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Alum Teaches, Learns in Desert

New Teacher Educating New Generation in UAE

UMass Lowell alum Shannon Smith teaching in the UAE
Alum Shannon Smith, second from left, has enjoyed teaching and living in the UAE where she explores the new culture with fellow teachers.

By Julia Gavin

Shannon Smith checked the “willing to work abroad” box on a job search site out of curiosity, but still planned to teach in New England. A few months later she was teaching kindergarten in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and helping to build a school’s curriculum.
It’s been a whirlwind experience, but Smith’s happy to put her elementary education master’s degree to work abroad. It began with an email looking for American teachers to work in the UAE. She replied on a whim, had a phone interview soon after, drove to New York the next morning to meet with the team on their last day of availability and made her decision within the required 24 hours.
“Deciding to move to the UAE was difficult, but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made,” Smith says.

Smith’s been busy building her new life and developing curricula as part of the young country’s educational reform, and she’s found similarities and comforts to help her adjust: kindergartners are the same wherever their classroom is and the people of Ruwaiis, her new home, love visitors.

“My town is proof of the rapid changes happening in the UAE with its construction, oil business and many people coming here to work,” says Smith. “I’ve never met more warm, welcoming and non-judgmental people than the Emirati and they take very good care of all of us. People warned me about culture shock but it didn’t happen, because everyone is so nice.”

Her class at the Al Jinan school is just like one in New England. Smith teaches math, English and science to excited students, many of whom are  the second generation in their family to have formal schooling. There are differences, though – her co-teacher helps to translate lessons between English and Arabic and there is no separation of church and state – but Smith is already at home in the school and enjoys the challenges.

The UAE is establishing and reforming their formal educational system so there’s no set curriculum. The government sets the guidelines and required learning outcomes, and the teachers design lesson plans by pulling from their experiences and expertise. Smith says that her bachelor’s degree in psychology and graduate education work prepared her for most of the job’s requirements.

“I’m becoming a much stronger teacher and enjoying working with curriculum,” Smith says. “I love teaching and can’t imagine doing something else right now.”

Smith will begin her second year of teaching in the UAE in September and hopes to stay for a third, possibly teaching in another area of the region. Although she misses her family and friends, Smith is enjoying the adventure too much to come home.

“It’s been a great experience to pick up a new language, teach children and meet so many new people,” Smith says. “Everything is just going right.”

For more on Smith's travel, visit her website.