x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Take it easy on pupils during the holidays

The Middle East schooling system is tougher than you may think, so try to curb your irritation with rowdy pupils on holiday.

Normally I hate school holidays because I associate the period with extra traffic and rowdy shopping malls.

But when it comes to students in the Middle East, my annoyance makes way for a grudging respect.

These kids do deserve a break. I spent my first nine years in Middle Eastern schools before continuing my studies in Australia. The change in syllabus was similar to moving from the Marines to a local neighbourhood watch patrol.

That pretty much sums up the enormity of the change in going from a school system that prioritised stuffing young minds full of useful figures, formulae and grammar principles, to one that placed an emphasis on developing a child's self-expression.

I still remember that surreal moment when I first entered a Melbourne classroom as a 10 year old. Convinced that education could only get harder in western societies, my family prepared me with terrifying stories of how one wrong answer in a simple arithmetic equation could mean an automatic fail for the whole year.

So I prepared mentally and read as much of the Aussie textbooks as I could.

I dressed up in the 10-year-old equivalent of businesswear and arrived at class with a snappy-looking man bag. I was prepared to answer the teacher's tricky maths questions and even knew the capital city of Romania.

But all that planning went out the window with Ms Johnson's first question.

"How are you, Saeed?"

I was tongue tied. This was not in my notes. None of my teachers in the Arab world asked such non-academic questions.

She then told to me to sit down and listen to my fellow students take turns standing in front of the class and regale us about their weekend exploits.

During my school spell in the Middle East, life revolved around numbers. Each day consisted of seven classes. That is seven homework exercises, five days a week, meaning you had one in seven chances of getting rapped over the knuckles with a ruler each school day.

So if you were a person as lazy as my grade-three classmate Abdul, who never did his homework, you would stand to receive up to 35 thrashings a week or more than 200 a month. The ruler may be gone from classrooms now, but the others stresses remain.

And there is still one magic number that determines whether your summer holiday is filled with joy or punishment: that's your end-of-year class ranking. Each family has its own demands or history of excellence to live up to.

Luckily for me, after years of finishing towards the bottom end of the spectrum, including one year where I came a diabolical 18th out of 25 students (that was a long summer), my father was just happy that I passed.

So if you see any of those rowdy kids at the mall, suppress your annoyance, smile and maybe even offer them an ice cream.