Monthly Archives: March 2010


I’ve had quite a few people recently contacting me with questions about teaching in Abu Dhabi/the UAE. This is great, but I tend not to have time to respond to each message individually (sorry). So here are answers to some of the most common questions I’ve been getting:

Q. How did you find your job?

A. Not in the way most people here found theirs. I simply emailed my resume to every international school in the UAE and waited to see what would happen. I got one interview, was offered the job, and accepted it. This is not really the best way to conduct a job search, but it did wind up working for me.

Q. How can I get a job in Abu Dhabi?

A. People seem to primarily use one of three major recruitment agencies for international school jobs: Carney Sandoe, International School Services, and Search Associates. There are also job fairs where international schools do a lot of their hiring. I suggest consulting with one or all of the agencies mentioned to find out about available jobs—but make sure to research the school yourself before you sign a contract, of course.

Q. Is _____ agency reputable?

The three agencies I mentioned above are the ones most people use. These are well known and generally people seem to be happy with them. Beyond these though, sorry, I don’t know.

Q. What do you know about _____ school?

I know a lot about my school. I have never set foot in any other school here, so I know basically nothing except rumors and hearsay.

my classroom

Q. Should I work in Abu Dhabi or Dubai?

A. I’m partial to Abu Dhabi, but I’ve never lived in Dubai. I will say that in Dubai teachers’ salaries seem to be higher, and there’s much, much better housing (and more of it) available. However, prices for almost everything from taxis to fast food to electricity seem to be a lot higher there, so it kind of comes down to personal preference, I suppose. Often people complain that Abu Dhabi is boring and Dubai has a better social scene, but honestly, unless you’re a real party animal, I think AD has more than enough bars, clubs, restaurants, and so forth to keep you busy. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive between AD and Dubai, so they’re not totally inaccessible to each other for day trips or quick weekend getaways.

Abu Dhabi waterfront

Q. What are your students like? Do you have a lot of behavior problems?

A. My students are a fascinating bunch. I have twenty 4th graders (age 910) born on six different continents. The majority of my students are from the Middle East and about ¼ are local (Emirati). Overall, I have about the same caliber of behavior issues that I had back in my suburban Atlanta public school last year. They’re not perfect angels all the time, but they’re mostly fine behavior-wise. This varies WIDELY between schools here, and you don’t have to look far to find horror stories about the behavior of children—including primary and elementary-age children—at the public schools in the UAE. Again though, this is all just rumor and hearsay, I can’t speak from personal experience. All I can tell you is that in my class, at my school, it’s not bad. Academically, most of my kids have been attending English-curriculum schools their entire lives, so while English is the second language for almost all of them, it is by no means a “foreign language” to them at this point in their education.

another classroom shot

Q. What cultures and nationalities do most teachers there come from?

A. It varies by school, but at the ones where the language of instruction is English, most teachers are American, Canadian, British, Australian, New Zealanders, or South African. At my school there are also some teachers from Pakistan and India, and a few from European countries such as Spain and Switzerland. There don’t seem to be many teachers of African background (African-American or other, for lack of a better word, black people) but I know of a few, and they don’t seem to have major problems fitting in or anything. One of the best things about living here is that, since the country is 80% expats (immigrants), no one really sticks out as a “foreigner” and it’s easy to blend in, unlike in many other countries where you are easily singled out as someone who does not belong. In that sense, the UAE is one of the easiest places to live as an expat.

Q. What kind of housing do you have?

A. I live in school-provided housing. I have a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment that I share with another single female teacher. It is on the small side and in a poorly-maintained building, but it is in a very convenient location right in the center of town at least. There is a limited supply of housing in Abu Dhabi and it is very expensive. My school has very, very few single (unshared) apartments available. Many schools have single apartments for all teachers but I am not so fortunate.

my apartment building

Q. Will my husband/boyfriend/five kids/dog be able to live with me in Abu Dhabi?

A. If you are married and your spouse will not be a teacher at your school, you may have trouble finding a job and getting housing that you can afford. If you’re not married but live with a boyfriend/girlfriend/fiancé/whatever, keep in mind that technically it is illegal for an unrelated and unmarried man and woman to live together here. In practice, this happens a lot, but the UAE is a Muslim country and people have actually been deported for breaking this law. Not often, but it does happen.

