Tag Archives: teaching

Settling into Ha’il

I’m pleased to report that I arrived safely into Ha’il on Tuesday, the 28th of August. The trip was about 220 miles (from Sakaka), made in a pick-up truck packed with all my furniture. It took about four hours in total, and the truck didn’t have any air-conditioning, so needless to say it wasn’t the most comfortable of journeys through the scorching Saudi desert! As you can imagine, I’ve been quite busy settling in since my arrival, unpacking all my stuff and installing my furniture into my new apartment, which is situated on the compound provided for the teachers.

The very next day after arriving, I started work! Still with the same company, Al-Khaleej Training & Education, I’m now positioned at the University of Ha’il, teaching English to students of the university’s Preparatory Year. My first day at the university was pretty busy. I was given a quick tour of the campus and introduced to the head of the English department and then the Dean of the Preparatory Year. Before long I was assigned to help invigilate the placement exams, which were held in a huge auditorium, and then helped with the marking.

Actual teaching began on Sunday, the 2nd of September and it’s been going very well so far. The students here are much the same as those I taught at Al-Jouf University, so there haven’t been any real surprises. I have been very impressed, however, with the relatively high level of organisation here (for Saudi Arabia, that is!). For example, there is a clear support structure in place, so that you know who your first port of call is in case of any questions or concerns. There are also various committees in place, such as the Exam Committee, Social Committee and even a Welcoming Committee, whose chairman introduced himself to me and was extremely helpful. Later, a meeting was held for all new teachers, during which we had the opportunity to ask more about the system and procedures here.

At the moment I have about 30 students in each of my two classes. Because this is the Preparatory Year, most students are aged 19, and once they pass the Preparatory Year, which includes Maths and Study Skills in addition to English Language, they then go on to specialise in their various fields. Medicine, for example, is taught largely in English and utilizes English textbooks, so a good command of the language is essential. It’s always a little scary when you ask Preparatory Year students what they want to be and they answer; “I am want be doctor in future”. I just hope I never have to make a trip to the hospital!

The teaching hours are quite comfortable; each teacher has four 50-minute classes a day. Mine begin at 8:00am, with a two-hour break for lunch, then finish at 2:00pm, at which point I’m free to go home! Our company provides a bus to and from the compound, which is only 20 minutes door to door. So we don’t have to leave the compound in the mornings until 7:30am and then get back at around 2:30pm – not bad at all, really!

After living and working in Sakaka for a year, it’s impossible not to compare it to Ha’il, which is significantly larger. The compound is not as isolated as the one in Sakaka, but is still on the outskirts of the city. Within about 20 minutes, by bus or taxi, you can reach the centre of Ha’il, where there are all kinds of shops, restaurants and malls. So far I have seen McDonald’s, Subway, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s Pizza, Domino’s Pizza, Baskin Robbins, an Indian place called “Spiceland”, as well as Arab fast-food places, such as “Harfy”, “Kudu” and “Marky”. Like in Riyadh, when you order a Big Mac at a McDonald’s here, they ask you if you want the beef Big Mac or the chicken one! Granted I’ve been out of the real world for sometime now, so they might have chicken Big Macs in the US and UK, too, but I’ve never seen them! Do they have chicken Big Macs in the US and UK now? Be sure to leave a comment if you’ve tried it before! Here they also have the large supermarket chain, Panda, including a couple Hyper-Pandas, which rival the likes of Walmart in the US! These humungous stores have pretty much everything – and not just Middle Eastern products, but also British and American.

The compound is also much larger than the one in Sakaka, with about 100 apartments of various kinds and sizes. Most are single-occupancy, like mine, but there are also some designed for those teachers with families. In the middle is even a playground for kids, which is like a giant sandbox! So both male and female teachers live on the compound, and since it’s surrounded by high walls, women can walk freely about without having to wear the abaya or niqaab. At the same time, however, there are both Muslims and non-Muslims living here, so there is also a small mosque on the compound.

There is plenty of space to walk around and get some exercise; in fact, I brought my bike with me all the way from Sakaka with the rest of my stuff, so I’ve been enjoying riding about the place. There’s not a lot of grass on the compound, but there are plenty of trees and small bushes surrounding a lot of the housing, some with colourful blossoms, which add some welcome colour to the otherwise rocky landscape. There is some wildlife, too; cats, of course! You see them everywhere on the compound!

Although the compound has not one, but two swimming pools, both are empty! There is no sign of anyone planning to fill them, which is a real shame, especially with this heat. There’s also a huge building that was recently built to house a gym, but again, this has been left empty. Apparently, the workers rushed the job and the building has been deemed structurally unsound and unfit for use. It’s hard though to know if this is not simply an excuse to avoid having to fork out for some gym equipment and pay for pool maintenance. In much the same (disheartening) spirit, there is an outdoor tennis court and basketball court, both of which are in complete disrepair and have clearly been neglected for some time. Several teachers have their own car; so some go into town to use a gym instead. The sports clubs in town have swimming pools and even Jacuzzis and saunas. I heard from one teacher that his membership costs about 300 Saudi Riyals a month ($75), which I suppose is not too bad, as long as you make full use of your membership.

There is, however, a small “recreational room”. It’s a very simple space, which residents use for various things. Last night, in fact, we had a pot-luck social there, which was quite successful – and people seemed to like my chicken Korma with rice! Sometimes they host a “movie-night” there, using a projector and speakers to give it the feel of a cinema. Even the inside walls are decorated with movie posters. There is also an old ping-pong table and a small library of books – of all kinds – which are freely available for residents to borrow. In the past there have also been Arabic classes and even dance classes offered there, but how the space is used is all dependent on the residents that year and what they are interested in.

One thing I particularly love about the compound is the striking scenery! Engulfing the compound on three sides and overlooking the housing are these tall, boulder-rock hills. Almost as if brooding, these dark hills quietly watch on as they jut upwards, silhouetted against the clear skies. When I first saw them, they seemed unreal, like something out of a Hollywood film set or the constructed landscape of a Disney park. So, however much the compound may look like a prison from the outside, with its high walls and copious security, there is a lot to be said for the beauty that can be seen from within its walls. I have included some photos in the previous post below. Enjoy!

Me at work in Sakaka! (Photos)

Merry Christmas from Sakaka!

This year is now my second Christmas in a row in the Middle East and I could hardly be further from home out here in the remote Saudi desert, on the other side of the world. No snow, just hot, sunny days (I did a bit of sunbathing yesterday in the 80° weather!), no Christmas trees, no carol services… in fact, other than within the compound walls, there’s no sign of Christmas to be found. We’re even scheduled to work as normal this week, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Although we’ve been told there’s a chance we may get the day off for Christmas, knowing the way things work here, I’m not getting my hopes up! At the very least, we’ve been told that our company will be putting on a dinner for us tomorrow night – but even that is still to be confirmed. I’ve learnt that as long as you keep your expectations low here, you’ll not be too disappointed!

Fortunately, we do have a vacation coming up that’s not too far away. In fact, just today I booked my flights to the UK: January 19th – 26th 2012. I will be flying out of Amman, Jordan, since it’s a lot cheaper than going through Riyadh. So most likely I will be sharing a taxi with some of the other teachers here, which will take us up north across the border into Jordan. We’ll have to make sure, of course, that the driver doesn’t take the wrong turn and drive us into Iraq, which is just to the east! I look forward to making the most of my short time back in the UK. I know it will be a welcome change of scenery after almost five months of living in this rather secluded and surreal place! On my list of things to do include: having a bacon sandwich; drinking Lucozade; eating McDonalds and having a Dominoes pizza, not to mention a cold pint… and, if I’m lucky, maybe even a chat with a member of the opposite sex who isn’t wearing a Niqaab! Ya salaam…! And I will of course be making every effort to visit everyone in the process! All of this hinges, however, on our company being able to obtain my Saudi “exit re-entry visa” in time – and once again, you never know with this place… inshallah it will be fine!

