May: Saudi Arabia and the Pedagogues

This post is in response to Lee Leonard’s “A Typical Day Teaching English in Saudi Arabia.”


Like the darling buds of May, Saudi Arabia is a perennial favourite of discussion for English teachers. Every year a new crop of teachers brave the unknown to come and experience the Magic Kingdom. But rough winds do shake, and many teachers don’t last long.

So when I saw a new article about teaching in Saudi Arabia I didn’t think much of it. I bookmarked it to read later. I come across these articles all the time: new teacher to Saudi Arabia (or his wife) trying to make sense of the mess he’s thrown himself in to. Even for the most experienced traveller, the culture shock one experiences here is very much like no other. But for me, it’s “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, and then came back again.” So it wasn’t until a colleague of mine in the UK sent me the same link and asked me what I thought about it, did I actually stop to read it. What I read was not surprising in the least, but no less disappointing. Read the article for yourself here.

When I first started reading I felt an immediate sense of empathy. His experiences echoed my own and that of other colleagues and bloggers– everything was true. The students were chronically late, had a penchant for fatty foods, and a general disdain for exertion both academic and physical. What I took issue with was the tone of the article and more importantly, his classroom management style.

The writer sounds a lot like myself when I first arrived in the Magic Kingdom back in 2013. I was naïve but ambitious. I felt that I had a mandate to bring my fresh and innovative Cantabrigian approaches to whip the next generation of Saudi learners into shape. I mean, that’s why they hired me, right? Lol. Without going into much detail, it was a challenge to say the least and I felt like everything, from the students to the administration to my own colleagues, was against me at times. CELTA and Delta don’t prepare you for a place like this. They assume your students (and higher ups) have already gone through a ‘western’ education and are disciplined and motivated enough to appreciate your efforts. It comes as a shock, then, when there is so much resistance to your approach. I felt I understood the author’s frustration.

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It starts when he asks a student that has come in late, “Would you like some tea?” I thought they were doing a functions lesson on eating out at a restaurant. “Would you like some cake?” he continued. But as this went on it started to take on a more degenerate tone culminating with “this… is a classroom not a coffee shop.” It doesn’t stop there however, but it should have. He continues to berate the student with another line of sarcastic questioning and asking pedantic and abstract grammar rules. A less experienced me would have cheered this behaviour on. “You show him!” I probably would have said to myself, silently nodding approval in his direction. But this kind of heavy handedness, this kind of rule-stickling, causes more stress than its supposed worth.  And no “rule-stickling is not a real word, but it should be. We as teachers here are indeed in the business of teaching English, and also academic/study skills, professionalism, etc. because they do, for the most part, lack these skills. But we are not here to humiliate and degrade students. This teacher ate up 5-7 minutes (maybe even more) of precious class time to make an example of this student rather than reward the students who did show up on time with his full attention. Aside from suffering this indignity, this student will have to write “I will not be late” 15 times on a piece of paper which he’ll have to turn into said teacher. How dare this student forget “one of the 23 class rules, he signed a pledge to uphold”! Mind you, these are not children. They are college age 18-21.

Also, what does the student’s weight or health have to do with anything?

He admits “It may seem that I am being an overbearing asshole, but my class works, and the kids love it.” This may be true in the short term, but being a pedant or having a reputation for pettiness will not serve well in the long run. If a typical day involves going over the “23 rules” and chastising students publicly for relatively minor indiscretions, you’re doing it wrong. You would be surprised how far a stern look and polite gesturing will go. In my experience, sarcasm rarely achieved more than a few cheap laughs and a small boost to my ego for the day. This, at the cost of mutual trust and respect. Taking a step back, I know I wouldn’t appreciate being in this student’s position, especially as an adult. I’m not really sure what the point of this article was besides to make a caricature out of the country and this poor student.

I used to employ tactics similar to his. Not as extreme, but I was known as the “hard” teacher. Some students respected me, but the vast majority resented me. I blamed their resentment on a lack of understanding the intent of my methods. Which for the most part was true, but I never fully accepted that if I expected them to change I, too, would need to change my methods to reach them. That’s my job. That’s not to say it’s always the teachers fault but I think our belief in what we do and how we do what do often interferes with the reality in the classroom. Sometimes we need to take a step back and critically re-evaluate our roles and our methods to make sure we’re as effective as we can be. This is especially true in a new country and with new students.

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(one of my lessons on nationalities…obviously the pre-teaching stage of the activity.)

 

Maybe we, as British or American (or Canadian, Irish, Australian, South African, etc.) teachers should stop looking at Saudi culture as a problem to be fixed. Who are we to think we can change a society  or the institutions it’s made of?  Regardless of our qualifications or years of experience, we are not messiahs. Yes, Saudization charges us with equipping our learners with the skills they need to take their country into the 21st century, but as long as we continue to infantalise the young people of this country, we can never expect them to realise their potential. Or maybe that’s been the point all along.

For more information about teaching in Saudi Arabia check out this powerpoint or leave a comment below and I’ll be in touch. Also check out my post 7 Taboos in the Saudi Classroom.

