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What it's really like to teach in the Middle East as a South African

Reading stories and real-life accounts of what it is like to teach in the Middle East as a South African teacher is so valuable as they give new teachers a very realistic account of what to prepare themselves for when it comes to considering an international teaching position.


In this series of Q&A's we pose some basic questions to teachers we have placed and let them answer as truthfully and comprehensively as they are able. We hope this helps you prepare mentally for what it is like to teach in the Middle East.


SA-Recruitment placed Cassi at an international school in Abu Dhabi in September 2023 and in this ‘question and answer’ style blog, she was kind enough to answer some of our questions, and provide her own advice and anecdotes about what it is like to work as a South African teacher in an international school.


View of Abu Dhabi city from a local beach
View of Abu Dhabi city from a local beach


Why did you contact SA-Recruitment to assist you in your journey to Teach in The Middle East?


I contacted SA-Recruitment as I had a friend who worked for the company a couple years back but at the time, I was not ready to make a jump in my career. When I felt ready, I reached out and the process was smooth, easy-going and very reassuring.


What do you enjoy most about teaching abroad?


I look at this prospect from two stand points, one being the opportunity of understanding a completely new culture, experiencing new curriculums, and pushing the limits in educating children and families who want to learn in English.  On the other hand, having an opportunity to explore, travel and live in a safe and first world country is no comparison when coming from a country unable to meet the basic safety needs of people and their professions.


What has been the most challenging thing about living in a new country and teaching in a new school environment?


I would say the most challenging part about this journey would be the mindset most people have in their work environment, “Every man for themself or Survival of the fittest”.  I believe the first school you start at will be a hit or an absolute miss. There are always deadlines to meet, management can be questionable and the turnover of teachers in and out of schools, make it harder to build relationships with colleagues. There is constant change being thrown your way on a weekly basis that when you first arrive you are overwhelmed, exhausted and questioning every reason for the move.


The best advice I can share is to allow yourself time to feel these overpowering feelings and quickly find a friend or two to debrief and talk to.

The work becomes easier; however the load stays the same. At first, it is challenging teaching learners who have English as a second, maybe third language however, the milestones they reach is very rewarding in the end.

 

Lastly, another challenging aspect of teaching here is - depending on your school, it can be quite isolated as you are confined to your grade and your colleagues within your grade. Meetings are seldom had amongst the school and communication is often done through means of emails and text messages therefore no real connections are made across the school. It is hard to build relationships in these conditions therefore it is important to make an effort in these instances to connect.

South African teacher at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
Cassi at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi


How does the cost of living compare to South Africa?


I can suggest that you come here with the mindset that you are earning AED and not ZAR. As wonderful as the exchange rate is for South Africans you can get caught up not wanting to do things.  For example. Onion’s cost 3DHS therefore it costs R3. DO NOT CONVERT. If you are smart you can have enough money to send home, plan a trip and spoil yourself with new things and go on adventures! Petrol is cheap and you can spend roughly 200 DHS a month. Car rentals will cost between 1300 and 2100. Utilities are around 400-500DHS.


What are some of the best things you enjoy about the lifestyle abroad?


Coming from South Africa you will never feel safer here. Deliveries are left outside your door, everything is monitored, roads are patrolled, rules are followed and there is always something to do. I enjoy being able to drive to Dubai to explore food and culture from all over the world, see museums, go out into the desert, spend days at resorts and hotels and listen to live music WHENEVER. Most Taxis are monitored so you feel safe too. Being able to run around the neighbourhood at any time of the hour is an added plus, if you enjoy being outdoors. Everything has been thought of and is made for your convenience.

 

How have you grown as a teacher and as a person?


In the time that I have been here I have honestly been taught to be more resilient in all areas. Being here has fostered an environment for personal growth and career growth in terms of learning a new curriculum, understanding different standards of teaching and constant reflection on teaching strategies when faced with cultural, and language differences. As a teacher we are required to earn PD points through the department of the specific Emirates which has helped in my professional development.

 

How do you feel about safety?


The safety in the UAE is unimaginable and Abu Dhabi in particular is considered the safest city in the world and you feel it. As a woman, like I said previously, we can go for a run at any time of day or night without fear. Laptops, phones, and bags are left unattended, and cars unlocked. Obviously, it is always best to be alert and aware of your surroundings. Everything is strictly monitored and people are for the most of it, honest.

 

What is the best advice you can give to teachers considering the move?


The best advice I can give to teachers considering the UAE, is to make sure that you make a friend as soon as you get here. Find a person you can talk to daily. You will never know what the school is like until you are here and what they offer, in terms of resources. I am at a well-established school, and I landed up buying a laminator, printer, and resources such as playdough and stickers and finger grips because there are some things the school does not budget for that are imperative to certain learners.


Most schools differentiate therefore you have learners on different levels with different abilities.


Come over with printed and laminated resources to set up your classroom ie; Numbers, Alphabet Cards, Picture Cards - as it’s a second language for most students, counting charts, Weather chart, Days of the week etc.


Most classrooms are empty at the start of the year, and you must build it up yourself. It is very overwhelming walking into a classroom that has nothing but desks and chairs for the students. Pack that extra bag and be prepared for this.


Lastly, I can advise that you utilise your admin periods well throughout your week to ensure that you get a weekend to relax, explore and recoup as some weeks can be very challenging at times in the term. Every school is managed differently.


South African teacher in the desert of Abu Dhabi on a camel
Cassi enjoying a desert adventure

Any apps etc. you could recommend to new teachers coming over?


UAE PASS, TAMM, UAEICP, Careem (Uber), Abu Dhabi Taxi, Amazon, Noon, Talabat, Aura MENA (Rewards), My Etisalat or Du (Celphone services), GroupOn, Google Meets (Whatsapp video call doesn’t work), VPN

 

Any further comments or information you feel might be useful for a new teacher to know.


Be ready for a completely different space of living and working. There will always be challenges and growth, but it can be worth it if you have a very positive mindset. There is no comparison to South Africa and the schools there. The education here is higher than SA and the learners are taught beyond the SA standards. Eg 5-year-olds are reading and writing sentences at the beginning of the year. Be comfortable knowing that it wont be easy at the start however once you make it through the first term, it should be smooth sailing and second nature.

 

Cassi's account of the pro's and con's of teaching at an International School as a South African teacher is incredibly truthful and realistic. As an agency we constantly talk to teachers about doing their research and preparing for this kind of opportunity and this blog is a very useful tool to consult.

If you are keen to read more about the requirements, the teaching opportunities, the process and how SA-Recruitment can assist and support you through this journey click through to our website and then CONTACT US.




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