Life here isn’t all that bad really – actually it’s very chilled out. There are an interesting bunch of teachers here, from Canada, the US, UK, South Africa, and Sudan, each with their own distinct personality that adds to life on the compound. On the weekends we get together for volleyball in the afternoon, then usually one of the villas hosts some sort of a party in the evening. Recently we’ve started having bonfires on the weekend too, roasting chestnuts and swapping stories, like where people have taught before or which country they would like to travel to next. The stars can be particularly striking out here too. One night, I just happened to be walking outside when I saw a shooting star, very low down, and actually witnessed it break up into several fragments before disappearing. I could hardly believe my eyes!

Around the compound we can often see wild dogs roaming about and looking for food, including some very cute puppies. I would be very tempted to take care of one, if not for the risk of catching some sort of disease. Just the other day I saw a tiny puppy playing by the street next to the university campus. It was so cute I wanted to take it home! It really makes me miss Laddie! There are some cats that live in the compound, but it’s not quite the same – plus, I think I am allergic to cats.

Work is going well. We’re still on three lessons a day – but that is promised to go down to only two a day after our January vacation. It will be determined by how long we have been in Sakaka, so fortunately I have a good chance of getting only two classes a day, since I’m no longer one the of newbies here! Also, the students have their final exams for the semester coming up very soon in January, which means we will get a couple weeks or so of break from teaching even before our vacation starts on the 19th.

In addition to teaching English, I’ve actually started teaching Arabic too! I’m currently tutoring two of the other English teachers, one in beginners-level Arabic and the other in elementary. As well as the added bonus of a bit of extra money, I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience and find that I, too, am learning a lot. It’s really interesting to go back to the basics and see Arabic from the beginner’s point of view again. I’d forgotten what it was like first learning Arabic (over five years ago now!), and it’s given me a fresh perspective on the language. Both my students live in town so I teach my Arabic classes at the university campus straight after work, using one of the English classrooms. It’s nice teaching on the campus, with a whiteboard, projector and speakers for use in the lesson. It means, however, that I don’t get back home until around 7:10pm (and the bus in the morning leaves for work at 7:10am!), so it can be quite a long day. I do that four days a week, taking a taxi back to the compound.

One such journey in the taxi, only three days ago, was rather nerve-wracking to say the least. I needed to pick up some bread on the way back so I asked my driver to stop at the nearest shop. Spotting a store up ahead, he slows down and pulls into a parking spot just in front of the shop. But just as we are coming to a halt – CRASH! – A car rams into the back of us! Fortunately, it didn’t hit too hard and no one got hurt. The driver that hit us got out and actually blamed my taxi driver, then proceeded to examine the damage to the front of his car. To the delight of my driver, his taxi had hardly been damaged (it was already a piece of junk anyway!), but the car that hit us was much worse off, especially since it was new. After some heated discussion, and after the guy that hit us admitted he had no insurance, they just decided to call it even and leave it at that. The thing that really topped it all off, however, was that fact that, when I went up to speak to the guy that rammed us, I noticed that he was in fact… cross-eyed! We had been rear-ended by a crossed-eyed driver! Thanking God that it wasn’t any worse (alhamdulilah!), I just shook my head and sighed; “Sakaka, only in Sakaka!” I think the less time I spend on the roads here in Saudi Arabia the better! That is one of the reasons why I’m very keen to move into town and live within walking distance of the university campus. I’m thinking of doing this sometime after the January vacation, perhaps from the beginning of March. I’ve now officially been in a car accident at least once in each of the Arab countries I have lived in. Let’s hope the pattern changes, because I plan on visiting many more Arab countries in my lifetime!

Merry Christmas!

Teacher James Bond… licence to kick you out of class!

I’m happy to report life in the Kingdom is going well… It seems to get easier each week as things become more predictable and I get used to the routine. I’ve noticed my classes have become gradually more pleasant as I continue to build up rapport with my students. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised last Wednesday when one of my students, as a token of his appreciation, gave me a tie – but not just any tie – a 100% silk, hand made Brioni tie, which happens to be the make of choice for James Bond! I guess I must be doing something right!

