A marvelous system

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I spent twelve years teaching English in the Middle East. After two years in Saudi Arabia, in late 2002, I was hired by the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in the United Arab Emirates. They provide free post-secondary education for Emiratis through sixteen colleges spread across the country, and also run an organization that provides education for profit to private companies operating in the UAE. 

I was seconded out to the Centre of Excellence for Applied Research & Training (CERT), and they assigned me to their military contract. I provided ESL lessons to military cadets at two colleges for about five years. In the UAE, the military is called a ‘Defense’ force. They provide emergency services locally as well as internationally.

In the UAE, there was no western education system until about 1992. Most of my students had never attended a real primary school; some had not attended one at all. A few of my students had never seen a computer, and now they had to learn English using one! Realize that Arabic is written right to left and some letters never connect to the following letter, even within a word; while other words get joined together, appearing as one. So English is very confusing to Arabic students—worse than trying to write with the wrong hand.

As a mature teacher, I had a pretty good time with my students, adapting to local norms where necessary while encouraging students to push themselves in all their efforts. After all, a few of my students would fly F-18 fighter jets, others would sit out in the desert with a few others guarding a border post. Five years passed and I was shifted to teaching mid-level officers in the main HCT centres. This was more interesting as most officers were there to get a certificate that would result in a pay raise—motivation for sure.

It takes a long time to really understand the deeper issues at play in any work environment. One of the most valuable insights that came to light was that while these officers were there to learn English, they were also there to learn what a college education was, as much so they would know what their children were talking about as to benefit themselves.

You see, most Emiratis my age (over 50) had driven a camel until they were 25 or 35. They had no concept of what a ‘western’ education was. And here they were going to college without ever having attended much of a K–12 system. Colleagues who put in brief stints in the high schools reported near pandemonium in the classrooms. Thankfully the government was determined to implement better and better elementary school programs and every year I worked with the cadets, the next intake was better prepared. It really was cutting edge education. I will always be thankful for this experience. 

It is humbling to realize how incredibly marvelous a system we have here.

William Moore
M.Ed. 2001

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