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The Highs And Lows Of Teaching English In The Middle East

What’s it like teaching English to children in the United Arab Emirates? I spoke to several teachers to find out about their lives and how teaching here compares to teaching back home.
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The Highs And Lows Of Teaching English In The Middle East

“Miss, my cousin — she has three tigers in her garden.”

It’s a dusty morning in Dubai’s district of Al Barsha. The sun is rising over the palm trees and the sky is dip-dyed pink and orange. Emma is beginning her day of teaching with class registration and is not surprised to hear that one of her nine-year-old students indirectly owns three tigers. In fact, teaching in the United Arab Emirates quickly shifts all ideas of normality.

Emma began her teaching career in the UK. She taught at one of East London’s toughest state schools, and although she found the experience extremely rewarding, she also found her days extremely long. She was bogged down with admin and endless hours of planning, as well as an hour-long commute to and from school each day. Teaching wasn’t the hard part — the daily grind of London was.

Many of Emma’s colleagues were moving to the United Arab Emirates to teach and, after a particularly long day, Emma decided to do some research of her own. It didn’t take long to conclude that a move to the Middle East was a no-brainer. So one year later Emma touched down in Dubai ready to start her new life. Here’s a peek into her life.

The Perks Of Teaching English In The UAE

Emma’s apartment is huge. She has a brand new fitted kitchen and furnished living area with floor to ceiling windows that let the desert sun pour in. Her master bedroom leads onto a balcony which looks out over Dubai’s dusty landscape. A cleaner comes once a week and her best pal and colleague Catrina lives next door. Emma teaches at a national school nearby and the whole building, in fact, is full of her teacher friends. When they want to speak to each other, they just knock on the wall or poke their heads out their balcony windows.

On the top floor of Emma’s apartment building is a fully-serviced gym. Next door is a games room with table football, ping pong and a pool table. Catch the lift up to the terrace and you’ll find a rooftop pool complete with BBQ, sun loungers and an eating area.  

So how much rent does Emma pay?

Zilch.

That’s right. English is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the UAE, so to entice native-English teachers, schools offer free accommodation. And it doesn’t end there. The United Arab Emirates is the world’s third-richest country and there’s no tax system. That means every penny of the $4000 Emma earns each month goes straight into her pocket. No rent, no tax and sun all year long — where’s the catch?

The Drawbacks Of Teaching In The UAE

“To be honest, I thought teaching in Dubai would be a doss,” Emma says, “I’d heard that life is easy breezy and the schools give you lots of time to manage your work-life balance, but I chose my school poorly.”

Emma struggles with the management style and level of organization at the school; standards differ tremendously with those in the UK. “My school is a new private school. It was built very quickly and they flung the doors open to children before they were ready because they want to get as much money as they can.”

Emma recommends you get a referral from a friend who already works in the UAE to make sure you get a school with high standards. However, despite struggling with certain aspects of her school life, Emma adores teaching there.

“I have a class full of girls and they are lovely. They are keen to learn and have a very nice attitude to me — they are polite and respectful and really get attached. They’re very kind to each other and they want to learn even though they don’t necessarily have to.”

By that, Emma means it isn’t yet the norm in the UAE for women to enter the workplace. Although this is changing rapidly, many marry and are still expected to raise a family and look after a home. The girls that Emma teaches are also from wealthy families who may own several tigers — meaning work is not a necessity. This is just one of many cultural differences of life in the UAE that comes as a shock.

Paul is from Ireland and has been working at an international school in Dubai for nearly two years. “I love it,” Paul says. “I love everything about it. I teach all boys at the moment and it’s up and down. You have great days and difficult days, but they give you a lot of laughs.”

Paul explains that this is the first generation in the UAE that has grown up with nannies. “They’re very mothered. I have to teach them how to do things for themselves. Simple things like just putting your books away or picking your pen up off the floor. Someone else usually does it for them. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s just that they don’t know anything else.” 

Another challenge is that schools are treated more like businesses than educational institutions. Because the parents pay, what they say goes. It’s common that parents will ask a teacher to give a child better grades. If they don’t, there’s a chance they’ll be asked to leave the school and to leave the UAE immediately as visas are obtained through your workplace.

So teaching in Dubai comes with its pressures, but the upsides are other-worldly. “I have no plans to go back to the UK,” Paul says. “I get free housing and the bills are minimal. I love the culture here: it’s very laid back and you can go to the beach, the pool. It’s really chill. The only downside is missing family. And I miss football a lot.”

What About Alcohol And Lifestyle?

Alcohol is legal — it’s just illegal to consume it outside of a hotel or night club. Culturally, Emiratis aren’t supposed to drink alcohol, but they make up only 15% of the population of the UAE. The other 85% of immigrants from all around the world make good use of all legal loopholes. “Brunch” is an extremely popular weekend activity. Pay around $100 for a table and enjoy an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet for four hours. (This essentially incentivizes you to drink as much as possible.) By the end of the session, some are crying, many are slurring, a handful are dancing on tables. And it’s only 5 p.m.

The UAE is also superbly placed to explore the rest of the world. Emma loves to travel and this is a big part of why she loves her life here. “I love being in the sun, it makes me happy,” Emma says. “Everything is very easy in Dubai, but the best thing is having disposable income. I go on amazing holidays and have incredible experiences. Most of my friends are other teachers, so we all go away together during school holidays.”

So where has Emma traveled? “So far: Zanzibar, India, Oman, Jordan, Borneo, Japan. And it’s only ever six weeks until my next holiday.”

Sounds alright, I suppose.

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