Of course, there’s plenty not to like, as well.
Your administrations probably won’t know they’re doing, or even necessarily speak English
Administrations in public schools are notoriously and near uniformly awful. Some people like to say they are against the reform; I think that’s giving stupid people too much credit. You can break the administrators into three groups: the ignorant, the evil, and the handful of gifted.
The ignorant ones are quite abundant. They were given the job in order to create employment for Emiratis (and since the country’s unofficial unemployment rate is well above 10%, that’s a real concern) and nobody asked to see qualifications. If they do have qualifications, they often got them during a time when the UAE’s universities were heavily influenced by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria – none of which are exactly winning awards in education. (See: http://www.thenational.ae/business/industry-insights/economics/compulsory-military-service-will-help-solve-arab-youth-unemployment)
As such, these people bumble from office to office, signing papers, drinking coffee, laughing with cronies, and generally failing to manage the school. They will tell you they support you when you need help with student behavior, but will then forget, backtrack, or simply be out of the building when you call that in. They will observe your class because they’ve been told to but will have no idea what to look for and will either praise you for nonsense or criticize you for nonsense.
You can’t rely on them to even show up on time. Many of them believe being a principal or vice principal entitles them to show up late. You will want, desperately, for someone at ADEC to notice, swoop in, and fix their wagons permanently. This will never happen. Their immediate bosses will likely be Western political cowards unwilling to risk their jobs by going after an incompetent, but loyal, Emirati administrator. Those bosses may even be themselves ignorant of the problems, or, as does happen, simply too stupid to see them.
Naturally, this caste makes up the overwhelming cadre of current principals. ADEC has, in a roundabout way, admitted as much by having to bring in Western principals after they’d brought in us. (See: http://jobs.teachers.net/jobs/certified-k-12-teachers-principals-vice-principals-wanted-in-the-uae-a-lucrative-opportunity-professional-challenge/)
The other two categories – gifted and outright evil – are relative minorities. The evil ones are those that, for whatever reason, hate you, ADEC, teaching, or are so afraid of losing their job they spend all their time and energy making everyone else look bad so they’re not the weakest link. I had the latter in Al Ain – the bastard blamed us for his faults as often as he could. He wrote us up when we were late, though he himself could stride in when he liked, lied to inspectors and his bosses regularly, refused to support us when we had discipline problems with students, schemed with our department head to make our program look bad and thereby bring back some of his loyal teachers who had been transferred or fired to make way for us, in addition to a litany of small corruptions ranging from little lies about the daily schedule to big lies about why he’d installed cameras in our classrooms (to watch us, not the students). Naturally, he spoke almost no English and frequently descended into hysterics in a high-pitched rant, sounding almost like a balloon losing air as he did.
Even though it’s not “bad,” I should make note of the gifted principals. These people have not necessarily been properly trained, but just “get” education and are wonderful to work with. I had one for my 2011-12 school year, but because he wasn’t loyal enough to ADEC, he was transferred as punishment without warning prior to the school year’s end.
The Westerners are not as helpful as they want to appear
Your advisor from ADEC comes in one day; thank God, you think, because you’ve got a problem with a teacher/student/administrator and you want the big guns. Don’t waste your time. The ADEC advisor will listen, shuffle around a bit, and then say you should talk to someone else, who will then proceed to do the same thing in a permanent circle that will continue until you give up. Nobody but your local administration can solve whatever problem you’re having in your school. If your local administration is the problem, give up now, because you’ve already lost. There’s nothing you can do and there’s nothing anyone else will do.
I learned this the hard way multiple times in my first two years. In my first year, I learned that my principal didn’t respect or listen to the advisors brought in to support him. No matter what they did – and they tried quite hard – he ignored them and was intent on running the school into the ground and making my life a hell. In my second year, the new advisor thought the best way to win over that same principal was to cooperate and instead became an instrument for his thuggish and idiotic behavior. Either way, the advisors saved no one.
The people who should get fired won’t be
A horribly run school can be a scandal in other countries. Not so here. The newspapers won’t report your war stories; that’s increasingly become taboo. Parents will have no idea what’s going on or, less likely but still possible, won’t care. ADEC will be an absentee landlord. You will hate, hate, hate, this person or that, and think the evidence so overwhelming that they should be let go that it’s only a matter of time. Those people will probably outlast you. If anything, you’ll look like an ass when you have a hissy fit because of them and end up being fired yourself.
