Section 1: Last re Working Here
I have achieved some goals and failed to achieve others during my six months in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as an English teacher.
The most significant failure is in not being retained at the school where I taught for most of this past six months. It was my goal upon arrival to do well, and to work through a year at this one school. It even seemed possible to me that I might advance to a supervisory or administrative position as the year progressed.
As it is, I have become toxic, radioactive, a leper; not only removed from class overnight, but denied any contact at with students, to the extent that I was not even allowed to grade final exam writing papers.
I remain with only speculations as to why this is a fact. Of course, I sought an official reason. Possibly, development could come from hearing a straight forward explanation of what was considered to be my mortal failure. After all, I do hope to continue working as an ESL or EFL instructor for several more years.
Five administrators all gave me the same answer: student complaints that I used vocabulary they didn’t understand and that my explanations of grammar were ineffective were coupled with two sub-par evaluations. It seemed possible to me, as I listened to each one speaking very sincerely and professionally, that someone had written out this response and sent all five of them a copy, so similar were their presentations.
There are reasons I find myself unable to accept the officially stated reasons as genuine.
First, dumbing down vocabulary is a one second change. “Don’t do that anymore.” “Okay.”
Second, my students actually did learn grammar and vocabulary.
Third, my students did well on the final exam.
Fourth, my students not only wrote an appeal letter in both Arabic and English to have me reinstated, which the entire class signed, and delivered that letter to one of the administrators to whom I spoke (the guy charged with handling student complaints, though he seemed during our conversation never to have heard of it).
Fifth, the students found me in the coffee shop after I had been removed from class and entreated me to come back to the classroom with them since, after two days, no new teacher had yet arrived to take my place. When I walked into the classroom, they had written some very kind thoughts (accurately) on the board to the effect that they would miss me.
Sixth, it was clearly established SOP in the event a teacher received complaints of the type I had (very common complaints so there were lots of cases) to spend some time engaged in professional development with his supervisor or observing another teacher in their class, and to then go back to their class newly aware and ready to teach per expectations.
Seventh, no toxic teacher I knew of (and there were several during the semester) had been removed from class and given another teaching assignment, but me.
The new assignment was first called “a reward.” I was to teach university employees; a VESL class with accountants and security personnel. My instructions were a little unclear. I was given a post-it note on which was printed in pencil my name, a room number, and the time of 8:00 am. I was not given a class roster. I did not have to take roll. I was not given a book, syllabus, or curriculum. I wasn’t told how long the class would last. And, until I received a call while drinking coffee in the lounge after the first class, I didn’t even know there were two classes per day or how many days a week we would meet. Just a little loose. In time, I realized I had been parked in the shade for the rest of the semester.
For all these reasons, it seemed clear to me that I wasn’t getting a straight answer.
The eighth reason is, I think, the sole reason I was taken out of class and denied any contact with students, though this reason was never alluded to by any of the administrators.
A little background: as a part of the overall educational plan for the semester, all students had to complete a Self Learning (SL) project; a term project which accounted for ten percent of their final grade. Remembering that there is an immense amount of planning and status involved in this project which is in only its third year, we were given more material on the topic of how to manage these projects than anyone could absorb or would need.
Overkill has a home in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). For instance, though SL was presented as a do-at-home project, school administrators had set aside Wednesday of every week as SL day. In reality, the students could accomplish nothing toward their projects while at school. Of course, they could ask questions and get some guidance, I did review and comment on what they’d done, and we did some work on outlines and the writing of papers, but that didn’t take up all the Wednesdays allotted to SL.
As a consequence, I had ignored many of the SL days and allowed the students to prepare for examinations in physics, biology, statistics and chemistry, all classes they also needed to pass in order to proceed on to KSU and, hopefully, careers as doctors, until we got down to the final couple of weeks before the projects were due. At that time, I got more serious about progress on them, and the students assured me that they would produce. So I took them at their word, pretty much.
Things looked pretty good as the last days wound down; all the students were working on nothing else but SL. Several projects were completed and turned in, others were well in hand, but there were some stragglers. During class on the day before the deadline, thinking that some of the guys might want to call me that evening with last minute questions or problems, I wrote my mobile number on the board and told them to call if they needed to.
End of background: That evening, Shish, my room mate, and I were sitting in the living room watching something on a computer when my phone rang.
Answering, I thought I heard a student asking if I could talk to him. The better to hear, I got up and went to my room and closed the door, saying that sure I could talk.
With surprise, I heard the student say, “Do you want to fuck me?”
“What?” I answered.
“Do you want to fuck me?” he repeated.
“Are you kidding? Who is this? No!” I said.
“Please, I really want you to fuck me.”
