Teaching in Dubai {What’s It Really Like}

Several months ago, one of my best friends and I posted this little freebie to hang outside classroom doors. Even though a poster “is just a poster” we wanted to do something small to help teachers make all students feel included! The vertical one is in my store here and the horizontal one is in Jessica’s store here.

All Kids Welcome Free Poster

A few weeks later, an amazing teacher named Lauren commented on my Instagram and emailed me. She said “Normally when I hang a poster or decoration from TPT on my walls the illustrations of students do not reflect what my students look like (and never is a girl with a hijab represented). As you know, feeling represented is exceptionally important for self-esteem, empowerment, and growth. Your poster shows representation for my students and I am so thankful for that…I apologize if I sound very dramatic, I know it’s just a poster, but it is also representation and it means a lot to me and my students! “ (cue the tears!!!) I truly can’t explain how much it means to have a teacher across the world say something I made helped in her classroom. Of course, I replied immediately and wanted to know all about her and her sweet kiddos.

Lauren explained that she was an American living and working in Dubai. We chatted a bit, and I was so interested in her life and classroom! Having taught many students from the Middle East, I was thrilled to chat with her about the students in her class, and how our experiences were the same and how they were different. In my own experience, there were SO many misconceptions about the families I worked with, and I knew there were even more about families living overseas. We chatted about that a bit and had an idea! We wanted to do a blog post sharing all about her life and classroom to help others (hopefully) understand cultural differences and similarities! Of course, we know that most of our readers won’t go teach in Dubai. BUT most (if not all) teachers will have a student from an Arabic family. We hope this blog post helps answer some questions you might have and shine a light on some misconceptions.  I sent Lauren some questions that I had (or thought others might) and we’ll be sharing those answers as well as some photos!

Note: We would LOVE to chat with anyone about this post, HOWEVER, any negative posts will be deleted immediately. 🙂 This post is to build understanding between a teacher in American and a teacher in the UAE and not to cause any sort of division. 🙂 

(All students photographed have parent permission to be included in this blog post!)

What made you decide teach in the UAE? When I graduated from college and obtained my Education certificate in New Hampshire and Massachusetts I started looking for jobs. As many teachers know it was almost impossible to find a classroom teacher position right out of college. After a month of searching for a teaching position I started getting restless (I know I didn’t search for long but I was young and impatient!). I had been following a beauty blogger for years and knew of Dubai from her as she had recently moved there and it seemed beautiful and full of opportunity. I reached out to a head hunting company who helped me apply for jobs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Within a week I had an interview with a school in Abu Dhabi. The interview went really well and although I had never been to the UAE before something in me just said “take the job!” and I did. I have now been working here for 5 years and I have never been happier!

What is your typical classroom schedule like? Do to the guidelines of ADEK (Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge) we don’t have as much time with our students as we would like. Grade 1 students are required to have 6 Arabic classes a week. The Muslim students also have 4 Islam classes a week while non-Muslim students have Home Country, Host Country which is a social studies class. Normally homeroom teachers teach HCHC but because I am the Grade Level Leader for Grade 1 I do not. We are also an IB/PYP school so we teach Unit of Inquiry which is basically a combination of Social Studies and Science.

7:05: I arrive to school and prepare for the day (and drink lots of coffee)

7:45: Students arrive in the classroom

7:50-8:35: Morning Meeting and Phonics

8:40-9:20: Reader’s Workshop

9:20-9:35: Snack Recess

9:40-10:20: Islamic or HCHC

10:20-11:05: Math

11:05-11:40: Lunch and Lunch Recess

11:40-12:25: Writer’s Workshop

12:25-1:10: Arabic

1:10-1:55 Specials (P.E, I.T, or Arts)

1:55-2:45: Unit of Inquiry

2:45 Dismissal

After school I attend leadership meetings, faculty meetings, teach LLI, and lead Bowling Club.

Our work week here is Sunday thru Thursday due to the fact that Friday is the holy day in Islam.

