I am a Nigerian ESL teacher employed by the Saudi Ministry of Education to teach English in an intermediate School. Before I came to the kingdom I was an ESP instructor in a Polytechnic in Nigeria for over five years. English is virtually a first language in Nigeria uniting over 250 ethnic groups with nearly three hundred languages. English came in handy as the official language. So teaching English in Nigeria is actually easy because the students are already acquainted with the language. But coming to Saudi Arabia the situation was quite the opposite. Arabic is the basic means of communication and it is a self-contained language i.e. a language that has its writing system and an old tradition of literature. Though the kingdom has realized the potentials of English as a global means of communication and as the international first language, it equally nurses the fear of the language upstaging Arabic.
This fact can be seen in the government policy towards the teaching of the English. First the language is not taught in the primary school. It is only taught in the intermediate school. But Arabic is not only taught in the primary school but it is divided into about three segments-- grammar, orthography and literature-- each having a separate teacher. The English books used in the intermediate school are slightly too ambitious; this writer has had cause in the past to voice out this in a newspaper article here in the kingdom. Students who have never even had an official contact with the English alphabets are made to do exercises that involve dictation, crossword puzzles, sentence and paragraph constructions which is just like telling you to teach a toddler how to fly. The teacher will find the situation quite challenging and sometimes even fruitless.
More so, there is hardly any room for a teacher’s creativity or innovation; he must restrict himself to the demands of the teacher’s book which tells him how to spend every single minute of his stay in the classroom. While in the class there may be many incidents of cultural shock, he may hit a raw spot without knowing. I once asked a student to tell me his parents’ names as part of a practice exercise in the book, to my consternation he flared up in rage. I then knew that it was a taboo to ask someone his mother’s name and a greater taboo for him to mention it in public. Just as women are shielded from the public glare even in pictures and books, their names are also supposed to be in a purdah of some sort.
Moreover, one thing I have come to realize about teaching in Saudi Arabia is that a teacher’s excellence is not so much his qualification or his teaching expertise but his ability to control the rather naughty and haughty Saudi student. I was once told by my headmaster that for all he cared I should keep the students calm even if I shouldn’t say anything in the class! Through out my teaching life I have never encountered students more unserious and playful than the Saudi students. They are adventurous and hate to be under any structured setting. Success in the classroom is not so much measured by the understanding of the students but in the teacher’s ability to control the students. A teacher in this vein must be stern, strong and have a stentorian voice capable of jarring any trouble maker into calm. In other words, it is not so much the brain that matters but the brawn a teacher is made of. I have seen cases where during exams, teachers with sparing and thin build are not put on supervision and the strongly built ones are those chosen for that purpose. In short a student is not afraid of you because you are a teacher but because perhaps he feels that he can not beat you in a fight.
If a teacher is not made of steel then he must be an infectious fun box. Their love for fun is incredible so he must try to create equilibrium between theatrics and academics. I