At the age of 22, I began my career as a guidance counsellor in a secondary school in Ireland. I had an amazing first year in this sector, but I wanted to travel, while still gaining experience. A job offer for a guidance counsellor position in the Middle East was the perfect opportunity, and I'm currently living and working in Kuwait.
Peter McGuire writes in today's Education pages about the increasing number of Irish teachers jetting off to Asian and Middle Eastern countries, lured by the good salaries and perks on offer.
But what is life like for Irish teachers in the region? I recently conducted an informal online survey of 30 other Irish teachers working around the Middle East, asking them to outline their experiences in different countries. I asked questions about their view of the education system they currently work in, how it compares to Ireland, the positives and negatives of living here, and whether they would recommend it to other Irish teachers.
The big selling point for everyone who responded is the tax-free salary. There are also no bills to pay, and accommodation is provided free for the vast majority of teachers working here.
I personally haven't managed to save as much here as you would expect, but I am doing what I was saving for in Ireland. I'm travelling. I've explored Kuwait and learned about its culture and religion. I spent Christmas in Sri Lanka, been to Dubai for many casual weekends, and travelled to Bahrain to play GAA with the Kuwait Harps. Before the school year is over, I plan to visit Jordan, Oman and Lebanon.
When asked about the positive aspects of living and working in the region, lifestyle and the opportunity to travel were mentioned time and time again by other teachers who responded to the survey:
“Experience of teaching a class of children who have English as a second language. The chance to explore a new curriculum and see what else is out there.” - Dubai
“Sun. Lifestyle. Job progression. Different experiences and the opportunity to climb a ladder that doesn’t exist in Ireland.” - Kuwait
“We have amazing opportunities to travel easily to any country. It is a golden opportunity to save money for your future. Valuable experience of meeting people from all walks of life.” - Abu Dhabi
“Less work (Arabic classes during the day increase opportunities to mark and plan within school hours). Easy to travel and experience new cultures etc.” - Kuwait
But there are challenges, too. Schools in the Middle East place a major emphasis on grades. Students and parents can often forget about the actual learning itself, and the ability or needs of the student:
“[The system is] more exam-focused, parents and kids learn for the sake of a mark rather than the learning itself.” - Abu Dhabi
“There is a lot of pressure from the parents for students to succeed.” - Kuwait
Students are put under extreme pressure by parents to get prestigious jobs, which can conflict with the career ambitions of the student themselves. Even if the student is not capable, however, the scary truth is if they want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a policeman, it’s possible no matter their grades - because of “wasta”.
"Wasta" is an Arabic word for connections; it is all about "who you know" here. It refers to using one's connections and/or influence to get things done, including government transactions such as the quick renewal of a passport, and getting hired for or promoted in a job. It even goes as far as bending the law. This can be difficult to accept and contradicts the value of education. It's hard to motivate students to work hard when "families are able to 'pay off' the system to still allow their child to pass the grade level", as one respondent in Abu Dhabi put it.
“The education system here is unfair as sometimes you have kids who don’t show up to school but at the end of the year you’re asked to pass them because of who they are,” says another teacher in Kuwait.
Wasta is an embedded cultural issue, but there are other common problems which Irish teachers face which are attributable to how the schools themselves are run. Many operate as businesses, where profit is the priority. In some, teachers can feel like employees there to please the client rather than a valued member of the teaching staff.
“The cultural difference often means the teacher is in the wrong, and student’s opinions or stories are believed above a teacher’s words." - Abu Dhabi
Teachers in Ireland reading this might tell us to stop complaining and be happy we don’t have to pay rent or bills. But we also don’t pay into a pension fund. There is no pay scale for us to climb. Teachers who moved over here soon after graduation will have to start at the bottom of the pay scale if they decide to move back to Ireland, despite the years of experience they may have gained here. There is no teacher trade union here, and a lack of support on issues of employment.
The high cost of living is mentioned repeatedly by survey respondents as a challenge living here, as well as missing friends and family. Perhaps surprisingly, Irish food is also mentioned a lot, especially the breakfast fry, as pork is illegal in most Gulf States.
“Cost of living can be high for things such as groceries, missing family milestones/occasions, no unions to help back you up as a professional.” - Kuwait
“Missing family, friends and GAA. Nothing is the same as playing for your local club. Your home, strangely sometimes the weather. Just being around Irish people and having a common understanding of each other.” - Abu Dhabi
“Missing home and not contributing to a pension scheme at home. It is easy to stay here and get swept up by the lifestyle. It’s a life I couldn’t believe existed. Very hard to walk away... if I ever do!” - Abu Dhabi
There is a lot of work being done at the embassy in United Arab Emirates to help Irish teachers and represent the whole Gulf area. Recently I was lucky to meet Pat Hennessey, the Irish Ambassador to the UAE who also looks after Qatar and Kuwait, who stressed the embassy in Abu Dhabi is ready to help any Irish national in these countries. He will be hosting a get-together in September for the Irish in Kuwait, particularly for the new teachers to help them settle in, and deal with culture shock or any visa issues. The AbuDhabiPaddy.com website is in the process of expandingto cover Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia, which should be a great resource.
So, would we recommend the Middle East to other Irish teachers? Yes! But any teacher who comes here needs to be prepared for challenges, and be accepting of the fact that the region is very different to Ireland.
“It’s a good experience. You get a chance to work abroad, earn money, travel, develop skills, experience something new, and meet new people. It can be a learning curve for a person and also you don’t want to live life with regrets and in most cases travelling won’t be a regret. You’re also always only a short journey away from home.” - Abu Dhabi
For me, one of the biggest benefits has been the experience of a different education system and structure, as well as dealing with students and parents whose first language is not English. I’ve improved my communications skills, tolerance and respect for different cultures, people and religions.