After a long wait, they finally installed a projector in my classroom, which I enjoyed using today. The lesson was on different countries and their nationalities and languages, so I simply pulled up a map of the world and used that as an instant visual aid. It helps a lot, too, that the Wi-Fi at the university reaches the classrooms, so now I can bring up pretty much anything on the board. For example, I thought I’d introduce my students to university life in the UK, so I gave them a quick tour of Durham University’s website, which included a great video:


Mesmerised by the cathedral and castle against a countryside of rolling green hills and winding rivers, my students’ eyes lit up; they were taking a brief glimpse into this far away world. One of my students described it as ‘like a story’ (really he was trying to say ‘like a fantasy’, but I understood what he meant). He wasn’t half-wrong, as I think there is something quite magical about Durham – it was the filming ground for a lot of Harry Potter after all! Of course, I miss it terribly and hope to return one day. As mentioned before in a previous post, I’m thinking of doing a masters there, in Arabic-English Translation & Interpreting, perhaps in a year or two’s time. Not surprisingly, my students were also fascinated by the concept of boys and girls sharing the same classes, let alone the same dormitories – I kept that part secret – I didn’t want to get them too excited! It didn’t help then that the video just happened to include a couple seconds of belly dancing (illustrating one of the many clubs and societies available at Durham), as well as some students drinking champagne… I guess I will need to be more careful next time!

For the last few days I’ve been teaching overtime to cover for a teacher who has had to go to hospital. He’s an Irish fellow, almost forty, overweight, likes his cigarettes and booze, and has developed problems with his lower back over the years. Recently his condition has worsened and he will likely need an operation. Apparently it’s quite serious, as there is a chance the operation may leave him partially paralyzed. So although doing overtime feels like a lot of work, I can’t complain – at least I have my health – plus I’m getting overtime pay for the extra hours.

The extra students, however, are quite a handful! They’re a rowdy bunch and there’s no camera in their classroom, so there’s naturally a noticeable difference in the dynamics of the class. The first time I took them, for example, there were about four students happily dozing off, while the rest were either giggling like little schoolboys or chatting away in Arabic – throughout the class. At one point a student was even snoring! It’s hard to tell what they’re like with other teachers, but I have a feeling they’ve been used to having the upper hand when it comes to who is actually controlling the class. It’s rather unfortunate to find so many university students acting like kids in primary school! So I resolved to turn things around… I started by making an example of two students, who were sleeping, by making them leave the classroom. I also put an end to the excessive amount of Arabic in class, primarily by demonstrating that I could understand what (they thought) they were saying in secret, but also by threatening to kick them out of class as well. So they’ve got the message now and things are running more smoothly. The next battle I have to pick with them, however, is their constant use of Blackberry phones during class! They know they’re not allowed to use phones in class, but they still do. Some of them will even ask to use the bathroom – conveniently remembering to pick up their Blackberry from their desk before heading out of the classroom, and coming back a good 15 minutes later!

Fortunately, any complaints that students might make about me being too strict will only reflect well on me! This is because the manager of the English school, who makes it a point to receive complaints directly from students, is himself incredibly strict. He’s the kind of person who would be delighted to hear that I have kicked students out of class! He’s even told us to do so when a student comes to class without a pen, but I don’t go quite that far! Today he came into my class, by surprise, along with the two most senior managers. At first I wasn’t sure what he wanted, so was rather scared for a second, but soon discovered he was only there to remind students that smoking is prohibited. He then proceeded to check students’ pockets and confiscated a pack of cigarettes from one of them. He even made a quick check of students’ haircuts, lifting up their headdresses to see underneath, in order to make sure their hair wasn’t too long! So far I’ve managed to keep on his good side – and hopefully it will stay that way!

