How I’m Teaching Cells and Photosynthesis this Year

First off, let me be honest. I hate this unit. I find the cells unit to be a mile wide and an inch deep.

The only thing I hate more than cell organelles is photosynthesis and respiration. At my school we teach a discipline of science per year. It’s Earth & Space Science in grade 6, Life Science grade 7, and then finally Chemistry and Physics in grade 8.

What that means for me is that I’m attempting to teach the important chemical reactions of life, photosynthesis and respiration, while my students have absolutely no idea what a chemical reaction even is.

Later, I teach DNA and proteins, but my students only vaguely know what a molecule is! Much less how or why they form!

I’m sure you can sense my frustration.

In some past years, I’ve taught a short chemistry crash course in an attempt to give my students the prerequisite knowledge they really need. Ex-students have told me that it helped them when they took actual chemistry, so I decided to do that again this year.

Here’s how I did it

I started the second day of school with the characteristics of living things. We made posters and hung them up so that I can refer to them throughout the year.

Then, I went directly into my chemistry crash course. I taught atoms, elements and the periodic table first. From there, we went briefly into valence electrons to explain what a molecule is. Yes, I know that’s quite a lot for a week, but it’s not actually my content!

I think I had an ah-ha moment from most of my students when they saw why water forms. I expanded from there by showing them other important molecules we’d be studying throughout the year: glucose and a protein.

I really hoped through this that my students will see why the atoms in molecules are so strongly connected. These materials don’t just come apart like a mixture would.

Then we studied chemical reactions. I taught a lesson on the Law of Conservation of Mass and how atoms are rearranged in a reaction. I let them play around with the balancing equations PhET Sim. Some of them really took to it and away they went! Regardless, that’s not my standard so even the students who stayed on level 1 still got a lot more than what my past students would have known.

Then, I jumped right into photosynthesis and respiration. I explained that these are crucial chemical reactions to life and we looked at how the atoms are rearranged.

Next, I’m taking that that into organelles, beginning with the knowledge that chloroplasts and mitochondria are where these processes occur.

After that, it’ll be prokaryotes vs. eukaryotes. I’ll explain that the organelles we studied were eukaryotic and that prokaryotes are bacteria.

Once we know what bacteria is I plan on doing a case study on the human microbiome. And every year I also like to teach a day on antibiotic resistance.

I think I may actually skip the cell theory completely this year, as it’s not even in the NGSS standards. I also recently received a bad rating on my TPT store because a resource I created on famous scientists wasn’t inclusive enough. So considering the amount of old, white men involved in the cell theory perhaps I’ll just forget it this year! Ha!

So.. yeah! I think I’m going to basically be teaching this unit in reverse as compared to how I usually would have! I’m hoping some other middle school teachers will read this and let me know their thoughts!

After this, we’ll take a test and move directly into mitosis/meiosis. Then DNA. Then inheritance. Then evolution. Then ecology. And that’ll be a wrap!

My 2 New Product Lines!

I thought about it, and I think I mainly turn to Teachers Pay Teachers on days when I just can’t. I know I’m not the only one either because my webquests sell like hotcakes! Sometimes the lesson just isn’t going to fill period and we need some (meaninful) fluff. Other times we might need an idea to get us started for an entire lesson.

With that thought in mind I’ve decided to launch two new product lines based on the success of similar products in the past.

1. Guided Readings

First will be my guided readings. I’m really excited about these because this category already contains several of my best selling resources. I genuinely believe that reading is crucial in the science classroom for language acquisition as well as teaching our students to turn a critical eye on the sources they encounter. For these reasons, I’ve been incorporating more and more reading into my own classroom this year.

If you’re interested in incorporating a little bit more old fashioned reading into your middle or high school class, start with my freebie on Atoms & Elements to see if my style is the right fit for you. As I continue to expand the product line, I’d love to hear your suggestions on what topics you’d like to see covered.

2. Vocabulary Crosswords

Academic vocabulary is difficult for all learners! I work with primarily bilingual students, but I used to have this same problem in the US as well. Students absolutely must practice with the words they’re going to encounter on quizzes and tests. I’ve designed this new product line to help you with early finishers and differentiation.

A quick crossword is a great way to fill in 15-30 minutes on the fly, and it requires nearly no help from you and best of all: no prep. Kids can do these on their own. I’ve included with each new resource 2 versions: one with a word bank and one without. If you need an extra assignment or two to throw into your emergency sub folder, check out my freebie on Organelles to get an idea of my vision.

The rest of my vocab crosswords are available here. And just like the guided readings, I’m happy to take suggestions for future products.

As always, don’t forget that leaving feedback can earn you credit towards future TPT purchases. I’m always happy to hear what you think!

