Teaching English in the United Arab Emirates: Liam and Debbie

I’m pleased to present Liam and Debbie, camp friends of mine from a summer in Uclés. About a year ago they moved from Great Britain to start a life teaching English in Abu Dhabi–and this is after working in South Korea and Spain! I was surprised to discover so many interesting details about their life teaching English in the United Arab Emirates; read on to learn about the dress code, the extreme heat, and a common term you should never use with students.

Teaching English in the United Arab Emirates

Liam and Debbie on a desert safari in Abu Dhabi


Having taught English in Korea and Spain, you are certainly an adventurous pair! How did you decide on the United Arab Emirates for your next teaching adventure, and how long will you be in Abu Dhabi?

When we initially discussed going back abroad to work we were torn between several options. On the one hand, South Korea and Spain offered very exciting life full of cultural experiences and a reasonable salary. On the other hand, Abu Dhabi offered a very comfortable lifestyle and the chance to explore other parts of the world. In the end, the decision was made for us. It was extremely difficult to secure full-time teaching jobs in Spain without being in the country for an interview and, unfortunately, the public school programme in South Korea seemed unorganised and unprofessional. Our applications to a private school in Abu Dhabi were quickly accepted and we secured two-year teaching contracts.

Teaching English in the United Arab Emirates

Awesome architecture in Dubai

Whoa, that was quick! What is the typical English level in the United Arab Emirates, and what is the demand for English education?

As the UAE is made up of 90% expatriates, the English level is extremely high. Our daily interactions in shops, mall and hotels are for the most part interactions with English speaking people. That being said, the parental demand for native English teachers in schools is high. Parents are aware that English is a global language that will open up a lot of opportunities in the future for their children, as well as allowing them to travel and enjoy the world with their language skills.

Teaching English in the United Arab Emirates

Debbie in Dubai

I can’t believe that 90% are expats! Tell us about your job—what age are your students? Are you at a language academy or school?

We both teach grade 3 classes. We teach all subjects to our students except for Arabic, Islamic and French. All of our students are bilingual and have been taught in English from Kindergarten. Our school is a private primary and secondary school that offers the British curriculum to over 2,500 students. Entrance exams to the school ensure that all of our students are highly academic and this ensures that we attain some of the highest grades in the IGCSEs and IB exams. As with most other schools in Abu Dhabi, we are located 30km outside the city centre, in the schools district.

 Teaching English in the United Arab Emirates

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Mosque, which is very near where Liam and Debbie live

What cultural differences took you off guard when you first arrived in Abu Dhabi?

The heat is extreme and was difficult to get used to when we first arrived. The dress code for women, although not overtly conservative, can be difficult to adhere to in high temperatures (shoulders and knees should be covered) and this also took some getting used to. Although it is not as dramatic as some people may envisage (infidels are not publically flogged!), religion can also be a sensitive topic. We have to avoid mentioning God, Heaven, angels etc. (particularly when teaching) and coming from a society as tolerant as the UK, this was a difficult to begin with (for example, calling a good pupil “an angel”).

Interesting, I would’t have thought of that! In visiting the United Arab Emirates, how important is it to have a working knowledge of the language? Also, what recommendations do you have for visitors to Abu Dhabi?

There is no need to have a working knowledge of Arabic in the U.A.E. The vast majority of the population speaks English and a large proportion of the immigrant workers are from English speaking countries (UK, Ireland, USA, India, the Philippines). Tourist areas rarely have any problems with cultural clashes, but we would advise tourists to recognise that locals are ‘top of the food chain’ in the UAE; expect some to walk to the front of a queue.

Teaching English in the United Arab Emirates

Dubai by night

What items do you miss from the UK? On the other side of things, what item or product would you ship home to have friends and family see/try?

Generally, most items from home are available in the UAE. Therefore, other than family and friends, we have everything here. As such a newly developed country, it is difficult to pinpoint a particular item that epitomises the UAE. However, some of the beautiful tapestries are a beautiful example of the Arab world.

What have you been up to in your free time? I noticed a photo album entitled “Arab Actors Association”—what is this group and how have you been involved?

Although we teach full time, the working day starts and ends early (7.30am – 2.30pm) so we have a lot of free time. There are beautiful swimming pools and beaches and opportunities to go rafting, jet-skiing, camel riding and camping. The Arab Actors Association is a reference to the performance group Liam runs for the students after school. The group is currently organising a production of Oliver!.

Teaching English in the United Arab Emirates

Liam directing an after-school program for budding actors

What have been some of your most challenging moments?

In our first month, the school was assessed by ADEC (the educational standards committee). This meant that our first few weeks were particularly stressful. We also had to change apartments when we’d only been in Abu Dhabi for a few weeks, which meant it took a while for us to feel settled.

Teaching English in the United Arab Emirates

Glad  you are all settled now! Can you give us a story about something wacky that happened due to miscommunication?

We spent a few days thinking that there had been fraudulent activity on our bank accounts because a bank employee had misunderstood a transaction request—a worrying few days! It all turned out to be a misunderstanding that was resolved.

Teaching English in the United Arab Emirates

Visiting Nepal in December 2012

Whew, thank goodness! You been able to travel quite a bit while based in Abu Dhabi—I am so jealous of your forays to Nepal and Mt. Everest! Where have you visited, and which places are next on your travel list?

We want to see South East Asia, Sri Lanka and Latin America in the not too distant future.

Teaching English in the United Arab Emirates

A parting shot from the pair’s adventres in colorful Kathmandu

A big thanks to Liam and Debbie for shinging some light on this lesser-known English-teaching destination! I can’t wait to see where their travels lead them next.

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9 Comments

  1. Awesome post!! This has inspired me to look into this in the future as I have always wanted to live in that part of the world!

  2. Cassandra

    Glad to hear that the interview gave you some ideas–good luck with your search!

  3. So lovely to see both Liam and Debbie on your blog – I stole them for Coruña! Kike and I had toyed with the idea of the UAE in the future, as he speaks Arabic, and knowing the pair has helped me get a grip on what they experience in the cotidiana. Sending you both besos from your favorite DOS!

  4. Cassandra

    Cat, I didn’t know you guys were considering the UAE–que guay!

  5. This article was very interesting! I’ve always thought about UAE as a teaching destination because the perks look so great, but I’ve always been worried about daily life. Maybe if Spain doesn’t work out this year I can head there!

  6. Cassandra

    Research time, Alison!! Glad you like the article 🙂

  7. WOW! now i want to go to teach over there!

  8. Hi, do they have teaching degrees or just EFL ?

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