Personal perspectives

What I learned about teaching in Saudi Arabia

Eight minutes
Viveka Simpson Monday, October 8th, 2018

As an Alumna of the Teach for Australia program, I was fortunate to be invited to participate in this year’s inaugural International Teachers Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The forum, hosted by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education, brought together over 700 Saudi teachers, members of the OECD’s education arm and more than eighty alumni from the broad Teach for All network. The Teach For All alumni were invited to facilitate focus groups across a range of educational topics, from teaching STE(A)M to formative assessment, engaging parents to teaching 21st century skills.

The forum was part of the Ministry’s reforms they plan to put in place in order to achieve their Vision 2030; the nation’s blueprint for improving the overall delivery of, and engagement with education in the Kingdom. Currently, the Ministry employs over half a million people, most of these teachers. With such a large number of people working into the sector, reforms to incorporate current global best practice are ambitious and will require broad scale change to all aspects of education across the country. The majority of the Saudi attendees that had been asked to participate in the forum had been identified as leading educational change in the country.

The Teach For All group in front of the forum
The Teach For All group out the front of the forum

Many of the Teach for All alumni who had attended last year’s Qudwa conference in Abu Dhabi were excited to return to the Middle East. Qudwa had been such a dazzling and impressive showcase; a heady mix of cutting edge educational masterclasses and world class keynotes with the best of Emirati hospitality. Thus expectations were high for the Forum. I believe that those expectations were met and that this year’s forum enabled a lot more collaboration and exchange between national and international representatives. The Teach For All Alumni were asked to facilitate small group fora on a particular topic five times across the three days of the conference. We worked in pairs to follow up and delve deeper into topics that were introduced via panel presentations. For example, I worked with a young woman from Teach for Latvia to facilitate groups consisting of fifteen to twenty Saudi teachers with a focus on STE(A)M teaching and learning.

Ben Duggan with Head of Education and Skills at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher
Teaching & Leadership Adviser Ben Duggan (Cohort 2015) with the Head of Education and Skills at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher

This proved challenging at times, but by about the third focus group, we seemed to have a program that encouraged group discussion and participation.

The first time, not so much. The whole forum was held in English. For the majority of Saudi teachers, English is not a language in which they are fluent. For my Latvian co-facilitator, English is her fourth language. So, our best-laid plans went quickly out the window as we grappled with translation issues, as well as a general readiness (or lack there of) to discuss all things STE(A)M.

Over the duration of the forum I came to understand that even with the assistance of proficient and capable translators, the nuance of vocation-specific language can be beyond basic translation. What an Australian educator means when they talk about assessment and all that engenders could capture a broad range of different themes in another language or indeed be described in different terms in that language. No doubt all linguists/language educators/deep thinkers reading this are thinking ‘well obviously!!’ – and I apologise. I guess I have never had opportunity to reflect on this in such a first-hand way and it gave me pause as to how effectively I could facilitate the groups. I hope I did manage to help the teachers with whom I worked build an understanding of STE(A)M – or at least help them identify that they are already STE(A)M teachers, and no amount of letters in an acronym should intimidate them!

On other fronts, the Forum was full razzle dazzle: TV crews, epic international guest speakers, opportunities to be on the nightly news, amazing food and accommodation – the whole nine yards.

Teaching & Leadership Adviser Ben Duggan being interviewed for television
Ben Duggan (Cohort 2015) being interviewed for television

We were treated to fabulous hospitality whilst in Riyadh and at times overwhelmed with gifts. I had to actually buy another piece of luggage in order to bring all the gifts home with me. A particular highlight was the evening hosted by Dr Salem Al-Malek, the head of the Forum’s organising committee. He had us all to dinner at his home – well his “entertaining” home at least. This is a home with parking for five tourist buses out the front, male and female spaces for entertaining inside (both of which comfortably sit one hundred and fifty guests), a band and a buffet meal on the outside lawn complete with nine sheep on spits, a dessert bar and giant swan-like table adornments. We enjoyed a night of dancing, coffee, feasting, more dancing and more coffee. All of the women also had the opportunity to dance once the men had moved on to a different room. We girls let our hair down (literally) and learned some moves with Dr. Salem’s daughter, our consummate host and instructor.

Saudi Arabia receives its fair share of media coverage, especially in terms of its treatment of women and their relative rights and freedoms. Prior to flying out and once on the ground, the Teach For All representatives participated in a substantial whack of cultural awareness training; mostly to help us navigate culturally appropriate dress and behaviour, be this in facilitating groups of male and female teachers through the focus groups or out on the street buying food. Topics covered ranged from appropriate dress to eye contact and when and how to shake hands.

Viveka Simpson with Teach For All Alumni
Shopping in a souk with other Teach For All alumni

All female Teach For All participants were gifted an abaya by the Saudi Ministry of Education, which they were to wear at all times. Saudi woman, at the time that this is being written, are required by law to wear the abaya and a head covering when in public. There is a large amount of conversation around this, with both the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salem and top clerics publicly announcing earlier this year that these garments should no longer be legally required.

Of course as a group, the Teach for All representatives spoke at length about what they saw, felt, observed and were trying to learn about the differences that male and female Saudis face on a day-to-day basis. Some felt that the abayas were oppressive, others found them freeing. Again though, this was a group of people who brought a range of very different cultural and social experiences to a new place, trying to construct meaning about that place through observation without necessarily having the opportunity to discuss the complexities of the social landscape with the people who live it day to day.

Thus, having spent a week in Saudi Arabia, I don’t feel I’ve clarified my understanding of these issues, and indeed did not engage in conversations with any Saudi women or men regarding the treatment of its citizens. I can’t agree on principle with the legal enforcement of abaya for women, yet I did wear one whilst there. Of course, it is important that Saudis tell their own stories, and for those that are interested, there is a wealth of information that we can access to inform our perspective.

I had listened (and since visiting have re-listened) to this brilliant podcast, that tells the story of a young Saudi woman, in her own words, trying to navigate the modern world and the very global challenges of balancing self-actualisation and family commitments. Equally, this interview with Iranian civil rights activist and author Masih Alinejad can help shed some light on the experiences of women who don’t have a choice about what they wear and how we, as people that do, can start to understand the issue.

What I learned in travelling to the International Teachers Forum is that the struggles that classroom teachers face, be they in classrooms in Saudi Arabia, Latvia or Australia, are fairly universal. We had many conversations about student engagement, student motivation, the challenges of data tracking and ongoing assessment. I learned that cultural differences are at once too complex to be distilled into any A4 cultural memo, but that human difference is at times so insignificant that to write anything about it in a cultural memo is overthinking it.

Good teachers across the globe want their students to learn.

Good teachers want to learn from each other and will always seek to improve their own practice.

Good teachers love to share and it is in this sharing that we all can grow, be it in our understanding of a different culture, a different approach to our teaching or a (however small) deepened understanding of our fellow man.

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