Red flags to watch out for when applying to teach abroad

When I decided to come teach English in Saudi Arabia for a year I was anticipating a lot of culture shock.  Things are very different here:

  • It’s illegal for women to drive. (at least it was when I was there!!!)
  • I’m often stared at everywhere I go even when I’m wearing a hijab and abaaya.
  • All the stores close for 15 minutes 5 times a day for prayers and I always manage to go to the store at the wrong time.

The list goes on, but none of these things really bother me.  The heat isn’t as bad as I thought.  There’s a lot of dust and it took a few days for me to adjust to air conditioning, but all in all, I’ve really been enjoying myself in this country.

However, what I did not expect was the mismanagement and complete lack of interest in the well-being for the employees of the first company I worked for.  I wrote these issues down a few years ago and now I work for a much better company. Here are a few of my grievances and some red flags to watch out for to avoid the same trap I got into:

The company is brand new

  • This is a new company, so naturally there are kinks to be worked out, but this company has dumped an enormous work load on the teachers as well as the students.  We teach ESL from 7:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon with one 15 minute break and a 40 minute lunch.  That may not seem like a lot of hours, but for anyone that’s had to teach a second language, especially to a group of 30 Saudi teenage girls, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

The hours expected are heavy

  • In addition to this workload, we’ve also been given a ton of busy work, such as filling out a lesson plan template for every single lesson we do every day.  Again, that may not sound like a big deal, but with no down time during the day between classes, we have to complete this in our spare time when we get home.

Vacation time is not clear in the contract

  • In the past, anytime I’ve taught there’s been time off between semesters.  This is not the case here as admin has informed us that there will be no time off between semesters and the only break we’ll have will be weekends and 2 weeks off for Eid which already happened.  The week between semesters will be spent planning the new semester.  So no vacation time until June.

No supplies or curriculum are readily available

  • Now I’m no stranger to hard work, and I can do what’s required of me.  However, we’re also expected to do all of this work with no virtually no resources, no working printer, and no technology in the classrooms, so I’ve been writing all of my assignments by hand.  Many of the teachers don’t have a white board to write on.  Most of us have gone out to buy our own supplies.  Now, I normally wouldn’t complain about this, but this is one of the richest countries in the world and the government pays for the education.  You’d think they could at least give us a board and markers.

Management changes frequently

  • I’ve been managing despite these challenges and the students have been very hard-working and understanding so far, but this school is so poorly managed, that every time I think I’m making progress, admin further adds to the frustrations.  At first it was taking on more students than we could handle.  We all had too many students and not enough chairs resulting in several students having to sit on the floor causing chaos in the classrooms.  And the AC has malfunctioned and apparently won’t be fixed anytime soon so it’s a frigid 19 degrees in most classes, so we’ve been having to bring our coats to class.  A little ironic considering we’re in the desert.

There are bad reviews from the company online

  • After the first week of work I saw at least 4 of my coworkers in tears from the stress.  Two have already quit because of the work load and many others have threatened to leave.  Several have already gotten sick. Fortunately the group of women I work with all seem to be dedicated and caring teachers who are genuinely interested in these girls and we do our best to support each other since administration clearly is not interested in our well-being. You can learn a lot about a company by looking it up online. A quick Google search can warn you about other employee grievances.

Duties are not clearly mentioned in the contract

  • Make sure you know what is expected of you at your job. This company had me doing a lot of unexpected work. Anytime a problem arises from the chaos and mismanagement of the institute, admin is quick to blame the staff.  We’ve already had four very demeaning staff meetings which basically consist of the administrator complaining about how we’re not doing our job properly and reminding us that we’re here to teach.   They see nothing wrong with keeping 30 teenage girls in a freezing cold classroom for 2 to 3 straight hours for English language instruction.  There used to be short 5 minute breaks every hour but now admin has decided we should stop doing that as well.  At first teachers were more willing to express their concerns about how things are being run, but we quickly learned that’s not a good idea.

Turnover is high 

  • Now maybe you think I’m just whining and I need to suck it up, but this is where my complaints become a bit more serious.  Within the first two weeks of work all the teachers began expressing their concerns about the workload and mismanagement of the school.  The administration’s response was to fire one of the teachers even though we’re already short-handed.  They told the teacher that she “wasn’t a good fit.”  The teacher who got fired thinks she was fired because she made one too many suggestions about how to do things differently in this school.  I suspect it was because she had visa issues.  So naturally, after she was fired, nobody else dared to complain or ask any questions after that.

Contract is unclear about hours, breaks, etc. 

  • And then there’s all the promises that were made that never happened.  We were promised we would be provided with cell phones.  That never happened.  We were also promised internet service.  Also never happened.  We all had to buy our own.  We were told we should have some time during the day to prepare for our classes, but since we teach for 7 straight hours with 2 breaks the only time we have to do anything is when we get home.  We were promised a class size of about 20 to 25 students but most exceeded 30 in the first 2 weeks.  It was implied that we would get some vacation time even though it doesn’t appear on our schedule, but now the weekends are the only time we have off for the next 9 months.  Now admin has been relatively careful not to violate the contract.  Most of these promises were made verbally and not in writing, so there’s really nothing we can do about that.  Lesson learned.

The company has no reputation or a bad one

  • Sometimes it’s hard to know when a company is good or bad. It’s important to know if you’re safe or not. I did not feel safe at the school I was at after a coworker went missing. At the time I thought things have gotten even more serious.  I don’t want to alarm anybody, but one of my co-workers is kind of missing…Okay that sounds worse than it probably is.  We don’t know where she is and admin is being very vague about her whereabouts.  They told us that she is in the hospital and currently in isolation and that none of us can visit her because she was “running a fever.”  Many of us think she may have been detained by the local authorities due to a legal issue and that admin is lying for reasons of confidentiality. Other teachers have become concerned about what “running a fever” and being “isolated in the hospital” entails. The fact that we can’t trust admin to be completely honest with us about where she is and whether or not she’s truly ill or if we should be concerned for our own health is a little unsettling to say the least. We learned later that she was in fact sick and went home of her own volition, but being left in the dark was terrifying.

Living arrangements aren’t clearly explained

  • Now I wasn’t going to do this.  I wasn’t going to go online and blast the company I work for, but given the amount of stress I’m under and the fact that they have no problem firing people for no reason, I just wanted to clear the air in the event that I get canned because at this point, with the amount of stress I’m under, I’m not sure I would be terribly upset.  I’m no quitter.  I came here to do a job.  And I love these students and I love this country, but this is by far the worst, most poorly managed school I have ever worked for, and the thought of getting fired almost seems more like a relief than anything else.

So, I’m thinking to myself, is this typical?  Is this what it’s like to work overseas because all I can think is what the hell have I gotten myself into?

Well, now that I’ve left this school and I’m firmly established in another in the same city, I can tell you that my experience is not atypical, but I should have known a few things beforehand:

  1. Read the contract carefully.  It said we’d be teaching a lot of hours, but in the interview she said it would be a lot less.  Of course, when it comes to verbal promises vs written ones, it’s not hard to know which you’ll end up doing. Get everything in writing.
  2. Beware of new schools.  New schools often run into problems getting started and a lot of them are treated more like business than schools, so the aim is to log a lot of hours and look official, but the education isn’t necessarily valued.
  3. Search for reviews of the school before you apply.  I wish I had done this because there are a lot of former employees happy to let you know what their experience was like.

Published by That Hippie Looking Chick

I'm a traveler, adventurer, upcycler, and bus dweller.

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