What Does it Mean to be a Creative Teacher?

Do you consider yourself creative? I think that the only way to teach is to teach creatively. So how can we be a creative teacher?

First of all, I think it’s important to be reminded that creativity doesn’t only mean colorful pallets and having excellent fine motor skills. Creativity is better defined as the ability to conjure up something, anything, unique. To bring into existence something that wasn’t there before.

I would almost argue that teaching is one of the most creative careers there is. I don’t doubt that one of the reasons we all groan at the thought of extensive PD trainings is because no matter how much practical knowledge we’re taught, at the end of the day we still solve countless problems through our own creative processes. Every class and every student requires a unique, unsystematic approach.

Teachers are genius problem solvers! We do it thousands of times a day!

That’s not to dismiss academia! As Einstein famously said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” The intelligence must come first, so don’t go totally roque on me. Research is research.

This creative, problem solving process looks different for everyone. Some ask for lots of opinions, some close themselves off. Some like to wake up at 5am, some rush in after the first bell. Some need everything color coded to calm their mind enough to think, others thrive with a desk that looks like the photos you see of abandoned buildings years after a natural disaster drove out all human life. To that end, I will briefly say that just as we respect the quirks of musicians and painters, let us also accept one another in this profession. Judgement has no room in career that should allow all personality types to flourish.

As a TpT author and (recently) blogger, I’ve started to take this idea of creativity a little bit more seriously. It’s my professional expansion into these mediums of production that has led me to finally realize and eventually accept that I’ve actually always been creative.

As I listen to podcast after podcast devoted to the process of building a small business in the year of our Lord 2019, I’m continually struck by the same, somewhat difficult to swallow fact: in these modern times, there is a need for one type of business alone. All others will be swallowed up by corporate giants or worse, automated. And that kind of business is the one that is unprogrammable. It’s a business of creativity.

Creative businesses can look as different as photography does from computer programming. Perhaps that’s a big part of the reason why we, as teachers, have no fear as technology continues to envelop so much of the workforce and jobs continue to be outsourced. We know we work in one of the irreplaceable jobs because we work in creativity.

One phrase I constantly repeat is that you cannot be creative when you’re drowning. This has two major implications: (1) you as a teacher have a responsibility to do whatever it takes to keep your head above water and (2) your administration has a responsibility to do whatever it takes to keep the heads of their teachers above water.

Let’s start with the things we can control. Ourselves. If you’re coming to work exhausted because of things going on in your personal life or lack of sleep or both, you’re not going to have an easy time being creative. Therefore, you’re not going to be very good at this job. Like all of the great creatives, being really good at this is going to take all of you.

Choices you make in your “free” time will affect your ability to do this job. If that bothers you, you might need to find another career. I’m sorry to be that harsh about it, but if you’re still mad about this then maybe someone needs to.

Avoidance also blocks your creativity, so the best thing you can do if you’re having a hard time at work is to actually think about it. Or, as Einstein would say, maybe not think about it.

Regardless, you need to set yourself up to find solutions. Avoiding your problems won’t help. We’re all adults by now and we know our personal favorites as far as avoidance methods. That’s not going to cut it anymore.

I’m only writing these paragraphs because I’ve seen it happen and it’s heartbreaking. I had a friend who really struggled with classroom management, and I don’t blame him for wanting to switch off after work. Neglecting to take even small steps towards solutions, though, won’t get any of us where we want to be. Personally or professionally.

Additionally, on another note, I’ve been wanting to say this publicly for a while. Administration plays a big role in keeping their teachers’ heads above water. Creativity requires space. Space to breath, space to think, space to follow a tangent, and space to fail.

Giving space requires trust. Filling teachers’ free time with menial tasks or unnecessary meetings/PD doesn’t feel like trust. On our end, fulfilling these added responsibilities means that we’re not only more exhausted (limiting creativity), but also more busy (limiting creativity). Evaluation methods that blame teachers rather than help them succeed doesn’t feel like trust. If I’m afraid of being seen failing, I may not try. If I don’t try new things, students ultimately suffer.

Dare I say it? Exhausted teachers means less unique solutions. Less classroom management problems solved. Less fun and engaging lessons. Less alternative assessment. Less collaboration. Less cross curricular connections.

A lot of the aspects of our jobs aren’t systematic, they’re creative! We need time and space to pursue the creative process in our own unique ways.

The Difference in My 8th Year

This blog post has been absolutely bursting to come out of me. My 8th year teaching is different. It just is.

