I WAS NOT SUPPOSED TO GET THE JOB
When my friend in Qatar, told me that her daughter’s Arabic class had no teacher and that she was recommending me for the job I thought, “Nice idea, but it will never happen.” Why would Arabs hire me from the USA, to come teach Arabic in an Arab country? So 2 weeks later when she gave me the email address of the H.R. person and told me to send in my CV (and quick!) I did it …but I was still in denial. The head of the Elementary school, a kind lady from New Zealand met me on Skype and said, “we are looking for an Arabic teacher for our non-Arab students…you will be offered the full benefits package.” Was I in the Matrix? Did I just swallow the red pill? I kept my mouth shut, other than my family, nobody knew until like the week before my flight because I still actually couldn’t believe it. My brother was living in Qatar at that time, working with the military. Between him and the school, all my affairs were taken care of. I was on my way, just like that.
Sounds like a dream right? Ha! Little did I know I was in for the most challenging fight of my life! The next 3 years I underwent rigorous training ! My patience, perseverance even my self-esteem, was tested at every level. The years I had spent teaching at my dining room table in Philadelphia, were child’s play compared to the fire I had to walk through at al-Maha Girls Academy.
When I arrived, although I had been hired by the English department, I realized that I was actually a member of the Arabic department. I was the only non-Arab teacher of 42 mostly Egyptian, Palestinian, and Jordanian professionals. I knew I was in for it from Day 1 when I had my official interview with my Muna-ssaqah and my Mudeerah. ( I didn’t even know what the word Munassaqah meant when I was introduced! ) If only I had a dollar for all the times I felt totally out of place in that first year! I had no professional skills. I had 2 years of Arabic at the Fajr Centre in Cairo and 4 years of conversational Arabic with my neighbors in Medina. I had never been trained as a teacher in English and now I had to attend workshops and trainings in Arabic with people who were far above my level. My colleagues all had degrees from Arab countries specializing in Arabic and/or Islamic studies and some had Master’s degrees. They used terminologies I didn’t understand like ‘maeer’ and ‘tat-beeq’ and ‘taq-weem’ and ‘mih-nee’. When my Munassaqah (coordinator) presented me with 2 new students and told me to prepare an ‘Ikh-tibaar Tash-keesi” I gave her this blank look like , “huh?” It’s hilarious when I think back on it now. Yet, with all the professionalism and decorum, the department had no idea how to teach the 40 or so non-Arab students in the school. So although the first 6 months I was lost in the sauce, I hated staff meetings and I was terrified of the workshops. I had to keep reminding myself that I am a specialist in my field I teach Arabic to non-Arabs and I am a non-Arab. I actually know things that they don’t know. I had to keep my head on straight and stop comparing myself to other people who had a different purpose.
Then there was the money issue. Everyone wanted to know how much I was getting paid.
You see in the Middle East the pay grade goes according to nationality. Anyone from the Khaleej (Arab Gulf) is always the highest paid, then US and UK passports second highest, then other European countries and South Africa, then the other Arab countries. Actually the teachers in the English department were paid a whopping 40% higher salaries than the teachers of the Arabic department. So what do you think they did with me? Well, being an American they had to pay me more than an Egyptian or non Khaleeji Arab. But I was in the Arabic dept so I couldn’t be paid as much as someone in the English dept. They paid me something in between and my American friends were like: “How in the world do you live off that???!” and my Arab collegues knew I didn’t deserve to be paid more than them since I was not at their level of knowledge. But that’s Middle East job politics.
In that 1st year, I went from amateur ‘shoot from the hip’ dining room table teacher to ‘professional’. I had no choice.
I learned to write lesson plans in Arabic according to the dept standards. I learned to prepare worksheets with proper objectives. Every teacher’s work had to be filed into her own binder for the Muderah to inspect at any time. My Arabic typing got faster, my professional vocabulary grew. I was on a roll…until mid-term exams. It was the first time I had to write exams for my students. The exam had to be written in a very exact way to be accepted by the Arabic dept. then submitted to the Education Council. I had to write at least 4 different exams for the different levels of my students. Of course the other teachers had a format that was given to them by the department, since they had a ‘ma-eer’ (standards). But ‘Arabic for non-Arabs’ had no set standards, yet I had to bring it up to the department standards. Otherwise it would be an ‘ih-raaj’ (embarrassment) on the dept, I was told. I kept making mistakes in the instructions or on the questions or on the title page or the page numbering. The Munassaqah sent it back to me 3 times and on the 3rd time she was sick of me, so she reported me to the Muderah. I was tired and felt hopeless. That night, I wrote to my friends back home like, “That’s it I can’t do this. I am looking for a job teaching English this is too hard. They don’t want me here. I’ll never fit in and I feel like I can’t do anything right.”
I carpooled to work with a sweet Moroccan sister who taught Islamic studies and I told her what I was going through.
She invited me to go with her group to help manage the girls during a Quran competition. That morning I sat in her halaqa listening to her remind the girls about how Allah had honored them and advising them about their manners. All along the bus ride I listened to the girls reciting Quran, and I just cried and cried. Although I was hurting, feeling awkward and overwhelmed with frustration, I knew that I was in the right place at the right time. I decided no matter how much I had to go through, I would stay on the job for as long as they would have me, which turned out to be 3 years al hamdulillah.
In part 2 I will share about, almost becoming homeless, getting called to the Principal’s office and run-ins with the police. Oh my, there is a lot to tell!
I am Ustaatha Nadiya Johnson, Teacher & Curriculum Designer, Arabic for Understanding al-Quran
If you are ready to get down to business and raise your level of Arabic language for speaking and understanding al-Quran. Please preview and enroll in my Year 1 Program for only $37 a month.