Late to Class; A View of Teaching English in Saudi Arabia

teaching english in saudi arabia

I’ve taught English in Saudi Arabia now for over a year. It has been an interesting experience to say the least. If you are thinking of teaching in Saudi, you probably have a lot of questions about what to expect. You’ve likely come across some info on the internet or maybe even talked to someone whose taught there. In the end, it can be hard to decipher what information about Saudi Arabia is accurate. I want to shed some light on what it’s like to be here based on my own anecdotal experience. This is the first of a series of articles about the country, including what to expect as an English teacher here. To read more about my writings and adventures, visit leeleonard.org.

For information about finding a teaching job in Saudi Arabia, check out Looking to Teach English in Saudi Arabia? 

A typical day teaching English in Saudi Arabia

“Salam Ali Koom,” Hassan says, as he comes to class late, greeting the 20 or so young Saudi men wearing grey polo shirts and blue jeans who are his classmates. The Koran states it is imperative to greet someone when you enter a home, or indeed encounter anyone in social situation. Hassan, in a very content mood, satiated by the carbohydrate overload from his breakfast at McDonalds, has forgotten he has come into a classroom, not somebody’s home, or into a coffee shop.

It is a nice morning and I have the windows open.  A cool, dry 21 degree Centigrade breeze is blowing off the Red Sea into Jeddah, and is circulating through the modern classroom.  One student, having a brain fart, instinctively starts to respond to Hassan’s greeting, but is silenced in mid- sentence by my icy stare.  I stop the choral repetitions of the simple present we are doing, and turn to write Hassan’s name on the left hand corner of the whiteboard, placing the number 15 next to it.

I look directly at the rule breaking, late –for- class pupil, and with a big snarky grin say, “Ali koom salam.” The class chuckles as Hassan slaps his forehead, which is framed by his unruly bush of curly black shoulder length hair,  that sits atop his morbidly obese young body. There is a horrible problem with diabetes in this country.  Saudis are among the most overweight people in the world, probably in part due to the fact the Arabian Peninsula is not a great place to go jogging.  Take this propensity to avoid overheating with unnecessary activity, and introduce 2 fast food outlets for every 5 people in such a population, and you have a recipe for a major health crisis.

“Teacher, forget, sorry,” Hassan says, knowing full well his name will stay on the board until the following day, when it will be erased only if he gives the chieftain of this clan he finds himself in at college,  that would be me, the appropriate penance for his transgression. He will be required to write 15 times, “I will not greet the class when I come late.”  Should he fail to do so, as he knows all too well, the number will increase to 30 due the day after tomorrow.  If it is not done at that point, an official violation will be filed with student services for disturbing class, and he doesn’t want that to happen.

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Hassan places his chubby brown finger in the small black scanner which records attendance that is located by the door, and waddles slowly towards his desk. While on way to the assigned seat I ask him, as if I were a server in a restaurant, “Would you like some tea?” this earning a laugh from the class. “No teacher, he says,” smiling in a good natured, sheepishly way.

Turning down the offer of tea, I ask if he would care for something to nibble on.  In a sarcastically subservient tone of voice, and with exaggerated deferential mannerisms I propose, “How about some cake? Is strawberry cake ok? I know you like chocolate, but I ran out at 8:30 when class started, is strawberry ok, I hope?’ the farcical banter getting more laughs from his classmates.

No problem, teacher” he says smiling broadly  trying to articulate something to get me off his back. “Oh, I know it’s no problem,” I say in a very matter of fact way, stating the obvious, now in sharp contrast to my accommodating tone moments before.  “Because this, Hassan is a classroom not a coffee shop.”

Taking the opportunity to give the class a little break from the hard work I require at all times, and pointing towards the half dozen or so casement windows, I revert back to the accommodating servant affectation, and ask  “Is the temperature alright for you? Should I close the windows?

“No teacher, good,” Hassan says, allaying my non-existent fears that it may be too warm or cool for him.

“No teacher good?” I repeat back to the tardy student, who, taking it all in stride, and to a degree enjoying the sideshow, is nonetheless starting to wish he hadn’t ordered that second McDonald’s Big Breakfast, and had just gotten his ass to class on time, and above all had not interrupted our activity.

“What language are you speaking Hassan?”  I ask him.

“Ablish teacher,” he replies, correctly knowing that is the only acceptable response when I ask that question.