Next post: British versus American teacher-training styles

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7 Innocuous Topics That Are Taboo in a Saudi ELT Classroom

There are some things that are quite known about living and working in Saudi Arabia. No drugs, no alcohol, no mixing of the sexes, everything shutting down for prayer 5 times a day. These things, with time, we get used to as a matter of routine. But there are a few things that I had never thought were up for negotiation. I’ve compiled a list of 7 surprising things I’ve encountered over the past 2 years of teaching in the Kingdom.


1. Names

Even a simple question like “What’s your name” may elicit a complicated response. For a native speaker, it comes out as a long string of syllables: “Abulsalamalotaibi.” Which led to a lot of instances of me saying “I’m sorry?” Students usually say their full name (first and tribal) when meeting for the first time, instead of just their first name, which is what we expect. With time, finding the junctures becomes easier and something like Abulsalamalotaibi becomes  Abdulsalam Al-Otaibi. In addition to their first name, most Saudis include their father’s name (patronymic) as well as their tribal or family name. This doesn’t follow the ‘traditional’ first name/last name framework. What complicates things further is that men with children may also be known as “father of [son’s name]” in Arabic. It’s important to know that most Saudis are fiercely proud of their tribal filiations and will most likely be able to tell you the history of their tribe and associated stereotypes.

On the topic of names, it’s also taboo to ask for the names of female relatives–particularly that of the student’s mother or sister. We’ve done several “Family Tree” type exercises and students will sometimes leave these blank. I always give them the option of using a pseudonym if they don’t feel comfortable sharing.


2. Addresses

This was interesting. In the books we use as part of our curriculum, one of the assignments asks students to write a business card with their name, job title, address, etc. I noticed after some time, the students would leave the address section blank. At first, I was curious. Everyone has an address. I would ask “where do you live?” and time after time I would get the same vague responses. We would get to the district level of the city but their knowledge would taper off somewhere near the main streets or “cross streets” (intersections). Eventually I stopped asking. It wasn’t until about a year in, a friend told me: the houses and families came first, and then came the roads. It would seem that the region developed so quickly, roads and through-fares were more of an afterthought, a means rather than an end in themselves as is often the case in the Anglophone world. I think for me (and most materials & coursebook writers), the roads always come first then the houses, so it would be unthinkable for a building or house to not occupy a specific space and number on a road.


3. Birthdays

Birthdays are a tricky subject as well. Many times, “how old are you?” takes longer than it really should. In Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam, celebrating birthdays is frowned upon. Therefore, many students go by the year they were born for their age, but they struggle to recall the exact date (mind you they use the Hijiri as well as the Gregorian Calender). Things are changing, however, and more students are aware of their birthdays, but you won’t find any birthday parties at school. Not in public at least.


4. Holidays (in general)

On top of birthdays, celebrating, well, anything, is generally frowned upon as well for religious reasons. That means most British and American holidays are off-limits. I remember last year, I wanted to celebrate my favourite holiday, Thanksgiving. Even though it’s secular and mainly focused on generally universal themes of family, friendship, and mindfulness, we weren’t allowed to do anything about it. At the last minute, we were given permission to put on a programme for it, but we had to change the name to “Day of Giving Thanks” and play down the whole “holiday” part of it. The same goes for New Years, Valentine’s Day, and of course anything Christian, like Easter and Christmas.


5. Music

Also frowned upon is music. This includes background jingles. This, of course, doesn’t apply to all students. You can find music on the radio, TV, or the internet and it’s not uncommon to see students plugged into their iphones, bobbing along to some tunes. However, there have been several instances where students complain or walk out if they hear music during a video or audio recording. It’s not usually the singing, but the accompaniment that causes the most offence. In any case, I’ve been advised not to include any music in my lessons.


6. Faces

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Showing faces (particularly of women) whether in pictures or on video is also controversial. Outside of the classroom, women are encouraged to cover their faces while in public. Things are a bit more liberal on the East (Khobar) and West (Jeddah) coasts and you’ll find women only wearing a hijab (or no covering if they aren’t Saudi). Take a look at the pictures. One is from the book we use as part of our curriculum. The other is from a shopping mall. When using pictures with people, it’s good to use some discretion.


7. Academic Integrity

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Not really a taboo but cheating is a widespread and generally tolerated (if not expected) practice in many Saudi schools. It’s been a challenge in my current job to instill a sense of integrity and get my students to stop copying answers from the back of the book. There have been many times when a student has written “Student answers”  or “model answer” during topic writing exercises. At the very least, I try to tell them if they’re going to cheat, at least do it well and don’t get caught doing it!

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That being said, attitudes are changing rapidly, especially as the younger generation gains more exposure to the rest of the world via social media. Many students are quite relaxed about most of the taboos and are gaining an awareness of outside practices. Still, I’ve been caught off guard by some of my more liberal students who listen to hip-hop, but will quickly turn the page of their book if there’s a picture of an uncovered girl there.