This might be a good place to mention, speaking of significant others, that homosexuality is not at ALL accepted here culturally (or legally, from what I hear). I’m sure there are gay people here, but being openly gay would lead to some major problems–at best it would be very uncomfortable, and at worst it could land you in jail. If you’re looking for someplace with a vibrant gay scene, look elsewhere; the Middle East is not the place for you. This has nothing to do with my personal opinions; it’s just the way things are here, and it’s not in my power to change it, clearly, but I think it’s best to be honest.

It would be hard to come here with children, unless you and your spouse are both teachers and your children are school age. Many schools don’t offer larger than a 2-bedroom apartment, so bringing more than two children would be tricky. On the plus side, most couples who do have children employ a full-time nanny and housekeeper very inexpensively. Obviously, I don’t have children myself, so it’s hard for me to give much insight into this.

I know of virtually no single parents here and I’m actually not sure if a school would hire a single mom/dad to come here with child(ren). Getting/being pregnant if you’re not married can get you deported, I know, but I’m not sure about coming here after you already have kids as a single person. If anyone out there has experience with this, it’d be interesting to hear about.

As far as pets, dogs don’t seem to be all that popular here (especially amongst folks living in apartments) but many people have cats and it’s easy to find food and supplies for cats here. I know several teachers who shipped their cats over from the US with them. This is expensive, but definitely possible. There don’t appear to be many regulations about having pets in apartments, unlike back home, where you would sign a lease that would specify which pets you can have (if any).

my neighbor's kitty playing with my sneakers

Q. Is _______ a fair salary? Can I live on that?

A. There’s a wide range of salaries and it seems to mostly depend on what school you work at, but teachers in the UAE probably make on average 10,000 dirhams a month (around $2700) tax-free. For a single person, keeping in mind that your housing is already paid for, this is quite a comfortable salary in my opinion; to support a family it would be kind of tight I suppose.

Q. Do I need a car there?

A. Again, it depends where you live and where you work. I do not have a car and really have no need for one. I live in the middle of the downtown area, and there are buses and taxis everywhere. I’m told that in Dubai it’s almost impossible to get by without a car, and if you live off the island in Abu Dhabi (say, Khalifa City or Musaffah) it would be impractical not to have one. I would guess that less than half of the teachers at my school own cars.

Q. What is the food like?

A. You can get pretty much any food here that you could get back home. Certain brands might not be available, but many popular restaurant chains (like Chili’s, McDonald’s, Papa John’s, Starbucks, and Pizza Hut) have a strong presence here. The supermarkets have a large selection that is almost comparable to a Stop & Shop in suburban Boston. The only major food issue is that pork products are not widely available. Muslims do not eat pork, and it is not served in any restaurant in Abu Dhabi that I’ve been to (in Dubai I’ve seen it on a few restaurant menus). I know of one store in Abu Dhabi, Spinneys, that does sell pork, in a separate room away from the other foods. I’ve never been much of a pork-eater, so it doesn’t really matter to me, but it is different from the US in that way.

Q. How about alcohol and bars?

A. Alcohol is sold in liquor stores, and in bars that are located inside major hotels—most hotels have several bars. Restaurants outside the hotels are not permitted to serve alcoholic beverages. To buy liquor from a liquor store you have to a) not be a Muslim and b) apply through your employer for a personal liquor license. This is a little tiny booklet with your picture in it where they record at the store whenever you buy alcohol. You are limited to I believe 10% of your salary that can be spent on liquor in any month on your license. This is more than enough unless you’re a serious drunk (in which case the Middle East is probably NOT the place for you). Public drunkenness can get you arrested or deported if you’re not careful, I hear. Fortunately I don’t have personal experience with this, and I don’t intend to find out firsthand!

