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All that Glitters is not Gold!

Chris is an experienced UK headteacher from Manchester, who recently took the opportunity to teach overseas through Protocol Education. In his debut blog, he shares with us his thoughts, first impressions and experiences of dealing with a different type of schooling.

All that Glitters is not Gold! How to Teach the British Way in the UAE

Rain; that’s what I blame it on, rain in Oxford in June.  My partner and I had always fantasised about emigrating and I’d had offers before, but this time as I stared out of the office window at a dreary summer day I was inspired, and so it all began. 

In June, I was contacted by two agencies offering me school leadership roles in Abu Dhabi, UAE.  Having never considered this region I started researching and as I did, my imagination fired.  I found that the UAE was a land of opportunity and so, like a modern day Dick Whittington I set off in August, to find out if the streets of Abu Dhabi were indeed paved with gold. They weren’t, but Abu Dhabi is a beautiful place.  It’s only 42 years old but you wouldn’t know it as you look at the back- dropped cityscape from the beaches of the Corniche.  It looks like a city that has been there 500 years or more. 

The ambition in the country is palpable and is fuelled by a desire to compete on the world’s stage, since as eventually the oil reserves that bring wealth will dry up, the leadership know they will need a population educated to a high standard and that’s where British teachers come in. 

Schools in the Middle East

There are around 450 government and independent schools in the emirate, but over the next 5 years they will need around 300 more to accommodate the speed of population growth; it’s this speed though that is blurring the lines.  Whilst good schools are desperately required, they aren’t formed by simply dropping a disparate bunch of people with different skills together into a brand new building.  Good schools need time to evolve, develop their ethos and then grow into it. 

The frenetic sense of growth in the UAE however means that there just isn’t the time for that.  The ethos, particularly in private schools is one of, ‘I’ve provided the school, now make it outstanding, today!’  We know that the British system doesn’t work like that but to a country where instant results are everything, that just isn’t good enough.  It isn’t just the system that gives results in schools though, it is their character as well, but character isn’t something that can be bought, it’s earnt over time.

Getting used to the system

Once I got over this initial culture shock, I quickly started on my next.  Parents and children were used to a pass / fail American grade system that teaches a page and then tests to it.  I was introducing a non-failing system that was as alien to my mainly Egyptian parents as the grade system was to me.  To them, work in books meant children were learning.  What they saw was what they believed and if the work wasn’t there, then no learning was taking place and that was a cause for complaint.  At first I struggled with the differences but when a parent explained it to me, it made sense.  ‘We’re Egyptians’, she told me ‘and so our visas can be taken from us at any time.  If we return to our country, our schools are too expensive and our public schools are poor.  We need our children to have a chance’.  The penny dropped.  There was absolutely no point in trying to unleash an entirely new system on an unsuspecting parent body, what was needed was a compromise. 

The ambition in the country is palpable and is fuelled by a desire to compete on the world’s stage, since as eventually the oil reserves that bring wealth will dry up, the leadership know they will need a population educated to a high standard and that’s where British teachers come in. 

So, as time progressed we built a curriculum based on the best of both systems.  Eventually we were even able to level children, track them and then target set and the weekly tests based on all that had been learnt meant that parents had their evidence of learning.  As much it went against everything that the Emirates are about, speed and instant evidence, it became clear to all that only through a measured and timely approach would children ever be able to benefit from the UK system that we often take for granted over here. 

All this disparity and confusion however is nobody’s fault, it is merely a symptom of the Middle East, but now I understand it, I love it.  Working in the Middle East can be barmy and at times it’s very hard work, particularly when you come from a system that values the process of learning rather than just the facts themselves, but if you approach it with a spirit of compromise you just might get everything out of the adventure that you were hoping for when you first stepped onto the plane.

Looking to teach in the Middle East? Contact our Emma or Hermione on our international team for more information.

Tags: ChrisF, International-teachers, Middle-East, opportunities, experience, learning, systems, curriculum, differences, levels, assessment

Category: Australian Teachers

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