The End

26 January, 2010

All of this occurred by the end of our first week. We racked our souls for a while, having tortured conversations about whether or not we were simply being thin-skinned Westerners and should push it out, or if this was truly an unworkable situation. After consulting with our friends, families and other teachers in the area, we decided to leave.

We figured that giving our “We’re sorry, but we’re leaving” speech would be akin to gently letting down someone who you went out on a date with on one day, and found out they were picking out drapes for your new home together the next. We decided to base our decision on the very reasonable logistical challenges of working at two places: we’d already signed an actual contract with Amideast, we would be working six nights a week there, and we had been up front with the administration that we had accepted our position with Amideast before we started working for QLS. Simply put, the kids wouldn’t be getting the caliber of teachers they deserved, and you wouldn’t want angry parents in your face, would you?

So, when we delivered the actual message, it was pretty quiet in the principal’s office. She thought for a second, and we braced ourselves for a shouting match. Instead, she simply asked us if we could stay out for the rest of the semester just for the 3rd and 4th grade, or another three weeks. We would even be offered the same pay as before just for working with the 3rd and 4th grade. We politely demurred.

The principal paused, and asked if we could find a replacement. We stated that there wasn’t really any way we could do such a thing. Then, in a way that conjured memories of the scene in “Dumb and Dumber” in which Jim Carrey exclaims “YOU MEAN THERE’S A CHANCE!” after Lauren Holly states that there was almost zero chance of them ever being together, the principal exclaimed “Oh, that’s so nice of you! Send us their resumes.”

We were informed that we couldn’t be paid until we turned in all the books we were issued. When we first started, we were issued more textbooks per pound than your average paratrooper just prior to the Normandy invasion, yet we only were able to use one to keep pace with our newly redesigned curriculum. The rest of the books were languishing on a shelf we had staked out in our first few days, untouched since we got there. So, we stood in front of the librarian as she went through our respective books, checking off each item as it was turned in.

Unsurprisingly enough, there were two books missing, so we were informed that we would not be getting paid. It apparently was school policy that paychecks were held unless all materials could be accounted for. The books in question were a practice book from my class, and the obliquely titled “Grade 3 English” from Set’s class. Exasperated and thinking of our pending Amideast classes in three hours, we told them to call us if the books reappeared, and stormed from the school never expecting hear from them again.

Two weeks later, we were surprised when they called us. Apparently, the books had magically resurfaced, and we could come by the school’s main building to collect our earnings for the day we’d worked. After collecting our salary and leaving, I half expected to turn around and see a vacant lot where the school used to be. I imagined that I would look incredulously at the date on my watch and see that the entire experience was some sort of mutually shared fugue state, and in actuality, it would be the day before we started. Instead, we left the looming building, and we climbed aboard the last cab out of that neighborhood. Our time at QLS, brief and disturbing as it was, was finally over.

Subsequent conversations with our colleagues at Amideast indicated that our experience at QLS was in no way unique. One teacher told us that he had to more or less organize a general strike amongst the teachers in order to get paid at the school he used to work at, and others said we were lucky to get paid at all. Our fears of being arrogant Westerners or foreign crybabies were assuaged: we’d been through the teaching equivalent of a meat grinder and survived. So, for those of you who wondered why posting had been light recently, or why we seemed so drawn out and pensive if you caught us on Gchat or Skype, that’s why. It’s all over now, so expect our musings/rants to return with greater frequency. Amideast has been a wonderful place to work at thus far, and we look forward to regaling you with tales of a more positive tone.

To any prospective TEFL teachers who are considering QLS and happen across these blog entries: Consider yourself warned about accepting employment there. I hear Korea’s way nicer at this time of year.

In addition to these things, there was also the matter of transportation. When we first started there, we were still living in El Agamy, which is a roughly 30 minute cab ride from the school. Since we had to be there at around 7:45 am, we would have to get up around 5:45, drag ourselves to the street, and find a taxi to take us to Alexandria.

Egyptian cabs don’t rely on meters for calculating a fare, due to the fact that few of them work, and those that do were last calibrated when the price of petrol was roughly 1/10 of what it is now. Thus, the best tactic is to tell the cab driver where you want to go and arrange a fare before you get in the cab. Foreigners pay somewhere between 50-100% more than what an average Egyptian would pay.

A typical conversation would go as follow.

“Sabah il-kheer! Lo samat, ayzeen nirooh Madrassa Quds, shahr khamsa w arbahain, Miami.” (Good morning! Please, we want to go to Quds School on 45th Street in Miami.)

Things would then go one of two ways: The driver would either speed off, or we would begin an intricate dance of fare negotiation.

“Maya guinea.” (100 pounds.)

“La’a, Arbahain guinea!” (No, 40 pounds- the price we were told was fair.)

“Sittin guinea.” (60 pounds.)

“De ghali! Arbahain.” (That’s expensive! 40.)

“Sabahin.” (70.)

And so it would go, until the driver would speed off, or he would come to our price.

Upon arrival, we would either pay without incident or suddenly find out that our price had gone up exponentially. One morning, we hailed a cab, and the driver immediately agreed to our 40 pound price. As we came close to our destination, he began to say “Mayya.” Initially, I thought he was saying “Maya, maya”, which is an Egyptian expression for “Perfect.” Then, he stopped the car in front of the school, and demanded “Maya guinea” or 100 pounds. We flew out of the cab, gave him 40 pounds, and he started yelling for the other 60. I tossed another 20 at him just to keep him in the cab, and we sprinted into the school as he was starting to unbuckle his seatbelt. Initially, the security guards at the school thought we had just decided not to pay him at all, so they told us to give him the rest of the money. Then, when they realized what had happened, they physically blocked him from coming after us. 20 minutes later, I looked out of the library window to see him still waiting.

At QLS, the grounds are maintained by a small army of women clad in yellow tunics. We dubbed them “bumblebees” based on their uniforms, and also, that they existed primarily to maintain the hive. Every day, we would arrive to see them sweeping the marble floors of the school free of dust. I would take a break in between classes to see them sweeping the same floor they’d finished sweeping 15 minutes earlier, now freshly covered in a thin layer of dust blown in from the open doors. Once, I saw them taking off their shoes and sweeping the hallways barefoot. It was clear what the bottom of the pecking order was.

When we first arrived at the school for our interviews, the bumblebees brought us coffee every day. When we saw them undertaking the Sisyphusian ordeal of keeping the school free of dust, we agreed: no more coffee at school. We couldn’t deliver them from the indignities of sweeping all day every day, but we wouldn’t compound their misery by having them deliver coffee to our rooms.

Leaving school each day proved to be just as much of an adventure as getting there. While school officially ended at 1:30, our hectic schedules often saw us finishing around 12 or so. We would head to the library and plan lessons, waiting for someone to get us for something. Eventually, we realized that no one was coming, so, we headed down to the front desk to sign out. The same receptionist who suspected Set of not actually being American would ask, “Do you have permission to leave from the principal? I cannot let you leave unless you have permission.”

We told her that our last class ended an hour ago, and that we’d been twiddling our thumbs in the library ever since.

“Do you have permission?”

This happened every day. Once, I walked just out of the visual range of the receptionist and had an imaginary conversation with the principal, who was, as usual, nowhere to be found. I exclaimed, “Yes, we have permission!” then left. Eventually, we took to bypassing signing out and would just duck out the side entrance. No one ever said a word about it.

The way home entailed walking a mile down the road between 45th Street and the school, and hailing a cab that was going to Agamy. Again, the speed-off/negotiation routine was in effect. On one particular day, we got a cab, and the driver proceeded to:

  1. Get lost on the way out of Alexandria.
  2. Get us stuck in traffic for a half hour.
  3. Get into a fender-bender with another cab, which he promptly reversed from and sped down a side street.
  4. Stop twice along the way, once to buy food, and again to leave the remnants by the side of the road.

When we entered Agamy, he kept asking us where we wanted to be dropped off. We would tell him that our destination was further down, but that didn’t stop him from pulling over several times despite out protestations of “Mish hina! Mish hina!” (Not here! Not here!) When we finally reached our corner, he demanded another 20 pounds. His reasoning? We had driven too far down this street.

Herding Cats

26 January, 2010

Egyptian children are vibrant, full of life, and mischievous. While this makes interacting with them very fun, it can make teaching them a nightmare. Critical thinking and independent thought aren’t taught at any level, so when I asked them a question that required either, I was met with blank stares as they waited for me to give them the answer. Every day, I would come into class and try to teach something, and be met with, “Mister, we don’t want to learn this. We want to play a game.” or “Mister; we want to go to the library.” The first time this happened, I gave my teaching assistant an incredulous look. She shrugged helplessly. After that, it was simply a matter of me saying, “Nope, not gonna do that. Open your books up.” Then, it was the student’s turn to stare at me incredulously. Something told me that the word “no” was not commonly uttered there.

Discipline? I’d liken it to playing “whack-a-mole” at an amusement park. (No, I did not hit the kids.) I would get one student to go back to their seat and open their book, only to find out that three more were up, running around, or bellowing about professional wrestling (apparently still popular in Egypt). In the meantime, the three or four kids who actually had an interest in learning would be sitting at their desks quietly. Amazingly enough, these quiet, attentive kids were the ones who did well on the quizzes I gave.

I mentioned earlier that grade inflation and social promotion are at epic levels in the private school system. This was evident, as about 6 of my students were truly competent in English, 6 were decent, 4 were struggling and 2… well, not so good. This meant that I have often had to stop class on numerous occasions to re-explain what we were doing in order to prevent kids from being all but jumping out of their chairs and running around the classroom.

