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Teachers moving to Abu Dhabi: a survival guide

You finally did it. You applied to teach abroad, and you’ve been offered a position at an international or government school in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. Congratulations! It takes a lot of courage to start a new adventure in a country you haven’t lived in before. While there are a few quick guides out there for teachers in the UAE, we think Abu Dhabi deserves it’s own comprehensive one; from where you can socialize in the city to what to expect on your first day of school.

Before you leave home

If you haven’t arrived yet, you probably have a million questions about what the experience will be like. You’re nervous and excited to imagine what it will be like when you arrive. Here are some things you should know:

What do I pack? 

We asked Abu Dhabi Q&A (a must-join Facebook group) what they wished they brought with them when they came to the UAE. 

  1. Your own bedding. Teacher accommodations sometimes provide bedding, but it won’t feel as cozy as your own. “You feel like you have a bit of home with you. Good bedding is expensive here!” -- Jessie
  2. Teaching clothes. Abu Dhabi has many big malls and shopping centers with popular international brands. You will be able to find anything you need, but navigating the city takes time and can be costly so definitely bring your favourite teaching outfits (just make sure they adhere to your new school’s dress code). 
  3. Books to teach with. “As an early years teacher I have a large collection of my own books. You can pick them up a lot cheaper in the UK and I’m sure other countries too. Here books are very expensive.” -- Ruth
  4. I.D. pictures & documents. Having a stack of pictures on hand will make your life a lot easier as you fill in visa forms, emirates I.D. forms, and apply for your driver’s license. Keeping multiple printed copies of necessary documents, including passport scans and copies of applications will also save you time and energy while you don’t have access to a printer. 
  5. “Have money saved for your first few months. Getting yourself set up in the UAE is very expensive.” -- Áine. You’ll be moving to a new home, navigating a bustling city, and purchasing all the necessities that you can’t take with you (hello coffee machine) so be prepared for start-up costs. 

What not to pack: 

Buy most of your electronics when you get here, as it can be complicated to find adapters and your electronics might not have a compatible voltage; plus they take up a lot of space and weight in your luggage. 

“I would mention not to pack food/brands that are in home countries as you can get most brands here.” --Kelly

Myth-busters about the UAE

Moving to a new country can be intimidating, and you’ve probably seen different depictions of the gulf in movies and the media. Let’s bust some of those myths now so you know what to expect:

  1. “Abu Dhabi is always hot.” 

Everywhere you go in Abu Dhabi, even in the height of summer, you’ll need to bring a cardigan, scarf, or sweater. The A.C. is always on full blast indoors, which can become quite chilly. Once you get acclimatized, Abu Dhabi’s 24C winters will make you reach for a light jacket, and even a scarf if you’re going out at night. (You don’t believe us now, but you’ll see by your first January). 

  1. “You have to fully cover up whenever you’re out in public.”

If you go to a government building, or public indoor space such as a shopping mall, there are dress codes that you need to adhere to-- mainly that both men and women should cover to their shoulders and knees. But you do not have to cover up everywhere you go and you might be surprised to see people wearing sleeveless tops, shorts, and beachwear outside, particularly around the Corniche, which is Abu Dhabi’s lovely beach walkway.

  1. “There is no nightlife here.”

Teachers in the UAE work hard and play hard. You’ll easily find bars and clubs for those over the age of 21; many also give teacher discounts. Nightlife in AD is more relaxed than in Dubai, but if you’re looking for a more wild night out, Dubai is just an hour and a half away.

  1. “Everyone is rich.”

Movies and social media can be misleading. The UAE has big middle and working classes; the flashiest hotels, restaurants and experiences are only one side of the story. You will meet people who have lots of money, and people who don’t; it’s up to you what kind of lifestyle you want to live.

