How to become a superstar international teacher: Dubai

Liam Greenbank

Liam Greenbank is a Teacher of IB Business Management & Economics at the Dubai American Academy.

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Sun, sea, sand and student feedback. As relocations go, you can do a lot worse than Dubai. Liam Greenbank, teacher of IB Business Management & Economics at the Dubai American Academy, explains how he ended up going from grey Blighty to scorching UAE, and tells us about his experiences. 

Choosing to become an international teacher is probably a more complex decision for most than it was for me. I was single, 25 years young and had been regretting for a number of years not travelling the world when I finished University. The cost of living in London was becoming more of a struggle than I had imagined, and I had also needed a change from teaching the English system. At the time I wasn’t enjoying the AS and A2 Business Studies courses on offer from certain examination boards, but I was lucky to get a brief taste of the International Baccalaureate (IB) a few years earlier when teaching in Liverpool. A taste I enjoyed.

So when an offer came to go to Dubai to teach the IB, without knowing too much about the place other than a few word of mouth glowing reviews from friends, and after calculating some positive figures, I always believe following your gut instinct is the best bet. So I did, and with the blessing of a very supportive Headmaster at my London school, it was one of the best decisions I have made for my career.

Admittedly, I wasn’t too impressed with the city when I first arrived; it felt like putting your head next to a car exhaust pipe when I first stepped out of the airport taxi. My accommodation was average but I wasn’t complaining, as one of the fringe benefits of international teaching is your accommodation is paid for you – makes a big difference to paying hugely inflated rent in London. My main concern was what the school, the students and my colleagues were like.

One of the big differences I noticed about the staff internationally is there is a lot more energy about them, a lot more excitement. They are on the same life-changing journey as you, everyone is out to grasp the most from this opportunity and there is a distinct buzz in the air. As helpful as staff were back in the UK, most of them are established and have families at home; there is only so much time they can devote to a new teacher. Internationally, it felt like going back to University! Everyone’s accommodation was within the same buildings so it had a distinct feel of living in halls of residence again. As claustrophobic as that can get at times, it is an extremely helpful environment to be in when settling in to a new country and school.

Meeting the international students was a revelation for me after teaching UK students for the previous three years. As the old saying goes in UK schools, ‘don’t smile until Christmas’. Well I learnt in Dubai smiling after the first week was not going to be a problem. The respect didn’t need to be earned in terms of classroom management. It became evident early on that as long as you knew the content and worked hard for the students, you had instant respect. Without question, these were the most polite, studious young adults I had ever had the pleasure of working with. I assumed it was just the school I was working in but once I got to know teachers from neighbouring schools, I realised this was just the culture amongst international students in Dubai. It made a pleasing change from some stressful classroom management situations I had experienced in the UK that often deters a lot of new teachers away from the profession.

I did have worries about not being able to speak Arabic but I needn’t have, as English was the overly dominant language spoken over here. At times I have felt a bit ignorant not taking the time to learn the native tongue but there has never been a need, all of my students, colleagues and the natives have at least a fairly decent grasp of English.

After only a few months I felt very settled. There are some real luxurious perks to living in Dubai: excellent food, beautiful beaches, fantastic bars and lots of sunshine! However, there are also some extremely frustrating aspects of living abroad that you have to get used to, most notably the excruciatingly slow administration side of life such as setting up TV, Internet, a phone, a car, etc. But once you realise everyone is in the same boat, you quickly adapt and just accept the delay.

I recently waited eight months for a shattered glass panel on my balcony to be replaced by maintenance staff. I was having images of it collapsing from my 62nd floor apartment on to the public, but in the words of the building maintenance manager: “Insha’Allah [God willing] it will be fine”, as he told me to hold on until they had bulk purchased glass panels from the supplier. You can only learn to accept, adapt and wait.

Teaching internationally has also opened up my eyes professionally and offered a hugely varied perspective on the art of teaching. I have evolved enormously as a teacher; I’ve picked up so many minute details from such an eclectic mix of cultures and adapted my style as best I see fit. I am much more confident as a teacher and as a person, and I will be forever grateful to International teaching for that. Being able to learn from so many different cultures is such a rare opportunity that I would not get back in the UK. Some of the stories you pick up from the international students and colleagues, as well as their native upbringings, teach you an awful lot about the world, and give you much richer material in your teaching, which is especially useful for my content area of Business and Economics.

I am currently coming to the end of my fourth year in Dubai, and admittedly still miss going to Anfield every other weekend, going out to local gigs, going to the local pub with old pals (the Crow’s Nest), and obviously family and friends, but with the availability of social media and Skype, it makes living abroad a lot easier. Waking up in the sun every day, and looking over the ocean as the sun sets every night, make up for the lack of live football and English pub atmosphere.

I would like to network more with teachers back home, as I worked with some fantastic teachers in Liverpool and London. The UK is lucky to have them, as I learnt an awful lot from them as well, but time is never on your side as a teacher. Therefore, I always feel limited in this sense, but the school I am currently working at puts great emphasis on professional development, and I have learnt an awful lot, especially technically with such things as Google Apps.

We have a policy of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) here for students, where every student brings their own personal laptop to each lesson. This has proven a bit challenging at times, as it is an obvious distraction for them, but has certainly enriched their learning and my teaching. As Google Docs evolves it actually becomes a more convenient class management tool, such as during group activities.

Teaching the IB here has made my profession much more enjoyable. Students mature much quicker and come up with ingenious and socially responsible ways to earn their CAS hours (Creativity, Action, Service), which enriches them greatly, and makes you proud when watching them evolve in to such well-rounded individuals.

I don’t think I could go back after being involved with the IB Diploma, and I can see me teaching internationally for the rest of my teaching career. I would recommend it to anyone looking to get into the profession. You certainly do miss home, but the holidays are fantastic and enable you to go back every couple of months. I have picked up so many varied teaching strategies, saved more money than I would in the UK, met the love of my life, and enjoy going to work every day.

For those who may be discouraged with the profession at home, don’t get me wrong; in my experience, teaching in the UK can bring some fantastic opportunities and can be even more satisfying than international teaching. Depending on what you aspire to achieve and experience in the profession, then it may be worth giving International teaching a try before you think of changing career path.

Image Credit: Flickr

Have you taught internationally? Please let us know in the comments, if so!

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