My life teaching in Abu Dhabi

2nd February 2017 at 12:15
A teacher in Abu Dhabi
Teaching in Abu Dhabi might not seem like an obvious move for a deputy head and his Surrey-based family. But three years on, Nigel Davis is loving life in the UAE and has no regrets following his big move.

It has become an increasingly popular option for UK teachers. Improved work-life balance, high standards of behaviour and lucrative pay packages are tempting many to begin teaching in Abu Dhabi and the rest of the United Arab Emirates. 

But would this land of opportunity persuade you to uproot your family and begin a new life? It’s not for the faint-hearted, but for those willing to take the jump there seems to be a lot to look forward to.

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Time for a change

After a 19-year career as a teacher in the UK, Nigel and his wife Sharon chose to leave their jobs in the UK, take their daughter out of school and move 3,500 miles across the world and begin teaching in Abu Dhabi.

“There were a number of reasons we felt it was time to have a change,” says Nigel. “My wife Sharon had gone through an awful Ofsted experience, and after the bereavement of a close family member, we decided that life was too short. I’m a geography teacher so had always wanted to teach elsewhere and experience different cultures”.

Having swapped a state school in Surrey for one that charges in excess of £13,000 per year for its secondary students, this was a long way from the life Nigel and his family were used to. 

Nigel’s classes contain the children of some of the wealthiest families on earth. This is a world of brand new, purpose built schools with amazing facilities such as theatres and indoor swimming pools, where some students are dropped off by their drivers and international rugby players fly in to take a training session.

With a 13-year-old daughter to think about the decision to relocate was not taken lightly. But, after consulting friends who’d made similar moves they began to apply and soon Nigel was offered a Head of Geography role in a British school based in Abu Dhabi; a country he admits to knowing very little about.

First impressions

“As I’m a geography teacher,” says Nigel, “I’m a little bit embarrassed to say this, but we were so naïve, we really weren’t sure what we were walking into. The architecture is stunning and the infrastructure around the Emirate is incredible. It’s very green; there are palm trees all over the place, grass and beautiful flowers. It’s definitely not a desert.”

Despite some good early impressions, adapting to life in the UAE was not easy for Nigel’s daughter, Bethan.

“For the first three months she would probably cry two or three times a week when she was in bed,” says Nigel. “We were the most hated people on earth. We’d take her away from the people she’d known all her life, all her friends. We’d catch her sobbing in bed saying she wanted to go home, which almost broke me.”

“Now she’s in year 11 and she loves it here,” he adds. “We talked to her about the possibility of moving home but she wants to stay for sixth form. She absolutely loves the new friends she’s made here.”

Bethan attends the same school in which her father teaches, where the curriculum is British, with the exception of some IGCSEs and the mandatory Arabic and Arabic studies. The staff follow a similar pattern, with the majority being British apart from a small number of Arabic teachers.

Teaching a privileged classroom 

“The student body is made up of approximately 60% British”, says Nigel, “but quite a lot of these are British passport holders who have never actually lived in the UK. 15% are Emirati which includes members of the royal family or the higher echelons.”

With parents' evening made up of Premier League football club owners and Gulf royalty, Nigel has some privileged offspring amongst his students.

"These kids are wealthy beyond your imagination,” says Nigel. “I have heard stories of students unhappy with the food whilst on a school trip having a banquet flown in by helicopter. Some students even have zoos in their back gardens. I have a boy in Year 11 with two cars, one of which is worth well in excess of £100,000. In 2015 Brian O'Driscoll came in to do a masterclass and Q&A session with the rugby players.”

Although the earning potential amongst the teaching staff wouldn’t warrant purchasing a football team, there are opportunities to improve on the salary you’d expect in the UK.

A good earner 

“A top tier school in Abu Dhabi will pay the equivalent to approximately £4,000 per month take-home pay, plus free accommodation, flights and healthcare,” says Nigel. “But you have to be careful about the school you apply for."

It’s a tempting proposition but Nigel argues that it pays to do your research before jumping at the chance to work in the UAE.

“Schools vary massively in terms of how they’re run, quality of management, quality of students and quality of pay,” he says. “It varies so much. I’ve heard some horror stories about elsewhere in the Middle East. That’s the problem, you’re in the lap of the gods if you don’t have an insight into the school.”

Early mornings 

Having been woken at around 4.30am by the call to prayer, the school day officially starts at 7.25am. Timetabled lessons finish at 2.35pm before the co-curricular activities commence.

“It’s an Arabic country which follows the Islamic week,” says Nigel, “so it’s Friday and Saturday off. On Thursdays, the last day of the week, we finish an hour early. We do still have a number of weekend commitments such as revision classes, sports tournaments, drama productions and music concerts, but the early end of week finish occasionally enables me to enjoy 9 holes in the sun before it gets dark”.

“In terms of teacher loading it’s slightly less loaded than the UK state system but not a lot less. You are accountable for your exam results but that is to students, parents and the governors; a different focus than the UK.”

Despite the obvious benefits that come with teaching in the UAE, you would expect there to be some aspect of UK teaching that tugged at the heartstrings of those in international schools.

“I loved the school I left and the people I worked with,” says Nigel, “but there is not a single thing I miss about teaching in the UK.”

“The biggest difference, in terms of the work, is that the children want you to teach them. It’s just reinvigorating in terms of being a teacher. It’s what I wanted to do when I came into teaching, I wanted to teach geography and the students here allow me to do that.”

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