Saturday, 25 February 2012

Every day is a new day

It's been about seven months since I first arrived in Abu Dhabi. Six months of teaching experience. Within these six months, I feel I have learned at least the fundamentals of what it takes to survive and thrive (well, at least a 'beginning to thrive").

Patience is a virtue. One of my students said to me last week, "Ms. Tammy, you are so patient." I let out a laugh of disbelief at her comment, and she laughed with me! Yes, the idea of patience has come close to wearing out its welcome in my book...

The first three months--the first trimester--were definitely the toughest, but now I can honestly say I am enjoying myself. Classroom management is still the constant battle, but I suppose management is the main issue for first-year teachers. I feel that I will become an expert in this area before my contract is up! From what I have been told by other teachers, one could expect to have a similar experience in an inner-city school in the states. But the big difference is that my students are not necessarily disadvantaged, at least not in the same way as the students from inner-cities. The types of behavior will be different, but the students are quite difficult to manage on a daily basis.

I must say that, overall, my students here are not so different from students in other parts of the world. The cultural attitudes towards discipline and behavior are different. For example, students will be relentless in begging to go to the bathroom while I am trying to get the class in order. At almost every class period, I have to tell them that I do not give bathroom passes until after the lesson has begun. But they still beg and follow me around. And saying no bathroom passes period causes an uprising that I like to avoid. Now, I instinctively want to call this rude and unacceptable behavior. Arguing is not acceptable behavior in my mind. No means no, right? The students do not appear to feel the same way, though. I have to be as relentless in getting them to understand what is unacceptable for me.

Also, it is common to be interrupted in the middle of a lesson by other students from other classes who want to chat with their friends. The first time this happened to me, a student came inside the classroom and made rounds to each of her friends, giving them hugs and kisses before I could fully grasp what was going on. Getting the student to leave is tough because she'll say, "one minute," and continue as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do. Perhaps it is! So, I have to stand in front of her and point to the door to get her to leave. And then I have to put up with dirty looks and comments (in Arabic) before I can get my students back on task. Sometimes, this happens several times in one class period!

A few words about culture shock. It is my feeling that culture shock is the most difficult struggle to overcome here. Even though teachers have been told to expect a certain degree of culture shock, I had no idea how strong it could be. Since I have traveled to many different countries, I believed that I would not suffer much from the shock. Boy, was I wrong!

I remember the first time I broke down. I had been in my new apartment for almost two months (it felt so much longer), and I just wanted the internet guy to come and install wireless. Numerous calls and cancellations, three or four different men coming by to unsuccessfully install the box, several visits to the Etisalat headquarters, explaining and re-explaining the situation, advice from other teachers... I just could not get anyone to install the internet service. One might think that my struggles with getting Aengus (my husband) sponsored would be the cause of my breakdown--or perhaps the ceaseless chaos at school. The internet seems like such a trifle to complain about. Yet, after returning home from another long day at work, it would be this simple lack of comfort that caused me to writhe on my couch in anguish. "I just want to go home," I wailed.  This was the first of my breakdowns. But not the last.

The second major breakdown was after my husband had been with me for about a month, so I suppose I had been teaching for three months. Time passed much more quickly with him to come home to, but he was not a cure for the sickness I felt in the pit of my stomach. It was Thursday, which is the last day of the week in the UAE, and I just returned home from work. I walked into the living room, curled up on my couch, and did not move. I felt like a child in the throes of shock. I didn't suck my thumb, haha, but I felt a blank expression in my eyes as I lay with my knees tucked into my chest. My husband sat nearby and watched me for who knows how long. After some time, I was able to cry and uncoil while I shook the tears and anguish from my body.

For me, these breakdowns finally helped me to understand culture shock. My experience has been increasingly positive since the realization! Once I understood what was happening to me internally, everything began to change. I was able to start the recovery and acceptance phase. My realization allowed me to change my attitude towards the culture, the students, and the administration. I learned that my attitude was the ONLY thing I had any sort of control over. Since then, my couch curl-ups have steadily decreased.

Some sweet and humorous accounts of my experience thus far. My girls love telling me, "I love you, teacher." Last week during morning assembly, one of the smallest of the bunch said this to me and then burst into giggles. Almost all of my students call me "Teacher" rather than Ms. Tammy.

