January 19, 2021
Safety is a Priority: Why Some American Teachers Prefer Teaching in the UAE
On February 27, 2020, I arrived thirty minutes early for my second interview with Sunset at CommuniTEA in Mina Al Arab, Ras Al Khaimah. As I sat down and removed the packet of notes from my bag, my memory took me to a conversation with my advisor in 2017. When I informed him that I wanted to conduct a research project examining why African American teachers chose to teach in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), his response was a myriad of questions. Are they working for Peace Corps? Military? Are they going for the money? What's the big deal about African American teachers?
Educational researchers have predicted African American teachers to be at risk of becoming an endangered species in the United States of America (US). In 2017, of the 3.8 million K-12 educators in the profession, roughly 250,000 were African American. Yet in 1950, nearly half of all African American professionals were teachers Examinations of gatekeeping policies and diversification efforts have attempted to address recruitment and retention. Yet still, African American teachers have decreased proportionally from 8.2% to 6.7%, which is disturbing not only because 15% of the student population in K-12 schools are African American but because African Americans account for nearly 13% of the US population.
Teacher turnover studies have examined why African American teachers leave the teaching profession for other careers. However, I found it interesting that few academic studies had examined why American teachers left the US to teach in other countries—especially when thousands of overseas trained teachers are recruited to teach in the US in K-12 schools. As an African American teacher, I left the US for a teaching position in Morocco after teaching for only two years. After Morocco, I taught for almost three years in Abu Dhabi. Therefore, this research spanned from the evident gap in academic research and my personal experiences teaching abroad.
As the time neared for Sunset's arrival, I removed my recording device from my bag and sat it in the middle of the table. She was 45 years old and had spent the first ten years of her career teaching in Dallas, Texas, the same state where she was born. The seven years that she spent teaching in the UAE had been between three different schools in Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah. Teachers migrating between multiple schools in the UAE was an issue that I discussed in a policy paper recently published with the Al Qasimi Foundation. Still, with nearly 1,200 public and private schools and a teacher workforce of almost 70,000, I thought, “what was so significant about her story?” After all, as Richard Gaskell, director of International Schools Consultancy (ISC), pointed out, North American teachers only make up 15% of Western hires in the UAE.
At 5 o'clock, when Sunset walked into the café, she sat down across from me at the table. In our previous interview, she had begun discussing the role that the education reform played in her decision to teach in the UAE. In 2010, when the National Agenda Vision 2021 rolled out, one of its six pillars focused on transforming the education system by staffing classrooms with an internationally accredited teaching staff. Because of her previous experience with education reform in the US, Sunset felt confident in her teaching abilities and the contribution that she could make, which convinced her to apply for a teaching job. A distinct difference between both reforms was funding. In the UAE, the government funded the reform while in the US, it did not. Teaching in the US was described by Sunset as high expectations with low salaries. A typical school year for her was spent working between three jobs to make ends meet, which is an issue faced by many US teachers. A 2018 TIME article discussed US teachers’ struggle with being overworked and underpaid and unable to get their basic needs met.
When I asked Sunset about her decision to stay in the UAE, particularly for seven years, she said:
"Safety is priority, especially in the last four years with everything happening with the attack on African Americans in the US. I feel safe here. I don't feel the pressure that I felt at home. In the UAE, I can travel. I can meet people, get to know people, and have meaningful conversations with people from different countries any day of the week. If I decide to, I can get up and walk out of my apartment at two o'clock in the morning and walk around the corner and have no fear. I like the safety here. I like the comfort here. I like the diversity here, and I have none of that at home."
When Sunset left the US K-12 system for the UAE, her decision was impacted by her attraction toward the educational reform and compensation. Her decision to stay in the UAE, however, was affected by safety, diversity, and comfort. Although some researchers suggest that location does not play a significant role in teacher retention in international schools, safety was a significant reason for several participants’ decision to remain in the UAE. Moreover, rather than returning to the US or pursuing a teaching position in another country, after a completed or terminated contract, teachers like Sunset migrated between multiple schools in the UAE to remain in the country. There is an urgent need to better understand teachers’ motivation to work abroad, and their decision to remain with the same school, move to a different school, or return to their home country.