Lessons from My Students Part 1
“Education for a New Era”- Mission of Qatar Supreme Education Authority
(Please note: I am deliberately vague in this post to protect the privacy of my students. These are not their real names.)
It is an early October day, and I am on my way to my first day of teaching at a university in the vast Education City compound in Doha. (See May 7 Post: “The Brightest Possible Future”.) I am dressed in my normal attire here- a cotton skirt and blouse, slipper-like flat shoes, with a long pashmina draped over my shoulders for warmth in the air conditioned spaces and for protection from the blazing sun- as well as a head covering (rarely necessary, but always a good idea to have here, just in case.) The sheer scale of the building I am entering is intimidating. It takes me a while to locate the door I am supposed to enter. When I do find it, it is so immense that, once again in this part of the world, I feel disoriented, like Alice in Wonderland, suddenly a midget. I enter, get security clearance from the guard, and text Mary, who hired me, that I am here, ready to begin. Mary comes down and escorts me through a maze of massive corridors around majlis courtyards through a cozy study area with high school and college kids snuggled up close together, studying, and chatting (finally- something more familiar) to my classroom- huge and modern, where my students are waiting. I take a deep breath and walk in.
Even though the classes at these universities are co-educational, my group happens to be 16 young Muslim men. One young Muslim woman joins us for a few classes to prepare for a certain test. (I love looking at her shoes under her abaya. One day bright pink Sketchers, the next day black patent spike heels.) My students, age 17-37, are divided into two groups. Some are being groomed for positions in the Ministry of the Interior (MOI). They therefore must pass certain exams in English. The others are employees in a local company who are participating in a pilot program. They started working right after high school and have distinguished themselves as highly capable, with leadership potential. In order to be promoted, however, they must earn college degrees in their field. Their company is giving them an extended paid leave to gain the English skills they need to pass the entrance examination to this university. The company is subsidizing this training and will pay for their entire undergraduate education, if admitted. Pretty impressive.
My brain must go into high gear now. Mary is rapidly explaining sophisticated equipment, new technology applications and software to me, along with school procedures, schedules, and more. I need to learn 16 Arab names, pronto. (See February 13 Post: What’s In A Name?) The men are busy at their computers, writing essays. I decide to go around and introduce myself to each one of them and jot down their names and some notes. They are polite. A bit distant and formal. Quite dignified in their long white gowns and headscarves, which here are called thobes and gaytras, although there are many terms used for these. I can see immediately that their written English is very weak, and their spoken English is not much better.
Over the next few days, I get to know them a little better. The 7 MOI students are more confident in their English skills, as they have just finished high school. As I observe them and interact with them, they are, I realize, like adolescents anywhere in the world. Posturing and pretending a bit. There is an Alpha Group, a Wannabe Group, and some Outsiders. One student, Mohammed, is studious and aloof. Another, Rafan, is sassy and suave, constantly texting on his Smartphone. Sometimes they wear baseball hats instead of gaytras. A couple even wear jeans on occasion. I learn that there are no strict rules regarding men’s clothing. They are taking the practice IELTS and TOEFL Exams at testing sites in Qatar and Bahrain regularly to prepare for the university admission test. They make decent scores, and gradually no longer need the class.
Barkat is a lively, charming fellow who enjoys showing me photographs of his older siblings, currently studying in the USA. He remains a few weeks longer than the others. It becomes clear that he is not so carefree and blase as he has previously appeared. He wants to ACE the test. And he does. A few days later he waltzes into the classroom to surprise me. It is his birthday and he excitedly shows me a picture of his present- a new car, a Toyota. At this point I no longer see Barkat’s thobe and gaytra. I only see his infectious smile and bright eyes and hope that he will prosper in his career in the esteemed Ministry of the Interior…. and in his adult life.
The MOI students have taught me that all teenagers, no matter what culture- no matter how wealthy and privileged- no matter how protected and scripted their lives are- have the same vulnerabilities, frustrations, fears, and aspirations. They long to be taken seriously and to belong.
So now I am left with the 9 working men, who are still struggling mightily with their English. Over the next few months, we have quite a journey together…
Next Post: My Students Teach Me, Part Two