Abu Dhabi personal liquor license

Q. Will I have problems if I don’t know any Arabic?

A. Nope. It is more of a handicap here not to know English, than not to know Arabic. I have encountered very few situations where a knowledge of Arabic would be helpful, especially since the majority of the residents are from other countries. In fact, besides English, Hindi or Urdu would probably be more useful than Arabic here. Everyone’s situation is different so there may be some schools or neighborhoods where Arabic is essential, but definitely don’t kill yourself trying to learn Arabic before you arrive.


My Most Recent Adventure

I just returned yesterday from a fantastic 4 day weekend in Ethiopia with my fiancé. It was mostly great, but there were some weird and not-so-good parts too of course. Here is a brief account of the highlights of the trip.

I flew out of Dubai on Ethiopian Airlines. My plane left at 5am which meant I had to leave Abu Dhabi at 1am. That sucked because I was basically traveling all night. Furthermore, I was still rushing to get the visa paperwork together and didn’t get the last document printed out until literally 2 minutes before I left. It was a very stressful way to begin a trip!

So off I went by taxi to Dubai. It costs around 250 or 300 dihrams ($80 or so) which seems like a bargain to me for a 2 hour taxi ride! Once I got to the airport, the “easy” part was over.

Ethiopian has two flights daily from Dubai to Addis Ababa; Emirates has one flight. So options are pretty limited.  I kind of had to go with Ethiopian because of the timings of the flights; they were also a little bit cheaper.  I had never flown with them before, and I never intend to again.  Check-in was a zoo, with no lines and just a bunch of people trying to shove their way to the counters.  There seemed to be people there from every country in Africa, and each of them had a luggage cart loaded with packages labeled with different African airport names.  My favorite, below, was labeled “KINSHASA EMEKA ASS FIH.”  I don’t know what the “ASS” stands for but it made me giggle.

Yeah, so as soon as I entered that terminal I was basically in Africa again, and at 3am with no sleep, I was in no mood to deal with all that chaos.  Like it or not, it’s hard to deny that Africa can be a chaotic place.  People who have grown up there seem to be pretty comfortable with this, but for me, it’s unnerving and frustrating.  I’m used to certain standards of safety and organization; some of them are kind of silly and paranoid (like excessive “warning” signs on everything) but others genuinely make me feel safer (say, requiring drivers to stay in their own lanes and not pass on blind curves!)

Eventually I made it onto the plane.  This was an old plane–at least 50 years old–that did not appear to have ever been refurbished.  It was very beat up, with crummy vinyl seats, and it smelled terrible.  The flight was quite unpleasant, especially the part where the guy next to me kept slopping his elbow/arm into my seat and leaning his head over, snoring.  Gross.  But the most interesting part of this trip came at the very end, as we were landing.

The overhead bins opened as the plane landed, and stuff was falling out. Uh oh.

See those overhead bins in the middle?  When the plane landed, the shaking caused two of them to open and stuff started falling out!  One of them was right above my head, and I looked up to see a laptop bag slowly vibrating its way out of the compartment.  I stuck my arms out just in time to catch the laptop as it fell out of the bin!  The girl whose bag it was was very grateful that I rescued her computer for her; I was just amazed that I had the forethought to catch the thing in time.

From the plane, I went to get my visa (US$20, payable ONLY in dollars or euros as far as I can tell–oddly, they don’t accept local currency for visas even within Ethiopia!) and then went through passport control.  I collected my bags, which were donations for the orphanage I was volunteering at when I met Ben.  My colleagues have been very generous in donating supplies and money for AHOPE, and it always feels so good to be able to make myself useful by carrying them over there.

The wait to go out of the baggage claim area seemed interminable, but eventually I got out of there and Ben was waiting for me.  I can’t even tell you how fantastic it was to see him again after three months apart!  We made our way out to the parking lot where we were waiting for his friend to bring the car around, and he took that moment while we were alone (well, sort of) to give me my “real” engagement ring and officially ask me to marry him.  I accepted, of course, and I couldn’t be happier with the ring he chose.  It’s absolutely gorgeous and something I would’ve picked out myself.