Let me begin with just a little back story on my career so that you can fully appreciate my come up. I started teaching when I was 21 at a relatively low income school in Tennessee. Like all new teachers, I came in with low expectations for my abilities, but was excited to learn. After several leadership changes in my school, I began to struggle more and more. I tried to hide my classroom management problems (to no avail), and after waking up in the morning, my first emotion of every day was dread. Deep, deep dread.

In a move of what can only be called pure desperation, I took the leap into international teaching. A lot of my teaching experience changed in that instant, and I quickly realized that I did, in fact, love teaching. I didn’t love a lot of the things that were part of my reality in the states (heavy legal liability, standardized state testing, salary, etc.) and with those stressors removed I finally had the freedom I needed to begin truly developing professionally.

I will proudly admit that I studied the craft. I read books on classroom management, and I joined social media to discuss my job with other professionals. I spent some of my free time on this, but I would consider it normal to spend free time pursing a passion. I stopped expecting myself to be perfect at everything and I started opening up to my colleagues. I started to be vulnerable about my weaknesses.

In the end of last school year ( May 2019), I started to develop a sense that I was truly on the path that I was meant to be on. I enjoyed my students. I enjoyed my job. I enjoyed working on my TpT store. I had free time and money to spend. I drive a BMW now that I paid cash for. I’ve been to Japan, Morocco, Australia, Spain, and the list goes on. I’m saving for my future. But it’s more than all that.

When I wake up in the morning now, I feel confident. I know how to handle classroom management, and I know what to do when I feel like I can’t. I started this year knowing exactly what kind of teacher I’m going to be, and exactly how I’m going to do everything. Every last procedure! (I’m not against continuing to tweak things, but I won’t change things up on my sensitive children mid-year anymore without serious planning.)

I wanted to write this post because I want you to know that if you’re in a position that is making you unhappy, consider a change! I went from public to private. America to the Middle East. My experiences couldn’t be more different, and it’s made such an impact on me as a teacher. I’m so glad I never quit. It feels amazing to be 28 years old and to be this happy and excited for the future.

The Best Dresses for Teachers

I’m pleased to introduce you to the fad that is sweeping our school by storm: The best dresses for teachers EVER!!!!!! I can personally endorse this product because every teacher in my office owns this dress in at least a few variations. We’ve actually progressed to the point that we’re calling it our uniform now.

Teacher Dresses! Your Work Outfit Solution!

  • Let me start with: POCKETS
  • It’s long enough
  • It’s not low cut
  • It comes in short or long sleeves!
  • It’s budget friendly coming in under $25
  • and it’s the most comfortable, easy to wear item in your closet
  • they’re literally perfect dresses for teachers!

It comes in long sleeves!

It comes in full coverage!

It comes in short sleeves!

Teacher Dresses Style Tips

Personally, I like to wear a long cardigan and a statement necklace to style up my teacher dresses. Here’s a couple highly rated variations from Amazon.

Classic, between $10 and $20 and comes in every color! You literally can’t go wrong.

A slightly more expensive variation that looks to be a bit thicker and warm!

Seriously, what are you waiting for? Getting dressed in the morning has never been this easy! After you buy about 5 of these babies plus a couple cardigans you have infinite outfits to choose from! Not really: 5! = 120. If you have 5 dresses and 5 cardigans that all theoretically match one another you actually have 120 outfit combinations (Yes I teach math!).

Add a necklace or two to that mix and you could be literally wearing something different every day of the ENTIRE YEAR! In the words of Shia Labeouf: Don’t let you dreams just be dreams! Stop circulating the same outfits every 2 weeks and invest in your style and comfort!

Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I may make a commission if you make a purchase after clicking on a link.

Subscribe for freebies!

* indicates required

Yearly Goals as a Teacher

Do you set yearly goals as a teacher? I know we all strive to be a bit better every day than we were the last, but if you’re not setting real tangible goals I hope that this blog post can encourage you to start!

I’ve been fortunate enough to be sticking with the same content for the past… MANY years, so for me goal setting is getting to be quite refined. Of course I’m always up for a new book on classroom management, and I’m more than willing to try a couple new teaching techniques when I learn them. I don’t really keep track of those small tweaks. Instead, for the past 2 years I’ve kept a list called “Things I’m Doing Different This Year.”

Let’s look back to last school year.

