It was with nervous excitement that, in July 2013, I moved from rainy London to Dubai, with no plan of how long I would stay. I had a sparse knowledge of the UAE but was tempted by the career opportunities and lifestyle benefits of being part of a young, vibrant teaching community.
I currently work at a school called the Arbor School, which is unlike any other school I have worked in before. It opened in September this year and is determined to be different. It teaches the English national curriculum through project-based learning with a focus on sustainability and eco-literacy.
Our teachers, students and their parents all believe in the school ethos: education with a conscience. The aim is that when our students leave school, they have a vigorous academic grounding, coupled with values and understanding of global issues, so that they can make a positive impact on the world around us.
The school is exceptionally well set up for students to improve their knowledge of ecology and nature with three temperature controlled bio-domes on site with hundreds of different plant species, and a variety of green spaces dotted around. Students are encouraged to show empathy by learning to care for animals such as hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, fish and even terrapins.
Like most schools in Dubai we have a wide and diverse range of nationalities, but nearly all are fluent English speakers. I am constantly in awe of students who speak multiple languages. It is a legal requirement in Dubai that children study the Arabic language in school, so it is very common for students in the UAE to speak English, Arabic as well as their mother tongue if English is not their first language.
One of my favourite days of the school year is International Day, when everybody wears traditional dress, brings food from their home country and comes together to celebrate diversity. This experience helps to set an example to our students about remaining curious and accepting of different cultures and religions.
As head of learning technology, I work with various teachers and students to improve the impact that technology is having in the classroom. The most rewarding moments occur when you walk around the school and see techniques that you’ve shown someone having a real positive impact on learning. The biggest challenge as a technology leader can be a lack of understanding about the role and the demands on your time from the different stakeholders around the school. My advice for any new learning technology leaders is to always prioritise the tasks that directly improve learning. Not losing sight of that is key.
In my spare time, a software developer friend of mine and I have been devoting our time to developing a mobile application called Springpad. It began because I wanted to resolve the grinding workload that most teachers face with traditional workbooks, the difficulty of storing any multimedia and the lack of access for parents. It seems archaic that teachers globally still print reams of paper, cut and stick it inside each of their student’s workbooks. The app improves learning through a seamless, paperless teacher-student-parent workflow.
Our partners schools in Dubai are now giving us feedback about how to improve the app. It’s a proud feeling to watch something you’ve spent such a long time working on and thinking about, helping students, teachers and parents as it was intended.
Teaching in Dubai has been an exciting and energising experience not only professionally, but personally. I met my wife Laura within the first year of moving here, and we are expecting our first baby in July, which promises to be the most exciting challenge yet.
George Stokes is the head of learning technology at Arbor School, Dubai