When it comes to teaching in a foreign country, most people, especially English teachers, often rely on the programs offered by Asian, European and South American countries to get their jobs and visas to go abroad.
Not Clay Giese.
This North Carolina native decided to switch things up a bit and go to a location that doesn’t typically come up in expat teaching circles: Kuwait. Giese may hold a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies from Vanderbilt University and a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Florida, but it was the Middle East that was calling his name when he last graduated.
So at the age of 24, he packed his bags and headed off on his expat adventure insisting and later proving that an educational background in Arabic or Middle Eastern studies is not necessary to be a successful teacher in Kuwait.
What first sparked your interest in teaching abroad?
I began studying Spanish as a freshman at Vanderbilt University, and I immediately fell in love with learning languages and other cultures. Learning languages became a way for me to travel, meet new people and experience life from a different perspective. I was hooked.
Why did you choose to teach in Kuwait?
I choose to teach in Kuwait because I had developed close friendships with a group of Kuwaitis who were studying English at the University of Florida. They encouraged me to teach in Kuwait, and I wanted to learn more about Arabic, Islam and Kuwaiti culture.
What did your family and friends think when you left?
Most of friends and family didn’t understand why I would want to leave home to teach in the Middle East. I come from a small town, and many people in my town weren’t aware of where Kuwait is located. When I told people that I was going to teach in Kuwait (and that Kuwait is located between Saudi Arabia and Iraq), they would usually respond with, “Oh, be careful over there” or “Are you sure it’s safe?” I usually just explained to them that Kuwait was generally safer than many other countries due to its relatively low crime rate.
Some of my friends were extremely supportive. My Kuwaiti friends were thrilled that I would be going to their home country to teach. They offered to help me in innumerable ways (they offered to introduce me to their family and friends living in Kuwait, give me recommendations on places to go and things to do, and of course come visit during their breaks from school).
Describe the school where you worked and your position there.
I worked at Kuwait American School (KAS) as a 2nd grade teacher. KAS is a small, values-based, American curriculum school located in Salmiya, Kuwait. The school includes pre-school (in Kuwait they call it KG1 and KG2) through high school in 3 small buildings connected by a courtyard. I taught one of two 2nd grade classes with 19 students.
How did you get your job?
I got the job through the help of a Kuwaiti friend. My friend’s father knew the elementary coordinator at Kuwait American School, and learned of the position for an elementary teacher from the coordinator. I applied for the position, and I am certain that my interest in being in Kuwait along with my connections to several Kuwaiti families (through my friends), helped me land the job.
What was your typical day like?
Every day I began class by reading with my students. The morning was a great time to read because my students were the most focused when they first arrived. We typically followed reading time with math, Arabic, Islam, language arts, science, and social studies. I was only responsible for reading, language arts, math, science and social studies classes. When my students were in Arabic, Islam, music, computers, PE, art, they were taught by specialized subject teachers.
Three times a week we had Assembly where all the elementary school students gathered for presentations about the values of the school. The values were universal and included love, peace, tolerance, etc. At assemblies we would sing songs, listen to stories told by the principal and performed skits that embodied the school’s values. The students had recess every day and the teachers took turns supervising recess. I would often play silly games with the students during recess and at the end of the day while waiting for their parents to arrive.
After school, I would spend time straightening up my classroom, grading papers, and preparing any materials I needed for the following day.
What was your favorite thing about living and working in Kuwait?
My favorite thing about living and working in Kuwait was the opportunities I had to interact with Kuwaitis. Many of the other western teachers in Kuwait only spent time developing friendships with other westerners because it was comfortable, it reminded them of home. However, I spent as much time as I could hanging out with my Kuwaiti friends and meeting new friends. That allowed me to learn some basic Arabic, ask questions about Islam and explore cultural differences. I loved having long conversations about the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity. I also loved allowing Kuwaiti friends to show me around their home country. I had the opportunity to go to the farms in the north and the beach in the south.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should notify you that it is much easier and more culturally acceptable for western men to befriend Kuwaiti men than for western women to befriend Kuwaiti women.
