Getting Started (I): Moving to Saudi Arabia

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 12.28.32 AMI have set up this blog to chronicle my journey teaching English to women in Saudi Arabia. I will be writing about my daily experiences teaching at a government institute as well as sharing lesson plans and ideas about teaching styles and methods that resonate with this student population.

In the United States, I have taught English to college-bound Saudi students at various universities and schools and have come to understand how their learning needs, styles, and strategies differ from other students.  My approach to teaching English in their country of origin will need to be adapted. Instead of introducing my Saudi students to a new education system by weaning them off of their old learning strategies and having them adopt new ones that are compatible with the American way of learning, I will need to adopt a Saudi teaching approach that is more in line with the expectations of my students.

In order to understand how to take on a more Saudi approach, I need to understand my reasons for teaching in Saudi Arabia, the education system Saudis have been raised with, how Saudi students relate to their teachers and one another, and what their goals for learning English are. A lot of introspection on my part will be needed. I will also need to dig up what I already know about Saudis and do a bit of reading on Saudi history, culture, and religion. In this post, I share my reasons for moving to Saudi Arabia and a few thoughts about the challenges Saudi students face when learning English in the U.S.

My Reasons for Teaching in Saudi Arabia

There are three reasons I am moving to Saudi Arabia for work. The first is to earn a decent salary that will allow me to live comfortably and save for the future. The second is to connect with people who hold a worldview that is different from mine. The third is to teach Saudis language skills they will need in order to communicate with others. I have two passions in life which are understanding others and the world and teaching language. As an EFL teacher in Saudi Arabia, I hope to help my students see the relevance of English in their lives and prepare them for a more diversified economy which will require them to build and maintain stable relations with other countries.

What I Already Know About Saudi Students

Much of what I know is taken within the context of teaching in the U.S. and from conversations I have had with past Saudi students and fellow teachers. The education system in Saudi Arabia is based mostly on rote memorization. Very little teaching is done to promote the development of critical thinking in students, which can lead to misunderstandings between non-Saudi English teachers and their students. One of the main concerns ESL teachers in the U.S. have is they find themselves having to ‘spoon feed’ their Saudi students the material they are covering. The amount of ‘hand-holding’ required of them becomes disconcerting for many. Teachers feel their students become disengaged from the material if they are asked to think more deeply about the topics being discussed. A few explanations for their seeming lack of interest are (1) students do not know how to think about the topics because they have not developed the set of skills to do so; (2) the way in which the topics are presented reveals an American or European take on the issues that do not align with the students’ understanding of/reaction to the issues; (3) students sense their answers do not meet the expectations of their teachers who approve of certain responses over others;  and (4) students have indeed lost interest in the topics because they feel they do not help them in their goals or they have no importance in their lives. In all four instances, students might stay silent, begin talking to others, or respond in a shallow or less than satisfactory way requiring teachers to lower or modify their expectations or find another way to engage them in their lessons.

From the students’ perspective, teachers are supposed to ‘spoon feed’ the material to them, but first and foremost, they are to engage them in their learning on a more emotional level. Once students feel genuine warmth and kindness coming from their teachers, they will have the desire to learn from them. Unlike students from Russia or Germany, who rate competence and intellectualism highly and are less put-off by or prefer emotional absence/restraint in their teachers, Saudis respond best to emotionally supportive types who engage them in conversation and show a genuine interest in their lives and motivations. From my experience, most Saudis are initially repulsed or confused by cerebral or intellectual types who make little attempt to connect with them on a more communal level. Once the relationship has been established and kindness as they understand reciprocated, trust sets in making it easier for them to learn.

When conditions are right for learning, Saudis do need their lessons to be scaffolded carefully. Oftentimes, their English lessons are the most cognitively demanding classes that they have had in their lives as they require them to sequence ideas, analyze text, form logical conclusions, reflect, predict, and so forth. Not only are they learning a new language, but they are modifying their worldview. To understand material, pass tests and levels, and go on to college in an English-speaking country, they have to begin to think more logically, understand, mimic, or adopt the western mindset, build self-reliance, and take ownership of their learning. In addition, they need to rely less on the support of their peers and teachers, which they can only do if they have strengthened the foundation upon which their ideas rest. Critical thinking is inherent in the lessons, logical connections and conclusions being made in their readings and exercises, and ideas in their essays and presentations are expected to be organized coherently. They appreciate it when teachers take them through all of the steps, one by one, over and over again until after several weeks, months, or perhaps years of preparation, they can take themselves through the multitude of steps on their own. The process, which many fellow students begin in their formative years, many Saudis do not begin until late adolescence and early adulthood. To teachers in the west, this type of scaffolding is often no different from giving their students the answers.  When teaching Saudis who have  experienced learning mostly through rote memorization, the extra care put into showing them how to connect the dots (e.g., by providing sample answers that help them develop, recognize, and shape their thought processes) can reap rewards further down the road.

Click here for Part II of Getting Started.