Everything Comes Full Circle

The first full week of school is coming to an end here in the Kingdom, and, rather surprisingly, there have been some significant changes for the better. It’s not to say that everything is hunky dory, but things are starting to look up.

A little background about the School.

Myself and two other men, one from South Africa, and the other an American who grew up in Moscow, teach in the Boys' School. It’s a three story modern building that will eventually hold grades 4-12 with somewhere around 500 students. It’s entirely separate from the Girls' School, which houses both the boys and girls sections of K-3 (classes can be co-ed and taught by women until grade 3), girls grades 4-6, and in the future, girls grades 7-12.

  The front door of the Boys' School.

The Girls' School is fully functioning, to use that word liberally, with 200 students, a library, a computer lab, a full array of support staff, and a healthy level of administration. On the Boys' side we have a football pitch and basketball court, neither of which is finished, and a support staff that includes Mohammed the Arabic Teacher who doesn’t speak English, our receptionist Jamal who also doesn’t speak English, and Ali our driver who also works as Gatekeeper (his actual title) preventing random riffraff from coming inside the school walls. Ali speaks Hindi, some English, and enough Arabic to get things accomplished. Our principle is a Romanian who has yet to enter the country and was last contacted 12 days ago. We’ve been told he’s due to arrive any day now. Other than that, it’s just us three teachers and a handful of rooms on the first floor with a random assortment of furniture.

The first floor foyer and reception desk, where Jamal and 
Mohammed spend most of their day talking on their cell phones.

The football field, made of artificial grass and padded with those little 
bits of rubber that get everywhere and smell like burnt tires.

The basketball court, where students display their complete lack of 
coordination for anything other than kicking a ball with their feet.

On to the week.

Saturday began with the same issues we had last week with the exception that our aide, the sarcastic twenty-something British college professor who was generously helping* us deal with the overcrowded, short-staffed, under supplied, and yet surprisingly over-funded institution my employers refer to as a school, had skipped town to Bahrain. Needless to say, we had a less than ideal start.

*Generously helping is how my superintendent refers to the stipulation in some employee contracts that says they must work whenever and wherever the company desires. I’m relatively certain my contract doesn’t have that clause, but I really haven’t the slightest idea because it’s written in Arabic and translations tend to be horribly inaccurate.

We were, however, greeted with a lovely addition to our classrooms. The Engineers, as custodians are referred to here, had installed a Starboard (an interactive whiteboard linked to a computer) in each room over the weekend. It was fun for the students to see some progress in getting the building ready for learning, but the downside was explaining that until they install the projector (which has been on back order for several months), rewire the classrooms (there is only one working outlet in each room), and buy new computers (the ones we have don’t have the appropriate ports needed to use the Starboard), we won’t be able do anything with them. Several other rooms, none of which are being used by anyone, have had large whiteboards and cabinetry installed, and during my prep periods I stumbled upon several pallets of furniture still in boxes waiting to be assembled in several classrooms on the second floor.

Sunday was another interesting day.  I received another new student, who lacked even the basic English most Saudi children have such as English numbers (just about every sign, banner, billboard, and label in Saudi is written with Arabic on top and English on the bottom). I was disheartened at first because I was now at seven (out of thirteen) students who lacked the ability to even understand basic commands that I could pantomime, but, miraculously, my problems were solved by a wonderful Jordanian woman named Fatima. She was hired as an English as a Second Language teacher for the girl’s school, but was sent over by our Superintendent to replace the Brit. Even better, was the addition of a new trilingual classroom aide from Pakistan named Amna, who finally helped reign in the more energetic of the non-English speaking fourth graders (12 in a class of 25; they belong to the South African).

The next day we had a surprise visit from the copy machine technician and in less than an hour we had a fully functioning copier, complete with several boxes of paper. For some reason everything in Saudi is printed using size A4 paper, which is a very unwieldy paper size, but at least we now have paper. Said, pronounced Sigh-Eeedh, the Superintendent's driver, came over with several shopping bags full of office supplies that had been forgotten in the trunk of his car, and several boxes of textbooks, worksheets, and posters that were no longer needed in the Girls’ School. We ended up with a trio of classrooms that were starting to look like actual centers of higher learning.

 Looks like a pretty nice setup, eh? Smoke and mirrors, my friend.

Over the same two days, I spent my preps exploring the building and working on side projects. I used a screwdriver I found in a stairwell to bash a few holes in the wall to hang a bulletin board, as well as fix my whiteboard (it fell off the wall in the middle of a lesson), and using some ingenuity and a healthy dose of curse words I built this bad boy without any directions.

I used most of the screws that came in the box.

Today, we started with a new schedule that incorporated ability grouping throughout and between the grades, pullout times for students who needed support with ESL, and restructured special periods like Art and P.E. that helped the students flow throughout the day. Students had begun to master transitions between breaks and classes, and all three of us felt like we had started developing a real repertoire with the students. It was incredibly validating to look at my class working on an assignment at the end of the day and feel like I had really accomplished something.

Then our Superintendent paid us a visit.

Several of the boys’ parents had contacted the Ministry of Education in Riyadh and notified them that there were women not only entering the Boys’ School while classes were in session, but that they had apparently been teaching there too. This caused a bit of a stir with the Imams who staff the Ministry, and our Superintendent was notified that she would be receiving a visit from a local Agent (most likely an Imam) to ensure that a travesty such as what was supposedly occurring couldn’t possibly be true. As of tomorrow, Fatima and Amna will no longer be working in the boys’ section, and our schedules will need to be redone to accommodate an additional religious studies period in an attempt to please the Imam. Tonight, the Engineers will be constructing a Prayer Room complete with ornate padded rugs so we can stop classes for Dhuhr (the midday prayer), which takes place during our lunch period. Hopefully these changes will sufficiently appease the Ministry and nothing else will need to be done. Inshallah.

This is a strange and interesting place.