What it’s really like to teach in the Middle East
In the second of our new Teaching Notes from Abroad series, UK and International Head Teacher Peter Hogan shares his experience of what teaching in the Middle East is really like.
Welcome to the Middle East
The Middle East is a dynamic, vibrant and exciting place to live and work.
There are many schools, plenty of opportunities and a large expat community. The right fit for school and teacher can offer you a great lifestyle, good pay, very decent conditions and the opportunity to live well or save well. It’s really hot and very dry but its location will allow you (Covid permitting) to travel widely. The UK is 7 hours away and Australia only 14.
Where to go?
Before getting into the detail it is important to define exactly what is meant by the Middle East. Countries where international English-speaking school offer vacancies includes Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The region also includes Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen although for political, economic and reasons of language these countries are seldom advertising roles.
With over 1.5 million children attending international schools in the favourite Middle Eastern destinations jobs are plentiful; schools are well resourced, salaries are high, the behaviour of the children is typically good and the lifestyle is attractive.
The curriculum in most schools will be familiar to a UK teacher with a few variations. The International Primary Curriculum is widespread but not particularly different from the National Curriculum. A number of secondary schools will opt for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme in Years 12 and 13 either alongside or instead of A levels. Schools offering the IB will provide training for staff new to the programme.
Do your research
If you are looking for a job here it can be difficult to discriminate between schools at the start and it is important to remember that the span of difference between schools is far wider than one would see in the UK. It is vital to do your homework.
Scrutinise the school’s website but also look at their Facebook pages and do not be afraid to reach out to teachers already there. International teachers know what it is like to be new and are usually very happy to say it like it is, so you know what you are getting into. A good many schools use agents to help with their recruitment and so you should ask these experienced recruiters for their opinion about schools.
Ask about the remuneration package as well. Do not take anything for granted. Schools should be offering a good tax-free salary, flights home every year, medical insurance and accommodation (make sure this is not shared). There should also be a gratuity so check this. It is a bonus payment at the end of each of your annual contracts that is totalled up and given to you when you leave the school.
Managing the money
The tax-free pay, gratuities and other benefits mean that teachers can have a better standard of living than in the UK.
Good quality schools will pay their teaching staff a net starting salary of around £3,000 to £4,000 per month.
Many of the basic costs of living such as utilities, food and fuel are low and so it is not difficult to have quite a healthy disposable income. Consumer Prices in London are about 35% higher than in Dubai and 70% higher than Muscat in Oman but the Middle Eastern lifestyle comes with a warning, the money is very easy to spend! Expats tend to live a life that seems quite exotic and glamorous when you are in the UK and expats with management roles in sectors such as finance, tech, hospitality, legal or construction can have far higher salaries than teachers. The market reacts accordingly and so there are plenty of opportunities to spend a lot of money on expensive cars, activities, clothes, holidays and luxury goods. Some teachers return to the UK long on experiences but short on savings.
State law and local culture
Notes of caution should be sounded over the laws in particular destinations, the local culture and the power of the state. The UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman are the most westernised regions with others not so open. However, teachers working in the Middle East will find themselves in something of an expat bubble where they should feel safe and supported. They are unlikely to be familiar with much of what happens at the local level and close friendships between the native population and the more transient expats are still reasonably rare. All of this means that there are quite a few degrees of separation between the teaching community and the actual society.
Teachers are strongly advised not to dabble in local affairs and to never challenge the legislators at any level. The educational authorities are firm and powerful instruments of the state and will not tolerate challenges from staff. A teacher may disagree that Israel is not featured on any maps or in any text books. They may disapprove of the way local staff are treated or LGBTQ rights may seem to be disregarded but intervention may have serious consequences.
Middle East or further East?
The powers that be in the Middle East are there to support their own citizens and the attitude towards foreigners. This is perhaps the biggest distinction between the Middle East and South East Asia as a destination. Some teachers describe feeling more welcomed and respected by the local population in Asia but feel like professional service providers in the Middle East. This need not be a distraction or a deterrent, but it highlights the importance of finding out the culture and values of the region and the school before you sign the contract.
If you want to join the 70,000 or so British teachers working in the Middle East, then you should be thinking a year ahead if possible.
Register with good quality teaching recruitment agents who recruit across the region and invest some time talking to their staff. Many schools will recruit at fairs in the UK early in the calendar year and so it would be good to start doing your homework about different regions before then. Some schools will advertise directly so use the normal platforms for adverts but do not be afraid to contact the school in advance of making an application and ask your list of questions.