My classes are right in the middle of the big ECART project, and the theme this trimester is "people who make a difference." I allow them to choose a person from the arts or sciences or a world/political leader. One of the girls said she wanted to do her project on Eminem. I groaned at this. So, I explained that he has too many "bad things" surrounding his life that make him unsuitable for a school project. She argued by saying that I let some girls do their project on Michael Jackson. Somehow I was able to convince her that while Michael Jackson also has "bad things" about his life, Eminem's bad things are almost impossible to avoid and definitely unsuitable for this school. Perhaps there is not such a big difference between the two, but it would be impossible to justify Eminem to the school administration! She accepted this explanation at any rate and switched her topic to Dr. Phil! She is one of my most advanced students. Many of my students also love talking about Barack Obama, and a few have chosen him for their ECART topic. One of my students wrote a really nice essay about him. Perhaps I can share the highlights at some point.

Overall, I am truly enjoying my teaching experience! Another teacher and I have even started an advanced writing group in our school called the Young Author's Club. This club is definitely the highlight of my work. It actually relieves the stress of day-to-day pressures, partly because I can focus on my passion for literature and writing and share it with other passionate young women. It is also the only predictable event at work. Perhaps this is the key to having a positive experience here--relishing in the sweet moments and leaving the bad ones behind!


  1. so glad that were able to recognize what was going on (culture shock) and deal with it. I had my IPI in Atlanta this past week. Who knows? Maybe I'll be in the UAE this time next year blogging about my culture shock and my own curling on the couch moments.

  2. Good for you! I hope the interview went well.

  3. Thanks for your blog; its helpful to hear about the culture in UAE, if I decide to go. I taught in Philly for a few years and had the same bathroom problem with high school kids. I started a new rule that when they entered the classroom, they could put their name on the board for the "bathroom list." Once it was ok to start going to the bathroom, I would give the signal to the first name on the list. When they returned, it was ok for the next on the list to go. Usually, by the time it was a students turn to go, they didn't want to go because they were engaged in the lesson or realized they didn't have to go. It takes the urgency out of the leaving the room (to meet their friends) but gives them the power to choose to sign up - important for all teenagers.

  4. Thanks for all the info you put on your blog. I especially find the tax info useful.

    Regarding culture shock; you mention that you had traveled to many countries so you didn't think it would be an issue. Had you lived in any of these countries for more than a few months, and if not, do you think having lived in another country for more than a year would help one prepare for the shock?

  5. Sarah, I like your bathroom rule! I just started a new attempt at managing the bathroom passes. The students do not have a break in between most classes (they only have two breaks--one for 25 min. and one for 15). So, when I arrive to teach my lesson, the girls are trying to leave. The first 5 minutes of class, I struggle to keep the girls inside the classroom. This time, instead of fighting with them, I tell them they have three minutes before I shut the door. If they come in the classroom after I shut the door, they are late and have to sign a late roster. So far, it seems to be working, but I like the idea of the wait list. I might try it out when I start getting bathroom requests again. Thanks for the tip!

  6. Gayle,

    I do think that living in another country for a year would help, especially if you experienced culture shock already. I lived in Saudi Arabia for 4 months, but I don't think it was quite the same experience because I was in the military. So, I didn't really have any sort of shock while there.
    I do hear other teachers talk about their experiences living and working in other countries, and it seems that the UAE is quite a different experience. The shock of living here seems fairly intense for them, as well. I think it is the way management works here. It is such a top-down hierarchy that you often feel powerless to get anything done. Housing, for example: many of us teachers went to ADEC day after day after day. It seemed that housing had the apartment keys at their fingertips but would not give them up. They would just tell us "tomorrow, inshallah." It was so frustrating after awhile, and housing was just one of the many causes of anxiety. I guess that it only felt so shocking because I was so used to having control over what I needed to get done. I had my to-do list, but I couldn't check anything off! And I had no control over when I could accomplish a task. If you have experienced this before, than I imagine that you could maintain an easy-going attitude. "Inshallah," it will happen when it happens. What's the use in freaking out anyway? I wish I had asked myself that a long time ago!!
    Are you applying for the UAE? Where have you been a teacher?

  7. Hey there, I think it is great that you are going to blog about your experiences here.

  8. Hello!
    My Name is Audra & I'm from Florida. I am in the final authentication step to teach for the ADEC this school year. I LOVE reading your blog. I was wondering if you had any helpful hints, or suggestions that would be useful for my husband and I. He is traveling with me in August when we leave. I don't feel comfortable leaving him behind, so I'd love to hear about the sponsoring issues you faced with your husband.
    Feel free to follow my blog as well :)

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