My beautiful engagement ring

We loaded the bags into the car and drove off, straight to the embassy for our visa interview appointment.  I was kind of nervous because he’d been told to arrive at 7:00am, and it was already 9:30 by the time we left the airport.  Then the driver (Ben’s friend) announced it was time to stop for gas.  I was not happy about this, because we were already running late, and I didn’t understand why he couldn’t have gotten gas earlier.  It turns out, though, that there is a bit of a fuel supply problem in Addis Ababa right now due to political problems in Sudan, which supplies a lot of their oil, and he had tried a few gas stations before, but they were all out.  The line at the station we tried was so long that we had to leave anyway….

Traffic jam at the gas station

So his friend dropped us off at the embassy and went back out to find a gas station, hopefully without such a long line!

At the embassy, we were asked for our passports, went through a metal detector, had our bags searched, and our cell phones were taken (to be given back later; they’re not allowed inside the embassy).  The building was old, shabby, and dirty–not at all what I was expecting for an American embassy (I’d never been to one before).  We were sent to wait in one waiting room, then sent upstairs to another waiting room, then back down to the first one.  This happened at least three times.  We waited at one window, then another, then the first one again.  Eventually his fingerprints were scanned on a machine and then we were sent to sit down again.  I think we were there about 2 or 3 hours waiting, but I really didn’t care.  I was so happy just to be sitting next to him after all that time missing him.

Finally we were called to the window, where a very unpleasant woman about my age asked why we were applying for the wrong visa.  We said, “We’re aware this is not the typical use of the B-2 visa, so we have a letter here from our attorney explaining our circumstances.”  Her response, I swear, was “I don’t like to read letters.  I could do that at my desk.  I want you to explain the situation.”  I managed to remain calm, and he and I explained together.  She sent me to sit down, asked him a bunch of questions, called me up to the window, and grilled me about how Ben and I met, his family, what his house looks like and who lives there, when and where we are getting married, my job in the UAE…everything.  She sent me to sit down, called Ben back to the window, and he came back with a piece of paper, looking very depressed.  He was just tricking me though; when he got within a couple feet of me he smiled and said, “I got the visa!!!!”

Ben with his American visa!

I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved.  After all that, we finally had his visa!  This means he will actually be able to attend our wedding in the US in August.  Obviously we wouldn’t be able to have the wedding without him, so it was so great to finally have it settled.  By the way, we wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of our immigration lawyer, Jessica Gleason, so consider this a strong endorsement of her services!

When we left the embassy, we looked for Ben’s friend’s car (which by the way had all my stuff in it!), but it was nowhere to be found.  He called, and his friend told him what happened: while looking for a gas station that actually had gas available, he had run out of gas on the street!  So we took a cab to where his car was stopped, picked up my stuff (I think/hope there was someone on the way to bring him some gas, assuming they could find any to bring him) and drove off to Ben’s house.

Ben and me in the cab on the way to his house.

From there, the weekend was fun and easy.  We had yummy Ethiopian meals with his family, went out for walks, to play pool, dinner, and dancing at a club.  Let me tell you, staying with a local family and really experiencing their lifestyle is a different and very fun way to visit a country!  In most situations, this isn’t really plausible or comfortable (most people don’t want to stay with a family they don’t know!) but since I was with my fiance and sort of a part of the family anyway, it was awesome.

Below are a few pictures of the rest of the trip.  Now that Ben has his US visa, he is working on the UAE visa.  He’s going to be here hopefully in a few weeks, and he’ll be staying with relatives in Dubai while he looks for a job.  I can’t wait to have him close by.  And while I miss him like crazy–and would live in Ethiopia forever if that’s what it took to be with him–I’m also glad to be back “home” in Abu Dhabi.  Strange how familiar and comfortable it seems here now.  Once you get used to it, it’s not that different from life in the States really, particularly when you compare it to Ethiopia!

We went out to play pool. Ben kicked his little brother's butt.

Ben and me at a coffee shop

the outside of the orphanage; they're strict about pictures, but trust me, we were there! We dropped off the donations I brought from my colleagues at school and got to see the kids. I was amazed that some of them still remembered me, considering they're all age 7 and under.