Arab schools pay a fortune and give amazing gifts ie: diamonds, dinner vouchers, etc, though the working conditions are quite different being that such schools are only just emerging from the rote learning previous Arab ways of doing things, they are, nevertheless, very keen to westernize and are prepared to pay for that.

I suspect that as the world changes and other countries, like China, Russia, etc begin to see education more and more as a means to upward political and social mobility they will draw even more numbers of teachers from NZ and Australia, who are well-trained and flexible, as they will be prepared to pay well to educate the leaders of the future. Many Kiwis are not just being employed as teachers but as advisors across the board, and this loss of educators, with institutional knowledge will be hugely detrimental to the future of New Zealand. New Zealand has to do something about this.

Is there equal access to quality education for all children in the Arab states? For female students?

Yes, though many schools have separate campuses for girls and boys, it is seen as a very political move to educate girls, and an educated female is very valuable on the arranged marriage circuit. I’ve also had a lot to do with education in Qatar (again in my debating role) and there is a huge move there to educate girls as Qatar wants to be seen as THE leading state in this part of the world. There are several women with doctorates in positions of reasonable power in Qatar, with public profiles, less so here.

Sadly, there are still parents who won’t send their children to co-ed schools, or as in the case of my school with is integrated, some parents won’t let their daughters participate in certain activities, ie: Duke of Ed, or trips such as the one to Shanghai for World Scholars’ Cup next month. I have a boy and a girl that I teach who are not allowed to sit next to members of the opposite sex, the boy in particular cannot write about certain subjects and keeps much of what we do at school away from the gaze of his parents. At the end of yr 11, he is leaving to go to become a scholar of Islam in Saudi. Another, very bright girl, who has a very real talent for creative writing, is leaving at the same stage in her education to be married off to a local wealthy Arab, whom she has never met.

How do you bridge the cultural divide? Are your activities limited because you’re female?

No not at all. I’ve travelled a lot here, both accompanied and unaccompanied; the only thing that seems a bit odd is when my partner and I have to wait in a queue, say at the hospital/doctors, and he has to sit one side of the divide and me the other.

Here in Dubai there is a very large Indian, East Asian, very Muslim quarter and I frequently go there alone where I am often the only white faced woman in an area the size of Auckland CBD, I don’t change the way I dress, shorts, t shirt etc, and have never felt safer or been treated with more respect in my life. Frequently these visits are at night, when the place is absolutely packed and humming with life but male life, as their wives, daughters are all safely at home.

The Arabs don’t mix with the ex-pats but we frequently see them out and about in the Malls, both here in Dubai and in the other emirates, where it is not uncommon to meet them in the bathrooms. Such moments can be a little daunting depending on numbers, as once they take off their black abayas as they are often beautifully dressed an always fully made up, manicured and coifed. From the way they appraise us they seem to find ex-pat women, particularly Aussies and kiwis, just a little too casual and clearly we just don’t attend to our appearance quite as much as we should.

We have several Arab families at our school and they are genuinely warm and caring but only in terms of what I can do for their child. At large gatherings, such as international sports events and concerts, the Arabs have their own section of seating. The East Asian and African fraternity; however, are much more inclusive and warm and welcoming, only too keen to advise on cultural matters.

If you return to NZ to teach, do you think you’ll be a better teacher as a result of your experiences?

Yes, I do. I think the experience of getting off-shore, and seeing the world through different lenses, the ability to hone my craft with keen eager students whose parent’s value education, and hence support teachers fully, is invaluable.

But, on the other hand, I think that some of the political correctness and mis-behaviour within some NZ schools will annoy me as they really have nothing to moan about and some people would literally give everything they have to have the opportunities that kiwi kids have even in say a South Auckland, or Rotorua School have.

But most of all, I’d embrace NCEA as it is just so much better than the narrow British system that puts kids into boxes, which means that unless they re-educate their career paths are determined at yr 12. IB and IGCSE along with NCEA are much fairer on students and allows for more variety in teaching approaches.

What would you say to NZ teachers thinking about teaching in the Arab states?

Do your homework; look up every forum you can. Check out KDHA (Dubai equivalent of ERO), the forums section of the Times Educational Supplement and any other reports on schools available. Avoid anything to do with Choueifat or Sabis they have many schools across the world and are an anathema to NZ teachers. Horror tales abound.

Conditions vary hugely, and to avoid a situation we found ourselves in Jordan it is imperative that teachers do as much research as they can. Get everything in writing beforehand. Ask around friends and colleagues as many NZ teachers know of others who’ve had experience abroad and can point you in the right directions.

But finally, don’t be scared, trust your gut instinct. If it feels right, it probably is right.

There are some good schools and good employers out here just read between the lines and don’t be afraid, for as I said above, we have NZ to return to, nothing ventured, nothing gained. But expect to work hard, as (again previously mentioned) parents value education and have high expectations, but the good thing is that those expectations, along with yours as a professional, can be fully realised here.

Come with a broad mind, and try to be as non-judgemental as possible; ie, if you’re not married but travelling with a partner pretend you are, on pain of expulsion. And, if you’re gay, don’t even whisper it aloud, though there are bars etc (apparently). Also, although there is only one formal religion, other churches and church schools operate here and are freely available.

Despite being denied promotion, I’ve had amazing opportunities here, school having funded trips for me to Qatar, Shanghai, and Thailand, my partner has been to Oman and Holland. My new school is paying for me to stop off in Brisbane for an IB course on the way home to NZ in June and Mark is off to Hong Kong in September. The kids in International school are fabulous individuals and you know, writing this has made me realise I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.