We started out in a 5-star hotel with 36 floors, an impressive international cuisine buffet available all day long, and a clear person in charge. We were bussed to one place for official business, then another, and another, and everything was reasonably smooth.
After two nights in Abu Dhabi, we were moved to a 2-star hotel in Sharjah with a simple buffet available only in the mornings and no one who was clearly in charge. We asked questions and waited for answers that never came. Training was eclectic and irrelevant to both our immediate situations and our upcoming assignments.
After 10 days in Sharjah, we were set out on our own. There was no guidance or assistance in finding a place to live. Some people were out of money by then and had no place to stay; fortunately, others in the group helped them out and they shared hotel rooms until they got their first paychecks and could find their own housing. We all formed groups and went out together to search for accommodations. Two other women in my cohort and I chose to live in apartments in a hotel in Fujairah because we wouldn’t have to buy furniture or appliances or set up utilities. The hotel apartment is more expensive than one in a regular apartment building, but having lived here for a year and hearing the horror stories of those who chose to live in independent housing, dealing with things that break and other inconveniences, I am still confident that I made the right choice for me.
In those first few weeks, I thought that the confusion and lack of clear leadership was isolated to the workings of the Ministry of Education, and that once we were settled in our schools and into the routine of regular work, things would get better. Naively, I thought that those first few weeks would be the worst of what we would face. I soon learned however, that the chaos would only be compounded because we continued to have the incompetent issues at the higher level of the organization as well as chaos, confusion, and incompetency at the schools.
When we each went to our respective schools, we came back to Fujairah in the evenings and shared our stories. One man said his principal was kind and welcomed him. I told them that the English teachers at my school were kind. But the overwhelming consensus was that we were dropped in schools where we were NOT welcomed.
I was in denial.
I never imagined that we would not be welcomed! I had believed the rhetoric in the literature about the great visions for a new kind of education for young Emiratis that would prepare them to be a knowledge-based economy when the oil runs dry. I had believed “them” when they told us we would be leaders of change and that the change was welcome.
Now I see how silly I was.
At first, I thought that my situation was better than most, so I kept quiet as others complained, and tried to focus on the positive things I believed I could do. With time however, I found out that the obstacles at my school were bigger than I could handle and that I was not actually better off than any of the others. In fact, within a few months, they all agreed that my situation was harsher than most.
There was one other non-Emirati at my school when I began in August, but she was a “lead teacher” and often not at school due to district and regional meetings elsewhere. And when she was at school, she had a separate office on the other side of the building, so I seldom saw her. When we did cross paths, she was kind, but always elusive. I didn’t mind though, because my aim was to fit in with the Emiratis. By January, she was moved to a different school, so I was the only non-Emirati on the campus full time. I still believed I would eventually fit in and didn’t need the support or camaraderie of someone from my part of the world.
It was in January that I began to feel the full impact of my situation. The English teachers had some sort of rift and they didn’t want to tell me about it. Students were not yet back at school, and we had nothing to do but sit in the teachers’ room. I didn’t go outside in the halls and I had no one else to talk to. As I sat in the teachers’ room that first week back after the winter break listening to the angry banter that filled the hours, I realized how very alone I was. They were all speaking in Arabic and all at the same time. I watched their body language and it was clear to me that they felt anger about something, but I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. I asked, but they only said it was “nothing” and “don’t worry”. I did worry. And I never found out what their controversy was about, but that week changed my perspective on my situation. In retrospect, I believe that that was the time I began to withdraw inward with a sense of insecurity about my role in this educational system.
The order of the Ministry of Education in the UAE is to “achieve better results, integrate the new and creative approaches that work, and help Emirati students with learning and education as whole.”
Vague, at best. But I understood that to mean that by teaching students how to think and how to learn, they would be better equipped to “achieve better results.”
Additionally, the mission of the Ministry of Education is to “Develop an innovative Education System for a knowledge and global competitive society,…”
Through trainings, I understand that this “innovative education system” is to be modeled after the teaching and learning strategies used in Western countries. More specifically, we are supposed to teach higher order thinking skills and steer away from teaching-to-the-test kinds of rote memorization that has dominated the educational system until now. We are to inspire inquiry and creative problem-solving. Again, this means to me that I am mandated to teach students how to think and how to learn. I am trained and experienced in all these things and passionate about being a part of this kind of educational system.
Clearly, in order to achieve these goals, we have to have cooperation and support.
This key component is missing. The administration at the schools give good lip-service to the Ministry’s mission, but they do not put their words into action. Students, teachers, and the administrations continue to believe that grades are the ultimate goal and, as a result, the emphasis on actual learning and independent thinking is absent. As grades are the ultimate goal, cheating is rampant; even teachers and administrators “help” students and change grades when inputting them into the Ministry’s online forms.
As an outsider, I can try to uphold the standards of my assignment, but I have to recognize the limits of my solitary stance. For example, when I hold students accountable for their own learning and then the administration undermines my efforts, I will fail at meeting the criteria set out for me in my contract. I am even more limited because students know that the administration can and will trump my efforts, so they have no reason to listen to me or to follow my rules. They also have no motivation to do the work or actually learn because in the end, they will pass, and that is all they want.
In my first year, I fought this, totally ignoring my limits. I went into the classroom every day with a plan and a hope to lead students to improving their English language skills. The resistance was strong and I responded with rigidity; and the response of students, other teachers, and the school administration was steadily more resistant. Eventually, their resistance became personal: my teaching skills were attacked, my personality traits condemned, and my authority as teacher was blatantly undermined by the principal. Students accused me of not using the assigned book and the principal believed them; parents accused me of being discriminatory and dishonest toward their children and again, the principal believed them.
As I crumbled under these false accusations, I began to understand why the other non-Emirati who was there at the beginning of the year had been distant; she too, had crumbled under these same kinds of accusations and constant moral degradations.
Around June, one other non-Emirati teacher arrived. She had been removed from her previous position because she too, had been similarly accused. Because her students’ scores were lower than their parents wanted them to be and she refused to change them and fought the administration, the higher administrators in the Ministry of Education removed her from that school and placed her at my school.
A few weeks later, another non-Emirati arrived. A new arrival in the country, Lubaba was her first assignment. By that time, students were no longer attending school – it was Ramadan time, and then it would be time for final exams, and then the summer break, so she was in idle waiting, not yet teaching. During Ramadan, the three of us spent time together in an empty classroom while our Emirati colleagues slept on the floor in the teacher’s room. I realized then, how important it is to have the support of others with similar educational and professional backgrounds. I am hoping that in this new school year, the three of us can stand together to work within the confines of the reality of our situations toward the goal of “developing an innovative educational system”.
What I have learned is that although I cannot change the limitations I face, I can change my attitude and my approaches. Last year when I first arrived, I had no idea what the obstacles and limitations were, but now I do, so I am currently in the process of evaluating specifically how I can change.
The serenity prayer is my mantra these days as I go through the steps of creative problem-solving. Like any new beginnings, I approach this upcoming academic year with renewed inspiration and a belief that I can do better.