While some ESL teachers choose the comforts of home and manage to find work in their native countries, many or most seek employment abroad, where they can find exciting new opportunities in different cultures far afield.
ESL teachers are wizards with words, and many long to be immersed in the language of a foreign country with the sights, sounds and scents of that language and culture all around them, knowing that in a year, with almost minimal effort, they will claim a rewarding degree of fluency. Others, frankly, just want to get away for a while to experience something completely different.
My experience teaching English in the Middle East
I was fortunate to get work as an ESL instructor in the Sultanate of Oman, in the Middle East, for four marvelous years, and I want to share the outlines of that experience in this article.
Oman is kind of a well-kept secret because Sultan Qaboos, a wise ruler for more than 45 years, has always maintained an approach of strict neutrality on the world stage, avoiding war and even the violent struggles of Arab Spring in 2011—offering nothing of interest to Western media. Local news is about a camel race, or date harvesting, or the construction of a new mosque, or a bullfight in Barka. Qaboos funded his country’s superb growth with oil, but Oman is not even a member of OPEC, and has a lower international profile than its neighbors even for that reason alone.
Saudi Arabia, of course, has a rich and complicated geopolitical profile, being the origin of militant Islamic terrorists like Osama bin Laden but also ongoing collaborations with the United States and other countries. Oman, by contrast, does not export much oil, and Omani Muslims are mostly of the Ibadi sect, which is a liberal denomination similar to mainstream Sunni Islam. Christians practice their religion openly there, and Omani society is very tolerant. Women vote, own land, and even work in ministerial positions in the government.
ESL teachers mostly equate that region of the world with higher profile countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and know little about Oman. There are many online job boards that specialize in placing teachers in the Middle East, and the highest salaries are in Saudi, but its Wahhabi sect of Islam is suffocatingly strict. For a relaxed and enjoyable lifestyle, I recommend teaching in the UAE or in Oman. My comments will be focused on Oman here.
How Do You Get Work Teaching English In Oman?
The most common ESL teaching placements in Oman are in the system of technical colleges managed by the Ministry of Manpower. They pay $3600 US/month tax-free, and include round-trip flights paid in advance by the recruiter. You may apply directly to any Omani school, and most of them are accessible online, but I recommend applying through a recruiter. Apply any month of the year (except during Ramadan), because demand for native English-speaking teachers is very high.
Two well-known recruiters are Globnet (globnetllc.com) and Al Nawa (alnawa-group.com); there are a half-dozen others. If you hang out on international forums and ask questions about the region, you sometimes see sour-grapes posters claiming that the oil crisis has eliminated hiring, or that recruiters are incompetent and you should avoid them. But I think these posters couldn’t get hired, probably, and find imaginative ways of complaining about it.
Business Is Booming (But Do A CELTA)
Oman is growing exponentially and with it their need for trained native-speaking English instructors. The local recruiters are your best way in. What do you need to qualify? You should have a B.A. in English or related field in literature, and two years’ teaching experience. A TEFL or CELTA certificate will help significantly. The ideal combination is a master’s degree with CELTA and two years experience, and strong references.
CELTA is truly the golden passport, and if you have that, it covers a multitude of sins on your CV. CELTA takes a month and generally costs about $2500, but it’s worth every penny of it. You get real practice teaching genuine language learners, and the schooling provided in lesson plan preparation is a perfect introduction to a real job in the Middle East, where your supervisors will require you to keep a portfolio with lesson plan logs and projected learning outcomes.
Prepare For The Interview
The phone interview is the deciding factor in hiring. You may be required to interview on Skype. I devote a full chapter to this subject in my book on teaching in the Middle East because it is so important, but here I will emphasize that your interviewer, probably the HOS or HOC at the English Language Center of a technical college, will want to see that you use a communicative teaching approach and that you are skilled at managing classrooms.
It is safe to declare in your interview the philosophy that PPP (Presentation, Practice, Production) is a powerful approach to lesson preparation. You introduce a topic, you oversee controlled practice in speaking the target language (emphasis on accuracy), and finish with free production (emphasis on student fluency, not accuracy). You should mention that approaches will vary depending on whether you are teaching speaking, listening, reading or writing (the four basic skills). It is important to have a strong grasp of English grammar, because you will be asked a very specific question on how you would teach a selected topic in grammar (e.g. present continuous or simple past tense). That said, your response should be clear and concise, because you don’t want to appear too endlessly bookish or boring when it comes to grammar.
It’s important to show that as a teacher you are an “enabler” and not an “explainer”: above all, the key is always to get students to talk, as opposed to engaging in endless teacher talk. So even in your interview, you should demonstrate that you know your subject without coming across as encyclopedic. It may be helpful to mention that you will be following the textbooks provided at the school. Many or most of your classroom exercises will be detailed in those books and resources, which by the way were specifically chosen by the Ministry of Higher Education, whose commission it is to ensure that graduating students have language skills pertinent to the job market in Oman.
If you intend to teach young learners, how you handle your phone interview will be different, of course. But one constant is the typical problems of Arabic speaking English language learners. These are well-known—for example, Arabs have no “p” sound and therefore always have related problems (“broblems”), always saying “b” in place of “p.” It is worth googling this topic to learn about these known difficulties and to mention your awareness of them in your interview.
Now You’ve Got The Job! What Next?