First Week of Teaching at the University…

Normally the weekend here is just Thursday and Friday, but this weekend we also have Saturday off, as it’s the country’s “National Day” (al-yawm al-watny). It couldn’t have come at a better time – the first week teaching at the university was a lot of work! I’m sure next week will be a lot easier though, since everything will be familiar this time round and I’ll know what to expect. Plus – as predicted, the teaching hours have been reduced! I’ll still be teaching three lessons a day, but now they’re only going to be an hour and a half long, instead of an hour and forty-five minutes. Moreover, they’re still rounded up to two hours – so we will still be getting paid overtime hours. Not bad!

So I teach three lessons a day; one in the morning (8:00-9:30) and two in the afternoon (1:00-2:30, 3:00-4:30). That means I get a comfortable three and a half hours break for lunch! The company policy on how you spend your office hours when not teaching is very flexible. We can pretty much spend it however we like, as long as we are reachable by phone and can be back at the school within ten minutes. So far I’ve been going out for an early lunch with my colleagues at 11:00 and coming back at around 12:00. There are also plenty of shops nearby to explore. One of my favourites is the “5 Riyal Store” (their equivalent of a dollar store, but even better value for money). They have two of them near the school and one is absolutely massive! I enjoy practicing my Arabic there too and the shopkeepers get a real kick out of a westerner speaking their language!

I teach two groups of 22 students. One group I teach both in the morning and afternoon and the other I teach only in the afternoon, while another teacher takes them in the morning. Overall, they are a very pleasant bunch of students. It’s immediately obvious the difference between the keen, inquisitive students sitting at the front and the lazier, dozy students sitting at the back – with a gradient of ability in between! So I’m thinking I might try to mix things up a bit and move some students around!

Instead of shared tables, the students have individual desk-chairs, which are nowhere big enough for all their books and notes. Also, the current seating arrangement is rather rigid and ineffective, as it is simply four rows of chairs, lecture room style, heading to the back of a long, narrow classroom. It’s not very well suited for group discussion, so I might also move chairs around to make it more “participation-friendly”. I mentioned this to the “Academic Supervisor” (our immediate boss) and he said that he encourages all teachers to be as creative as possible with the classroom set-up. Apparently the guy who last taught in my classroom was famous for occasionally standing on his desk to address the students! So who knows what I’ll do to top that…  I feel an “Oh captain, my captain!” moment coming on!

There is one slight hitch, however ,with being too creative in the classroom. Most classes, including my one, have a CCTV camera installed! The footage is constantly monitored by the management on a computer screen upstairs. The camera itself is positioned above the whiteboard, facing the students, so it doesn’t actually pick up the teacher at the front of the class. Really, it’s primary purpose is to monitor the students – to make sure, for example, that the students are in the class when they are supposed to be and they look like they are working. We’ve been told that one of the worst things you can get caught doing is letting students out of class early, even if it’s just five minutes early. Apparently, some teachers have actually had their pay docked for doing this, so I’ve been very careful not to do the same!

Oh! A mosquito just landed on my laptop! That’s not very encouraging! I haven’t really seen any until now, but apparently we’ll see more the closer we get to winter. Fortunately, Malaria is not a problem in this country, but I think I’m going to have to stock up on some more insect repellant, in addition to the ant-killing powder I already purchased for the ants in our villa.


Life in Al-Jouf

It’s been a week now since I arrived in Al-Jouf (on the 9th of September). Since then I’ve been very busy moving into the compound and getting settled in, as well as meeting all of the other teachers and being introduced to work at the university.

After arriving into Al-Jouf Airport at about midnight, I was greeted at baggage claim by the manager of the residential compound, who was extremely welcoming. We arrived at the compound, which wasn’t too far away, and he gave me a very quick tour of my new home. As if in a hurry, he said goodbye, but not before telling me that I needed to be on the bus outside at 7:10am, ready to go to work! So I finally went to bed at about 1:00am and had to wake up at 6:30am! Fortunately, I wasn’t expected to teach that day, as this past week has simply been preparation for the start of the new academic year, which begins tomorrow.

