Cultural Adaptation – Teaching English in The UAE
Below, you will find tips by one of our graduates teaching English in the UAE. Greg explains how to overcome culture shock and enjoy your English teaching experience a lot more!
How to Overcome Culture Shock and Enjoy Teaching English in the UAE
Perhaps the greatest challenge of living in the UAE for me was adjusting to the challenges of my new school. One bit of advice offered in the book Culture Shock! UAE that I took to heart and ultimately served me well was to commit myself, above all else, to building relationships with my colleagues and students before jumping into getting-things-done mode.
For Westerners used to the elevated expectations and accountability in schools in their home countries, the amount of time that can be spent sitting and socializing before the ‘important’ work gets done can be frustrating, but to push against this can lead to more frustration and perhaps alienation down the line. Here’s your first Arabic lesson—two popular expressions in the UAE whose underlying meaning will help you adjust to life here. The first expression is shway shway, which, like many common Arabic expressions here, can translate in a few different ways depending on context. ‘Slowly, slowly’, ‘little by little’, or ‘take it easy’ are perhaps the best translations. You will often here this expression when someone is getting impatient or agitated about something; another person will admonish them by saying shway shway, basically saying “slow down, my friend. There’s no use in getting worked up—It will all work out by and by.” In your school, let this concept rule your first days, weeks, or months. Don’t try to force things. Take your cues from your colleagues and administrators and try to adapt to the rhythm and pace that they do things. Impatience and agitation only come with expecting too much too fast, and if this is how you come on, be prepared to meet resistance. This will iikely be the same with your students—shway, shway until they have adjusted to your way.
The second expression—which you will likely hear daily, especially in the context of trying to get something done—is insha’allah. This expression translates as ‘if God wills’ or colloquially ‘God willing’, but even for the nonreligious this expression can come to carry a lot of sense when living in the UAE. Whereas Westerners are culturally more future oriented—always making plans and thinking about the future—Emiratis tend to be more present oriented because woven deeply into their sense of the world is that anything can happen between now and the future to scuttle even the best laid plans. So you will find when speaking with an Emirati (other Arabs subscribe to this cultural attitude as well) that any reference to the future, even something as commonplace as “See you tomorrow”, will elicit an ‘insha’allah’ from the listener. This is just another cultural reminder to the Western teacher working in the UAE that they must adjust their expectations and remain open and flexible to different ways (and schedules) for getting things done and different attitudes about what is really important. This will have a direct bearing on your lesson planning—the more adamant you are about executing and completing your lessons as planned and staging your lessons strictly according to your timeframe, the more frustrated you will become. Ultimately this can actually be beneficial to an EFL class grounded on the communicative approach. Emiratis love to talk, discuss, recite, etc. and culturally they can be a very eloquent people. If you shed some of you Western expectations of how students should appropriately engage in class and try to accommodate the cultural attitude and ways of your Emirati students, you may find them more actively engaging student-to-student communicative tasks and more creatively utilizing their growing skills in English. An excellent article that further explores how to effectively engage Gulf culture in your classroom is Stephen Roney’s “The Night Journey: Understanding Our Arab Students” (TESOL Arabia, Perspectives—November 2010). The more you understand your students’ culture, insha’allah, the more productive and rewarding your work with them will be!
It has been almost three years since my family and I first arrived in the UAE, and I wouldn’t trade the experience, even with all the frustrations and challenges along the way, for anything. What a blessing to work in such an interesting part of the world, interacting with an intriguing culture and people, learning a wonderful and rich language, and, on top of all that, earning a fantastic salary. The life of an international teacher of English is certainly not for everyone but if you can cultivate the right attitude, what an amazingly rewarding life it can be.