The grade inflation reared its ugly head in other ways. Heavy pressure was placed on giving a quiz every week, so when I assigned my first quiz, I gave it as a take-home. I hadn’t been there long and didn’t think my students would do well on an in-class quiz. So, when I received the quiz from the 10 students who actually decided to do it, I was only a little surprised to see that several of them had left entire questions blank. Then, when I passed back the graded quizzes, two girls were immediately crestfallen to see they’d only received a 28/30 (namely, because they straight-up plagiarized an answer out of the book.)

“Mister, our mothers will not be happy with this quiz!” they protested.

“What? That’s an A!” I said.

“They are not happy unless we receive perfect marks! Can we do a project for extra credit?”

“Uh, no, I don’t think so. This is only one quiz, and besides, I put extra credit questions on the quiz…”

So you can imagine my surprise when next class, these two girls each showed up with a large poster in handwriting that clearly wasn’t either of theirs, depicting the grammar points from the preceding lesson.

As far as our “whatever you need, you’ll get” clause went, we were somewhat dismayed when we were each issued a single white-board marker to use. I tried asking for two so I could do team games or color-code my grammar lessons, and was told I couldn’t get another one until I turned in the existing one. We took to bringing in our own.

For the first few classes, I liked to begin each game with a game, or something to warm up the students and get them jazzed about learning. This ended after a simple board race nearly turned into a fist-fight. Simon Says proved to be popular, so after a few semi-decent classes, I decided to reward my students with 10 minutes of the game.

Big mistake.

I had to immediately intervene when one girl called out “Simon Says climb up on top of your desk and jump on one leg!” Then, in order to minimize the risk of serious injury, I decided I would play Simon. Kids kept screaming out commands they wanted, and one kid ran up and suggested one. A few rounds later, I called out that command, and the same kid who requested it got out. Cue temper tantrum.

Of course, not all of the students were out of control, ill-motivated, or immature. Just the ones who took up 99% of my time.

Essay writing was Kafka-esque. After spending considerable time on drilling the basic parts of an essay into their heads, I gave them a class period to write an essay on a topic of their choice. I called on students to read their essays, and when one student began to talk about “the girls love the boys but the boys don’t love the devils” I realized this was a big mistake. Stifling laughter, I confiscated the essay and discovered that this student had drawn pictures in place of words he didn’t know- a veritable “Where’s Waldo” of reasons why I should have checked the essays before letting the kids read them. This essay is now hanging up on my wall.

And if you think all of this is bad, Set will be here shortly to elaborate on what HER class was like.

Readers of this blog will note that over a month ago, we posted a triumphant entry in which we happily exclaimed we had accepted two job offers- a morning job at Quds Language School (henceforth referred to as QLS), and Amideast. Astute readers will also note that immediately thereafter, our dispatches slowed from semi-frequent to downright rare. Now, I can finally take some time to clear the air and provide a thorough accounting of what exactly happened. For the sake of digestibility, I’m splitting this into several entries. Brew a pot or ten of coffee before attempting to read this in one sitting.

 The Administration

 Our relationship with QLS began under strange circumstances. The first time we laid eyes on the school, we thought that we were looking at a vacant building- nestled in a neighborhood surrounded by vacant lots, dormant clay ovens and plowed but neglected fields, it was five stories tall and cut an imposing figure on the horizon. Our suspicions started to fade when we walked through a wrought-iron gate and encountered a pair of automatic, sliding glass doors- the first we’d seen in Egypt. The marble floors were clean, and we figured that we should at least make our taxi fare worth it and stay for the interview we had scheduled with the principal. We approached the receptionist, and were given a bizarre employment application that asked for, amongst other things, our father’s names and occupations, and the status of our military service. We asked if we could skip the application until after our interview, as our meeting with the principal was in less than ten minutes.

 “No,” said the receptionist, who would later prove to be a bane on our time there.

 So, we sat down to fill out the applications. Minutes later, the receptionist waddled out from behind the desk, and asked Set what her nationality was. She seemed very surprised when the answer came back as American. Less than five minutes later, she came out again.

 “What is your nationality?”

 This process repeated itself twice more and we weren’t sure if she was expecting Set to suddenly blurt out, “Oh, wait, no, I’m Korean!” We turned in our applications, and waited for another 15 or so minutes before we were escorted up two flights of stairs to a small office. We were given seats, and about 5 minutes later, the principal came bustling in. She looked exactly like you might expect a principal to look like- middle-aged, somewhat patrician- except with a few very notable exceptions: she had several enormous gold rings and a gold colored cell phone that rang every two minutes. People kept bustling in and out of her office to yell a few random questions in Arabic- at one point, there were six other people in the room while Set and I sat there meekly, exchanging the occasional “Oh, what the hell” glances.

