Sunday, April 28, 2013

Teaching the Military

After my harrowing experiences teaching children at the Learning Horizons Primary School, I was apparently adjudged to be now tough and seasoned enough to be able to teach at the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). Working at a military installation means that the day starts early. Accordingly my alarm goes off at 0430 and after a 45 minute drive we start work at 0600.

The company I have been palmed off on is GBT (no one seems to know what the acronym stands for), a British company which hires British teachers to work in the Kingdom. However, since they were experiencing rather high levels of absenteeism they were obliged to temporarily take on other, non-British native English speakers. 

On my first day I was introduced to the incumbent staff (well, except for one gentleman who pointedly ignored me) and shown around the premises. The corridors leading to the lecture rooms are long and stark, and somewhat reminiscent of “The Green Mile”. Given the feelings evoked by some of the classes, this impression is entirely appropriate. All the lecture rooms and language labs have combination locks fitted on the doors. There are strict rules about keeping the rooms locked when not in use as expensive equipment tends to get either vandalized or stolen. It is suspected that some cleaning staff are prepared to share the door combinations with students for a modest financial consideration and so we still have some pilfering in some of the lecture rooms.

The students at SANG are typical of students anywhere, I guess. You have some who are really motivated to learn and some who would rather be anywhere other than in a classroom. In general the level of proficiency is pretty comparable to that at the primary school where I was toughened up for this assignment, although there are some notable exceptions.Some students have remarked (rather astutely, I felt) that they are only obliged to take these classes to fill in time until the military can think of something to do with them. Be that as it may, we forge ahead undeterred by the inscrutable motives of the top brass. Irregular verbs and present continuous are the order of the day!

As one would expect in a military establishment, there are sets of inflexible rules which we are expected to enforce. Some of these you would expect to find in any academy, such as no cell phones during teaching sessions. Others, however, I have not found elsewhere. For instance:

  • ·         “No sleeping, heads on tables, comatose slumping or leaning on the back legs of the chairs.”
  • ·         “No wearing of caps when seated in the classroom, particularly in an MTV inspired gangster rap manner, or use of caps as missiles.”

To help with the enforcement of these regulations we have “jizza” forms. These are forms on which we report the infringement of any of the rules such as sleeping, refusing to work or being disruptive. Students who are jizza-ed get disciplined by SANG by, for instance, being locked up for the weekend. Teachers are looked at askance by SANG if they don't issue a handful of jizzers every week. The students are prepared to do their part by breaking the rules on a regular basis.

I have learned that students frequently stay up till the early hours and come to class having had only 2 or 3 hours of sleep. I have seen some literally doze off in the middle of answering a question! One of the popular late night activities here is “drifting” - driving at high speed and then causing the car to drift sideways ( Did I mention that the biggest killer in KSA is traffic accidents? Ahead of heart attacks?

Driving to and from SANG is also an experience. The Saudi driving style is unique – the lane occupied by any given driver does not necessarily bear any correlation to the direction in which he wishes to travel. Red traffic lights are seen as no more than a tentative suggestion to slow down. Merging with traffic is also a concept that is rejected with contempt – you simply drive in the direction you wish to go and trust that the other drivers will sort themselves out. Driving home the other day our driver was obliged to swerve to avoid a “merging” vehicle on the freeway. He then noticed high speed traffic approaching from the rear and had to swerve back, causing us to whack into the “merging” driver. Even this event was treated rather cavalierly and after a cordial exchange of gestures featuring middle fingers we both continued on our way. Did I mention that the biggest killer in KSA is traffic accidents?

I have come to the conclusion that this is one of the main reasons that alcohol is illegal in the Kingdom. If this is the situation with everyone sober, one can only speculate with horror at the mayhem there would be on the roads if drinking was legal. As it is we see one or two accidents almost every day on the way to or from SANG. And of course the fact that women are not allowed to drive has nothing to do with road safety.

Despite manic drivers, SANG managers not speaking to each other, flatmates not speaking to each other, getting up at an obscene hour, trying to motivate disinterested students and preparing for UNISA exams, I find that life is good. I find myself in company of people who are pleasant and helpful and I am doing work that is challenging without being too stressful. I don't see myself spending the rest of my life in the kingdom (I miss going for a beer with my mates and I miss female company too much) but KSA and Al Jazeera have been good to me.