Travel, Culture, Expat Life

Reflections on Teaching: From Surviving to Thriving

Preetha Babooram

My teaching journey began in the humble classrooms of my home town of Durban in South Africa, where I graduated and returned to teach with colleagues who were once my teachers. I spent 26 years teaching English at a range of secondary schools, 10 of these years as Head of Department Languages. South Africa is a melting pot of different people and cultures. The classroom is like no classroom you’ll find in any other school anywhere in the world. Perhaps I am a little biased, but as a result of extenuating circumstances, most of which are not particularly pleasant, children are still most appreciative of teachers. In these years, I mastered the technique of teaching English to first and second-language multi-racial learners, developing an innate understanding and appreciation for cultural diversity.

It is a country of dramatic change and optimism which, is reflected in the schools and students. The schooling system in South Africa is extremely diverse. I worked at prominent and expensive private schools on one end of the spectrum and at run-down, understaffed, poorly resourced schools on the other. The student per teacher ratio in the public schools that I taught at is generally much higher than any teacher would hope for, with overwhelming numbers, like 45 to 50 students to one teacher. It is a hurdle to ensure every student received the attention they need to progress. Additionally, the number of students per teacher usually doubled on days when teachers are absent, which is sadly a frequent occurrence.

South Africa has 11 official languages, with English being the medium of instruction in most schools, which isn’t the first language of many people there. English isn’t usually used often in townships compared to indigenous languages, such as Xhosa or Zulu. Although I taught English, I had to expand my language skills in other languages to be able to reach out to all my students.

Despite the daily challenges of being a teacher in South Africa, the pros outweigh the cons. The light bulb moments, when you start to see, despite the adversity and real challenges, the results of hours of hard work are so worth it. When students begin to understand the lessons you’ve been teaching, you’ll realize how much you’ve achieved, maybe baby steps, and life-changing for students.

Equipped with a reservoir of knowledge and expertise, I finally decided to take the leap of faith and try my hand at teaching abroad. My international teaching started in 2017, where I spent 12 months in Dubai working as a senior English teacher at an affluent private international school in the developing coastline city of Fujairah.

Currently, I’m into my third year of teaching in Brunei. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my experience of teaching in Brunei so much that I decided to extend my stay. Since taking up a teaching position at the local secondary Sports school, my experience has been exciting and positive. I am the only CfBT teacher at school and enjoy an excellent repertoire and good working relations with my local colleagues. I have an international principal who is very supportive. The school facilitates a conducive working environment and, the students are always a pleasure to teach. My employer is visionary, supportive, dedicated to team building, and fosters a great employee experience.

In my personal experience in Brunei, teaching in a classroom here is far more manageable, enjoyable, and rewarding than it was in Dubai. I teach English to seniors in the sports stream and academic classes. Students are very respectful and generally well-behaved. They listen to instructions and work well on tasks. I have to be resourceful, drawing on a variety of teaching strategies to meet my students’ unique needs that best suit the learning styles of energetic sports students. These students respond better to kinesthetic learning, tasks that include an element of competitiveness, count downs, and teamwork so, it’s always about transforming lessons into games. With some guidance from me, they will endeavor to complete their tasks promptly and to the best of their ability. Some of my students excel while others will find the work challenging, but they will try to attempt it. Overall, during an English lesson, the students always do their best while showing respect and good manners.

In Dubai, I found almost all lessons meant being a referee, maintaining crowd control which, required immense classroom management. I had to draw on a variety of strategies to ensure an effective learning environment, but usually with very little success. From my experience in these classes, many students lack the self-control needed to focus on learning English. Their lack of desire to learn is a result of their low-English ability and destructive behavior patterns. Students can be challenging and spoilt due to the extravagant lifestyle to which they are exposed. However, not all of them are challenging to teach. Some students are very respectful and eager to learn. Sadly there are very few such learners. There is a lack of respect for ex-pat teachers and females in general that sadly seems to be an inherent cultural perception. From my observations and the discussions shared with my colleagues there, ill-discipline, apathetic attitudes, fooling around fighting and, cheating is the general culture in most classrooms.

Most of us lived for the weekends for shopping and touring exotic places in Dubai. This welcomed break was a much-needed stress reliever which allowed us the time to recover and recharge before returning to rough classes and a rigorous work routine again. Life outside the classroom is full of adventure, glamour, and exciting things to do. Unfortunately, the reality is that you need to have nerves of steel to survive as a teacher in Dubai. I have tremendous respect for those that have survived and mastered the art of teaching in the classrooms there.

Living in Brunei is quiet, peaceful, an absolute paradise and, a very welcomed change from the rat-race of most of the world. I thoroughly enjoy the humility and simplicity of Brunei, where living is relaxed, safe, and uncomplicated. Socializing with colleagues catching scenic views and regular jungle hikes is a healthy break from teaching. School holidays are great for short trips outside of Brunei to nearby Malaysia. Brunei is an excellent springboard to access exotic destinations in Southeast Asia. The split work weekend was easy to adjust to and far better than working on a Sunday in Dubai (something I could never get used to). 

I remain very grateful for the opportunity to teach in Dubai but, I am so glad that I now teach in Brunei, where a classroom is a place for learning, students respond with respect and, I can continue to do what I love most, is teach. Opting to teach in Brunei is the best decision I have made.

After teaching in different locations in the world, I have come to treasure more than the academic achievements are the personal ones; the relationships formed, the bonds created, the mutual respect shared, and the moments of gratitude and appreciation, and the way faces light up when you walk into a room. The difference we make, adding meaning and shaping lives are the moments I’ll treasure, and these smiles I’ll cherish long after my teaching ends. The key to successfully teaching in any part of the world is to embrace the experience, the new sounds, and sights as opportunities to learn and grow.

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