“Yes Hassan,” I confirm. “You are not speaking English, and you are not speaking Arabic.  You sir, are speaking Ablish, and I hate Ablish, don’t I Hassan?

“Yes you do teacher,” he responds, having finally squeezed into the seat at his desk.

“So,” I continue, my 56 year old  6’3,’ 230 pound now frame hovering over him. “I am glad you remember I hate Ablish, Hassan.” Then suddeny throwing an index finger to the heavens in the Arab fashion of a sworn vendetta, “Now will you please stop speaking that bullshit and speak English? Can you please……….pretty please use a verb and an object pronoun? What the hell kind of answer is …No teacher good….when I ask you if the temperature is OK?”

“No it good,” blurts out Rakan from the other side of the room.  ‘No it good?”  I echo, my eyes still fixed on the late student, who had committed the sin of interrupting class.

Then,  finally deciding to let up on the lovable kid, so his 4,000 calorie breakfast can digest and not cause him to go into premature cardiac arrest, I start to pace around the horseshoe desk formation. As if I were incredulous they can’t unravel the puzzle, I repeat a few a few times “Verb to be boys, verb to be.”

“No it is not good,” Abdullah, a bright eyed student, 2 inches taller and 50 pounds lighter than the late coming Hassan, shouts in a flash of apprehension.

“Thank you,” I say in a “duh” tone of voice. I then glance around the class and with an astonished look on my face that the mystery, in hindsight, all too apparent to everyone, was finally solved. After a pregnant moment of silence I initiate a round of applause for the problem solving Abdullah, so ending Hassan’s ordeal, for the time being, of forgetting one of the 23 class rules, he signed a pledge to uphold, or face the consequences.

It may seem that I am being an overbearing asshole, but my class works, and the kids love it. I employ many of the techniques of Whole Brain Teaching which renders mine among the most popular classes in the college. Anyone who has worked with Saudi students will tell you that you better have great classroom management skills, or else things will spiral quickly out of control, the kids won’t learn, and your life will be hell.

They don’t pay you 5 thousand dollars a month tax free just because the only cold beer available here is alcohol free.  It is a real dichotomy working with these guys. On one hand they are wonderfully friendly, and fun loving. They would never dream of personally disrespecting a teacher….  Well, 99.999 per cent wouldn’t. On the other hand, they have no respect for work in general, or indeed any real notion of responsibility. As such they have no respect for the class itself.

The mission of our institution, which is a technical college and part of a countrywide program known as “The Colleges of Excellence,” is to teach these guys a some English, and deliver some sort of vocational training. However, the real mission is to pull their heads out of the Middle Ages and into the 21st century. That and weaning them off of the ultimate welfare state work ethic, to get them ready for competitive workplace that lies in their future. This is something that is imperative for the changing world of lower oil prices, and the need to diversify economically that Saudi Arabia faces. Something these kids are woefully unprepared to do. Unlike their fathers, there will be no government job where you come into work late and skip off work to the coffee shop 2 hours early after afternoon prayers.  If we fail in our mission as teachers here in Saudi’s technical colleges, it will be back onto the camels to suck on dates, and chew on rubbery goat meat while the world outside marches exponentially further into the Digital Age leaving them in the dust.

These guys are coming of along in the era of “Saudiazation” in which Saudis will be (hopefully) doing all of the work now done by the millions of technocrats and other less skilled workers that make the place tick now. It is not an easy job for most teachers, but one that needs done. It is fun, interesting and lucrative. To boot the vacations can’t be beat.  In some upcoming posts I hope to explore more of my experiences teaching here in Jeddah. In the meantime, read more at leeleonard.org.

About Lee Leonard 3 Articles
A Florida native and graduate of Furman University, Lee has currently teaches English in Saudi Arabia. His ESL journey started with in 1985 when he joined the Peace Corps and taught in a rural lycee in Burkina Faso West Africa. Lee also taught for 12 years in Thailand, 1 year in South Korea, and has spent some time teaching in Washington D.C. In addition to his travels while teaching he also spent a significant amount of time Costa Rica and lived in Hawaii for 5 years pursuing his passion for surfing and golf. Currently he is finishing work on Would Be Skiers and Accidental Transvestites: A Peace Corps Tale which is based on his recollections of his time spent as a volunteer in Burkina Faso. See more at leeleonard.org.

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