Once you are hired, you’ll probably fly first to Doha, Qatar for a layover and then arrive in Muscat, the capital of Oman, where you will purchase a tourist visa for $50 (Americans may have to obtain an e-visa in advance) and whatever the limit is on alcohol in the duty free shop, if you drink, because your liquor license will not be immediately forthcoming from your recruiter (other teachers will help you out before that happens). You’ll be put up for a week at a local hotel, and will be expected to find your own digs by the end of that period.
Renting A Place And Getting Set Up
Typical rents in Oman are $250-$400 US/month, unless you are teaching and living in downtown Muscat, in which case they will be two or three times that much. If you’re in any of the outlying desert communities, arrangements are quick and easy. You’ll meet someone, pay one month’s rent in cash, give your name and phone number and walk away with the key. In some cases the owner-landlord will invite you to tea, and you will sit down with him in a hospitable setting and exchange pleasantries and pay the first month’s rent—but again, never signing anything. If you work in downtown Muscat there may be more bureaucratic complexities, but I recommend one of the smaller communities away from the capital; the cost of living is much cheaper, and you can always drive to Muscat on the weekend.
If you’re broke when you arrive in Oman, most recruiters will give you an advance on your salary if you request it. Your recruiter will also help you set up a bank account, get your residency card, employment visa and liquor license, chauffeur you to your required physical examination just after you arrive, and myriad other details. Many of these details are overviewed at various sites online, like Expat Arrivals. But you can see why I recommend getting work through an Omani recruiter: not only do they pay for your flights, they walk you through everything you have to do to get set up for your job, and they are constantly available to answer your questions after you arrive.
Can I Drive In Oman?
Another detail of day-to-day living in Oman worthy of mention concerns driving. American driver’s licenses are usable on the highways in Oman (international driver’s licenses are not), but if you intend to drive, you should get an Omani driver’s license. It’s cheap and it’s good for ten years. If you aren’t already licensed, you’ll have to take a driving test, but I would strongly advise against learning how to drive in Oman, as they literally have some of the worst accident statistics in the world. The main reason is that Omanis tailgate at very high speeds, and therefore many accidents are fatal.
Unless you live and teach in downtown Muscat, most of your driving will be out on the main highways, where there are effectively no speed limits. Omanis are some of the worst drivers in the world, and insurance is more or less meaningless if you’re not a native Omani. If you aren’t supremely confident and very experienced, I would advise against driving. There are other viable options for getting around. I survived four years of driving because I personally need that freedom. But be forewarned.
What’s The Culture/Etiquette Like?
An entire article or series of articles could be devoted to questions of etiquette and cultural differences you will experience in Oman, but there are a few essential points that I will mention here.
Arabic friendliness and hospitality are legendary, and your first experience of that will be when you see Omanis greeting each other. You have never experienced friendly greetings until you have seen the elaborate handshakes, hugs and back-and-forth personal inquiries and responses and congratulations and so on among native Omanis. If another friend or new person arrives, an entirely new round begins and once again you will see it all with the extra person now included in the event. I do mean the word “event,” too, because the social interactions among Arabs are always a noteworthy, significant event. When you teach at a small college, you will be caught up in these events with your students and other teachers. It used to take me at least fifteen or twenty minutes to walk from my office to a classroom, a very short physical distance, but a very long social distance. It is virtually impossible not to love these people who are so open and friendly and full of excitement to see you and greet you and wish you well.
Another reflection of the deep kindness, caring and generosity among Omanis can be seen when you have a routine mishap, for example a flat tire on the highway. Before you can even call anyone for assistance, a half-dozen cars will stop and men in dishdashas and caps will jump out of the car and come over to help you in whatever way you need it.
The important, if obvious, cultural point is that Arabs are people who speak Arabic, their religion is Islam, their God is Allah and their sacred book is the Quran, written in a flowering variant of Arabic reflected in many of their daily practices. Those include the lavish social greetings already mentioned, prayer, and a variety of customs. I discuss all of these in my book, but you can learn a great deal by simply googling “five pillars of Islam.” These are Faith, Prayer, Charity, Fasting and Pilgrimage, and provide the structure or foundation for the Muslim life. Islam permeates all levels of daily life for Arabs, and you will experience that firsthand as a teacher in Oman.
What Are The Teaching Hours Like?
If you decide to take employment at one of the technical colleges in Oman, as I did, you will teach classes of twenty-five or more students several hours a day, five days a week. The growth of Omani society is explosive: most of my students had four or five brothers and sisters, and many had ten or more. Sultan Qaboos guarantees education for all Omanis, and all schools are growing at exponential rates.
There is a correspondingly high demand for native English speaking teachers, as fluency in English is one of the requirements of graduation and there are painfully few qualified Omani teachers. My colleagues came from all over: India, Pakistan, Great Britain, Canada, the United States, South Africa, the Philippines, Australia, and even several talented non-native ESL instructors from Poland and Russia. I loved the work and the life in Oman and I believe all ESL teachers should seize the opportunity to go to Oman and teach there for several years. If you are like me, it will change your life and you will never forget it. Good luck!
About The Author
Eric Harrington Woro is an experienced teacher and expert on teaching English in the Middle East. You can check out his first article, an interview with TEFL Exchange, where we discuss what life is like in the Middle East.
If you’re really considering teaching in the Middle East, and it’s gone beyond curiosity, you NEED to get his book. It contains all the info found in this article, plus much, much more. If you want to succeed and get the insider info, you’d better get on Amazon and order it right now.