The UAE is two very different countries. On the one hand, you have the thriving, vibrant, expatriate driven private sector. People are hired and fired; competence is measured and evaluated; dirhams mark success or failure and companies go under when they can’t compete.
Then there is the public sector. All of its income is derived from the dead dinosaurs under Abu Dhabi’s seas and sands. Competence, efficiency, and knowledge are not the way forward; family name and ruthless loyalty are. Thus you have morons in charge of very important projects solely because they love their leader the most, or because their cousin is the Minister of this or that. The UAE’s government will always have money no matter what happens; the oil industry is safely in the hands of technical experts often brought in from the outside. Therefore, it can waste cash on idiots and stupid projects as it likes.
A useless principal would be sacked in the UK or United States, where people would wonder why their taxes were being wasted. But in the UAE, nobody notices because nobody’s paying taxes and money may as well be falling from the sky into the government’s coffers.
Procedure and consistency are for other people
Administration is typically made up of a principal, one or two vice principals, and two or three social workers. The social workers are meant to enforce student discipline; the vice principals are supposed to back them. The principal is called in as a last resort.
Or is it? Because in my four years here, I never saw one chart explaining who does what in any of my schools, let alone a handbook for them. Their responsibilities seem to be verbally based and change day to day. Most social workers are useless, ignorant people who are there to drink coffee. Filing reports with them is a waste of paper.
Just because they did one thing that one time does not mean you can repeat the incident. The odds are good that, even when faced with similar circumstances, you’ll still get wildly different results. One badly behaved student might be lashed into; the other, dismissed as a “good boy” despite the fact that their behavior and your complaint are precisely the same.
The closer you are to the ADEC central office, the more consistent things become. The further you are, the more things are based on whim and reaction to whatever the day’s problems are.
The curriculum is misaligned for an economy based on oil and a political system based on tribal loyalty to a ruling family
The curriculum emphasizes critical thinking, inquiry, and information cross-examination. These are all lovely traits in a globalized, Information Age nation-state with democratic institutions. The UAE is none of these. Religion and culture and intertwined so deeply that it’s hard to tell one from the other; government institutions are riddled with nepotism and sycophants; tribe trumps national identity every time, and everything hinges upon the fact that a set of seven ruling families at the top of the pile control the oil wealth, thanks to their names being on the signatures of the oil contracts.
Since the vast majority of students end up working for the government, you’d think the school skill sets would somehow be aligned to that. Not so. The old method of teaching is starkly Industrial Age – memorize this, write it down the same way, again and again because you’re told to. Many schools and other subjects still practice this. As you’ll be working for ADEC, you’re expected to bring critical thinking and inquiry into the mix.
Except you can’t actually think critically about much or inquire into anything. It seemed possible prior to the Arab Spring to slowly reform the UAE into a kind of modern society. But the arrest and detention of democratic activists here accompanied by more and more school assemblies about loyalty to the ruling family have made a lot of subjects dangerous. (See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/06/uae-trial-94-activists)
Whereas most of us come from cultures that encourage opinions, discussion, and criticism of powers that be, the UAE values none of these traits openly. There is a single set of truths that are allowed. This has become a great deal more rigid since the Arab Spring. It can even be difficult to get a conversation going about racism in school, despite this not being tolerated by the laws or government, because Emiratis have grown increasingly sensitive and irrational to any criticism of their country or society. This trait has been actively encouraged by the government. (For the record, I successfully taught an anti-racism unit two years running – but only having spent two years learning the “what not to dos”).
Most of the curriculum, additionally, is too advanced for students. In Cycle 3, we often couldn’t get them to even write their own names in English correctly, let alone have them complete an inquiry-based assessment packet about globalization. By the 2012-13 school year, I had started to refuse to teach ADEC’s curriculum, to the delight of my students, and focused on the far more useful mechanics of grammar and vocabulary instead. I had a much better year as a result, with the major hiccups occurring when ADEC’s curriculum started to seep into my lessons.
The old schools are, well, old
Some of the old schools were built as far back as the 1980s, where, for some reason, the majority of photos from that time in the UAE remain black and white. Some of them are converted prisons; most are cracked, smashed, and poorly air conditioned. They are still the majority for now. Thankfully, ADEC is tearing them down.