Today was the last day of Work Week and tomorrow the students come. A lot of preparation has been done over the last 6 days. I'm just going to write about the highlights because the days themselves were mostly composed of meetings, cleaning, organizing, and planning.
I meet my teaching team and teaching assistant on Tuesday. I really like my teaching team and I think we get along great. I'm one of three Grade 1 teachers and because we are a primary grade, we each have a teaching assistant with us in the classroom. Everyone is very nice and helpful, and there is a positive vibe in the school. My goal for the first day of Work Week was to clean out and organize my storage closet. It is a long walk-in closet that goes behind my whiteboard and houses a lot of materials. I wanted to know what things I had and make sure that they were grouped in generally the same areas. The storage closet was very dusty and had a lot of junk in it (some of which I just moved instead of removing), but by the end of the day I was quite proud of my accomplishment. The storage closet felt significantly more spacious and I knew where to look to find most things.
There were a lot of meetings all week. During one of our first full primary team meetings, our team leader introduced Class Dojo. I was able to give a more detailed picture of it because I've used it before and the primary teachers seemed to jump on the idea of it so we got rolling right away. One interesting thing I learned about teaching/working at an international school is that there tends to be some internal shifting, especially at the beginning of the year when positions are unfilled. At a school in the States for instance, there is usually a pool of applicants for positions - teachers, assistants, specialists, etc. but the problem is usually having the money to support hiring for those positions. Here it seems that there is the money, but the pool of candidates is more like a puddle (to paraphrase our principal). Therefore it's very important to not be absent because the list of substitutes is quite short and non-vital positions might be left open as the year starts, or filled very close to the first day. It's just a fact about international teaching that I find interesting and new.
On Thursday we drove down to Dhahran for a district-wide assembly. ISG is unique because most international schools don't have more than one location so they aren't a "district". We have 7 schools in different cities in Saudi Arabia (not all major cities) yet are all under one district based in Dhahran. At the assembly we heard from our superintendent, technology coordinator, and a staff member who knows a lot about the local cultural norms. She made some good points about our communication with parents and community because our families come from all over the world. For example: we should know that child safety seats for cars are a fairly recent thing in some parts of the world, and parents might not see letting their child sit in the front seat as a safety issue. Also, reputation and family honor are highly important in certain cultures and parents may be resistant to outside help if they feel a problem is a "private issue".
To "set the mood" we watched a video by Corning called "A Day Made of Glass". It is really cool, you should check it out. Basically ISG is really pushing for more technology usage over the next several years, which I am very excited about. After the assembly we stopped at the Government Relations office because our principal had heard that our Iqamas might be ready. Two of us newbies got theirs. Turned out mine had already been mailed up to Jubail so when I returned to school it was waiting for me! All the veteran teachers said that the 6-day turnaround was incredibly fast; unheard-of. We were just thankful to have them and now be able to set up all the things you need an Iqama for (including wireless router, bank account, exit/entry visa). On the ride back north we spotted some camels along the highway (past some Bedouin tents and far enough way that they were just dark camel-shaped silhouettes).
This week I started thinking about some of the unique features of being in the international school environment in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia):
1) Living in same compound as other teachers, families with students, and other random westerners.
This state of living and working so closely together takes some getting used to. There is a higher probability that you might pass an administrator jogging as you go for a morning walk. Everyday I ride the bus with my fellow teachers to and from school; it reminds me of traveling into the Melbourne CBD with friends from uni. It's really convenient to be so close, and I like it, but it's something I didn't really comprehend before really living it.
2) Since I am always traveling with other teachers, I heard a lot of different discussions and can develop a sense of those individuals outside of their school job titles. I think that typically you know someone "at school" and rarely get a “whole picture” of your colleagues unless you are already close friends outside of that environment. Here I have had conversations about school-related topics and then switch to an anecdote about riding camels on vacation with the same person. Perhaps it's just me getting used to engaging with colleagues as friends instead of just colleagues, but I think that it's interesting to get to know the whole person, not just them as a teacher, specialist, administrator, etc.
3) There is high security at all of our locations (compound, schools) because we are westerners. Saudi Arabia is safe. I'm in no more danger here than I would be in New York City. As I understand it, the Kingdom values it's relationship with "western" countries and after events in the early 2000s scared a lot of westerners away, the Saudi government mandated that westerners would live and work in very safe compounds. It was basically a promise to the westerners that the country will take care of them and protect them. The high security just takes getting used to. All entrances are nondescript and there is ample barbed wire. The only negative my group of newbies has discussed regarding the high security is that we are isolated for the local community. It isn't "difficult" to go out into the community, but we don't mingle with local Saudis often. Also most of the teachers I've asked have said that they don't speak Arabic. It's not necessary here because everyone speaks English. Actually I've heard more other languages than Arabic.
4) Not only do we have a diverse student population, but our staff population is equally international. I've met teachers and staff from South Africa, the UK, France, Spain, the Philippines, Canada, Pakistan, Indian, most-recently-lived-in Ethiopia, Australia, and many others. That is exciting for me because there are so many different perspectives and models of best teaching practice all mingling in our school. Listening to the accents is also fun.
5) If you move to an international school, hope that you are like me - lucky enough to enjoy support for your personal move-in as well as staff-training/school move-in. The first few days here the focus was an orientation to the country and culture, and them we eased into our orientation to the school and our teaching roles. I applaud our principal and assistant principal for managing the personal orientation for us as well as handling all the items that come with starting a school year. I think this is unique because I wouldn't have expected my principal to be so hands-on during my adjustment to the country, but I'm thankful he was. Like I noted above, the lines between colleague and friend (in this case, administrator and tour manager) feel a bit blurred but in a good way. I'd rather know someone all around than to box them into a role.
On Thursday evening we had a staff dinner at a nearby compound. It was catered by the same place that had brought staff lunch on Wednesday, and it was again very good. I had a lot of time to chat with other teachers and got to know them better. Overall, everyone I've met is so interesting and nice. I love talking with them. After dinner I chatted with two fellow newbie teachers about the limitations of really discovering/immersing ourselves in the culture here. We continued to discuss our idea about traveling around more of Saudi Arabia, and (now that we have our Iqamas) possibly visiting some other countries in the Gulf.
Friday was intended as our weekend, our day off, but I was feeling a bit stressed about the physical state of my classroom (a.k.a. it was still a mess). Since I'd cleaned the storage closet the first day, I hadn't really had a significant amount of time to tidy up the actual classroom. So on Friday morning, I took the bus to school and spent the day making my classroom look the way I wanted. I admit that it isn't practically perfect in every way (I'm not Mary Poppins after all) but I am happy with it. Anything not done yet isn't essential for this coming week. My fellow teacher friends noticed my stress and encouraged me to take the day off, but my stress would have only heightened unless I took care of my room that day. I'm glad I did because the rest of the weekend I felt much more relaxed knowing that my classroom was in good shape for Monday.
On Saturday we had another primary meeting and I gave an overview of Class Dojo again, this time to the primary team and the specialists. I feel I'm pretty much established as the Class Dojo guru now, haha. I'm so excited that my primary team is using it, and even some other teachers around the school have made accounts. (I heard rumors that a 4th grade class, a 5th grade class, and a high school class might be using it.) Though I'm very much still learning about Class Dojo, I believe in it as a powerful behavior management tool and can't wait to see how other teachers respond to it once they get used to using it regularly. Helping other teachers and specialists with Class Dojo also helps me feel confident and connected to my colleagues because it's a program I know well and my help is appreciated and sought out. I like having the informal reputation of being tech savvy among my colleagues. Now I just need to apply my young, tech-y skills to my old, unusual Promethean board (similar to a Smart Board)...
Saturday after school my group of newbies elected to go to the Mobily store to get our wireless routers so we can have reliable internet now that we have Iqamas. Those of us who bought plans got what seemed like the best deal - a year plan for 1300 SR or $28 USD/mo. So I have internet for a year, no more payments. I set it up last night and it is working great! I also stayed up until 11pm last night writing my teaching plans for the week, but it finished them and was able to go to bed without that stress still lingering. From now on I'm going to plan to write my plans on Fridays (that's what I did last year for student teaching).
Today we had more meetings, though significantly less than the previous days. I had time to talk with my teaching assistant and we had a Grade 1 meeting with our assistants to clarify a few logistical things for the year. One big new thing is that the teachers now have duties, such as watching the lunch room and playground. I'm pretty used to that set up but I think it will be an adjustment for most teachers here. After lunch some students who are entering Kindergarten (here it is KG1 and KG2 - two years of Kindergarten) visited to meet and greet their teachers. It became like an Open House and I got to meet one set of parents and their student. I didn’t do much more in the afternoon, just confirmed my plans and printed some materials, like a welcome letter. We had a final meeting for all staff and then I took up my Class Dojo duties and went around helping the KG2 teachers “share” their Class Dojo class with the specialists (it's a big confusing).
I left around 3:30 on the bus. As I’ve been telling everyone who asks, I feel pretty ready. I’ve got my room to a point that I’m happy with it, I feel pretty organized, and I have my plans set out though the later in the week ones will likely shift slightly as we progress. Honestly I feel good about starting my teaching career tomorrow. I certainly have moments of heart-clenching “OMG, it’s happening, tomorrow!” but that's more excitement than panic (at least that's what I'm telling myself). Overall I’m calm and relaxed. It will happen and it is the first day of many. I can't find the quote (and I'm not sure it is a quote) but the mantra I keep telling myself is that it's not about what is said, it's about how I make them feel. Sure I'll make mistakes, and stumble, but if they remember me as someone who made them feel welcome, accepted, valued, heard, and capable then I'm successful.
Now I’m going to relax, watch some HIMYM, and eat the cheesesteak sandwich I made last night. My plan is to go to bed around 9:15pm since I'll be waking up at 5 and getting on the bus at 6:30. I need lots of sleep because TOMORROW IS THE BIG DAY!!!!!!!!!
In less than 24 hours I will be a real teacher. :D
Happy teaching and traveling!
Christina (Ms. Kottmann)