Riyadh Calling: Summing Up Six Months As an ESL Teacher

by on June 30, 2010 · 20 comments

in Culture, Education, Riyadh Calling

saudi arabia Riyadhby John M. Williams / June 30, 2010

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.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

annagrace June 30, 2010 at 12:18 pm

John- I am sorry that your reports from Riyadh are coming to end.
Welcome Home!


JMW July 1, 2010 at 12:54 am

annnagrace, hi. Thank you for your kind words. I’ll be back here in August and, almost certianly, have more to say about KSA. Stay tuned. BTW, call me Mike.


John D. Horton June 30, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Were you a university employee or a contract employee for an English language company working at the university? John D. Horton, Lawton, Oklahoma USA


JMW July 1, 2010 at 12:45 am

John, Hi. I’m on a contract which runs through January of next year. This is just a vacation; I’ll return to KSA in August, and work somewhere else (I assume).


John D. Horton July 1, 2010 at 8:25 am


I had an interview last week with iceel.us (International Company for Education & E-Learning) which is trying to place me as an ESL teacher in Saudi Arabia, maybe at King Saud University in Riyadh or the Saudi Naval Academy in Jubail. I was wondering if you worked for that company or if you worked through another company but at King Saud University? Have you had any experience with iceel.us employees?

Thank you.

John D. Horton
Lawton, Oklahoma


JMW July 2, 2010 at 8:03 am

John, hi. Ask the editor to give you my personal email. I am working for ICEEL. Be glad to tune you up about it. BTW, call me Mike.


N.C.E. July 1, 2010 at 4:42 am


Thank you for your compelling commentary (warts-and-all ; )

It’s refreshing to get a first-hand report like this; it is the real deal.

The variety of students, coworkers, and administrators that you describe (the good, the bad, and the ugly) have counterparts everywhere; it guess it just goes to show you that people are people the world round.

All the best to you.



JMW July 2, 2010 at 8:06 am

NCE, hi.. Thanks for your comments. I think you got that 100% correct; just people where ever you go.


fstued July 2, 2010 at 12:19 pm

I’ll miss your Saudi commentarys They have been a good read. Enjoy Europe and we’ll look forward to seeing you when you cross the pond and make it West


JMW July 2, 2010 at 10:53 pm

That you, Stu? Thanks for the comment. See you on onboard.


Sara Ayoub July 31, 2010 at 9:05 pm

I really enjoyed your post. I am currently beginning a contract with ICEEL in one month. I was wondering if you could provide me some honest information about the company?

Thank you!


JMW August 5, 2010 at 2:53 pm

Sara, Hi. What do you want to know? I have no complaints or concerns re ICEEL. If you want more info, ask the editor to give you my email. Mike


Joydivision August 2, 2010 at 12:44 pm


I two will be starting with ICEEL next month…Any information on them will be helpful.



JMW August 5, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Joydivision, Hi. I’m very happy with ICEEL; no complaints or concerns. What do you want to know? Mike


Dawud August 8, 2010 at 10:01 am

Hello all. John, not sure if I know you, but sorry to hear about your problems with KSU. Walking into a Saudi classroom can be very tricky, as is assuming that the Admin will help you along the way, and believe me, even the Admin struggle to keep things running smoothly. Wish you the best. Whoever would like to know about ICEEL, well, having worked in the Gulf for the last five years it has thus far proven to be one of the best companies to work for. And believe me, there are a lot of bad ones in the Kingdom. Just some words of advice to those coming to KSA: Learn about the culture (Islamic taboos especially), take time to learn your students, be firm i the class from the beginning but reasonable to their learning styles or abilities, do not try to change their religion, and most of all, find activities outside of the university that will take your mind away from the job and prevent boredom.

-Dawud (ICEEL employee who is not in their Admin)


Ted November 2, 2010 at 4:10 am

Today I walked out of my class and happily went home. I have never witnessed before in my 25 years of teaching such unruly, unappreciative, and spoiled students. And I’ve only been here a month! Tomorrow is Wednesday and I have to make the decision whether I should go in or not. I’m pretty sure I know the answer. Now, will I be fired.? I was told they don’t fire someone until they can find a replacement but finding an art teacher over here is like finding a cold beer. It ain’t going to happen. So, tonight I’ll spend my time searching for jobs in the US and hopefully in a couple of days I’ll be on a plane back to the States where I can have a cold beer and watch pretty girls because they’re not covered from head to toe.


lluvias June 13, 2011 at 9:27 am

Hey there, thanks for your nice writing about your work in KSA. I am considering taking a job with the PYP. i’ve just read an onslaught of negative opinions/reports on Dave’s ESL, so I am trying to decide whether it’s a good idea to take the gig.

As for keeping sane in KSA, are there gyms or fitness centers anywhere near the PYP facilities? I can’t imagine not having a physical stress outlet for a year…. Also, is there a lot of saving potential for teachers there? My main goals in considering the position are experience and saving money.

Thanks for any help you may be able to offer!


Abdullah September 5, 2011 at 3:11 pm

I will advise everyone thinking of moving to Saudi Arabia not to make the move unless To Earn and Save Money. There is nothing that encourages westerners to stay in Saudi Arabia apart from getting well paid jobs


cynthiahucks December 7, 2014 at 5:38 pm

Hello, Is it possible to teach for one month in Riyadh, S.A.? I wondered about July coupled with a one week visit to the place I’d be teaching at prior to this. Is there a time when school children are off that classes could begin? Is volunteerism a possibility?


barry cable June 1, 2015 at 10:11 pm

greetings from tasmania………google figbat oswald and see if you can work it out.


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