What was your least favorite?
My least favorite thing about living in Kuwait was the heat. To give you the understatement of the century, it gets hot. In the summer temperatures can soar to 140+ degrees Fahrenheit. However, you just learn to adjust your lifestyle. I stayed indoors during the hottest hours of the day and unfortunately, it wasn’t feasible to walk long distances. However, during the winter months, the temperatures cool off for a very pleasant/mild winter. The best advice I can give about the heat is to stay hydrated.
Did you experience culture shock? If so, what were some of the things that surprised you?
I would say that I did experience some culture shock. I had already spent a lot of time with Kuwaiti friends in the United States before going to Kuwait, and therefore the effect of culture shock was somewhat diminished. Kuwait is filled with American and European brands, stores and restaurants, and nearly everyone in the service industry speaks English. Therefore, not everything around me was foreign. However, there was certainly a strong local identity. There were signs in Arabic, hookah cafes (alcohol is strictly prohibited in Kuwait), and mosques on many street corners. But none of that “shocked” me. Instead it inspired and enthralled me. Adhan is the call to prayer in Islam and it is broadcast over the loudspeakers at the mosques all around the country at given times during the day. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the adhan. I stopped on the sidewalk and just listened to the beautiful singing. I loved being there and experiencing a culture other than my own. I experienced culture shock the worst during Thanksgiving. It was the first Thanksgiving I had not spent with my family, but I was able to Skype with them and I spent the day with my western friends, celebrating our own version of Thanksgiving.
What was the thing you missed most about your home country?
I missed American sports the most. Soccer is king in Kuwait and I certainly love watching soccer, but it was difficult to find American sports. I could have chosen to order ESPN America as a cable channel, but I didn’t feel that I needed cable since I was supposed to be in Kuwait experiencing the culture. I’ll never forget that I convinced a Kuwaiti friend to wake up at 2:30 a.m. to go watch the Super Bowl with me at a local hookah café that had ESPN America.
Did you do any travelling around Kuwait or its neighboring countries? If so, which place was your favorite and why?
My other favorite thing about living and working in Kuwait was having the ability to travel to new countries. There are many holiday opportunities in Kuwait (the American schools celebrate both Kuwaiti holidays and take some traditional American holiday breaks such as Christmas and spring break). Living in Kuwait gave me the opportunity to easily travel to Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain, Spain, Hungary and the Czech Republic. I had friends that traveled to Jordan, Turkey, and Kenya, all of which are relatively close to Kuwait. Additionally, some of my other teacher friends traveled to Morocco, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. In short, the teachers traveled all the time! The school pays well and provides plenty of vacation time. Therefore, it is easy to travel to many different places cheaper because of their proximity to Kuwait.
My favorite place was Egypt because it is filled with so much history. My friend Brian and I visited the Pyramids of Giza, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Nile River and Sharm-el-Sheik (a gorgeous beach resort on the Red Sea). There is so much more to Egypt that I would love to see including Alexandria and Luxor/the Valley of the Kings.
Do you plan on living and working in any other countries?
I don’t currently plan to live and work in any other countries, but I never say never. If I were given the right opportunity, I would definitely move abroad again. I would probably end up somewhere in Latin America or Spain given my educational background in Spanish.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to teach in Kuwait?
If you want to teach in Kuwait, get to know people who have worked in Kuwait. Meet Kuwaitis and develop friendships. It’s all about who you know. Of course you need appropriate teaching credentials (teaching license, master’s degree or ESL certification). If you are serious about teaching in Kuwait, feel free to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I know some teachers in Kuwait, coordinators at my school, and I have a list of American schools in Kuwait.
And now, for further entertainment purposes, Clay was kind enough to also send along this YouTube video of the first flash mob ever done in Kuwait! It was done in honor of Kuwait National Day in 2012 and was filmed as a commercial at the Avenues Mall. Can you guess who happens to make an appearance in the video? Pay special attention at 2:00, 2:04, 2:41, 3:00, and 3:16 and look for that Tar Heels hat! Enjoy!