At a Divide

Up until today, relations between the Western staff and Saudi Administration were fairly cordial. Various Saudi Vice Presidents had been paying visits to the schools and were making a reasonable effort (by Saudi standards) to get things accomplished. They’ve been reaching out to the Western teachers trying to establish something akin to friendship, and generally trying to understand how things work in a typical Western school. Their success has been limited though, partly because of the awkwardness of how Saudis interpret friendship, but mostly because the primary interest of the Company is very different than the primary interests of the teachers. The good thing was that most everyone had at least been trying to make an effort at forming good relations. That all changed last night when a few of the teachers from the Girls’ School had an informal dinner with one of the Vice Presidents to discuss renewing their contracts.  

From the start, it was fairly evident that the Company is primarily interested in establishing various schools across the Kingdom to differentiate its portfolio. They’ve been very successful in all their previous education based endeavors, which have ranged from technical training related to the oil industry to providing computer instruction for defense contracts, so the business model they chose for these establishing international schools for children is similarly structured. The bottom line in any business model is profit, and the Company’s model for new international schools is no different. Initially, the Company had been willing to make minimal profits while they established the new school and gained a client base. Now that they’ve accomplished this within the Tri-city area, they’d like to see their profit margin improve. This makes sense from a business perspective, but it has a wide range of negative implications for the quality and scope of the education their schools have the potential to provide. Seeing as this is Saudi, those implications are compounded by the lack of any basic concern for efficiency, accountability, or timeliness.

As the year has worn on, this profit focused mindset has risen to the forefront of just about every meeting the staff has had with the Administration. What started out as general concern for staff and their ability to teach to their has morphed into concerns for ultimate outcomes and the ability to fit a maximum number of students into any given situation. This change has meant that in the four months that I’ve been teaching the amount of students in the two buildings has steadily increased while the available staff and materials has remained the same. This type of situation is easy to pass off as temporary hardship in most situations because as more students enroll they pay a larger amount of tuition, and eventually there’s enough money being brought in to pay for new hires and more books. Saudi, however, isn’t most situations. As my previous posts have highlighted, even the smallest of tasks take an enormous amount of time to even get started (let alone finished) and their outcomes generally don’t end up anywhere remotely near any sensible standards.  This increased pressure to perform up to unrealistic (essentially unattainable) standards without any reasonable outside help has taken its toll on most of the staff, and as time has passed the publicly shared attitudes towards the Company, more specifically the Administration, have become quite negative.

The dinner last night between the Vice President and several of the more senior teachers was held because both parties felt that creating a dialogue would help ease the brooding situation. The teachers wanted to let the Company know that without a change in the way things being run, they were unlikely to keep the teachers they currently have, and would have a considerably harder time finding new teachers to assist or replace them. The Company wanted to know what wasn’t working so they could at least make it look like they were trying to alleviate the situation. Both parties went into the dinner with a relatively positive outlook. Neither party left that way.

Somewhere during the evening the conversation progressed into talking about what it would take to keep the senior staff members at the School. The teachers listed various terms they wanted to add to their new contracts should they agree to sign on again, and the vice president listened intently. The terms basically came down to wanting to maintain the status quo while providing either guaranteed additional staff members or an increase in pay for taking on considerably more work than they signed up for. This included living in our current compound, having a designated chauffeur, keeping the number of holidays, and providing an appropriate amount of sick leave. These are part of the standard benefit package teachers get here in the Kingdom, and aside from the relatively cheap cost of living here, they are the only reason most teachers accept positions here. Without access to a car or the ability to drive, there isn’t much one can do aside from rely on friends. Making friends is hard to do outside of a compound as most people form the majority of their friendships with coworkers. Seeing as the teachers are predominately female, can’t drive, and spend the majority of their time with other female coworkers who also can’t drive, they would left in a bit of a bind if they were to ever move out of our compound and didn’t have access to a driver.

This, however, is exactly what will happen next year. The Vice President informed the dinner party that they were scheduled to be moved into a housing complex currently under construction in the empty lot between the Boys’ and Girls’ School by the beginning of the next school year. Because they would be living in such close proximity to the School, they wouldn’t need a driver every day and could have him one or two times per week for trips to the supermarket just down the street. Adding to that, he reminded them that because it is in fact an elementary school and not nearly as academic as a university, so the pay scale will continue to reflect that. It will not be based on educational background but instead upon willingness to take on challenging situations. I haven’t quite figured out what a ‘challenging situation’ is defined as, but considering the everyday chaos is referred to as ‘normal,’ I’m guessing we’re shit out of luck.

The flurry of texts and phone calls I received late last night were filled with estrogen driven rage and a wealth of profanity not often heard from primary school teachers. The atmosphere on the bus was quite subdued this morning on the way to school.

Before we knew the outcome of last evening, myself and the Brit had scheduled our own meeting with the same Vice President. We planned on talking about what we could expect to happen in the coming months as the school becomes more complete and the general outlook for the year ahead as we welcome new staff and considerably more students. We were looking forward to finding out as much information as we could in order to get a good start on improving things, but we were also looking to find out a few more details about things like housing options, salary increases, and other job opportunities. Having heard the gossip from all the ladies on the bus this morning, I wound up with a very different attitude and much lower expectations. The meeting itself was quite pointless. His answers to our questions were the usual blatant false promises and commitments to future improvements that weren’t likely to happen. Worst of all, he held the tone of an impatient Saudi, condescending and bored, upset with having to waste time with unimportant aspects of day to day operations. After the first few minutes we realized the futility of the situation and started brownnosing a bit in hopes he would leave at least being able to remember our names and be willing to talk to us again in the future. He was happy to end the meeting ahead of schedule, as he was set to look at a few properties that might be suitable locations for new international schools.

I can’t say that I’m all that surprised with this sudden turn of events. I had been experiencing a fairly long stretch of good luck and general normality, so I was anticipating something ridiculous to happen. What I didn’t anticipate was how indifferent I feel about it. I’m not that upset about losing my apartment to move off compound (living in a retirement community isn’t all it’s cracked up to be), and I was actually expecting to be stiffed when it came to any increases in salary. I know dealing with Saudis in positions of authority was something only the na├»ve or the wealthy undertake, and that what you anticipate is rarely ever what you actually receive. Mostly, I’m just a little dismayed in finding out just how little I matter in the general scheme of things.

I’d like to think that I should prove to myself how much I can accomplish given the hardships before me. The next six months are looking to be considerably challenging, and I’d like to walk away knowing I accomplished something few others would be will to undertake. My more realistic self thinks there’s little to be gained from trying so unnecessarily hard, and the time and energy I’d be wasting could be better spent on something else. I’m stuck trying to decide what to do. I’m trying to keep in mind that it’s a product of my situation, but it’s tough. It’s hard to lose your feeling of self worth in a situation that you can’t control when it’s tied so closely to something you care so passionately about. I know that regardless of what I end up doing things will eventually work out, but for now I’ll keep taking things one day at a time.