Teaching EFL in the Gulf: A Survival Guide
How To Retain Your Students, Your Sanity & Your Job
Several years ago I bounced into my first EFL class in the Middle East, full of ideas from the DipTefl course. I was determined to make my lessons communicative and personalized, foster independent learning, encourage negotiation and so on. Shortly afterwards my manager called me into my office. He told me that my students were unhappy with my lesson and, though he had never taught before and I had nearly a decade's experience, gave me advice on how to teach my lessons. It was a thoroughly humiliating experience.
If I'd had support from the management, I might have continued using modern methods, but I didn't, and now my teaching bears little resemblance to when I arrived. I'm certain any diploma examiner would fail me if he saw me teaching a lesson here. But I've kept my job, I'm popular with my students - and they learn English, which is, after all, the reason I am here.
After reflecting on my experience, I've written a few pointers which have helped me to survive. They may not be for everyone but they work for me!
Avoid Negotiation At All Costs
The one time I do give the students a choice is when I want the students to do something they don't want. I then give them two choices, one being the option I want them to take, and the other highly unattractive. Compare these two scenarios:
1. Teacher: "We are going to have a test next Monday."
2. Teacher: "We are going to have a test. We can either have it tomorrow, or we can have it next Monday".
Listen to Arab teachers. They always sound like they are angry. They are not, of course, it's just their way of speaking. But at the same time they have no doubt that they are the boss. This is what your students expect from you.
Mark them absent when they are late. Berate them for not doing homework. Tell them off when their mobile phones go off. Nag them when they speak Arabic. Yes, they will moan and complain, but secretly they will love it. At the same time, don't expect them to like you if you are lenient. Students who you have marked present all term when they are late, or who you have let go early because they simply must see to their children, will turn round and blame you when they don't make progress.
Remember where you are. When your students fail the exam, it won't be their fault because they didn't study or they are thick. It'll be yours.
Love Your Students
Or appear to. They want to feel special, they want to be your students. Yes, you are strict, but that's because you care, right? Make sure you get around the class when they are doing an exercise, chat to them, make sure they are okay, sympathise with their problems and so on. Talk about your family with all the students (if you have young children, that's especially helpful), but especially the women students. If you're a male teacher, men are a pushover make a few jokes and they're yours.
Ask Them If They Understand
Yes, I know, we're supposed to ask concept questions. But if the students don't understand that you're checking their understanding, they'll go and complain.
So say "Do you understand?", "Have you got any questions about this?", "Can I move on now?" You are not checking their understanding, you're making them feel good.
Justify Your Actions
Whatever you do, justify it. You must sell your method before you can use it.
If you don't use your book, your students will panic. They don't realise that some books, especially in the Middle East, are crap. The book is perfect. So if you deviate from the book, you must persuade your students that this is the right thing to do.
Even when I change the order I do things in, I explain it to the students. "I'm doing this grammar now because I like to do it at the start of the lesson, not at the end when you are tired." Don't worry about repeating your explanations a thousand times.
Don't start the term with anything difficult win the trust of your students first. You can get away with using the discovery approach just be very clear why you are using it, and make sure you round up any loose items straight away. To be honest, I usually follow up with a presentation.
Complaints about a lack of grammar often occur because students have a very narrow idea of what grammar is. To deal with this, I have a grammar column on the far left of my board, which complements my vocabulary column. In this column I put summaries of any grammar that crops in my lesson, which reassures the students that they are receiving plenty of practice.
Give students speaking practice and some will worry they are not having enough grammar/reading/writing. While they understand speaking is good, they often fail to see the point in doing it with other students. They often ask for the teacher to come round and speak with each of them individually.
I first point out that they are confusing listening with speaking. Then I use analogy to justify speaking practice. I ask them to imagine they are learning the piano. They can study music all day, but if they don't actually get on the piano and practice, they will never learn to play. I suggest that studying grammar and vocabulary is like studying music and that speaking is like playing the piano. Another good analogy is driving. You can point out to them that an instructor can show you where the wheel and the pedal are, but to pass a driving test you need to get behind the wheel and drive.
A Structured Approach
I use a highly structured approach with my students. At the start of each course I give an outline of the course, at the start of each lesson I will write my aims on the top of the board. I don't particularly do this because it will lead to an increase in motivation, I do it because it shows the students that I have planned. It also reassures them that they are learning something. As they dutifully copy everything down, it's also a fallback. When they come to you and complain they haven't had any listening practice, you can take them back through the book and say "Why look, Aisha, we had listening here, and here, and here, didn't we?" Exaggerate it a bit you know the book is just using the tape to check the answers, and it's not true listening practice, but they don't.
At the start of each lesson I review the previous lesson. I often find that things the students struggled with initially seem easy the second or third time. At the end of each unit I do a review, hand the students a summary of what I have done, and give a small test. This has proved particularly popular, I've often heard the students say "Ah yes, teacher, good review, and good test, very good." Some of my colleagues give word lists too, with definitions of every word they have taught. However, I actually like having some free time, so I don't do this.
At the end of a course, give thorough revision. Don't rely on the students doing this (especially not the men) remember, this is not a culture where people accept responsibility. If the students fail, it is your fault, not theirs.
Cheating is rife. If you ignore it, nothing will happen to you, but your students will go up to the next level when they are not ready and cause problems for the next teacher. (This is assuming you are allowed to fail students).
Homework - when you get that perfect piece of homework, try putting a phrase into google. You'll be surprised how often it'll pop up, copied word for word. Alternatively, underline the difficult words and ask the students to explain what they mean. A difficult word that sounds like an easy one is good here a student recently explained to me that hospitality was a type of hospital. When you have softened the student up, don't accuse them directly of cheating. Say to them, "You had some help with this, didn't you?" in a gently chiding voice quite often they then admit it freely. You then explain nicely that the only reason you give homework is so that they can improve from their mistakes. If you have time, give a writing in class then you will see who is cheating, and who is really good.
Tests - If you write a test, don't put numbers on the questions or answers. This makes it easy for students to signal to each other. (Look for hands tapping on shirt buttons buttons will have been designated as ABCD or 1234 prior to the lesson). Rearrange the class unexpectedly just before the test to spoil any plans classmates have made. Make sure you sit at the back of the class, not at the front, so students won't know when you are watching them. Do not let the students speak in Arabic, even if they want to borrow a rubber warn them beforehand you will dock marks without telling them if they do so. Watch out for diversions one student will ask you to clarify something while others quickly confer.
NEVER, NEVER, NEVER...
Talk about politics, sex or religion. Safe topics include football, cars, food, shopping and family.
If You Want To Get A Job...
If you have an interview with a local manager, don't say any of the above. Just spout the usual Tefalese nonsense and you'll get hired.
On A Positive Note...
Once the students have got it in for you, you've had it. On the other hand, win their approval, and they will love you forever, forgive the occasional crap lesson and in general make your teaching here a very positive experience.