My colleagues shout a lot. Voices are raised frequently as points are delivered and corners are stood, but I have quickly learned that a raised voice and a wildly motioning hand is not a sign of imminent danger, more an expression of the passion of the people delivering the barrage and receiving it.
While my British instinct is to fight or take flight, within seconds of a raised voice my colleagues are cordial and courteous again. There is no sulking and the problem is solved. Welcome to Abu Dhabi.
During the summer, I started work as the advisory headteacher for a trio of private schools in the heart of the city. Today, my task is to welcome newly appointed UK staff to their school and support them in transforming the former Abu Dhabi Education Council building into a privately run "centre of excellence" operating a British curriculum.
My new staff, many of whom only landed the evening before, assemble shell- shocked in the foyer after being dropped off from their lodgings in the rickety school bus. They soon realise that this is no ordinary school.
It's 11am and around them local builders, tradesmen and labourers lift, carry, saw and paint in the sweltering 40-degree heat, barely dropping a bead of sweat. My new staff are wilting, bathed in sunscreen, heads covered with hats. Ushering them out, I give a tour of the school, and when we return to the foyer, juice and fruit has been laid on.
After a formal welcome from the owner of the three schools (a wonderfully contradictory Emirati, who has a genuine concern for staff and children), I allocate years and send teaching groups off to set up classrooms. It's only now that concerns arise.
I know what UK teachers expect and how they operate. They need to work within systems and structures, but here there are no assessment, tracking or target-setting systems, no policies, routines or curriculum. I want my staff to explore, imagining the possibilities that this opportunity and wonderful school could bring. I want enthusiasm and possibility to reign.
And the questions come. How are we assessing? Are we using the new UK curriculum? Is APP (assessing pupils' progress) relevant? I don't want my staff to care about such things. I want them to grow through working with teachers and children from all over the world. There will be time for the heavy stuff. I tell my staff to be teachers, not facilitators of governmental regimes. I want their imaginations to flow.
This philosophy pinches at first like a new pair of shoes. I surmise (correctly) that some will struggle, but as the day progresses, the questions change: "Can we build this here? Can I teach lessons outside? Can we devise our own themes?" This lifts me enormously.
British teachers are incredibly well trained. At home, it may be difficult for talent and enthusiasm to flourish because of increasingly oppressive regimes, but I am going to ensure my new staff will have the freedom to grow rapidly, their training serving them better than ever. This is a golden opportunity to create a curriculum and systems that suit the school, the children and the staff. We are starting from scratch. How many of us have ever had the opportunity to do that? This is going to be a very interesting year.
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