Forums and groups to join

The UAE has a huge number of expats, including a large community of expat teachers who have all been through exactly what you’re about to embark on. Facebook groups and forums can get you quick answers during those first few weeks when you might feel overwhelmed. Here are some groups to get started on:

  1. Abu Dhabi Q&A: as previously mentioned, this is a Facebook group for all things Abu Dhabi. When we asked for recommendations for teachers who are moving to Abu Dhabi, we got over 100 comments within 24 hours, which just goes to show how friendly the community here is.
  2. Best Bites Abu Dhabi: A foodie Facebook group for all your restaurant needs. You’ll find reviews, recommendations, and get access to exclusive discounts and promotions.
  3. Dirham Stretcher: A forum with money-saving tips and guides from other UAE residents.
  4. Teachers in Abu Dhabi: where you can meet other teachers, find out about events, and even look for job postings in the UAE. (There are many versions of this group, so just search “Abu Dhabi teachers” or “UAE teachers” and look around for the group that best suits you). 
  5. Where to UAE: a forum with things to do, places to go, and things to see. 
  6. SimplyFI: a financial group to help make good investments, avoid money-wasting, and grow your savings while you’re in the UAE. 
  7. You can also find groups of people who have moved from your home country to the UAE by searching __ in the UAE. For example, Canadians in Dubai and UAE.
  8. Join Abu Dhabi: A group for making friends and attending social events in Abu Dhabi.

Pro-tip #1: go to your family doctor, dentist, and OB-GYN before you leave home. It will take a while to get your insurance set up, and even longer to find a place you’re comfortable with, so make sure you’re all set health wise before you take the leap. 

Pro-tip #2: (From a community member) “You don't need to bring anything other than a suitcase. Everything is here. And chill as it's a lovely country to live in. ADCB is a good bank, Shift Car rentals are cheap as chips, have a Netflix subscription, get the cheapest Etisalat package as you probably won't watch the channels, and know that you are coming to one of the safest places on the planet. I hope you like the beach. Oh and a lot of people put on weight here, so be mindful from the off.” -- Paul

When you first arrive

Your school will likely help with documentation and the visa on arrival process when you first land in Abu Dhabi, just make sure you bring multiple photocopies of everything and try to be patient. It’s not always easy after a long flight, but these things take time. 

Most teachers first arrive in the summer, so wear layers on your flight and be prepared for the UAE summer heat when you walk out of the airport. Don’t worry, August is our worst time of the year, and it will only get cooler. 

How do I settle into my accommodation?

Most schools will provide teachers with accommodation. Sometimes you will be put in a hotel for a week or so while they sort out your documentation and get things set up for you. Teacher accommodation is a great way to make friends with other teachers, and takes the burden off you finding a place to live during your first year. 

Without all the usual comforts of home, accommodation can feel a little impersonal, so you might want to buy a few things to make yourself feel more comfortable.

For plant lovers: Mina Flower Market. Here you can find hundreds of varieties of plants from small shops. Mina Plaza is currently going through a regeneration project, but the plant souk will still be there when you arrive. For decorations: you can try Madinet Zayed (for bargains), The World Trade Center Souk (for more expensive options), or check out the Carpet Souk for haggling. Of course, there’s also always good old IKEA, which has two locations in Abu Dhabi.

Which memberships & apps to download

  • Food delivery apps (you can get almost everything delivered to your door in the UAE). Talabat, Zomato, and Deliveroo are all good options. You can also call restaurants or fast food chains to make a delivery over the phone. Grocery stores and small corner shops called Baqalas also deliver, so find your nearest one and ask for the delivery number. 
  • MAPS.ME: An alternative to Google Maps that will help you navigate Abu Dhabi and find new places to visit.
  • Groupon: get amazing discounts all over the UAE. 
  • The Entertainer: get two for one deals on food and attractions and split the cost with friends or family.
  • Booking.com, Airbnb, and Skyscanner for travel and staycations.
  • For your car: Mawaqif parking app (to pay for public parking) and Abu Dhabi Police app (to check for any speeding tickets).

Mental health matters: loneliness & anxiety busters

Moving to Abu Dhabi can be lonely. Whether you came alone or with family, it can be stressful to be in an unfamiliar place without the comforts of home. There are time differences between you and your loved ones, and travelling to a new place can be emotionally exhausting.

