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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Spare a thought for the dedication of teachers

For most working in schools, it is not simply a job but a desire to impart to students something of the passion they feel for their subject
Most teachers treat it as more than just a job. Sebastien Salom Gomis / AFP

On Sunday, along with hundreds of thousands of other parents, I rose early to resume the daily school run as more than one million pupils across the country started the academic year.

It was not, I must admit, a chore to which I was looking forward. It’s easy enough getting up early when it’s my choice to do so, as has been the case on most days since the holidays began a couple of months ago. Somehow, when it’s a matter of duty, it’s a little more difficult.

Whether it’s a matter of starting school for the first time, moving to a new school – perhaps after arriving in the UAE for the first time – or simply moving up a year, it’s a challenging time both for students and for their parents.

As The National stated last week, it can be an expensive time too, with not just the fees that need to be paid for those in private education but also a host of additional expenditure, such as the purchase of often costly – and sometimes poor quality – uniforms.

I wish all of our students well in the year ahead, whether they are heading for a round of serious examinations next summer or simply getting on with the next year of their preparation for life.

It’s appropriate to spare a thought as well for those who devote their lives to trying to equip our children with the skills that they need. Whether as teachers or as administrators and support staff, the dedication of the best of them is to be admired. They receive less attention and less in the way of thanks than they really deserve.

Many decades ago, my mother was a secondary school biology teacher and I still recall her commitment to those who were placed in her charge. For her, as for all good teachers, it wasn’t simply a job. It was a vocation, a desire to impart to her students something of the passion that she felt for her subject. I have no idea whether any of them subsequently took up careers related to biology but many, I suspect, left school with a real and lasting interest in the world around them.

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Read more from Peter Hellyer:

History is not just a dusty irrelevance. Within it lie the seeds of today's successes and failures

I saw firsthand the UAE's efforts to rebuild Socotra

Two special centennials: Mandela and Sheikh Zayed were both symbols of humanity and progress

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Some of the teachers who started the new academic year this week were new in their jobs. For those who moved from one UAE school to another, it was perhaps easier to cope. They’re already accustomed to life in the UAE and will, one hopes, have a circle of friends and acquaintances.

For others, it’ll be their first experience of a new school, in a new country. Having arrived here only two or three weeks ago, often knowing no one and nothing of the country, they have had to cope with issues like sorting out visas and accommodation without a personal support network, while getting ready to teach a bunch of students they’ve never met. That’s a tough challenge, even with the help provided by their school’s administration.

It’s not surprising, then, that there are always a few no-shows, teachers who have agreed to take up posts and who then, at the last minute, suddenly change their minds.

In some cases, there can be perfectly valid personal reasons – a crisis in the family, perhaps. For others, it might be simply that they’ve received a better financial offer from somewhere else – and for those, one would wish that they had a little more sense of responsibility towards the children they had been recruited to teach.

There will be numerous schools facing the problems created by an unanticipated teacher shortage this week and who will be scrambling around to recruit replacements and to find a permanent solution.

The good schools, of course, will have built some flexibility into their curriculum and timetables so that a missing teacher can be covered for a short period, at least, by existing teachers in the same departments. In primary schools it’s easier to fill such gaps, although it becomes much more difficult in the case of a missing specialist teacher in a secondary school.

I wonder, though, whether there isn’t scope for the country’s education departments to take a new look at promoting the creation of a pool of approved supply teachers. These could be qualified people who might not want permanent posts but who might be willing to take temporary jobs to fill in the unexpected gaps. Such people might already offer evening or weekend part-time extra tuition.

There is a wide range of people here in the Emirates with useful experience and qualifications who, for a variety of reasons, are not seeking full-time employment but would welcome occasional or part-time opportunities. It might require more flexibility at a government level in the thinking, regulations and practices related to employment but facilitation of such part-time work could, I feel, be of benefit, not just in the educational sector but much more widely.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture