Appreciation, Saudi Arabia, and the Joys of International Teaching : A Teacherly Story with Faheem Shahid

Everybody loves a good story and nobody tells one better than a teacher. These are Teacherly Stories: for sharing authentic moments, shining a light on the human side of teaching, and celebrating the incredible teachers we know.

Faheem Shahid is a teacher from Atlanta, Georgia who teaches in Saudi Arabia. His original field was business management for international organizations, but he has been teaching now for 10 years in the Middle East and Africa. He has taught primary, secondary, IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and SAT prep.

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From a young age, I was the student who the teachers called on to help explain things, so I was always told that I might have a career in teaching, but I didn’t really agree. Instead, I went into business management. I was the project manager for an international organization under the umbrella of the United Nations and that’s where I started to get some experience in the world of education. Then the 2008 recession hit and suddenly I was laid off. I was faxing my resume all across the world because I love to travel and I saw it as an opportunity to move somewhere new. I was putting my resume up in all kinds of positions, but the people who were calling me back were the people with teaching positions overseas. I was up to the challenge, and that’s what got me into teaching, but I’d say that it was the hands-on experience that made me love teaching and turned me into a skilled teacher.

There were some mixed emotions from friends and family when I decided to change professions. For some people, teaching carries this stigma. It’s something that’s respected… but not really. I’ve even had students who asked me why I chose this job. Young people don’t really strive to be teachers these days; you’re considered successful if you’re a doctor or an engineer. I had students in Saudi Arabia who approached me outside of class and asked why I was a teacher: why didn’t I do something else? My answer is that I love it.

“Just the fact that you’re talking to me outside of the classroom: that you’re interested in knowing about me and that there’s a bond or a connection that we share, that’s what keeps me being a teacher.”

I love that part of the job.

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I knew I was meant to do this when I received a letter from the parent of a student I’d taught three years before, thanking me and telling me about the improvement she’d seen in her son since I taught him. She asked if I would be his teacher next year, or if I could be a private tutor. That type of thanks and acknowledgement makes it for me. When you see a student become empowered in his ability, his self-esteem and motivation; when you know you had a role to play in him becoming a better person, that’s what’s kept me teaching for so long. In the business world, there are all kinds of exciting projects, deadlines, and budgets, but there’s no project that compares to a person. There’s no project that’s more important or sensitive than that.

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Teaching in Saudi Arabia, and Around the World

Saudi Arabia was the epitome of my teaching experience. At first it was a little challenging to learn the culture; even in education, there are different cultures in different parts of the world. In some places you have to watch how you raise your voice, you can’t be as touchy, you have to watch the feedback you give the parents; you’re forced to learn fast. The first time I realized that I was in a different educational culture was when I was at a parent-teacher conference. There was a student in my class who wasn’t doing well, and his parents came to see me. I come from an environment where it’s mostly the student’s responsibility to catch up, but at that conference, they said, “our boy didn’t score too well… so what will you do about it?” Not him, not us,you. That’s when I knew I was in a new place and things would be a little different from what I was used to.

When I was working for the international organization, I worked with children who were refugees in Ethiopia and Senegal. They were living in life or death circumstances and trying to get away from conflicts. From the first minute they were really appreciative and receptive to learning. Whereas in Saudi Arabia, I had kids from very privileged backgrounds, so I had to gently let them know that I’m the teacher, which got me a lot of respect. I bonded with both groups of people: the appreciation levels from kids in different circumstances just happen at different times. The relationship with the students in Saudi Arabia is developed over a longer period of time. Some of the students in my classroom didn’t have father figures, or they barely saw their parents, so I was helping to raise them. I’m very appreciative of both experiences.

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Handling Burnout

Teachers have to give 100%. Not only in the classroom but also in the office with all of the admin work. There are deadlines, meetings, peer reviews, curriculum suggestions, emails, and performance plans. It gets to the point where sometimes you need to sacrifice something. My personal philosophy is that I never sacrifice inside the classroom. The kids come first. It’s challenging though because I’m a perfectionist and I have high expectations for myself as an employee, team-member and leader. At the same time, we’re human so we have to balance things. When people can’t juggle they burn out: they quit or explode. They might even take it out on a kid. Before that happens, you have to balance it out.

One of the biggest challenges of being a teacher is how difficult it can be to collaborate. How are we going to deal with a particular subject, what are some methods for implementing this strategy? If everyone is doing the same thing in separate classrooms it doesn’t make sense. It really helps to see what another teacher is doing. That’s why Teacherly is so useful. I started distance learning in March. It’s something I always knew we should be prepared for. At my school we used to use a program for our online office hours, but the challenging thing was that it didn’t have all of the tools we needed to teach. That’s why I like what Teacherly is doing. There are tools right on the slides for you to use: audio and video, pictures, themes, layouts, and lessons from the navigators. You don’t need to have a million tabs open to teach: it’s all in one presentation. It’s challenging to do online learning, but having everything in one place definitely helps.