As you can see by the cheeky note left by my coworker, this list was displayed prominently at my desk for the entire year. Let me recap my efforts:

  • Student Jobs: FAIL. I didn’t know who to give them to at the start of the year as I didn’t know the kids very well. So immediately it showed that my choices weren’t great. Later in the year, when an errand needed to be run, I still just grabbed the closest kid.
    Possible refinement: Don’t choose students for their jobs until much later. I assigned them within the first week.
  • Vocabulary Quilt: Partial success. Through Teachers Pay Teachers I purchased several sets of fun vocabulary doodles which were conveniently square shaped. I started this two years ago, and saw the potential, so last year I made the kids cut out their square and we added it to a huge growing “quilt.” The biggest problem was that once I had about 130 pieces of small paper hanging in my room in a Middle Eastern climate, there was a never ending need for corners to be retaped.
    Possible refinement: student jobs?? (Lol)
  • Interactive notebooks: Success! For my first year of implantation, I think these went quite well! Although we didn’t use them every day, I stuck with it all year!
    Warning: Be REALLY aware of the mess this makes and how much glue you’ll need for the year (a lot).
  • Keep all summatives: Partial success. Ok I did keep them. But it was in a massive, terrifying pile on my desks. When parents came in, I still had absolutely no good way of referencing their students’ work. *sigh of disappointment*
    Possible refinement: STUDENT PORTFOLIOS! Read on. I’m planning to do this this year!
  • Hand signals: FAIL. I had a dream that I could train my students to signal to me when they needed to use the bathroom, and I even created cute signs to put up with what the signals were. In reality, though, I was consistent in enforcing it and “can I go to the bathroom” still ended up being a phrase that echoed through my dreams.
    Possible refinement: Consistency.
  • Detention Forms: Partial success. We assign and supervise lunch detentions within my team, so I created a reflection form that the students would be responsible for completing in their time. When the stack ran out, no one made any more copies.
    Possible refinement: This year we’re doing after school detentions as an entire department, and someone has edited my reflection form to be even more comprehensive. Hopefully we’ll see it through this time!
  • Weekly Grade 7 newsletter: Partial success. Similar to the others listed above, we abandoned this one as a team about half way through the year. Parents who wanted close contact were pretty much already in close contact with us.
    Possible refinement: I will probably drop this in the future.

So all those fails is a bit frustrating, but how else can we know that we tried than to reflect? Not everything is going to work. I have that list taped into my diary so that even years from now I can look back on how I’ve grown professionally.

Which brings me to this year! This humble note will proudly hanging in my face at my desk for the entirety of this year!

Alright so here’s a rundown of my goals for the 19-20 school year!

  • Provide more optional supplemental material so that my students can take ownership of their own learning and studying. Allow them to practice more with informational text, but still hold their hand by guiding them in the right direction.
  • Make the portfolios with summatives!!! Students deserve to have a record of their growth, and I’m going to help them create that this year.
  • Presentations. I’ve heard there’s some fun websites that can make presentations more interactive than just uploading the PPT onto Google classroom. Slides like internal summaries that the students must fill in and quick checks for understanding can be interacted with by the students as the class moves through the learning. I wish I knew what these sites were, but as I move into content I’ll ask around and try them
  • Agendas. We’re supposed to sign their agendas to let the students go to the bathroom, but I was always too lazy. Going to work on that! We really need a record of who lives in the bathroom and this would help tremendously.

So there’s my super casual goal setting process. Do you keep track of yearly goals in any way? How?

The Best Weekly Planner for Teachers

I can assure you that I have THE best weekly planner for teacher. Do not @ me about this.

I know this may not be well received considering it’s a fad now to spend loads on an adorably overpriced planner. Spending more for cute color schemes and loopy fonts does NOT mean you’re actually going to get organized this year, Becky. Real life doesn’t always look like a well curated Instagram.

For me, planning my week needs to be fast and easy. And I mean SUPER easy because I have about 5 minutes and 13,473 things to do between classes and that’s if I don’t need to use the toilet. (Seriously, who actually goes to the bathroom???)

With my apologies in advance for lack of unrealistic perfectionism, here’s how I do it.

Weekly Planning as a Teacher

(My class periods are a bit odd. Scroll to the bottom of this post for an explanation if you’d really like to know.***)

When I’m living my best life I plan using sticky notes (as seen above). That’s fabulous for when inevitably end up having to move things around or scrap an idea altogether. After the class, I remove the sticky note and write down exactly what we did do in pen.

When things are less tight, I end up just planning pencil and writing over it in pen. Ideally, I’ll erase the pencil marks later, but as you can see in this photo that sometimes doesn’t happen. Which is fine.

I make all kinds of notes about page numbers and behavior in the boxes. Each square represents a period and each row (or column if you’d rather) represents a day. In the space beyond our 4 ninety minute periods I make rough notes of what I’ll do in my evening.

Additionally, in the boxes that represent my plan periods I like to make my to do lists. Sometimes I put an item in a plan box a few days ahead if it’s not too critical and can be delegated to a more distant future Laney to deal with.

***Ok so I teach 4 different classes. I see each class 7 times during a 10 day period, but the daily schedule is never the same for any two of those 10. Needless to say, knowing where I am with each group is a literal nightmare and a well organized planner is the Key to Success in my chaotic life.

Year at a Glance

So if you’re like me and you start counting down til summer before the leaves even change colors, then you’re definitely going to want to take advantage of the year at a glance feature. Here’s mine from this year. Doesn’t look too bad when you see it all mapped out does it?

Final Thoughts: Why This Actually is the Best Planner for Teachers

In a rare act of sentimentality, I do lovingly preserve all my planners from previous years. This doubles as an incredibly helpful tool when planning the new year if you’re lucky enough to have the same content. Here’s a before and after created using my brand new shiny planner for this year, and my last year’s planner.

As you can see this baby weathers the abuse of 180 days better than most of us teachers!

If you’re reading this and it’s not the end of the year or the very start of a new one and thinking, “Man, I really should try that next year…” then I urge you to NOT wait! It’s never too late to get organized with the absolute best weekly planner for teachers!!! Start today! Your next year self will thank you!

If you choose to buy through my link I may make about $0.13. As a fellow educator I know you know how much that would mean to me. If you’re ready to start getting organized now, click this link to shop my favorite planner for under 10 bucks!If you choose to buy through my link I may make about $0.13. As a fellow educator I know you know how much that would mean to me. If you’re ready to start getting organized now, click the image below to shop my favorite planner for under 10 bucks!

Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I may make a commission if you make a purchase after clicking on a link.

Subscribe for freebies!

* indicates required

First Day of School Ideas for Middle School Science

Are you looking for some ideas for your first day of school in middle school science? According to my instagram poll, going over the syllabus is a modern teacher’s worst nightmare. I think my sarcasm was lost on most of the respondents. (What else is new?)

Regardless, I took it upon myself to gather some ideas from some of the respected educators on Instagram and Twitter which I will list here for your and my later reference:

1. Play A Game

As long as all your students have access to the internet, I love the idea of using competitive games like Kahoot or (my new personal favorite) Quizizz to allow students to guess on topics ranging from About the Teacher or Classroom Procedures. If your students are extra competitive, I’d recommend setting the questions to 0 points to ease the tension.

If you aren’t familiar already, you can use these fun websites to actually introduce and teach in a “guess, check, and learn” style. Here is a helpful guide on how to make an educational quiz more officially called a “Blind Kahoot.”

Another great internet-free game to play that can help your students get to know you or one another is four corners. I’d advise creating a Power Point or Google Slide presentation with all the questions and answers labeled by corner. That way when you get to class you can just stick an A, B, C, and D sign in each corner and you’re ready to play.

I’ve done 4 corners with about the teacher (Go to corner A if you think Ms. Hill is 28, corner B if you think she’s 29, etc.) or about the students (Go to corner A if your favorite sport is basketball, corner B if it’s football, etc.). Get creative with it!

2. Do a STEM Challenge

Why bother with boring rules that never change when you could actually get your hands dirty with a fun tower building activity. I used to do this activity with spaghetti and marshmallows, but I’ve since switched to using aluminum foil and tape because it’s easier. I’ve also seen it done with index cards (folding is allowed).

Here is a link to my worksheet and teacher directions if you’d like some help connecting the activity to the Engineering Design Process. A couple other fun STEM challenges I’ve been seeing lately include the Pringle Ring Challenge and the Zip Lock Water Pencil Challenge (sorry I totally just made that title up!). I’m looking forward to trying both of those, but the aluminum foil tower takes the lead in my book as it is by far the easiest to set up and clean up.

3. Make Way for Team Building!

Day 1 in our middle school science class means nothing if it doesn’t put us on the path to becoming Robin Williams in Freedom Writers and we’ll never get that kind of community without TEAM BUILDING!

My personal favorite team building exercise is the whale band-aid. Students have to figure out how to flip a 1 meter x 1 meter piece of fabric (any old bulletin board fabric will do) without speaking or stepping off. I like to group the class so the waiting groups can giggle and learn from the earlier teams’ mistakes. This is the worksheet I use with that activity.

Another fun brain teaser and easy to set up activity I have done in the past is the Dog Goose and Bag of Corn. I think this one works better in smaller groups though and is a great activity to bring up the concept of persistence in problem solving. An area in which we could all use a little work!

4. Get creative!

In my office they like to make fun of me by saying that I don’t teach science I teach art. Well that’s just fine by me!!!!!! Nothing soothes me like a little bit of coloring. And nothing makes me laugh like watching my kids attempt to use their fine motor skills to cut and paste anything slightly intricate. Doing artistic activities gives me a chance to circulate the room and chat with my students, and more importantly it’s an equalizing assignment. Everyone can do it! If everyone can do it, they WILL do it!

Making decorative name tents, designing the covers to your interactive notebooks, or anything else creative and fun will give you the opportunity to teach procedures for picking up and passing back materials, cleaning the room, and expected noise levels during individual work.

5. Stations

I have to admit I kind of loathe stations, but it was suggested to me multiple times on social media as a great way to start the year so I’m going to include it here for those of you that have the space or patience for stations. I think moving around the room would be a great way to get kids moving a bit, as well as being broken into smaller, less anxiety inducing groups. One idea would be to have posters (the sticky ones pictured here, I have no clue what they’re called) hung around the room and ask that the students add their thoughts about each topic to the page. A great way to include student voice to your rules and procedures! Maybe someone can teach me how to better implement stations in the future!

Pro tip: Giving students different marker colors provides that extra piece of accountability that we all need!

6. Scavenger Hunt

I’m a big fan of scavenger hunts because our school has a huge outdoor courtyard that’s completely self contained. At my old school, though, we used to do them in the hallways too. It’s a great opportunity to teach kids the expectations for traveling together outside the classroom as well as appropriate noise levels in the hallways.

You could set your scavenger hunt up in all different ways, and of course you can do it within your own room too! One idea would be to simply hide questions related to procedures and the syllabus and let the kids search for and answer them.

To take it up a notch, @JohnstonChemistry suggested that she actually encourages the kids to search her Instagram for clues about her as a teacher! I know my students would absolutely go nuts over this idea as they seem to quite enjoy Googling their teachers.

I hope you’re able to take away some ideas here for your own first day of school in middle school science! I’d like to include some credits to those who helped me compile this fabulous list of ideas:

Teaching is a weird job. I’d love to connect and discuss anything about the information you’ve read here. Find me on Instagram (@stemstrength). 

Subscribe for freebies!

* indicates required

Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I may make a commission if you make a purchase after clicking on a link. 

What it’s Like to Teach in the Middle East

I’m constantly asked this question, and the truth of the matter is that teaching in the Middle East isn’t that different than teaching in America or wherever you are. Of course cultural differences, but at the end of the day people are people and kids are kids. I’m going to do my best to cover the main points as far as my experience in UAE goes. If you’re reading this from another Middle Eastern country, I’d love to hear how your experience is similar or dissimilar!

1. SPED is totally different

Culturally, SPED hasn’t reached the acceptance level in the Middle East that it has in the West. The reasons behind that are complex and I won’t go into it here, but I’ll fill you in on what you need to know as a teacher. First of all, none of the legal side of things is present in the middle east like it is in the United States. That being said, some of the private schools are developing independent programs and supports for students with various disabilities. I’ve seen a few schools specifically marketed for autistic children.

In the course of the three years I’ve been in the Middle East, my school has been expanding it’s learning support and in the secondary school we do now have a little bit of co-teaching in math and language classes. There’s more support in the elementary classes, including ESL support (obviously a continuous need).

2. Most families elect to send their kids to private schools.

In the middle east, or at least where I am, there are public schools. That being said, most relatively affluent families choose to send their kids to private schools. In private schools, there first choice you need to make is what kind of curriculum would you like your kids to learn? The two main choices are American and British. After you’ve made that decision, there will likely be a decently large selection of schools to choose from, at various price points.

3. Islamic Social Studies and Arabic Classes

At least in my country, all students are required to take Arabic classes. There is Arabic as a first language (for natives) and Arabic as a second language (for expats). Unlike English, Arabic has a formal version and a spoken version (and the spoken version is quite different country to country). Children require formal schooling in order to learn the formal Arabic which is the Arabic you’ll find in the Quran. Expat children are also taught formal Arabic, which is next to useless for everyday conversation. They’ll pick that up in the hallways. 😉

Additionally, there’s another required class called Islamic Social Studies which is where Muslim students learn the historical stories of the Islamic Religion. This class is not required

4. Arabic as a spoken language

As with living in any other foreign country, get used to hearing Arabic spoken around you. Students speak it in the halls, and yes they will attempt to get away with cussing and cheating in Arabic. If you’re working in a private school, though, it’s unlikely that you’ll have many students who don’t already know English. Where I’m living, I rarely meet anyone without at least a basic working knowledge of English, but we have occasionally had translators sit in on parent conferences.

Arabic is a very difficult language to learn, but after three years I’m fully fluent in reading and writing and quite adept at listening for understanding. With several of the sounds being outside of the English speaker’s pallet of tones and the grammar differences, though, speaking has remained a struggle for me. That being said, I’m one of the only people I know who puts any effort into learning Arabic at all. A shame, but it does highlight how accessible everything is to an English speaker.