What is the make-up of your classroom? I currently have 18 students. All elementary classes are capped at 21. The grade younger always puts together the classes for the grade above and try to have them split as evenly as possible (boy/girl, Muslim/non-Muslim, cognitive levels, and behavioral). I have students from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Colombia, Hungary, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. About 1/4th of all of our classes are made up of Emirates (people from the UAE). All classrooms have a few ELL students and Special Ed students as well. We have a wonderful ELL team and Learning Support team to help us best support these kiddos!

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What do you wish Americans knew about Emirati families? Emiratis are very kind, open, and welcoming people. I find that many Americans think the Middle East is very behind and backwards, this is not the case. Emiratis care a great deal about education, and they have the utmost respect for teachers. Every Emirati parent I have had is so appreciative of everything I do for their children. Most families in the UAE (not just Emiratis) have nannies, sometimes 2 or 3 per family (or more!). The role of the nanny changes from family to family. Most nannies keep the house clean, pack lunches, and do other chores while the parents work and raise their children. Other nannies raise the children. Every year I have a few students that I never meet their parents. The nanny will come to parent-teacher conferences, open house nights, and even be my contact on Seesaw and Classdojo. Initially it can be a big culture shock but when you get to know the students, nannies, and families you realize there is no lack of love if the child is mostly being raised by a nanny. There is a lot of love and attention there!

What has been your favorite part about working in the UAE? My favorite part is definitely the people. I feel I have become such a better teacher by having co-workers who are from all over the world. Everyone has such different experiences and are trained in programs from all over so when we work together we really are able to learn from each other and create the best environment for our students. Also I have made amazing friends! I now have friends who live in every part of the world, which means getting to visit them and getting to travel! I never thought I would be a person who has the travel bug but I’m hooked! The families and students are amazing as well. The first time I spent Christmas in the UAE many of my student’s parents found out. They were so concerned that I was spending Christmas alone and many of them sent me emails or approached me and would say “We are Muslim so we do not know much about Christmas but we know you should not spend it alone. Come to our house and we will celebrate together. It was one of the most beautiful and heartwarming experiences of my life. It truly breaks my heart when I see people who think Islam is evil and full of violence. I live in a Muslim country and I have never felt more welcome and loved!

What is a typical school lunch like? Because we are an international school what students bring for lunch often varies. My American students may bring peanut butter and jelly, Arab students may bring labneh and rice, Latin American students bring a lot of fresh fruit. It really all depends. The students eat in the classroom but can go to the canteen (cafeteria) to buy lunch. They have hot meals of the day which can be fish, chicken, pasta, tacos, and more. Students also buy an Arab sandwich called manakesh which is filled with cheese or zaatar (which is an amazing mix of sumac, thyme, marjoram, oregano, and salt). Outside of school you can eat whatever you want. Name a fast food place and we have it (McDonalds, Shake Shack, Pizza Hut, Chili’s, Popeye’s, Subway, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Pinkberry…) and the best thing is that they all deliver. You definitely gain weight when you move here!IMG_3350

How can American teachers support Muslim students and families in their classroom? I think the first thing is to remove the politics from it. No matter what your beliefs and opinions are, these kids are just kids and they need your love and support without judgement. Children are taught ignorance; they are not born with it. It is our job as educators to debunk stereotypes.

Muslim children and families are scared. They are scared for their own safety, for their future, for the safety of their families. A child is not going to be able to focus on learning and understanding when they are worried. We need to make our classrooms a safe haven by allowing conversation, not allowing hate or ignorance, and just to be there to listen.

Play Arab music (I especially love Lebanese singers such as Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wehbe). Have books about Islam and the Middle East in your classroom. Make sure to differentiate between the two (many Arabs are Christian, especially Egyptians, Syrians, and Lebanese so do not assume everyone is Muslim).

Celebrate Ramadan the same way you would Christmas. Talk about the customs with your WHOLE class, have books out on Ramadan (such as Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns).

