In my 5 years in Qatar and the UAE, 99% of my students have been Qatari and Emirati students of both genders, which has given me such an enriching and unique insight into each of their respective cultures that some expat teachers don’t ever have the opportunity to experience. In the Middle East, local students can be Emirati, Qatari, Saudi Arabian, Bahraini, Kuwaiti, or Omani. You may teach them at primary, secondary, or third level. Now, of course, each local student you encounter will be different depending on their upbringing and beliefs, but here are 8 general things to remember when you first teach local students.
The Middle Eastern is very different to Western culture, although certain aspects remind me of the culture in my grandparents’ time. Some important aspects you should be familiar with are:
- The notion of “face” is very important and it is highly embarrassing for the family to be seen to “lose face” in public, i.e. to be scolded or lose an argument in public. As a result, to reduce the incidence of a student retaliating badly or confrontation to occur to “save face”, you might want to reprimand a student outside the classroom door or quietly one-to-one, rather than do it loudly in front of the whole class. Obviously, this cannot work in every situation, but it is something to bear in mind.
- In Middle Eastern culture, the system of governance is an absolute monarchy. This means you shouldn’t be disrespectful about the royal family nor should you dismiss the notion of monarchies and promote democracy and voting as a better system.
- Certain behaviours in Western culture may be inappropriate in Middle Eastern culture, so always ask them first if they feel comfortable talking about a topic or how it is perceived in their culture. E.g. my Emirati male students won’t talk about their sisters in front of their classmates (also Emirati males) out of respect for their family.
- In my opinion, it is important that resources reflect the local culture. My Qatari students loved when I used their names, place names, and local events in worksheets. The World Cup in Qatar 2022 appeared many times in different lesson Powerpoints and activities I used!
- Do consider how you dress, both men and women. Topless men and overly short shorts (e.g. on Sport’s Day) are not always acceptable, while women are advised to cover to at least their knees and their chest and shoulders. However, it can depend on the school and how many local students you have. Some schools ask female staff to cover to the ankles and elbows or to wear long baggy clothing to cover their body shape. Remember that most of our local students’ mothers will wear hijab (head scarf/covering) and an abaya (long loose tunic, usually black). Some may wear niqab (a face garment with only the eyes exposed) or a full-face veil (light black material covering the whole face), so the students may not be comfortable with their teachers wearing shorter, revealing, or more fitted clothing.
- Polygamy is legal in the Middle East and arranged marriages (often between cousins) are common, so refrain from talking about marriage as a love match, incest, or genetic disorders.
- Certain hand gestures are considered very rude in the Middle East, especially the “OK?” hand sign, where the index finger forms a circle with the thumb. It means sexual intercourse here, so best not to use it ever! “Flipping the bird” aka the one-finger insult is also illegal here (as is cursing at someone) and can get you in serious trouble.
- At parents’ evenings, I recommend not extending your hand to parents unless they do it first, except between male teachers and fathers, who always shake hands. Some local fathers might shake a female teacher’s hand, but if I am unsure, I tend to smile, say hello, and put my hand over my heart as sign of respect, until they reach out. Local mothers would not usually shake a male teacher’s hand.
- Taboo topics
Taboo topics in the Middle East include mentioning Israel, pork, homosexuality, having children while unmarried, and the Big Bang Theory. Depending on the specific country, it is not recommended to mention boyfriends and girlfriends, co-habiting partners, the different sects in Islam (especially the difference between Shi’as and Sunnis), or other religions.
- Tone of voice
Tone of voice is very important in the Middle East. As an Irish person, I can understand that, as tone of voice is important in our culture too. I am a fan of “Ask someone to do something, don’t tell them.” This has worked well for me so far in my teaching career!
- Firm boundaries
Like many students around the world, Middle Eastern pupils have a strong sense of fairness and may rebel if they feel they have been unfairly treated or picked on by a teacher. I would recommend setting clear rules in simple language that students paste in their books at the beginning of the year. Be consistent with them and offer a “3 warnings and you’re out” policy. They cannot claim mistreatment or imply this to their parents, if you’ve made your firm behavioural boundaries and consequences clear from the beginning.
I also advise setting clear boundaries for class discussion too, especially in an international school when you have a mixture of nationalities in one class. To avoid one side dominating the discussion, have 4 clear rules for class debate. For instance:
- I will use “I think/ I believe/ in my opinion” to give my view, not “we” or a generalised opinion as I am only speaking for myself, not an entire class/ gender/ race/ country.
- I will respectfully listen to others’ opinions, even if they are different to mine. This means I cannot interrupt them and I will raise my hand to speak.
- I will respectfully disagree with others by starting my sentence with, “I respect your opinion but I believe that …”
- I will not discuss anything said here, either by me or others, outside the classroom, especially to mock or hurt others.
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I would like to add that teaching local students in the Middle East has been an overwhelmingly positive and cherished experience for me, as I am sure it will be for you!
I hope you have found these guidelines helpful as you consider teaching in the Middle East. Join our supportive Empowering Expat Teachers FB group here where I share more tips and resources to help you become a personally, professionally and financially empowered expat teacher!
Do you have any other helpful advice when it comes to teaching local pupils? Please comment below!