How I Deal with Life.....

How I Deal with Life.....

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Growing Accoustomed to Teaching in the UAE: One Day at a Time.

My students at school have had a difficult time adjusting to group learning activities and the concept that learning can be interactive and fun. They are accustomed to rote memorization and copying text. When I first arrived, the students simply sat and looked at me as if I were a huge pink elephant that had been dropped into their midst. I would see them glancing at one another, covering their mouths with their hands, trying not to giggle at my teacher antics; antics (tools) that I have developed in order to keep students on task and busy trying to guess what in the hell that crazy teacher is going to do next. My philosophy is: If you can’t teach ‘em, confuse ‘em.  It’s worked for me the entire thirteen years of my teaching career.

I seldom have students tell me that they are bored.  My students actually learn in spite of themselves.   They learn how to think. They learn to approach problems from different angles. If I jump on top of the desk and begin to dramatically quote “The Raven”, my students listen. If I drag a refrigerator box into class and use said box to demonstrate prepositions by physically arranging the students into varying degrees of proximity to the box, my students listen. And if they listen, they respond.  If they respond, they participate. If they participate, they learn. If I provide an environment that fosters individual creativity over simple short term memorization of facts, with the goal of having my students simply pass some federally mandated exam that in the end is but a small measure of the abilities and talents of the students, then I have succeeded as not only a teacher, but an educator. Those fill in the bubble exams have their place, but United States education has made them the BE ALL for measuring student assessment.   Those exams do not measure the varying abilities and talents, or even address so called “differentiation”.

Over the past ten years funding has systematically been cut from music, literature, and drama programs in American public schools. Meanwhile, funding towards rote memorization materials, training, and exams have steadily increased in state and local budgets.  And we have the audacity to complain that our students “can’t think”.  Well, of course they can’t think.  Children as young as three years old, already very tech savvy, spend a great deal of time in a virtual world where they have little real time human interaction. Television, computers, ipads, and wii have replaced Hide and Go Seek, turning a refrigerator box into a playhouse or a spaceship, or running outside on a spring day attempting to outdo friends in cartwheel contests. Children don’t go into the great outdoors and play with other children without adult supervision anymore. Play dates are carefully arranged by parents and this takes away the spontaneity of real play. And if an issue between two children arises, an adult is at hand to immediately step in to solve it, so children begin their academic careers with little or no problem solving skills that teachers can build on. Then we further muddy the waters by insisting that teachers spend most of their time teaching the test and attending professional development workshops that take away from creating lesson plans, tutoring students, and grading papers.

Mandated assessments still carry far too much weight in the UAE, just like in the United States, but that is where comparisons cease to exist. This entire teaching experience in the UAE is like no other teaching experience I have ever had. 

I have had to grow accustomed to the fact that timetables and schedules are so fluid in the school. Classes are shifted at the drop of a hat, programs that interrupt the school day seem to materialize out of thin air at least once a week, there is no mandatory attendance for the students, and the “no problem” attitude is a way of life that seeps into education and the school day.  After a recent four day weekend break for Eid, the students did not return the following Sunday (that is our Monday) as instructed. The next day the students still hadn’t returned, or the day after. The students and their parents (I assume) decided that one week wasn’t a long enough holiday so they just took an extra week off on their own accord. The teachers came to school. We sat around and completed lesson plans, copied extension activities, put together bulletin boards, and then when we ran out of things to do, we kept up with the news online, chatted, and drank tea. It was all very bizarre. We were told we could leave every day around 1:30 p.m.  Almost not worth the forty-five minute Indy 500 drive I have to endure in order to even get to work. The ADEC education reform (a Western styled one) and the culture of the UAE are clashing.  Western teachers can be viewed as rigid and uncompromising by their Arabic counterparts. At the same time, the Western teachers’ points of view can be that the Arabic teachers possess little work ethic or skill in educational pedagogy. 

Couple these factors with the sheer numbers of Arabic teachers who have lost their jobs in the past five years thanks to the influx of certified Western teachers, and one can see how true cross cultural teacher collaboration could be tested.  Western teachers are loaded down with double the amount of class time than their Arabic counterparts, but really? I only teach four forty-five minute classes a day? Wow. I am fortunate in that I have not had any real issues with my Arabic co-workers (knock on wood). I make it a point to remember that every day I come into work, I am a representative of the United States teaching profession. I go the extra mile saying “hello” and inquiring about the Arabic teachers’ health and children. I smile, I offer sincere compliments.  I put my best foot forward and try to keep a outwardly positive outlook while I am on the job. Admittedly this can all crumble the minute I walk out of the school doors, and often does.  

 I come to work every day not knowing what to expect, but also knowing I love my students dearly. They are funny, eager, endearing, and warm. They're teaching me as much as I'm teaching them.  This is what education should be: a symbiotic learning relationship between the teacher and the student.  Now if I can just get them to use prepositions and conjunctions in their writing and speaking, we might be on the road to something here...

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