My Unforgettable Experience Teaching Kindergarten in the Middle East
2019-03-21 Mark Crocker Alumni Experiences
Teaching English to non-English speaking students can be a big and challenging task. You need to be full of patience, understanding and passion if you decide to enter this vocation. I worked for ten years as a kindergarten teacher in the Middle East and at times it seemed like I was in a “jungle survival” competition.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Alona J.
My first day in the ‘Jungle’
I was really in shock when I entered into the classroom on my first day as I had students with zero-English and it was really hard to understand them all. There were also many parents sitting around with their children who were crying and having tantrums. Normally, each class should have an Arabic Assistant Teacher but at that time the school was still in the process of interviewing local applicants. So on my first day I was alone, but I tried my best to cope-up with the situation.
As an experienced Montessori and preschool teacher back in the Philippines, I thought of the best strategy that I knew to win the children’s attention. I smiled and encouraged them to stand up and sing, but there were two children who would not stop crying which simply encouraged the rest to do the same. It was really like a jungle! Next, I got a picture book and started asking the kids if they knew the picture that I was pointing at, but unfortunately it was the parents that answered. This was when I really understood that the children all had zero-English. Thankfully, that day was a short one because it was an orientation day, but I remember telling myself that I can’t ever forget my ‘jungle survival’ experience.
My second day in the ‘Jungle’
I’m so thankful that on the following day I had an Arabic Assistant Teacher assigned to my class, although she only understood very basic English, such as “yes”, “no”, “thank you”, “eat”, “cry”, etc. I told myself that I need to do something so things could go more smoothly. First thing I did was ask permission from the Arabic teacher if I could stay during her period so I could learn some Arabic words. She allowed me to stay and I keenly observed, writing everything that I heard based on the gestures that I saw. During the break, I asked the Arabic teacher if my guess on the words and gestures were right. She was amazed how good I was at guessing!
My second strategy was, during our free time every day, to teach my Arabic Assistant Teacher communicative English for free. She learned basic English skills for several months and made rapid progress. During this time we found out that we were starting to help each other in explaining difficult words to the students. I also mingled with the Arabic teachers during breaks. I conversed with them and observed every little gesture they made and every word they said. Then I frequently asked for confirmation if my understanding was right. I also took time to mingle with higher grade students who were well-conversed in English. I asked them to translate words for me while holding my weapons: my notebook and my pen.
Embracing the local culture
Every day, I felt that handling my class became lighter and easier. I felt many things were improving. Parents were happy with the results and they praised me during our Open Days which really motivated me to go on. The next thing I did was buy a book of Arabic terms, sentences and conversations. I read and studied it during my free time. The book also contained Arab cultures and traditions. I even started to eat Arabic foods which were really very good. My colleagues were amazed at how fast I learned the Arabic language. My Principal and other Arabic teachers were shocked when I suddenly commented while they were conversing in Arabic. “Oh! She understands us. Let’s be careful” they jokingly said while laughing.
All my hard work paid off
Over-all, I can say that my foreign language experience was really helpful and rewarding. I was able to connect with my students and understand them more. I was also able to use it in malls, markets and at gatherings. However, it is important to note that I never spoke Arabic in class as it was forbidden. It’s just that my teaching became smoother and easier and learning became more successful. Due to my success, my initial one year contract ended up being ten years in length and I really loved the school and the Arab people that I shared my time with. Now I have returned home, but I will never forget my experiences living, working and surviving in a place where I was a total stranger.
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