In my normal daily routine I have quite a bit of free time. More often than not, it ends up being spent trying to accomplish simple tasks that would normally take 20 or 30 minutes back in the States, but because of the skewed sense of normalcy here, these little things, like simple errands or grocery shopping, take several hours. I’ve learned to maximize my free time, but after I finish my work day, exercise, make dinner, run errands, and study for university courses, I’m left with less than I usually anticipate. Extra things like writing for this blog use up whatever’s left most days, and the rest is wasted on laziness or the occasional hangover. One thing I try to make time for most days, regardless of how tight my schedule might be, is writing in a journal.
In the last two or three years of studying to become an elementary school teacher, every onsite classroom experience I participated in required some sort of reflective journaling. Throughout my student teaching I kept a record of my experiences, which, besides going back and forth between a running log of all my failures and the ridiculous things I found my ‘urban’ students saying and doing, served as a way to work through the difficulties I was facing. Thinking back on it, it didn’t do much, and reading through them is much more of a lesson in self deprecation and humility than anything else. I ended up learning more about what not to do in a classroom through just about every firsthand experience imaginable in less than perfect schools with less than perfect students than I probably should have. It made me a bit arrogant about my abilities as a novice teacher, and, naively, it led me into situations that could easily be described as ‘over my head.’
It also taught me to think retrospectively. I’m particularly adept at finding my own faults and accepting myself as a reason for failure, which as negative as that sounds actually turns out to be a good thing once in a while. I accept my problems, try to learn from them, and move on. It turns out it takes quite a bit of practice to find success using this process, but I’ve had more than my fair share. Diving headfirst into a culture that preoccupies itself with never ending drama with a full cast of some of the most stubborn, arrogant, and incompetent people one could ever imagine is rife with possibilities to test out the process.
Over the course of the last few weeks, in a very stereotypically Saudi way, I found myself reforming my relationship with the Vice President. The Brit had been brownnosing his way out of teaching and into an ‘administrative position’ and, because I have nothing better to do in my preps than to hang around where I probably don’t belong, I was there when it happened. The Brit moved into a small office in the building and starting working on random projects. His daily conference calls usually occurred around the same time as my preps, and because I have nothing better to do than hang out in the Brit’s office, I was there for most of them. Most of the time I would sit and listen, waiting to answer a question if it was directed towards me or observing how to successfully talk with Saudis. There wasn’t really all that much to learn, but over the course of a week I went from nameless peon to regularly being called by the Vice President for information about the school.
The end of last week brought about his biweekly visit to the school, so I arranged a private meeting at the end of the day. After the usual twenty minutes of awkward greetings and unnecessarily long conversations about family and the weather, we got down to business. I went around the backs of my fellow teachers and over the head of my direct supervisor, the South African, and told him that, quite frankly, the school was destined for failure. I described everything from the lack of academic standards to the toilets that backed up with sewage. He was appalled at everything and more than a little pissed that I had the gall to tell him so matter-of-factly, but he appreciated the honesty. I told him exactly what we needed (something a principle, the South African, should have been doing over the course of the last 5 months) and offered to start fixing the problems. He accepted, immediately phoned the school Accountant/HR Director, who happened to be sitting in the room right next to him, and directed him to change my title to Deputy Principle (assistant is a derogatory term apparently) and pay me accordingly. I celebrated with a trip to Bahrain and a few too many beers.
I intended to start implementing changes gradually over the course of the next few weeks, but as soon as I arrived at school the next week things went awry. The Vice President decided not to tell anyone else of my new position, and the ensuing conversations went much worse than I anticipated. The South African, who has spoken openly about not wanting to be the principle, his hatred of the Vice President, and his complete disdain for having to do any real work, was furious about having some of his ‘responsibilities’ taken away. My roommate, an American college student who, besides having no experience as a teacher of any sort is also socially challenged and a very, very slow thinker, threw a tantrum, a literal tantrum like that of a child, in front of his students because he couldn’t understand who his ‘boss’ was supposed to be now that there were two principles. No one else cared, mainly because the only other classroom teacher is the Pirate and he really just doesn’t care about anything. Things didn’t really go as planned.
The last three days were filled with a ridiculous level of drama, and every step I took towards alleviating the situation ended up making it worse. Each day I got an earful from an angry old man with a horrible accent who spits when he talks, and each night I had to listen to rehearsed speeches (some read straight off a piece of paper) expressing frustration and confusion from the ‘adult’ I have to live with. With the help of the Brit and one of the Pakistani assistants, I sorted through all the various outbursts, breakdowns, and gossip, and figured out that problem wasn’t really with my new position or authority; it was all the uncertainty that came with the new changes. I arranged a meeting with all the Western staff to address the issue, which could only take place after I agreed to let the South African ‘lead’ it. I wrote an agenda that addressed everyone’s problems, and throughout the course of the meeting explained everything that needed to happen, why I felt it should be done the way I had proposed, and delegated each task to someone to complete before an assigned deadline. By the end of the meeting I had addressed every major problem that I had told the Vice President I would fix while simultaneously giving all the work to everyone else to complete.
This morning during my preps I walked the hallways checking in on everyone to see if they were making progress and gave words of advice to those that needed it, namely the South African and my Roommate. I spent the rest of my time having tea with the Brit in his office, playing draughts (checkers) and planning out the next stages of implementation.
Last Wednesday night, while sipping on a real pint of beer celebrating my promotion, I felt an overwhelming sensation that I was wandering a bit too far beyond my abilities. Six pints later I didn’t have a care in the world, and in hindsight, I should have realized how naïve it was to think talking my way into this situation was a good idea. The problem with retrospection is that you have to make a mistake in order to fix it. The benefit is that once you’ve learned to accept your failure, most of the time things have a way of working themselves out much better than you ever could have hoped.