5. Your Students

Depending on the kind of school you choose, your student demographic could look lots of different ways. There are private schools marketed toward any majority expat denomination: American, British, Indian, etc. The public schools will be majority local students, but in private schools you could have a variety of combinations. I teach at a private American school and my students are about 30% local Emirati, 40% from other Arab countries, and 30% international expats. If we get a student whose family is new to the country, we occasionally have a completely ESL child. Most of my students, however, have grown up in the school and with English speaking media(Youtube, etc.) and speak English with an almost perfect American accent.

6. Cultural Differences and Classroom Management

My school is unique in that we’re one of the only private schools that does gender segregation. Our building is designed as two perfectly mirrored halves: a boy’s side and a girl’s side. I teach on both sides throughout the day, and teaching only one gender in a class certainly has it’s management challenges. Most public schools are boys only are girls only, so if you work in one of them you’ll likely have only one gender all year.

I have learned a lot in my three years in the Middle East about culturally different ways of handling and addressing conflict. It’s important to be sensitive to how different things may be taken offensively in a different culture, and to learn the best ways to work within that new framework. If you’re seriously considering making a move, please feel free to reach out and contact me for more on this topic. There’s a link to a contact form at the top or bottom of the page.

7. How You Should Dress

Abayas are comfy and convenient!

As a woman, if you work in a public school in the Middle East you may be asked to dress quite conservatively. You may be asked to wear an abaya which is the traditional local dress for women. This is actually great for you, because you can wear comfy clothes underneath and take off the abaya with very little effort to transition after your workday! That’s not every school though. Mine just requires that we dress modestly: aka nothing above the knee, no sleeveless, etc.

Outside of school, on the other hand, you’ll learn to play it by ear. Most of the time if I’m going to be in public I wear long pants and usually a shirt that has at least some sleeve. When I go to dinner and wear a cute dress, I just cover up with a sweater or a scarf as I walk from the house to the taxi and the taxi to the restaurant. I’ve seen a lot of people who don’t do this at all, though! With every passing year I see the cultural expectations for modest dress in my country loosen up bit by bit.

8.. Teaching Requirements

Depending on what kind of school you’re looking at working in, there may be a variety of different requirements. Some schools may require that you have up to 3 or 4 years of experience in your home country before they’ll consider hiring you. Another unique requirement my school had was that my degree must be “in person” so no online certifications. On top of that, you’ll most likely have to obtain a variety of attested (certified as real) documents such as a background check, copy of your transcript and/or diplomas, and teaching license.

Believe me, all of this is confusing, expensive, and time consuming for EVERYONE! The Facebook groups I was in during my transition all strongly urged me to just pay one of the many companies who handle the attestation process to complete my documents for me. (Of course you’ll have to assemble them yourself.) This cost me about $700 which is nothing to sneeze at especially on top of all the other stuff you’ll be dealing with as you consider moving abroad. That being said, I think it’s worth it for your peace of mind and to know that the job is done correctly the first time.

9. Salary

I think it’s pretty safe to say that in most cases you will earn a higher salary if you decide to teach in the Middle East. There’s plenty of sites you can look those kinds of things up on. The most important thing to remember is that at least with U.S. tax law, you don’t pay any tax on earnings outside the country under $100,000. Additionally, most Middle Eastern schools will further sweeten your deal with housing allowances and paid flights home. For parents, most private schools will offer to cover one or more children’s incomes. The Middle East is developing, and they’re putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to education, which is something I deeply respect.

Thanks for reading! Moving 3 years ago to UAE was one of the best decisions I’ve made for my personal and professional growth. In the years since I made that transition, I’ve learned a new language and traveled the world all while finishing student loans. If you’re considering making this move, please feel free to contact me with any further questions. I’d be happy to provide more information. Email me at laneyleehill@gmail.com.

Subscribe for freebies!

* indicates required

How Teaching in a Private School Differs from Public

This is a question I get a lot from both teachers and non-teachers. It’s a little hard to compare my experience teaching in the Middle East to my experience teaching in America for several obvious reasons, but a big one is that I also went from a public American school (4 classroom years) to a private Middle Eastern school (3 classroom years, at the time of writing this). That being said, my experience may not be the same as someone who isn’t also shifting countries, but I still want to share with you as honestly as I can in hopes that this information reaches someone who needs it.

1. More direct access to the people who actually make decisions about my class sizes, salary, and curriculum.

I’m listing this first because I think it may be one of the most important ones. In American public schools, sometimes your only access to real change is through the election ballot. The people who make the decisions which affect you are influenced by a myriad of factors. Their bottom line may or may not be what’s best for students. Your administration may do all they can to soften the blows that come down the line for their teachers, but at the end of the day, they too are relatively powerless against bureaucracy.

