Teaching HS students in the UAE


Disclaimer: I am not an expert on the Emirati educational system. Nor am I an expert on Emirati culture. I am not going to pretend to know anything about how things really work or why they appear as they do because I am fully aware that my experience in a public high school is clouded and colored by all that I don’t know and by my American perspective.

All I really know for sure is that I am thoroughly confused and operating through my days as best as I can, based on my observations and positioning them alongside my philosophy of teaching, my belief system about life and humanity, and my own values.

I also want to preface this post by stating that often, what I am told and what I see do not match. But is that unique to this country, or to this particular group of people, or to this specific situation? I think not. But because I am writing about a situation unfamiliar to me and to most of my readers, I need to clarify that this discrepancy is not to be used as a judgment. It is simply a part of the reality I need to contend with as I navigate through the fog and try to understand.

I teach in an all girls high school located in a small village at the foot of the Hajar Mountains in Eastern Fujairah. My main assignment is with the 12th graders, but I also work with grades 10 and 11 because we have a shortage of teachers. I don’t know why this is so; I only know that we have been promised a business teacher, and a technology design teacher and to date, they have not arrived. We also have 2 English teachers who are out on maternity leave and the substitutes aren’t at school every day. As a result, there are many class periods in which students are in classrooms or wandering the halls because they don’t have a teacher.

Statistically, the students at my school do not perform well on national exams. I have some ideas about why this is so, but save that for another post.

There are 60 girls in the entire 12th grade, divided into 3 classes. One group is “advanced”, meaning the academic track. The other two classes are on a “general” track.

There are 8 class periods in a day from 8:10 am to 3:05 pm with 5 minute breaks between each class and 20 minutes for lunch. I teach 4-5 classes per day; students have a total of 7 English classes in a week.

Every day I am aware that my assessment of this experience is evolving. Below is a collection of things I face and contemplate daily:


  • The morning assembly comes blaring through antiquated speakers punctuated with scratchy squeals over the gym teacher’s screams. (It’s possible, though not very likely, that she is reciting poetry or passing out praises, but I doubt it. To me, it sounds like she is screaming.)
  • Throughout the day there are announcements using the same old microphone from the morning that sound like militant assaults
  • The students are loud and disruptive during class
  • Bells to signify the start and end of each period rattle the building, but seem to mean nothing as no one responds immediately. Only after several minutes do people begin to meander to wherever their next assignment is.


Interruptions and disruptions during class time

By Students: Students consistently interrupt me and each other during class. They burst out regularly with requests to

  • go to the bathroom
  • go to the nurse’s office
  • go to the canteen to buy a snack
  • go visit another teacher to talk about something “very important”
  • go get a pencil from a sister in another class…

By Others: Additionally, random people come into the classroom all the time.

  • One student to borrow a book
  • Another student to tell someone something “very important”
  • A maintenance worker to fix a hole in the wall
  • An office worker to have me sign an attendance book
  • A teacher who wants to remind students to ….
  • Students who just didn’t arrive on time….

The interruptions are predictable. I search to find a way to balance between toleration, moderation, and when/how to draw the line for those that I will not allow. Each one calls me to quick evaluation and judgment regarding my response.


  • I can’t get students to have a dedicated English notebook, so when I ask them to get out a new piece of paper at the beginning of each class, chaos erupts as they shout across the room to one another in search of the one or two students who have notes books and are willing to rip out pages to share.
  • The same thing happens when I tell them they need a pencil (not pen)
  • Printing at school is hit or miss
  • Making copies for students is to be done by the teachers, but whether or not there is paper or ink in the copiers is hit or miss
  • Office supplies for teachers are not provided
  • Borrowing a stapler, tape, scissors etc. from the office is hit or miss (but not likely to be granted)
  • We don’t have internet
  • We don’t have white board markers
  • We have computers in a “computer lab” but most of them never work

English language skills

Students have been exposed to a lot of English via Ministry-assigned textbooks over the years, but they generally haven’t acquired any level of proficiency. As a result, students have no foundation in English language. They have an eclectic collection of vocabulary, but no sense of grammar.

Here’s an example:

Teacher: What did you do during your last vacation?

Student: I went going to with my family in Paris. It does too much fun.

Yes, grade 12.


My current conclusions

Some days are better than others.

And then, there are gems that appear out of nowhere.


  • A “naughty” girl decides to abandon her position in the back of the room and as leader of the distractors and shouts at her classmates to be quiet so she can learn;
  • The girl who sits backwards in her seat and refuses to look at me, declaring that she can’t possibly understand anything I say, shoots up her hand when I ask for a volunteer to write on the board;
  • A designated hall monitor who uses her position of “authority” to explain to me why everyone should be allowed to leave the room when they request such comes up to me between classes and whispers, “I love English. But I’m not very good.”
  • An 8th grader tells me she feels happy when she sees me and since that day, she makes a point to greet me every morning;
  • I find talents in art, math, dancing, and leadership when I linger between classes;
  • I find empathy and concern among friends;
  • I find precious little girls trying to find themselves in the world and make sense of everything around them


Every day I reevaluate my teaching strategies.

Every day I reconsider the prioritization of my learning outcomes.

Every day I pick out a gem, hold it to the light, and express gratitude.

Honestly, every day feels a little bit better than the one before.

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