 Finally, we were alone with the principal. She flipped through our resumes and applications, and jotted a few things down. She then asked us to come back the following morning, since we’d arrived so late for the interview. Really? After arriving 20 minutes early and then being made to wait another 20 minutes after we’d filled out their “applications”?

 As we walked away, we decided that we’d rather seek employment elsewhere, having not at all been impressed with the school. We didn’t go back the next morning, and we would leave it at that.

 Oh, if only that was the end of it.

 In the next week, we accepted a position from Amideast. We were thrilled to be working for them, as their reputation had preceded itself months before we’d even arrived in Egypt. However, at the time, we were concerned about money, and whether or not we’d be able to make a living wage off their salary alone. (We worked our budget out on doing one class at the lowest wage, which ended up not being the case.) So, we decided we’d at least hear QLS out when they called up a few days later and told us that they had two open positions for us, and that they’d like to talk to us.

 Our next meeting was drastically different than the first. We met with a different woman, who had a smiley, enthusiastic demeanor. She explained that they were looking for a 10th grade English teacher, and someone to work with the lower grades (1-9) on conversational skills and literature approval. The words “full creative control” and “whatever you need, you’ll get” were bandied about quite frequently, and we left the interview with a completely different outlook on the school.

 The next day, we decided to accept their offers. Set would be working with 10th grade, and I would be the roving library teacher.

 Initially, we were excited. It seemed like a great opportunity to bolster our teaching skills, do some good for the students, and more importantly, have a good, demonstrable success story to tell interviewers upon our return.

 The alarm bells started to go off immediately. On our first real day, we had coffee with one of the other administrators, where he gave us a little bit more insight into the school’s educational philosophy.

 He explained that from grades 1-9, the curriculum was very similar to that in America or the UK- general education subjects, etc. Then, from grades 10-12, the criteria on which they were graded upon was almost exclusively based on their performance on the SAT-I and II tests, which they take 12 times in two years. In recognizing this, most of the general education teachers usually just awarded full marks for their subjects, he said. The end goal was admission to one of Egypt’s universities upon graduation, which was contingent on performance on test scores.

 Now, the importance of which SATs are given in America has been in decline in recent years, with many admissions boards stating that emphasis on test preparation and standardized testing had hurt the admissions process in several ways. Yet, in the private school system here, grade inflation and test prep are sacrosanct.

 He then took a sip off his coffee and said, almost as an afterthought, “In fact, because of this, most students are seen as academically deficient when they start studying at university.”

 That’s a hell of a thing to admit to two new hires.

 The next day, the existing 3rd/4th grade teacher was unceremoniously fired, and I was informed by the English language coordinator that I would be the new, full-time teacher for those grades.

 “Uh, no,” I said. I explained that I’d been hired to do something completely different. She seemed very surprised, and after some schedule wrangling, we settled on the compromise that I’d take 4th grade English on a half-time basis, and spending one hour a week with the other grades. Set would work for the 3rd and 10th grades.

 We came to find out that we would be the 4th set of teachers for the 3rd and 4th grades since the start of the school year in October. The first teacher designed the curriculum, then quit before school even started. The second teacher left in early November, and the third one was sacked upon our arrival.

 Before I’d spent even one full class period with the 4th grade, it was announced that there would be parent/teacher conferences at the end of the week. We figured, “Okay, we’ll just hang out in the library until those are done.” Oh, how surprised we were when our presence was requested during the conferences!

 I had the surreally awkward experience of having to answer questions about the performance of children that I’d never met. Sometimes, this was done through one of the other teachers interpreting for me. One highlight- a woman in a niqab, who didn’t speak a word of English, informed me that her daughter’s performance in English had been failing as of late, so I was to give special attention to her. My first thoughts were, “How would she know her daughter’s English skills?!” I would later come to find out that her daughter was among the best students in my class, and the only special attention she might have needed would be a move to a higher grade.

 We quickly figured out two things:

 1. The parent-teacher conferences were little more than a “hey, check out our new Western teachers” dog and pony show.

 2. Teaching in a private school is a customer service position, not an educational one. The schools sell a bill of goods to parents about admission to universities, the parents fork over top dollar for this, the teachers are expected to pass their students regardless of performance, just so they don’t have angry parents in their faces. As we have remarkably low tolerances for BS, this did not sit well with either of us.

 Meetings with the principal about our salary and formal contract signings had been postponed repeatedly, so finally, we were offered 2,000 LE a month because we had no teaching experience. I attempted to point out that I actually had 2.5 years of teaching experience, but nope, no bump in salary. And our contracts?

 “It is illegal for foreigners to sign work contracts in Egypt,” she explained (really? our friends at other places didn’t seem to have a problem with it). “But don’t worry. My word is my honor.”

Without making judgments about anyone’s character, that’s never reassuring.

Now, onto the students themselves.