Teachers in UAE
Interviews with nearly 20 teachers picked randomly from schools show that the one thing they need the most is freedom from the shackles of clerical work. Image Credit: Gulf News

DUBAI: What do school teachers in the UAE need the most? Respect? Fair compensation? Good working environment? Fewer disruptive students?

In all likelihood, yes. But interviews with nearly 20 teachers picked randomly from schools here show that the one thing they need the most is freedom from the shackles of clerical work.

Every teacher we spoke to said they are so saddled with needless paperwork that they are rarely left with any time or energy to focus on their core job — of educating children.

By now you’d be wondering, ‘Why do teachers need more time? Aren’t they home by 2pm every day? Don’t they enjoy long summer and winter breaks?’ The truth is not so simple.

The fact is, teachers say they are stretched to their limits.

No matter how hard they try, they are unable to accomplish what they are typically required to do in the average school day. What they can’t finish in the classroom, they said, they take home, staying awake into the wee hours to complete the tasks and often working even during weekends and holidays to meet unrealistic deadlines.

An endless ‘to-do’ list

Their task list, they said, is seemingly endless.

To-do list
To teachers' to-do list: Crushing paperwork, clerical duties Image Credit: Gulf News

Besides preparing detailed lesson plans and grading students on dozens of parameters, teachers are now also required to communicate with parents through phone and email, photocopy and scan documents, analyse examination results, maintain and update records, evaluate progress of students, take verbatim notes at staff meetings and fill out elaborate Self-Assessment Forms (SEFs).

Unable to cope with the rigours of their job, many said they quit, thus becoming another statistic in the country’s burgeoning teacher turnover rate — estimated to be 60 per cent annually at some Dubai schools.

Here are some of the concerns shared by the teachers:

1. “We are drowning in a sea of paperwork”

“For most part of the day, I prepare spreadsheets of meaningless data. The focus is more on completing paperwork for accountability and compliance and less about teaching. I didn’t sign up for this.”

- Grade V English teacher at an Indian curriculum school

2. ‘I feel drained’

Non-teaching assignments have pushed this teacher to a breaking point. “I sit in front of my computer screen at home for anything between four to five hours, writing lesson plans, which I know will eventually crumble as there’s no way I can implement them in the small window I get for teaching. I feel drained. I can’t take this toxic routine anymore. It’s taking a toll on my mental and physical health,” she said.

- A Grade II teacher

I sit in front of my computer screen at home for anything between four to five hours, writing lesson plans, which I know will eventually crumble as there’s no way I can implement them in the small window I get for teaching. I feel drained. I can’t take this toxic routine anymore.

- A Grade II teacher

A Grade II teacher

(Many teachers blamed WhatsApp for adding to their woes. “We are expected to respond or act on messages sent by our line managers at odd hours and even during weekends,” said a teacher.)

3. ‘Teaching is at the bottom of the list’

“I love teaching but now, that part of my job has been relegated to the bottom of my priority list. I don’t know who this relentless paperwork is benefitting because it’s certainly not the students. Whether it’s a hands-on activity or a field trip, we are required to produce evidence of pretty much everything we do. This means shooting videos and clicking pictures as proof. If that’s not daunting enough, we have to prepare various monthly graphs and charts for each student.”

- Grade III class teacher at a private school in Sharjah

I love teaching but now, that part of my job has been relegated to the bottom of my priority list. I don’t know who this relentless paperwork is benefitting because it’s certainly not the students.

- Grade III class teacher at a private school in Sharjah

Grade III class teacher at a private school in Sharjah

4. ‘I am not a data entry operator’

This maths teacher often feels as if complying with requirements is now her primary objective. “I have to remind myself that I am a teacher not a data entry operator. It’s about time we went back to the basics and made teaching the single-most important agenda of teachers,” she said.

- Maths teacher at Indian curriculum school in Dubai

5. Six pictures, 25 students = 150 photographs a month

The picture is no less bleak at a British curriculum school in Dubai. Here, teachers are required to click six photographs of each student using their cellphones, and create a photo collage to be uploaded on the school portal every month. “It’s not as easy as it seems,” said a teacher.

It’s not as easy as it seems...If you have 25 students in a class, that’s a minimum of 150 photographs monthly. We have to wait endlessly to get that perfect shot. It’s a test of patience as small children have a very short attention span.

- A teacher in a school where teachers are also required to click six photographs of each student using their cellphone.

“Since the photographs have to show kids engaged in activities, we have to wait endlessly to get that perfect shot. It’s a test of patience as small children have a very short attention span,” she said.

“If you have 25 students in a class, that’s a minimum of 150 photographs monthly,” she rued.

- Teacher at a British curriculum school in Dubai

6. “I experience crippling anxiety’

This harried teacher describes her work as borderline labour. “I am doing the work of three people and the worst part is that it’s all unproductive. I don’t know how long I can manage like this. I wanted to be a teacher since I was 16, but now I feel a crippling anxiety as I board the school bus at 6.30am.”

- Assistant teacher at a prestigious Dubai school

7. ‘Our job is to teach’

“Schools should hire clerks to do the paperwork. Our job is to teach, not squander time filing forms,” reasoned a teacher who claims to have never had a proper break for months.