Books I love on the Middle East, Islam, and Acceptance:

Same Same But Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns by Hena Khan

Going to Mecca by Naima B. Robert

The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania of Jordan Al Abdullah

The Desert Vet by Alex Tinson

Ava’s Adventures Abroad: Abu Dhabi, by Brenda Sue Bell Davis

The Little Girl Says Alhamdulillah by Rabia Gelgi

The Day of Ahmed’s Secret by Florence Perry Heide

Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye

Oranges in No Man’s Land by Elizabeth Laird

The Turtles of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye

If there is anything I have learned since moving to a Muslim country and becoming friends with Muslims from all of the world is that Islam truly is a religion of peace. Like in all religions there are some bad seeds but every single Muslim that I have met is peaceful, kind, open, and caring.

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What should I look for when applying for a school in the UAE? If you are thinking of working as a teacher in the United Arab Emirates be very careful when applying. In Dubai you can only work in private schools. In Abu Dhabi you can work in private and public. A lot of people work in public schools because they have better pay and nicer benefits but the government schools are more intense: larger amounts of students, long commutes, and a lot of behavioral issues.

I prefer teaching in private because the programs are better, they follow western curriculums (American, IB, British, Australian…) and a better working environment. It is important to do your research though, a lot of private schools can look really nice on the website but are very unorganized and lacking in programs. Make sure to talk to teachers at the school you are applying to before you sign a contract. Most teachers would be more than happy to talk to people who are interested. As an American I personally find it important to work an American school so that I am still teaching Common Core and I am using programs such as Lucy Calkins and Everyday Math.  If I eventually move to Dubai, I will continue to work for only American schools. You should also consider Abu Dhabi vs. Dubai. I love both places. I have taught in Abu Dhabi for 6 years, it is relaxed, beautiful, on the ocean, and full of wonderful people. I may eventually move to Dubai too as it is more upbeat and it has a larger western expat community!

What is your life like outside of school?  When you leave school at the end of the day there is plenty to do. I am a huge Zumba fan, I go to classes 3 or 4 times a week with a wonderful group of women. Triathlons and marathons are very popular all over the UAE. We have beautiful mangroves that people kayak in, and oceans to go boating on, swim in, and jet ski! Lots of performers come to the UAE as well, this year we have had people such as Elton John, Jennifer Lopez, Ed Sheeran, Katy Perry, Kendrick Lamar, Ricky Martin, and Trevor Noah. The UAE also has amazing restaurants, bars, and clubs. Alcohol is legal and sold here, just do not be drunk in public!

What misconceptions would you like to clear up?  

1. That it is dangerous! Abu Dhabi has been ranked the safest city in the world to live in. Dubai is the 5th safest city in the continent of Asia. The UAE has been rated the second safest country in the world, behind Finland. You never feel unsafe or uncomfortable. During the summer months I will go out running along the beach at 4am before school and I feel quite at ease. I rarely lock my apartment; many people do not lock their cars (I do it out of habit). Whenever I go back to America I forget about how lucky I have it in the UAE, and I accidentally walk away without my purse or forget to lock the door behind me!

2. That women are treated poorly. The United Arab Emirates is very proud of women and the success of females and female Emiratis. Women here work, drive, go to school, raise families, everything that they do back in America. Not only are women in the workforce but the country is very proud of this and encourages it. Emirati women work as pilots, race car drivers, doctors, teachers, space engineers, anything you can imagine!

3. I am always asked if I need to “cover-up” and wear an abaya and shayla or hijab. Nope! I wear the same clothes that I wear back in Massachusetts. I tend to wear a lot of long sleeves and pants because the air conditioning is quite intense in the malls and restaurants but when I go running I am in shorts and a tank top. Emiratis are very open-minded and understand that westerners dress differently. I wear an abaya and shayla only when I visit the Grand Mosque, the same way some churches require women to cover when they visit.

4. That everyone is rich! Once again, nope! I wish! There is definitely an economic class system. It can seem like everyone has a lot of money here because the quality of life great (housing allowance, tax-free salary, affordable help such as nannies) but you do not just suddenly become a millionaire when you move here.

Last but not least! If anyone would like to contact me to find out more or ask questions about anything, feel free to email me: LaurenBarwick@gmail.com

Here are some pictures of her sweet kiddos!

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We hope this post shines some light on the amazing things happens at school all over the world, and even helps make a few connections between teachers and students! Thank you so much for taking the time to read! Lauren and I are incredibly thankful!

Teaching in Dubai

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