“Then you’ve got a big problem.” I said and ended the call.
I went back to the living room and told Shish about the call. He shrugged it off.
Next day, I was called to meet with my supervisor. When I walk into his cubicle, I asked, “What have I done?” It was meant as a joke. He smiled and said, “Oh, nothing. You’re being rewarded.” He then told me about my new assignment and gave me the post-it. I actually went home feeling sort of happy.
Section 2: Everything Else
I will best remember how damn difficult the university made it to do the simple job of teaching.
I will remember many of my colleagues. Khalid and Hattem, the Egyptians, and Baba, from Senegal, all Muslims who showed me Arabs are not all one. Khalid is serious and helpful. Hattem is great to talk to because we always end up laughing. Baba is devout, friendly, and informational.
I’ll remember Loren, a white guy from Colorado, who learned Arabic and converted to Islam. Not your typical guy with an RPG and murder in his heart.
Elan, the schmooz, who got himself fired. Joseph, my first room mate, who also got himself fired. They’re both working in KSA today.
Shish, the Indian who grew up in Melbourne and is my present room mate: quiet, a salsa dancer, lead teacher, generous and gregarious, constantly scheming re women, a sports man who introduced me to football (soccer in USA-speak), cricket and curry, a good cook, honest, and who taught me how to make wine at home. He also bought the Fila sunglasses I spent way too much money on and then didn’t like. He’s throwing in four days of rent on my behalf. I’m going to try to sell him my extra camera.
The two Joels; Morrison, a white guy from Montana who’s been out of the USA for years teaching in Thailand. He will be remembered for calmly correcting the grammar in a death threat spit out my one of his angry students. He’s a dad now and has a soon-to-be wife and baby son in the Philippines.
And Worrell, a black guy from Trinidad, who had the temerity yesterday when, upon hearing that Morrison and I were going for a smoke, asked if we had a joint. Conrad, Brian, Stephen, Anthony, Joshua, and many others. All showed or taught me something.
I’ll remember some of the administrators. Arfan, who wrote an endless number of emails and later revisions to them. He had a tough job. Afia, the guy at the top who got fed up trying to deal with the university. Amjad, the HR manager, who, though he might not be, seemed like a snake.
I’ll remember students. Faisal, who started calling me “my father” on the first day of class, who wouldn’t stop talking no matter what I did, and who beat me at arm-wrestling. Zeyad, who will be a wonderful doctor, and who helped me keep perspective when I was very bummed out about student cheating. Issa, who seemed to be the most selfish person I’d ever met until I was taken out of class, and then turned into the driving force behind the unsuccessful attempt to get me back in class (just can’t always tell). Abdulaziz, the guy who got me so mad about cheating. The sheepish smile. The explanation. The contriteness when he realized I was serious. The beautiful note on the board when I returned. Moaath, who wanted to know what its like to be in a war, and will be rich one day. Abduleah, who had terrible halitosis and was genuinely worried about me in the after life.
Then, there’s Mohammed, the hotel guy who so much wanted to practice English and would never let me pay for anything, who waited while I ate to give me a ride back to the hotel from the restaurant.
About Riyadh, I’ll remember the crazy drivers, the heat, the dust, the degree to which a good rain can disable the city, the absence of police, the Moral Police, the women covered from head to foot in black, the men in white thobs and head scarves, how hard it is for me to find a good meal except at home or in the two restaurants I like, how good kopsa with lamb is, and walking past the M60 and along the walk where the walls are topped by razor wire into a compound.
I’m looking forward to putting my arm around my partner Michele and kissing her. I’m looking forward to being able to see her, talk to her, sit with her, touch her, argue with her, laugh with her.
I’m looking forward to a good glass (bottle) of red wine. I’m looking forward to Italian and Mexican food, a really good hamburger (has to be Hodad’s or homemade), a tuna sandwich, scrambled eggs and toast, A FEW GUINNESSES IN A ROW, a good smoke or three, driving in East County on an empty road and stopping at a café for a ham sandwich and a piece of pie.
I’m looking forward to seeing my friends, jiving, playing poker, going sailing, seeing my daughter with her degree from UCSD, talking with the neighbors about events and nothing at all.
I’m looking forward to stopping in at the school where my practice of teaching was so generously allowed to begin, the American Language Institute at SDSU, and say hello to so many people there who helped me along.
Oh, Europe – where Michele and I will meet soon – (Italy, Switzerland, and England) will be nice (never been anywhere outside the country but Vietnam, Hong Kong, Baja and Vancouver), but, in reality, that’s just frosting.
I’m looking forward to just being home for a while. That’s where life is. Maybe, we’ll bump into each other.