You've Never had It so Good

One of the more interesting aspects of teaching in Saudi is dealing with the large cultural divide between the ideals of the organization that pays me and the norms of my students. This past week marked the beginning of the school year, and in keeping with the normal chaos, life was interesting.

Standard Saudi public schools start around the same time as every other ‘normal’ school in the northern hemisphere, but there are a few significant differences. For starters, most students (and parents for that matter) don’t expect any real classroom work to be done for the first several weeks, as students need time to reacclimate themselves to a standard school day. This is usually done through a fairly lenient period of a week or so with little to no expectations and certainly no legitimate school work. Typical Saudi parents also live their lives on Saudi Time, which means registering their sons or daughters for classes on the first or second day of school, resulting in classrooms full of unassessed students with little or no English skills. Dealing with this isn’t actually as daunting as it sounds given our particular situation, and most of our returning staff realized these issues would arise well before the school year started.

What is daunting is trying to deal with a large number of new staff members with very little experience teaching in the Arabian Peninsula, who largely come from backgrounds in Western schools where things tend to be dealt with on time by competent individuals. By the end of this past week most teachers began realizing the nature of living and teaching in Saudi, and, with a significant amount of help from veteran teachers, realized their expectations would need to be reevaluated. Sadly, the Californian was not one of these individuals.

Personally, the first week of school was better than I could have expected. Aside from teaching two separate fourth grade classes all their subjects in a shortened schedule that wasn’t finalized until Monday (that’s our hump day), things went far more smoothly than last year. I had a fully supplied classroom, working facilities, more than enough textbooks, and I was lucky enough to be present for the actual first day. Our school operated on half days for the entire week which meant our workday ended at 11:30, and only after coming back from lunch every day did things really come crashing into the typical disarray that exemplifies teaching in the Kingdom.

We received new teachers just about every day this past week, which helped take a considerable load off most of the other staff members, but the main factor was our principal in the Boys’ School, the Californian. As I’ve mentioned before, he isn’t exactly on the same page as any normal individual, and although he is exceptionally nice (in reality, far too nice), he has a tendency to bury his head in the sand.

On Saturday, he kept students outside in the rising morning heat (the temperature starts climbing above 95F at 7:30am when we start school) for well over an hour to lecture them on how to introduce themselves to teachers, describe what he thought were our school’s policies, and, most importantly, how to use the toilet properly. Although necessary on certain levels, he took it to a level far beyond appropriate, intimately describing how to properly defecate in a western style toilet and vividly pantomiming how to properly wipe one’s self; right down to the number of squares one should use and what to do if a finger happens to poke through the paper (you should wash your hands with soap, FYI). He continued with his bathroom fetish well throughout the day, making sure to monitor the toilets during the breaks and chastise any student who didn’t seem to “clean up like a good Muslim boy.”

The next day went marginally better, although many of the students were dehydrated enough from the morning assembly outside to vomit in my classroom (4 to be exact, which oddly enough wasn’t the record for the week). He continued his vendetta against improper bathroom behavior throughout the day but added more quirky behaviors, most prominently of which was his desire to test emergency procedures. Unbeknownst to the Californian, Saudis have a tendency to not react too favorably to emergency situations. Regardless, he stressed repeatedly throughout the day that we should be “prepared for anything.” Right before our scheduled break he pulled one of the fire alarms, then ran through the first and second floor hallways shouting “FIRE” and “EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY.” A 54 year old, pasty white, certified and licensed principal, literally ran through the hallways screaming at the top of his lungs. Only after we rounded up the 200 bewildered students and clamed them down outside did he kindly let us know that this was “only a drill” to “simulate chaos” and motivate students to “persevere under pressure.”

The rest of the week wasn’t any better. Sadly.

Wednesday afternoon we were required to attend a mandatory staff meeting, Arab teachers included, sans translator. Only after the obligatory 45 minute “check in” session to learn about everyone’s “personal weather and emotional climate” did we actually get down to business. Just about every staff member aired their grievances, only to hear less than enthusiastic responses from our Dear Leader, mostly in the form of emotionally charged yet incredibly disingenuous apologies. Things escalated far beyond his control, and ultimately the Principal from the Girls’ School was called to help remedy the situation. Only after she arrived with a translator (thankfully) did things start being addressed. The Californian quickly realized that, despite the rest of the staff doing their utmost to prepare for the rest of the school year, he would still be short a significant number of teachers come the beginning of next week, and although he could have been planning how to deal with this situation all week, he had preoccupied himself with chatting to his wife on Skype and making sure he had enough fruit in his office to give to any student who forgot to bring a snack. Four hours later we were dismissed, but seeing how lucky I am to be entirely competent in my abilities as a teacher and strive not to keep my head shoved snuggly up my own ass, I was asked to stay to help sort out the remaining problems with the two principals. I left several hours later thoroughly pissed and incredibly frustrated.

 Dr. Rory's Brown

I spent the majority of this weekend sitting around alongside the Brit drowning my sorrows with a healthy dose of Brown (Sid soaked in woodchips so it tastes a little less like rubbing alcohol), visits to Monkey Hangers for homemade beer and the ridicule of the Fat Man, complete apathy, and ample sunshine at the beach.

Courtesy of the Fat Man

I can’t say that I’m all that surprised at how things turned out, but such is life in Saudi. Here’s to next week. Hopefully, it’s better.