Teaching in Qatar

13 June 2014

Introduction by Professor Peter Finn, Principal, St Mary’s University College Belfast

I am very clear that the College’s investment in providing the students with extensive opportunities to study abroad pays dividends both in terms of enhanced intercultural education and better career prospects. Just recently, I received some e-mail correspondence from Maeve Cunningham, who graduated in July 2013 and took up a teaching post in Qatar a month later. Maeve’s reflection on her year of work in Doha is something which I feel should be shared with a larger audience.

Maeve is a native of Dungannon, County Tyrone, and received her school education at St Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon, and St Mary’s Primary School, Pomeroy. She studied at St Mary’s for four years to achieve a BEd (Primary) Honours degree with a subject specialism in Celtic Studies and Irish-medium education. It is very obvious to me from the reflection she sent that the education Maeve has received in the Catholic intellectual tradition has prepared her well for life and work in Qatar. Her reflection demonstrates a deep appreciation of her own identity and also a great respect for the identities of others. It provides evidence of resilience, ambition and professionalism. In her observations, I read about the outworkings of an educational experience which was heavily values based and a great preparation for life in the twenty-first century.

Teaching in Qatar 2013/2014 by Maeve Cunningham

This year has been not just my first year working as a teacher: I have spent it in a totally unfamiliar culture, and what an experience it has been! Qatar has brought me ups and downs, an experience not for the faint-hearted, but without a shadow of a doubt an experience everyone should sample at some point in their lives. It is hard to believe nearly a year has passed since we landed into Doha in forty-degree heat on that late August night. An old rickety bus transported me to my apartment building where I was to lay my head for the next year. I soon discovered I was alone and without an internet connection. “How can I survive in the Middle East without Skype and Facebook?” was the main thought running through my head. In despair and in need of company, I attempted to flag down a taxi to meet other graduates from St Mary’s University College who were embarking on this journey with me. This proved more difficult than expected as Qatar has no street addresses, and locals rely on known landmarks to give directions–all part of the inshallah (If God Wills It) attitude that Qataris live by. We took ourselves off to the Souq Waqif, one of the Middle Eastern markets and were astounded by the men and women dressed in abayas, smoking the shisha and mysteriously moving to the Arabic music. We were especially intrigued by how the women ate their food without removing their headscarves!

After we got over the obvious, initial culture shock, life in the Middle East proved to be quite exciting. There were trips to the desert, boat trips, and we enjoyed many a visit to the five-star hotels for a spot of “brunch”. We were adamant we would not forget our roots and made sure through traditional music nights, Irish-language classes, the formation of our own Cumann Gaelach an Chatar and attendance at gigs from our very own St Mary’s band “Folk That”.

With regard to school life, I will never forget the wonderful children in my year one class. School life did not mean as much paperwork compared to back home, and with only two observations throughout the course of the year, we were pretty much given freedom to concentrate on establishing our teaching presence and the confidence to try new methods and approaches without feeling the fear of failure. We have learned and shared so much together, including a mutual understanding of diversity and respect for other cultures. The children came from all over the world, from countries such as Canada, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Jordan, India, Croatia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, America and, not forgetting, Ireland, of course.

Throughout the year, the children never ceased to amaze me with their willingness to learn and their whole-hearted participation in school activities. We learned, studied, laughed and played together, regardless of culture or skin colour. We waved goodbye to some classmates as they left for other schools and countries and welcomed new friends. Children brought with them their own uniqueness, flair and spirit and have made unbelievable progress in terms of their writing, self-confidence and other personal targets. Throughout the year, we certainly learned how to work together as a team and worked incredibly hard and participated in lots of fun activities. Every day in my year one class, we read a fairy tale, such as ‘Cinderella’ or ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’, and learned to use lots of interesting words to describe the characters in the stories. ‘Around The World with Barnaby Bear’ also proved to be a very popular and apt topic for the children with whom we ‘travelled’ to a different country each week.

On another note, I have worked with some of the most difficult parents I expect I will ever have to work with whilst here. As special educational needs are not widely recognized or funded in the Middle East, working together with parents to form an educational plan proved impossible on many occasions. On the other hand, some parents have been very welcoming and kind, and I have enjoyed chatting with them at parent-teacher meetings, finding out about their different traditions and customs.

Throughout the year, I travelled to Dubai a number of times, and a particular highlight of the year was a trip to beautiful Sri Lanka where we travelled around the various cities and towns, sampling the food and seeing the elephants. Anyone involved with the GAA in Qatar has opportunities to travel around all of the Gulf countries to attend tournaments (providing the dreaded exit visa request is approved!).

As I reflect on my year in Qatar, it has been an eventful and eye-opening one in which I have learned lots, both personally and professionally. Working in Newton British School, I was lucky to be surrounded with fellow Irish, English and Scottish teachers, which definitely made the journey a little easier. Qatar has most definitely given me some fantastic opportunities and experiences which I will keep with me for life.

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