Jill is the mind behind a great blog Battered Suitcases. After University she spent a some time in the United Arab Emirates teaching. Having taught in a foreign country I was curious to learn about her experience teaching in the middle East. I know that many certified teachers debate about going to UAE, so Jill clears up questions about the experience.
What made you decide to come to UAE to teach?
I had been working as a librarian at an elementary school that I really loved. I was really excited about the possibility of being a classroom teacher there the following year. Unfortunately, that spring the district announced massive layoffs due to budget cuts. I was pretty disappointed but also motivated to find meaningful work elsewhere. After looking into Alaska and Australia, a very good friend told me about an opportunity she was pursuing in Abu Dhabi. I thought she was crazy. She happened to mention me at her interview and based on her recommendation I was invited to submit my resume. I had a phone interview the next day and was offered the job on the spot. It all happened so fast, I couldn’t say no!
How did you find the process of applying to work and getting all of your paperwork ready?
The process of applying for me was pretty easy since it only involved emailing my resume and a quick chat on the phone. However, this is not normal! Most applicants were required to submit resumes, cover letters, references from former principals, and references from parents of students. They then went through a process of either one or two in person interviews. I feel so grateful that I was able to skip all of that!
The paperwork part was a bit more stressful. I was never told I needed to submit any paperwork until I got an email letting me know the deadline had nearly passed. I had to employ a very expensive courier service to authenticate my documents for me in Washington DC. It turned out alright in the end, but I was definitely holding my breath.
How much stuff did you bring? Do you regret bringing or not bringing anything?
I only brought one large suitcase and a backpackers pack. Nothing stands out that I regret bringing or not bringing. I had my mom send over things I couldn’t get like measuring cups or vital wheat gluten. I also made sure to stock up on the toothpaste and deodorant I prefer. The UAE is great because you can buy just about everything you’d ever need.
What was your first impression of UAE?
My first impression of the UAE was that it was HOT and HUMID! I arrived in early September during Ramadan. We tried to explore the city but the heat made that pretty difficult, especially since you’re not permitted to eat or drink in public (water included).
The UAE is in a prime location for travel. You can take comfortable weekend trips to Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, or Kuwait. If you’re crazy you can try to squeeze in Egypt or India! For longer trips you’re close to Africa, Asia, and Europe. It was the perfect location to travel from.
If you had to give one reason to go teach in UAE, what would it be?
See above + the money
Have you picked up some Arabic? If so, did you use it in your daily life?
Just a few basic words, phrases, and numbers. I definitely used it in my daily life interacting with colleagues, students, and workers. Plus, expats tend to use certain phrases with each other. Examples would be “Inshallah” – God willing, “Shukran” – thank you. “Wallah” – really!/really?, “Al Humdililah” – praise/thank God, “Masalama” – goodbye
Are you planning to ever come back?
Did you think you made a strong impact on your students?
I do. For the most part, my students were really great. I loved it when they’d wear their hair in the same style as mine, or sing songs about “Ms. Jill.” I also received some pretty classic love letters.
How did you find the whole experience as a woman in UAE?
My experience in the UAE as a woman was pretty good but also a bit uncomfortable at times. I always felt safe to walk around the city alone (even at night). However, you will always be stared at, and that’s a big adjustment from home. I never liked having to walk past or through large groups of men (and there are tons of men!!). It certainly made me hyper aware of my clothing and I always made sure to keep my shoulders and knees covered. Abu Dhabi has separate waiting areas and lines for men and women which was a new experience for me. It felt a little weird at first, but I generally appreciated not having to sit with staring men, or getting to go to the front of the line to buy bus tickets.
My friendships with colleagues at work gave a bit of insight of what it’s like to be an Emirati woman. While some of the women’s husbands did not permit them to drive, others drove long distances to their holiday homes in other Emirates. One colleague in particular was fairly open with her personal life. Her husband took a second wife and both wives were living together in the same house. After some time the husband built his second wife a new home of her own. When I asked my friend how she felt about that she told me she was happy to be rid of that woman, but she missed the children and wished they could all grow up together as brothers and sisters. Another colleague was not allowed to stay late after school if she’d be the only teacher doing so. The school is guarded twenty four hours a day (by both soldiers and security guards) but her husband felt she would not be safe alone and if something happened to her, it would be her own fault.
As an expat, I definitely had more freedom than the local women.