“In teacher-speak, holidays mean a break from classroom and time to catch up on the pending work at home,” said a science teacher in a Dubai school.

At another school, class teachers said they have to call six parents daily and update them on the progress of their wards.

“Why should I use my phone credit for this?” she asked.

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What are the time-robbers?

Teachers identified lesson planning and self-assessment forms as their biggest time wasters.

Take for instance, lesson planning. A simple road map to guide class learning until recently, it appears to have now morphed into a bewildering process of gestures that serves little or no purpose.

“At my school, lesson planning is a complicated and cumbersome multi-stage framework that begins with detailing desired results on how students will be assessed, explaining how we will provide learning experiences and opportunities for practice and application and finally, how we would link each topic with elements of UAE heritage, history and culture,” said a teacher.

“It takes around two hours to prepare for each lesson. Yet, it invariably falls flat in the classroom because what looks great in theory does not translate on the ground.

“Frankly, I have no idea why I am doing them,” she added.

Is lesson planning all about control?

An Indian teacher, who put in her papers last year, termed lesson planning ‘a complete waste of time’ saying she quit her Dh4,500 per month job because she was spending far more time preparing lesson plans than delivering those lessons in classroom.

“The lesson plans kept on changing. Global education guru Sir Ken Robinson famously said, ‘Teaching is an art form and not just a delivery mechanism’. When we stifle a teacher’s creativity and understanding of students with standardised lesson plans, we have arrived at a dystopian understanding of the purpose of education,” she said.

When we stifle a teacher’s creativity and understanding of students with standardised lesson plans, we have arrived at a dystopian understanding of the purpose of education

- Indian teacher

Another teacher, S.A., who tendered her resignation in 2017 after 12 years on the job, feels lesson plans are all about control. “For me, they were a grim reminder that I have no autonomy in my classroom. As a teacher, I found that terribly demotivating,” she said.

TEACHER SHORTAGE IN UAE

According to a study by Dubai-based investment bank Alpen Capital, the region faces the second-highest teacher shortage in the world.

The problem is only set to deepen with the number of students in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) projected to touch 15 million by 2020. In the UAE alone, at least another 14,000 teachers need to be recruited over the next few years according to a report.

15,000

Project number of students in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) by 2020

WhichSchoolAdvisor’s Teacher Survey reveals that three out of four teachers in the country are actively looking for new jobs.

Teachers who have tried to protest or raise concerns over their workload said all they ever got were unsympathetic responses from their bosses.

“I was suffering from extreme stress. So much so that the other day I burst into tears before the principal, only to be curtly told that deadlines were sacrosanct and I have to stick to them, regardless of my health,” said a teacher at a school in Al Ghusais.

Crushing paperwork and clerical duties include:

  • Bulk photocopying.
  • Preparing detailed lesson plans for each subject.
  • Filling up Self-Assessment Forms.
  • Taking verbatim notes at staff meetings and
  • producing minutes of the meetings.
  • Clicking pictures of students and
  • uploading them on the school portal.
  • Sending emails to parents and students.
  • Grading students on multiple parameters.
  • Collating pupil reports.
  • Preparing assessment and tracking sheets.

KHDA: Committed to teacher wellness

Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) said they are committed to improving the well-being of teachers at private schools in Dubai.

In November 2018, the school regulator measured the well-being of adults at schools as part of a city-wide census. More than 13,000 teachers, principals, school administrators and support staff shared their insights in the Adults@School Wellbeing Survey.

Designed to encourage adults at private schoolsi to understand and improve their own well-being, all participating teachers and school staff members received individual reports with suggestions on how to improve it.

13,000

teachers, principals and support staff shared views in KHDA survey

Hind Al Mualla, chief of Creativity, Happiness and Innovation at KHDA, said: “Every teacher in Dubai has an opportunity to engage with their school on the subject of well-being. We believe regular conversations contribute to a positive school climate. School leaders have to consistently make efforts to ensure the well-being of not just students, but teachers and other adults who serve their community.”

She added: “Every school is unique and it is important for us to find new ways of making well-being a top priority. The results of our census told us that 95 per cent of adults at schools are thriving or functioning. Schools and teachers should use the results of the survey to share their strengths and focus on areas of improvement.

“Well-being begins with the school’s leadership and the principal plays a big role. That’s why we recently hosted our school principals for a retreat in Hatta to start a conversation around their own well-being. Remember that well-being is not a destination you reach and switch off. It is a continuous journey.

Teacher well-being is important to all of us and school leaders know very well that if teachers are not happy at a school, they will move at the first opportunity to other places that value their happiness.”

What are the school principals saying?

School principals say they are aware of the problem.

“The approach to education is prescriptive and the focus has now shifted towards documenting and measuring learning outcomes. Though well-intentioned, these initiatives are overly time-consuming and limit the freedom of teachers to freely teach and of principals to freely lead and evaluate,” said a principal.

“Truth is that all our attention is now focused on getting a good rating,” said a headmistress.

After a gap of one academic year, private schools in Dubai, which have maintained quality ratings, will again be allowed to increase tuition fees.

Depending on how their ratings improved from the last inspection cycle of KHDA’s Dubai School Inspection Bureau (DSIB), they will be allowed to hike fees anywhere from 2.07 per cent to 4.14 per cent in the coming academic year.