My opinion of teaching in Saudi Arabia

Before landing in Saudi, I heard that teaching students in the Kingdom can be the toughest ESL assignment abroad. Students, I heard, are rowdy, lack motivation, and still pass levels because of the way the system is structured. Before landing, I was curious how accurate this would be.

Turns out, it’s pretty accurate.

The students weren’t motivated to learn. My students at the colleges where I taught got paid to attend classes. They wanted jobs after graduating, but they also just liked getting the money each month.

I suppose the situation could be similar in other cultures as well. In Korea, for instance, some adult students attended classes because their company suggested it and paid for it. In other cases, like at the place I taught, students attended because their parents wanted them to attend.

It’s different in Saudi, though, because the culture doesn’t have the same kind of respect for education. As a result, the students don’t come into the class with the study habits or even the history of classes the way they would in other countries, especially other countries in east Asia. Beginner classes in Saudi don’t just teach English – they have to teach basic, study habits as well.

The students who want to learn, learn. They might have picked up some English from their friends, from video games or movies, or from living or studying abroad. The students who don’t want to learn, though, not only don’t learn English – they don’t even learn to pretend like it.

I guess this is true of most places, really. There are always students who zone out and others who just generally make it their mission in life to disrupt the class. In Saudi, it felt different, though, because the culture is so different from what I was used to. Because of the general lack of study skills, it’s often difficult as a teacher to tell when a student doesn’t know how to study versus when a student just isn’t bothering to care at all.

There’s another big problem too, beyond students not knowing or wanting to study: they cheat. Cheating in Saudi Arabia, at least at the two colleges where I worked, created huge problems. Students had no shame. They didn’t try to hide the fact that they tried to cheat. And they’re all in on it together.

They’d turn around in their seats or crane their necks to get a glimpse of what the better students would write. In America, we’d kick them out of the exam and maybe out of the school. In Saudi, because all the students do it, students don’t get kicked out. We’d lose all of them. And so the problem perpetuates itself.

It’s not just the weak students either. They’re literally all in on it, the strong students too. The strong ones would hold their exams up, pretending to read them more carefully but really just helping students behind them see the answers. The strong ones would write the answers on their hands and try to show their hands to other students. The strong ones would whisper the answers as they walked out after turning in their exams. I even had some students try trading their exams to boost their scores or calling in answers from outside the room as the door opened for students to leave.

None of this even mentions the fact that many teachers, throughout the entire education system, accept bribes or are forced to back down to students’ demands because of who the students know.

For those who are curious, yes, there are ways to catch and stop most of this cheating. But no, no one feels like working together to put in the initial time and effort to do any of that. As a teacher, when you experience this level of cheating first hand in such a pervasive fashion, it kills your energy and motivation like digging trenches and filling them back in.

Having said all that, remember what I said in my last post about the Saudi experience compared to its reputation? It’s not that bad.

When everything’s said and done and taught and ignored, teaching in Saudi isn’t that bad. Yes, the students can be out of control. Yes, some of them struggle to understand even the most basic concepts of respect and etiquette. Yes, it often feels like all your work as a teacher is pointless because the system doesn’t really care if the students learn English.

But there are also upsides that no one mentioned to me before I ventured into the KSA. Let’s see if I can remember some of them.

For one, students like to joke around. If you poke fun at them, they love it, at least the young men I taught.* They’ll joke back and learn to respect you as a teacher more if you’re able to roll with the punches.

For two, some students will surprise you with what they know. I had students who had traveled to countries I’d never even thought of. And as Saudis, they experienced even what I’d call more normal countries (like France, for instance) in a much different way than I would. Talking with students about these differences can be pretty interesting.

Also, since most teachers rarely interact with Saudis outside of class, students end up being the window to Saudi culture. The great thing about it too is that they students love being that window. They love telling you about their culture, their customs, their religion, their history, and the things that interest them. My Korean students enjoyed it too but felt much more shy about opening up.

And that’s another thing, and it kind of goes back to what I said about them loving to joke around. Saudis, the guys at least, aren’t shy. They get up in front of class. They open up. That part of the culture I enjoyed.

Like living in Saudi Arabia, teaching there isn’t for everyone. But also like living there, it’s not that bad. Teachers complain about how bad the cultural experience is, that if you’re going to experience the culture, don’t bother. I disagree with that. Even though I wasn’t able to really dig into the culture independently, teaching Saudis definitely gave me a perspective on the country (and perhaps the region in general) that I never would have gained teaching somewhere else.

* I can’t speak for what it’s like to teach Saudi women. Not only did I not teach any of them. I never interacted with them in any meaningful way either. If someone has experience teaching Saudi women or girls, please let me know. I’d be interested in learning more about that experience.

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