On my first day at the university, the campus was full of students, who had come to take the placement test. I was assigned to go round each classroom and hand out the test papers. So within five minutes of arriving, I was already running around, up and down stairs, with a heavy box in my arms full of papers, and sweating from the heat! It was a great way, however, of meeting all of the teachers and seeing all of the different classrooms and computer labs. Then in the afternoon we were busy marking the tests.

The compound bus takes us to work every morning at 7:10am and then brings us back after work. Apart from the occasional teachers’ meeting, we haven’t really been working this week and it’s been very chilled out. It’s mostly been sitting in the office, chatting and surfing the internet, or going for long lunch breaks to one of the local Pakistani or Turkish restaurants. The food over here is great – and ridiculously cheap too. You can have a huge sit down meal and drink for about three dollars. Many of the other teachers, who’ve been here a lot longer, have said that it’s so cheap here that it’s actually difficult to spend money and you can save a lot each month. That works out pretty well – as my plan for the moment is to save up for a Masters one day, which I’m thinking of doing in a year or two’s time.

So tomorrow we start teaching! We were given copies of the books just a few days ago and have been looking through them, as well as testing out the software that comes with them. Every teacher is issued a laptop, which is nice – so now I have both a PC and Mac – best of both worlds!

We were also given a timetable of our teaching hours. Just about everyone will be teaching three classes a day, 1 hour and 45 minutes each. Apparently, however, that number is likely to drop as new teachers arrive, so we might end up teaching only two classes a day. What’s more, according to the payroll, the 1 hour and 45 minutes is rounded up to two hours and anything more than 25 hours contact time a week is paid as overtime. So essentially, everyone is getting paid more than usual until we are given fewer teaching hours. It’s a win-win situation!

There are teachers from all over place here – native English speakers from Canada, the US, England, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa and “bilingual” Arabic-English speakers from Syria, Sudan, Jordan and other countries. I was told by the management in Riyadh that the company aims to have about 80% native speakers and 20% bilingual. Some of the native speakers, however, like myself do know Arabic, so it’s become a bit of an issue as to whether or not it’s ok to use Arabic in the class if you’re not a “bilingual” speaker (i.e. if you’re not Arab). I was told not even to let students realise that I understood Arabic! In theory the company’s policy for native English speakers is zero Arabic in the class, but in practice many of them use it. Some teachers, who have never formally studied Arabic, wish they knew more so that they could help out their students more. As for me, I will be able to understand what my students are saying, whether they know it or not! So we’ll just have to see what happens!

Off to Al-Jouf!

After much waiting at the hotel for news, I finally had a meeting with the company yesterday and was told where I am being sent… I’m going to be teaching in Sakaka, Al-Jouf.

It’s a small city in the northern part of Saudi Arabia, close to the borders of Jordan and Iraq. Teachers are housed in a residential complex reserved for expats, which is generally referred to as a ‘compound’ (don’t worry – nothing to do with concentration camps!). In fact, apparently it’s quite luxurious, with a villa for every two teachers, and each villa has its own swimming pool! I’ll be sure to post some photos once I have arrived.

Al-Jouf is a ‘university project’, as opposed to the ‘centre’ in Riyadh, which means I will be teaching university students around 18-21 years old. Apparently the work hours are very good there, with only one shift a day instead of two like at the centre here in Riyadh.

Several other teachers here at the hotel will also be going to Al-Jouf. So we’ll be traveling up together, scheduled to fly on Saturday (although – having seen the organisation here, it could be any day!). The company still hasn’t taken me to have the medical done. One teacher already left for Al-Jouf a couple days ago, before having his medical, so I may end up just having it done over there instead.

Also, during my meeting with the company yesterday, they were very happy to give an advance on the salary, which most teachers request for their first month in the country.

Since my last post, I’ve managed to meet several more teachers, some of which have been working here for up to two years already. It’s been very helpful to hear about their experience working with Al-Khaleej and to get lots of useful advice before setting out for Al-Jouf. It’s encouraging to discover that many of them have decided to continue working in Saudi Arabia and will be renewing their contract with Al-Khaleej. On the whole, it seems as though their experience has been very positive.

Now I just have to see what it’s like for myself!

!ان شاء الله خير