This is completely different than what I’ve experienced in my private school. My chain of command is HOD (Head of Department) –> Principal –> Director –> Owner. And that’s where it ends. The owner ultimately makes all the financial decisions for the school, and let me be clear: his bottom line may or may not be what’s best for students either. Just like in the public education system. (However he is heavily influenced by his customers aka the parents. And their bottom line is definitely what’s best for their kids.) But one thing is for sure: I can be heard. In my private school I can make a stink even as one, little teacher and get things changed.

I’m not advocating bad behavior here, but there’s definitely something to be said for being in the same actual building as the people who sign your paycheck. If I think the decisions that are being made are bad for kids, I can appeal to someone within the same working day. (Just remember: going over heads will never get you far. Always follow the prescribed chain of command no matter what environment you’re working in.)

2. More freedom to teach what and how I want.

In my public school, I was a part of a district with 14 middle schools (and we competed against one another). I was also held accountable by end of the year state mandated testing. Bottom line, I didn’t have very much freedom with my curriculum. Sometimes there’s a current event that you’d like to work in. The pacing guide has no room for it and God forbid you spend more than 5 minutes on something that doesn’t directly contribute to test scores. So you forget about it. Coloring? Is that high quality instruction? I think not! Games? Let me remind you: bell to bell instruction! I felt a bit stifled to say the least.

In my private school, we of course have a curriculum (NGSS). However, the main stakeholder when it comes to what happens in my classroom is the parents of my students. I’m in close contact with my families, and when they have a question about what I’m doing with the curriculum, they ask me directly. From there we begin a dialogue about what’s actually best for the kids. If we don’t finish the entire curriculum, then oh well! I can speak directly with the teachers in the grades above and below and we can adjust our scope and sequences to make sure all the content is covered over the course of the three middle school years. There’s no high stakes testing deadline hovering over us causing anxiety. Neither is there any ambiguous government entity passing down random legislation.

Now, I take time in my classes to color. I think it’s good for the kids’ mental health and it gives us time to chat and build relationships. We play games. We talk about non-curricular topics like fairness, ethics, and science in the news. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to hear praise from my parents and believe it, as opposed to nervously waiting for a computer to crunch my students into a mysterious algorithm and assign a score to our year together. A single number 1-5 to define my “effectiveness” as a teacher that I’ll carry forever with either inflated pride or (in my case) confused shame.

Disclaimer: Curriculum alignment and teacher collaboration are always best for students. I am in no way advocating “going rogue” with your curriculum here.

3. My students come from families who put their money where their mouth is.

The families of my students in our private school all have one thing in common: they value education so much that they’re willing to pay for it. Honestly, this makes a world of difference when it comes to support. When I ask for materials, they come. When I contact parents, they (usually) respond and I see a (usually small, but still) difference in the child.

The negative flipside to this “involved parents” kind of school that you usually hear about is that they’re totally up your butt and emailing you 24/7 about the tiniest assignments. I’ve honestly had very few issues with that. That being said, though, I must admit that I do give out my personal cell phone number to parents and I do answer calls and texts at basically all hours of the day. I genuinely don’t mind it, and have never felt that the privilege was being abused. I consider it a part of my relationship with my families.

4. Class Size, Behavior, and Salary

I think it’s generally accepted that most of the time private schools have smaller class sizes than public schools as this can be one of their main selling points. In my school, though, we’ve been experiencing growing class sizes which has been considered by most a financial choice as opposed to being in the students’ best interest.

Again, this will most likely be extremely case by case. For me, behavior has not been much better in a private school as compared to public. Our school is relatively hesitant to kick students out due to government regulations as well as financial reasons. Perhaps in an extremely prestigious school with a wait list the pressure would be different and students would tighten up, but my experience has been that kids are kids wherever you go.

Finally, the question we all want answered is what about salary?? If you’re considering making a move, this information should be available online for your researching pleasure. In my case (bachelor’s degree, 4 years experience at the time), making the shift from public to private was an improvement.

With all of this said, I will admit that as a teacher I’m definitely happier in my new school. As a scientist, I’m also fully aware that there’s lots of variables at play here. I should add that I am fully pro public schools. I do believe that everyone deserves a free education! In the course of my career however, I’ve really had to grapple with this question: where do the rights of others end and my freedoms begin? How does my right to a healthy working environment mesh with the right of all children to receive a quality education. These questions are difficult to answer, but I do know there’s a lot of educators out there busting their butts for the kids with little governmental support or acknowledgement. I see you and I thank you.

Teaching is a weird job. I’d love to connect and discuss anything about the information you’ve read here. Find me on Instagram (@stemstrength). 

Subscribe for freebies!

* indicates required