'In Jordan, history is on my school’s doorstep'

Teachers enjoy a relaxed life in Jordan, says this expat – and people's concerns about the country are far from the truth

James Lillywhite

If you teach in Jordan then history is on your doorstep, writes expat teacher James Lillywhite

When I announced I was moving abroad to teach internationally, people were confused as to why I’d picked Jordan. I suppose it was the different option, the option that made me most excited, the option I knew the least about.

And now, after living in Jordan for two years, I know it was the perfect option for me.

On the plane journey over to the Middle East, the woman sitting next to me decided to tell me that she infrequently worked in Amman. She was adamant she hated the place and I sat in fear for the rest of the flight. Luckily she was wrong.

Jordan has beaten all expectations, from the country’s amazingly kind people to its incredible attractions and the relaxed life it offers as a teacher. This feeling transcends into the classroom. I’m a Year 4 teacher in a medium-sized international school just on the outskirts of Amman, the capital city.

As a school, we’re very keen to teach through the country around us: whether we’re exploring the Islamic Golden Age in history or reading One Thousand and One Nights in English, we focus on acknowledging the life outside of the classroom walls. It’s a must in international teaching.

Normally our school hours are 7.30am to 2.15pm, but during Ramadan they’re cut to 8.30am to 2.00pm to support the wellbeing of the staff and students who are fasting. After the extra lie-in, me and my teaching housemates have a 10-minute stroll down the hill to school. Walking back up the hill at the end of the day, in 35 degrees, is never as pleasant. However, teaching in Ramadan has formed some of my fondest memories so far.

Teaching in Jordan

I am a key stage 2 teacher and not all of my Muslim students are expected to fast. However, many do as they want to participate in the holy month. Other students of different nationalities and faiths have decided to support their friends by joining them in fasting for a few days. This kindness really moved me, given their efforts to understand children with different lives and beliefs. The variety of the nationalities that I teach allows students, as well as me, to learn about the world all around us. If it is a student’s presentation on Diwali or home-cooked Hungarian cookies, we are able to draw upon many diverse backgrounds in the classroom.

The hardest part of my job is the double-edged sword of having such a rich diversity of cultures in school. With students regularly moving countries, you find many children who struggle to identify their own culture. They may have different nationality parents and have lived in other countries with no connection to their family apart from work. These "third culture kids" can find it hard to feel settled with their identity. Luckily we have a fantastic counselling team to help children work through these issues.

We recently competed as a staff in the Dead to Red relay event, running 250 km from the Dead Sea near Amman to the Red Sea near Aqaba. This is a major factor in why I enjoy working in Jordan so much. Being in a relatively small expat community, you are friends with your colleagues, both in and out of school. I have been amazingly lucky in the people whom I have met and worked with. A shared experience creates a fantastic closeness for the staff.

A surprise for me was the vast history that springs up all around us. Petra is close by, as well as preserved ancient Roman ruins in Jerash. Closer to home, Amman downtown features both a Roman citadel and an amphitheatre that still impresses me every time I visit. Even from my classroom, I can see Roman ruins on top of the hill. This allows children to feel the history of the country through school trips and visits. With such amazing history on the school door tep, my only problem is to find enough time to squeeze it all in.

I am writing this with a real sense of sadness, given that I am moving to teach in South Korea next year. I'm always surprised at people's reaction when I talk about living here. Their scepticism or worries are always far from the truth. It is very easy to dismiss Jordan as a scary Middle Eastern country. My advice is to ignore this and find out for yourself the many truly inspirational qualities of teaching here.

James Lillywhite is a primary teacher at International Community School Amman, Jordan.

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