In The Mouth of Madness, or How We Survived Our First Teaching Jobs

26 January, 2010

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.

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