Here are some tips from the Abu Dhabi Q&A community:

  1. “Join a club when you first arrive. It doesn’t matter if you have never had that hobby before. Take the chance to get to know people.” --Áine
  2. “Bring a boat-load of patience and go with the flow.” --Megan 
  3. “You won’t feel settled ‘til at least Xmas. Get there and you’ll be fine.” --Kate

Socialising in a new country takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself, and stay connected with friends and family at home while you settle in. Know that many people feel the same way you do, and make that effort to reach out to them. There are tons of clubs, gyms, and activities to try and meet people. 

If you’re looking for more mental health resources, be sure to check out Teacherly’s bitesize audio courses.

Arabic words to learn

You don’t need to learn Arabic to get around in Abu Dhabi, but people who have lived here for a while usually pick up a few words and phrases. If you want to feel like an old-timer already, here are the words to know:

  • Marhaba: Welcome.
  • Shukran: Thank you.
  • Inshallah: God willing (this word can be used colloquially to mean: it will happen when it happens).
  • Ma’shallah: God has willed it (to express joy or celebration).
  • Wallah: I swear.
  • Haram: Not allowed or immoral.
  • Habibi / Habibti: My dear (masculine and feminine).

Your first days teaching at an AD school

An international school in Abu Dhabi might be very different from the kind of school you’re used to working in. Even though the school might be teaching a familiar curriculum, their routines and practices can be different, so be prepared to go with the flow and ask your team leader any questions you have.

What will the students be like?

Abu Dhabi students in international schools come from all over the world, and your classroom will be filled with children from different countries, cultures and religions. They may be new to the country like you are, or they’ve lived here for their whole lives. On the other hand, if you’re teaching at a government school, the majority of your students will be Emirati.

Tips for teachers

  1. Look at the register and learn how to pronounce your students’ names before your first class (Youtube, Google, and your colleagues can help). If you’re unsure, just do your best and ask the student to help you pronounce it. 
  2. Get to know your students’ cultures, and research the ones you don’t know much about. This research will prevent you from making cultural mistakes, and leaning on stereotypes (which we all have). 
  3. Admitting that you don’t know much about a country, religion, tradition, or culture is always better than making assumptions. Ask lots of questions! Abu Dhabi residents are used to talking about their home cultures and most people like to share.
  4. When it comes to personal space and boundaries, it’s always better to ask the student what they’re comfortable with. Shaking hands might be normal in one culture, but not be acceptable in another, so you should always ask.
  5. Students will come and go. Sometimes they have to change schools, or move across the world. Abu Dhabi students are adaptable, but remember they might also be feeling as stressed or lonely as you did when you first arrived. 

What about the parents?

International school is expensive, and while many parents work for companies that pay school fees, some don’t, and most of them see themselves as customers at the schools they’ve bought into. Many teachers report parents being more demanding than they are back home, but they are also often more motivated and involved in the students’ lives. Be prepared for vigorous questions from parents, and students who are likely motivated and supported to succeed at school.

School ranking & teacher assessments

Irtiqaa is Abu Dhabi’s school inspection programme, introduced by the Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK) to improve the quality of Abu Dhabi’s schools. They are responsible for inspections, school rankings, and benchmarking. Schools are inspected approximately once every two years. Your leadership will tell you all about how to pass inspections and maintain standards. 

Feeling lost?

What you are doing is amazing and will impact you for the rest of your life. Being a teacher in Abu Dhabi will teach you more about being a citizen of the world than any book you could read, and you’ll have the opportunity to travel to other countries you might never have imagined visiting. 

If you feel lost and overwhelmed, reach out to the communities we’ve recommended above and share how you’re feeling. A simple post asking how to cheer yourself up after a long day of teaching could introduce you to your next friend. You were already brave enough to move here, so don’t be too shy to ask for help. Everyone has felt how you do at some point and you’re not alone. 

Fostering excellence in your teaching 

You moved to Abu Dhabi because you are driven, intelligent, and not afraid of a challenge. You might feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do, and that’s where Teacherly can make your life in Abu Dhabi a bit easier. 

We have free lessons and beautiful lesson templates to make your lesson planning fast and simple. We also support distance learning by facilitating live lessons, and make collaboration between teachers easier through sharing and feedback. 

Take your teaching to the next level and join an international teaching community on Teacherly!

Have questions about teaching in Abu Dhabi? Want to learn more about Teacherly and our community? Send me an email at zoe@teacherly.io 

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