x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Amid the din of reform, teachers' voices are drowned out

The key to any successful school is a dedicated staff, recognised for their efforts with adequate pay and support. Without this teachers will leave, and pupils and parents will suffer the consequences.

If I was a teacher getting a Dh20,000-a-month salary, free rent, utilities, a car allowance and free airfare home in the summer, I would do my best to keep my pupils, their parents and the administrators all in smiles. Right?

No thanks. Teaching in UAE is akin to being a lab mouse in a labyrinth. One minute it's rote learning, worksheets and a regimented classroom. Then it's technological theories about what makes learning "meaningful". You have to make it fun, they say. Now pupils only respond to comedians, wizards and tyrants. With a little dazzle and some child-friendly jokes, you might be a success.

They couldn't pay me enough. What starts out as a seemingly good job turns into a scene out of the movie Gladiator.

"State-of-the-moment" teaching relies too much on instructional acrobatics. Just as you stop to catch your breath, the principal catches you sitting in your chair. "Teachers don't sit anymore, that is so 19th century," she chides. Gone are the days of teaching "my way", the days of closing the door, creating a world between you and your pupils where learning and growth go together.

Then comes the day when you hear your dream of becoming a great teacher burst overhead. Although your brand-new briefcase is overloaded with the latest edition of pedagogy, the other teachers in your group missed that workshop so they are often at your door, creeping in to steal your ideas and techniques. Then they run over to the department head and claim intellectual rights, leaving you in the dust.

For those teachers who stay in the job, life in the classroom can be as funny as it is bewildering. Some might dazzle you with rap lyrics or moonwalking.

Then again, if you are a foreign teacher, that strange look on pupils' faces has an explanation. "Is she Kate from Lost or Nia Long from Big Mamma's House?" they ask each other. If you are a Muslim wearing an abayah, they will think their eyes are playing games on them because you look so familiar but act so differently.

Actually, I'm just playing. Really, the children aren't thinking that hard. For the most part they are just trying to figure out what you want them to do or patiently waiting for that one student who understands the assignment to finish so that they can start copying.

If you are really lucky, you work in one of those outstanding schools where all the head teachers are all on the same page. Your children are attentive and try hard to do well. The money is good, too. Most outstanding schools have career teachers who have to be up to snuff. No second chances or slipping through the cracks at a school like that.

For those of you on the front lines of education, I would suggest a jar of lavender oil for relaxation and headaches, some really soft sofa pillows for when you pass out 10 minutes after you arrive home, and a vibrating foot bath so that when you wake up in the morning, you won't feel like you still have your shoes on.

Teaching is hard work and you'll need these creature comforts just to survive. Stress is the reason that many teachers are leaving the profession. It's stress that hangs around like an unwanted freeloader, eating up every minute of your day.

In all of the news about education, the voices of teachers are ominously missing. They should matter the most in this conversation. Some think that schools are better now than before, others are not so sure.

The key to any successful school is consistency, dedicated staff, recognition for hard work and adequate pay. The lack of any of these infects teachers, pupils and their parents with a bad case of wanderlust, as they make their way through the school-reform maze hoping for a better life both inside and outside of the classroom.


Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE