Saudi Arabia: Teaching Saudi Students

American Bedu had an email exchange with a language teacher who routinely teaches Saudi students.  She shared her experiences of how she interacts with them and also asked some questions, which American Bedu answered in italics.  This teacher gave her permission for the exchange to be posted on the blog to help others who may be teaching English to Saudi students and to also encourage others to share their experiences.  This is the prime time of the year when many Saudi students will be traveling to differing parts of the world for studies and many of the students will undergo a one or two year English language program before starting their University studies.

I’m a single woman and I teach English at a private language school, and because I teach the beginner’s class, most of my students are Saudi Arabian men.  (Other nationalities already have some English).  We have students from all around the world who come to learn English here, but our three major nationalities are Koreans, Brazilians and Saudis.  So I have met hundreds of Saudi men over the 2 and a half years I’ve been teaching them, and I really want to be able to understand them better.

Generally, I really enjoy teaching them, and have a lot of fun with them.  I’ve found that I really love their sense of humour.  We laugh a lot!  Their sense of humour seems to involve a lot of teasing, and a bit of silliness too, the same as my sense of humour.  What have you found about that?  How would you compare their humour with American humour?  Did you laugh a lot with them?
Yes, Saudis do enjoy teasing and with silliness.  I think their humor is more “clean” than some of the American humor.  I’ve had many laughs with them.
The majority of them are good students who respect me.  But some of them can be difficult, and I’m always nervous when I get new students that they may be difficult ones.  These are the main negative things I’ve observed about them.  I would be interested to hear your comments.  I’d really like to understand better what it is about their culture and thinking that makes them this way.

– They are always late, but this doesn’t really bother me too much, and I’ve figured out ways to handle this.  We have 3 breaks in our morning class which gives them 4 opportunities to be late.  So I don’t let them in if they are more than 10 minutes late and this works.  I don’t generally mind them being late if all of my class is Saudi – it gives me a longer break and it’s their money they are wasting.  It’s only really a problem if there are other nationalities in the class who are always on time then we are waiting for the Saudis.  The other thing I do is before they are allowed to sit down is I make them apologize in correct English, and they have to get it right at least once before they are allowed to sit down.  Eg “I’m sorry I’m late because I was smoking.”  I wouldn’t do this to someone who was shy, for example a Japanese student, because they would be mortified.  But Saudis aren’t the slightest bit worried about being put on the spot, or even looking silly in front of the class.
You have discovered “Saudi time.”  I think your way of dealing with the lateness in the classroom environment is superb.

The other rules I really enforce are: no mobile phones which I enforce by asking them all personally if their phone is off, and are they sure it’s off, and getting them to show me if I don’t believe them.  And no Arabic in class.  This is pretty difficult to enforce if they are mostly all Saudis, but if they speak Arabic I give them their homework and send them out of the class for 5 minutes.  They always protest but I don’t back down and this does seem to really work, and stop them from speaking Arabic.
The mobile phones can always be a problem.  While many dislike it, sometimes they even need to be collected at the beginning of a class.  All speaking Arabic is problematic and again, I think you are handling that well.
–  A lot of them seem really unmotivated and lazy, and completely uninterested in learning.  They seem to be very spoilt and pampered, and don’t really need to learn anything because they’re just going to work for their father anyway, who is usually some kind of businessman.  Thankfully at the moment I have 10 Saudis who are all good and keen to learn.
That is very typical.  ):

– They are often not very good at thinking for themselves whenever I give them written exercise where they have to work on their own.  They want me to tell them the answers, or someone else to tell them the answers, they don’t want to actually think.  When I do get a Saudi who will sit there and work through the exercises on his own I’m so impressed.
Sadly this is likely due to the culture and the educational system.  The educational system has been rote memorization for many years.  Secondly many Saudis are accustomed to cajoling answers from others and particularly expat teachers.

– They are very demanding.  Recently one of them told me that it’s rude to cut in on an elder when he is speaking.  But this clearly does not imply in class, and not with their female teacher!  They all demand my attention at once.  For example I am talking to one student, but three others are crying out “teacher!  Teacher!  Teacher!”  And don’t stop until I answer them.  And they always try to cut in when I’m speaking.  This doesn’t bother me too much if they are generally otherwise good students.
They will not cut in on an elder when speaking but that is usually a man or woman who is similar in age to their parents or grandparents.  Otherwise it is common for them to interrupt, talk loudly as well as over one another.
– A lot of them cheat in their weekly tests, and if they’ve been absent they will never tell me the truth (eg I just didn’t want to come to school), they always come up with some sort of excuse.
That is likely due to the culture.
What are your experiences of these things?

There are some other things I’m wondering.  In their culture, are they willing to take the blame and admit when they are wrong?  Or is this considered extremely shameful?
There is not a pat answer on this one.  Much depends on who and what.
What things are loss of face for them?  Is a woman telling them off loss of face?  I always think that surely Saudi women must be hot-blooded and strong-minded and surely they are used to their mothers telling them off and bossing them around.  So I think of myself as their mother (even though I’m not that much older than most of them) and that works for me.
A woman telling them off is a loss of face or at least pride.  A Saudi woman may do so but usually in private, never with a group.  If you are not too much older than them, then that can be viewed as a challenge to some of them.
Some people say that Saudi men regard all uncovered women as prostitutes, and up for the taking.  What do you think about that?  If it is true, what percentage of them do you think would be like that?  I’m happy to say, most of them don’t seem sleazy to me.  Most of them look at my face, and don’t stare at my body.
Some Saudi men do think that woman are up for grabs but also much depends on the woman too.  If she dresses modestly and is in her country, she should be treated respectfully.  In Saudi Arabia many Saudi men feel western woman are fair game based on all the propoganda and b-grade movies on tv.  It would be viewed as very rude for them to stare at your body.

When we do have other nationalities in our class, and girls, they never have any idea about Saudi culture, and often the girls innocently touch the Saudi men.  Particularly south American girls will constantly touch the Saudi men while they are talking to them.  I know it’s completely forbidden in Saudi for them to ever touch women.  Some Saudis respond to the girls by touching them in the same way (on the arm, etc).  Sometimes I see them even kissing South American or European girls on both cheeks as the girls do in their culture, and I quite like seeing that.  Other times I’m not too comfortable with them touching women, and I’m not comfortable when they touch me (for example putting their arm around me when taking a photo with me).  I generally try not to ever touch them.  What are your thoughts about that? I wonder if I should take the girls aside and tell them not to touch the Saudis.
I would suggest mentioning privately to female students from other cultures that it is viewed as a cultural no-no to touch a Saudi man.  This is so the Saudi does not mis-perceive the woman’s intentions.  I’m glad that some of the Saudis are demonstrating a polite worldliness but I don’t think it is a good habit to encourage.  Especially as a teacher, I think it is wiser to remain a little conservative.

31 Responses

  1. […] Saudi Arabia: Teaching Saudi Students « American Bedu // Saudi Arabia: Teaching Saudi Students « American Bedu listing above has been taken […]

  2. Very interesting – and relevant post! There are so many ESL and university instructors and staff that deal with Saudis on a regular basis, and often they stumble through it via trial and error it seems.

    I’m also an ESL instructor, with the majority of my students being Saudi. The first class I ever taught was full of Saudi men, and I’d never met an Arab or Muslim in my life prior to that! The only ‘cultural awareness’ training my program directors gave me was “don’t touch them or else they’re going to hell,” and “don’t wear short skirts or tank tops.” So yes, I was wildly ignorant when I first began teaching. My friendly willingness to help all the students with English and with the culture shock was most definitely misunderstood by some, and wild rumors began flying around (that I only knew about later when a few more mature, concerned Saudis told me about it). I had been getting very frustrated with the constant disrespect and inappropriate harassment inside and outside the classroom (ended up filing a police report against one that was stalking me and threatening me) and had no idea why it was all happening until I found out about the rumors (which were completely ridiculous and incredibly offensive – I was a conservative, practicing Christian at the time and wouldn’t have even DREAMED of doing the things they accused me of!).

    Thankfully, I’ve since become very close to a few Saudis, and thanks to their sage advice and wisdom, I became much more adept at dealing with the new Saudi students. The key is to staying professional, no touching (which is easy now that I’m Muslim as well!), no talking about personal issues, no chatting with male students, no ‘hanging out’ with students during the breaks (and definitely not outside of class), and never saying anything about myself.

    Ever since I implemented those changes a few years ago, the students now are incredibly respectful and I rarely have discipline issues (both before and after my conversion to Islam). I’m rarely in the ‘gossip mill’ and when I am, I’ve been told it’s always positive.

    Since I know Saudis in the community, I have more of an ‘inside scoop’ into what is going on with students, and it shocks me to hear about how much some of the males trash talk their female teachers. Even though I see them being nothing but charming to their faces at school, behind them they insult them and degrade them constantly. Not all of them do of course, but all it takes is a few big mouths to get the gossip (gheeba) going, and after a while many of the others start to believe what they’re hearing, especially when they see it ‘reinforced’ by the female teachers touching and chatting with Saudi males so freely. They receive little to no cultural training before they come, so they rely on their own cultural notions of what is appropriate and apply it here. I don’t blame the Saudis really because they have no idea! It’s their government that needs to provide cultural training for them (the govt says they provide it but I’ve never met a Saudi who got it!). I also think programs that have a large number of Saudis should accept the responsibility to actually learn about Saudi culture in order to better help their students make a smooth transition, and avoid serious misunderstandings (and criminal charges) both inside and outside the classroom.

    Although I had a rough start with Saudis, my experience quickly changed and my life has been incredibly enriched by so many of them. It is because of them that I started to question my own beliefs, and began to look into Islam. I always enjoy having Saudis in my classes, and feel very blessed to be able to work with them.

  3. sakina…ur comment about it being easy to not touch now that your a Muslim too was rather indicitive of a very deeply entrenced Muslim thought process…assuming those saudi men were Muslim too (all saudis are born muslim by default) they were touching you…so what exactly does your statement mean?

    It might be easy for you not to touch them… but it wasnt easy for them to mind their manners apparently….and your all Muslims…hmmm.

    One more thing…nonMuslims find it just as easy to not invade someone elses personal space and touch as well….if they are brought up to respect other peoples bodies as private and off limits.

    Just a thought

    As for regarding the post…I was groped and molested more times than I care to remember while in Bahrain…ALWAYS by bahrainis…and a few times by Indians (Im assuming here)…never by a westerner (going purely on appearance here)…whenever I complained the first response was…where was I and what was I wearing? Sweet.

  4. Yep, it’s always the woman’s fault in this part of the world if anything goes wrong with any man. Something can always be said from not being covered enough to being too friendly. Ladies beware! : )

  5. It just occurred to me while reading the comments that perhaps a contract of honor should be drawn for every student at the beginning of class which outlines the do’s, don’ts and unacceptables.

    Thanks for sharing further insights Sakina in regards to the gossip mill which can also severely defame an individual.

  6. Really enjoyed reading these experiences. I’m glad you shared!

  7. It is a good interview except one question she asked which is based on false information. Dear, No Saudi will believe or think that uncovered ladies are prostitutes. This is false information given to you and I would be happy to know your source of this information:)

    There are interesting issues raised like Saudi time, admitting mistakes and touching arms (:

    Saudi time is a real problem even in Saudi Arabia. People generally do not respect time because they do not have the culture of organising time. Saudis used to leave everything till the last hour (tasty till the last drop (: ), and then he will try to fix everything in a minute. And usually become late. This is a lifestyle and it must be changed in the near future. I think it is your duty as a teacher to tell them also how to organise their time. They are students and that is why Saudi government sent them abroad, it is to make them learn good things and now it is your turn to teach them the good things that you want them to have.

    Admitting mistakes is also a problem in Saudi. Saudis have been taught that they must be zero mistakes and unfortunately mistakes are always interpreted in religious context. So to admit a mistake it means like you admit that you are guilty. So Saudis take it as they are in a court to defend themselves by creating more excuses. Saudi culture is intolerant with mistakes. So, the thing that Saudi students should learn is that making a mistake is not a problem and admitting the mistaking is a good thing. The Saudi students also think that if their teachers think that they are making mistakes, they will fail them directly.

    Lazy Saudi students are due to the fact that students put in their minds that they can extend their first year orientation scholarship in learning English. So they rely on this and become lazy. saudi government is very generous although it does not appeal to some.

    About the issue that Saudis do not like to think, I would agree with AB’s response. Saudi education is memorization oriented not thinking oriented.

    Touching arms is forbidden to Saudi everywhere they go lol. I did not know that the saudi religious police has connections with american teachers LOL. What a double standard here, why do not you think that Saudi students want to assimilate with their host culture? Why do you push them back to behave like they are in Saudi Arabia? Why it is Haram, OK, for non Saudis to touch arms and forbidden for Saudis? People are complaining about Saudi culture as a restrict culture and here you are doing the same tactics LOL. It is interesting for me to see the “touching arms discrimination” lol. By the way, I am not for or against touching hands because I have never touched a lady hands but I just notice the religious police behaviour in american class lol. it is interesting to me ):

    Oh dear Sakina, I can understand you very can read my comment in previous interview. it may help you.


  8. I too deal with many Saudi students male and experience is a little different where I work with immigration rather than as a teacher but I have heard teachers complain about similar things… I think Saudi men need to remember that if they have come to the US they cannot expect things to be like home and they need to adapt as well… or…go home! easy, right? I am blown away sometimes by the complete lack of any cultural training for them before they come here… no wonder there are clashes.

    I recently had a Saudi male student refuse to shake my hand. I accepted it but then told him that a western woman in a business setting consideres herself his equal and as such would be offended by a refusal to shake hands as that is a deeply offensive thing here in the US. He did not know we would be offended as he meant it to be from a place of honor and respect. I explained to him that if he wants to continue with his beliefs here he would need to find a way to gently communicate that to women who like me, will extend their hands… otherwise bad feelings will ensue and that of course isnt his intent… He took it really well…

    The key is to contnue with open communication as well as include cultural brokers for both sides. I had had many exasperated professors and administrators call me very frustrated with how Saudi’s treat them and same phone calls from Saudi students who feel ignored, unfairly treated or what have you… most of the time it’s just misunderstandings about how things work here… Saudis act here like they do back home..and then it doesn’t fly… the ones who can adapt do remarkably well and are very well loved in the university community… the ones who cannot…dont last very long I am afraid to say. What I am sad to see is that the Saudi Cultural mission does so little to really educate these kids before they come… but also, many of my colleagues could do well with reading an occasional blog about Saudi culture and like ( me) to get a better grasp of where it comes from and why.

  9. Thanks Jenna….if only the Saudi Cultural office would hire me….

  10. @Medina,

    Regarding not taking responsibility for mistakes. I’ve noticed that also. Why do you think that is? Is it because you don’t just represent yourself, but the whole family? I tend to respect those who take responsibility for mistakes they made rather than come up with excuses. And, the reason I say that is because that is something I work on in myself, because nobody likes to make mistakes or disappoint.

  11. regd shaking hands… i hate to shake hands..germs and all + who knows where the other hand has been.. it just puts me off to shake anyone’s hand. more so men’s hand !!! yes biased and weird, but that’s how i feel.. so people usually htink i’m rude.@ the work setting i just pump gel as i walk in and out of the patient rooms so no one asks to shake my hand. But i found t hard in the western world to ignore a hand shake, no amount of smiling and chatting make up for the disrespect of ignoting an outstreched hand buy i can’t help it… maybe it’s the urologist in me.. so i cannot blame saudi’s fo rthis culture.

  12. lol Radha that is interesting… but yes handshakes are the norm… when I was living in korea I had to learn how to bow… as different as that was for me…:)

  13. Hi Carol,

    I’ve been lurking on your blog for a few months now. I am from New Zealand, I recently started teaching English to foreigners and we get a lot of Saudis at our school.

    I originally found your blog because I was searching on the internet about Saudi culture and was intrigued by their culture. Some things I learned, I liked and some things horrified me a little. Even so, doing this research opened my mind to the Middle East more and it got me thinking about what are the good things about my culture and what are the good things about theirs. And as I am a linguist I plan to learn some Arabic and hopefully get fluent so that I can explore their culture a little. Although I would be too afraid to go there I think, for a few reasons!!

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that I agree with the teacher who wrote that the Saudis are fun-loving and have a great sense of humour. I enjoy having them in the class and we always have some laughs.

    However, I find myself instinctually creating boundaries in a way that I wouldn’t with other nationalities, like the Japanese. Some of the older teachers hang out with the students at the break, etc. I don’t like doing that with the young Saudi guys because I want that boundary to be there. Especially as I am in my mid-twenties (i.e. not much older than them) and I can see that some of them might be a bit flirty.

    I felt like I was being too prim and proper (and unsociable!) about it. But having read your comments here, I can see that is probably the safest approach, even if some of the Saudis seem to have adapted to Western culture very well. Although I like to dress nicely, I also take care not to wear anything that is even a little bit sexy.

    It’s a interesting job teaching Saudis in your own country because it does raise the question – how much should you adapt yourself to their culture as a woman, while teaching them, and how much should they adapt to yours? People might think “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” but I do instinctually treat them differently from people of my own culture and I think it works out better that way.

    I was a little mortified to read the comments about the gossip the Saudi students engage in. My students seem like lovely people. I do hope they treat us teachers with the same respect behind our backs as they do to our faces.

    Thanks Carol for another interesting post.

  14. @Kristine,
    They do not take the responsibility because they are afraid to be punished. Our society is one way direction. If you make a mistake then you may never get a chance to correct it. It will be too late. So, people always try to find good excuses just to avoid punishment. If you are a teacher, let your Saudi students feel secured and safe that doing a mistake is not a problem if you do not keep doing it all the time. They will be very candid with you. They are afraid that you are going to fail them directly and you will take their mistake personally as a kind of disrespect to you. So, you will fail them just to punish them personally. Unfortunately, they are like this because of the teachers in the Saudi education system. They used to manage the classroom by using these tactics to gain respect by force in the class. It is to be a dictator teacher in the class lol. By the way, I do not like my Saudi teachers and one of them is a broke now and I can feel happy lol just joking.

    I am your next door neighbor, Australia. I can advise you to wear decent clothes in the class. Saudi students did not expose to unrelated ladies since they were born. So, if you wear some clothes that may attract their attentions, they will stare at you and they will forget the class lol. Anyway, the gossips are not for bad. It is for admiration and please do not think about it at all and do not take it personally. They may admire you or fall in love with you but they are coward to speak out. So gossips start from here. And as I said it is for admiration not for bad. Saudis generally love to assimilate in the host culture but at the same time they keep eyes at their Saudi peers. For example, in private you may find a Saudi student very assimilated to the host culture but at the presence of his Saudi peers he will switch and you will find him different. It is a struggle between self and social pressure. And I would encourage you to break this social pressure that they have among them. Take it in this context and I am sure you will get to know how to deal with them. There is one thing about getting close from Saudis, if a lady is interested in serious relationship or marriage, I will advise you not to kiss or go in deep before marriage. He will think if you allow him to do so, you will do the same with others, so you will not be a good wife for future lol. We are crazy but nice and good lol. Also be away from the married Saudi males, they are the one who create social pressure because of their wives lol.

    Wish you the best in your teaching career


  15. @Medina,
    But I also notice that tendancy to take credit (even when you had nothing do do with it) and avoid blame, even if you had everything to do with it outside of the classroom:-).
    My question is then, whom do you trust in your life to reveal your real self to, mistakes, weaknesses and all?
    Thank you for your insights. I really don’t mean to be critical, but this is something I felt very frustrated with during my time in Saudi. Btw, Medina is my favorite city in all of Saudi:-). It’s true, once you enter the city limits, it’s like you can breathe the peace!

  16. I laughed at how true this post is, and it’s not just the men that are like that. For instance I have a group of Saudi girl friends who keep their blue tooth in their ear (since it’s covered with a scarf) and have the answers read out loud to them during tests. They are like master minds at cheating, it’s amazing and kinda sad. In one class they guys made shirts in written arabic with the answers, but when read outloud it’s in english, the professor thought it was some Arab Pride Club on campus instead of 12 walking cheat sheets. I know there is one family in Cal State Long Beach that has cheated so much they got arrested (They were paying someone to take their exams and using fake ids, not smart for khalijis to do in America) and now I think the Saudi Scholarship has banned any more Saudis to go to that university. But it’s not just Saudis, they pair up with guys from UAE and Qatar, Bahrain, if your gulf you’re in the cheat sheet club. I always think if they just put all their engery into studying instead of that energy on cheating, they would probably make better grades. Either way, they are always fun to have class with. I feel bad for the professors though.

  17. Hi medina, thanks for the advice about dealing with students. As for advice dealing with Saudi men in terms of romance and relationships, as nice as the Saudis are, I don’t think I would ever go there – firstly for professional reasons and secondly because it would complicate my life a lot😀 I don’t think I could live in SA as it’s very different from how I live my life here in NZ.

  18. @ coolred: I’m not sure I understand your comment entirely, but I changed my approach with Saudis long before I converted, and the respect level has been the same both before and after.

    @ whoever mentioned the ‘religious police’ attitude toward touching in class: physical contact not being allowed with someone of the opposite gender who is unrelated to you is not merely a cultural practice, but is part of the religion, which should be respected, regardless of what country you are in (and particularly when programs are dealing with a large number of adherents to that particular religion).

    Since KSA proclaims that 100% of its citizens are Muslim (although logic would tell you otherwise lol since even the Quran says there is no compulsion in religion), it is better for instructors to err on the side of caution and refrain from touching. If a student initiates touching and seems to have no problem with it, perhaps the instructor could do it cautiously, but they should also remember that other students watching the exchange might interpret it negatively and start spreading rumors.

    When you go into ESL teaching with eyes wide open, having Saudis in the class can be a very rewarding experience. I too enjoy their sense of humor, politeness, and focus on logic.

    I will agree with others though, that Saudis have become pretty notorious for their cheating, but students from several Asian countries are also quite adept at it as well. We just don’t notice them as easily because they are quite advanced and discrete, lol. In fact, a while back, the TOEFL exam I think was compromised by excessive cheating in China. So, it seems to be a wide-spread issue, driven by high stakes and intense familial pressure to succeed.

  19. @anna,
    You are welcome and I wish you a happy personal life and a successful professional career.

  20. @kristine,
    you are welcome, your secrets are yours but if you reveal them to someone else, it will be his/her not yours any more (: . so, my secrets and weaknes and all die inside me and forever. (:

    yes, Medina is the air that I breath (:


  21. I’m the teacher who wrote the initial email to Carol.
    @ Medina – I’m glad you wrote that it’s not true that uncovered women are generally regarded as prostitutes:-)

    @ Anna – you sound like you are having similar experiences to me! That’s a good idea to put boundaries with your Saudi students.
    What do people think, is it possible for a western female to be friends with a Saudi male in a western country, or is this just so completely out of the question?

    Regarding touching –
    A Saudi student who I got on well with and was one of my favourites, went on to be kicked out of the school because he clashed with another teacher, and she told him off in front of the class, and then several girls in the class complained that he had been touching them inappropriately. (I think he had just been acting like an adolescent trying to get their attention – pulling their hair, etc). He wouldn’t admit that he had done anything wrong. He often touched me in class – not in a bad way by western standards, but for example taking hold of my wrist when trying to get my attention. Does this mean he doesn’t respect me? Is it a bad thing if a Saudi man touches me?

    On a class trip some Saudi guys asked some elderly ladies who were going by if they could take their photo with them. One of them put his arms around the old ladies for the photo. Do you think that means he doesn’t respect them? Or is he just taking on western culture? I personally, as a westerner, wouldn’t put my arm around a stranger in a photo, but that is just me.

    After the incident above where the student got kicked out for touching girls, I lectured my class that they should not touch women in this country, that they should do the same as they do in KSA, and not touch women at all.
    Interestingly, the entire class protested and said – why not? it’s no problem here!

    Regarding clothes – sometimes I think – no, I can’t wear that to school because of all my saudi students and that annoys me, this is a western country, I should feel free to wear what I like. sometimes I wear short skirts, but always with tights or leggings underneath, not showing bare skin.

    @Carol – I agree Saudi humour seems quite clean to me. In the beginning I was wondering if they were laughing about something rude, but every time they explained to me what they were laughing about, it was always something simple and innocent.

    This is a question for the Arabic speakers:
    apparently the English word “stomach” sounds like a bad word in Arabic! Could anyone tell me what the Arabic word is?

    Also “Muhanadth” means gay – is this right?

  22. @Catriona,
    If you are interested, I would help you to answer your questions BUT at first I want to know your source of the false information given to you about saudis. (:

    waiting your response,


  23. Hi there, for Medina and others…

    I am reading this thread with great interest as I am on track to move to KSA and work teaching English to the military.

    Growing up I had friends from KSA, Egypt, Iran, and Oman, and I’ve travelled in Indonesia during Ramadan to visit friends, but I have never had Saudi students.

    I’ve been working teaching adults in Asia for a few years.

    So I have some questions.

    1. For a male, is it alright to socialize outside of class, or does this tend to lower the students’ respect for the teacher by being too informal?

    2. When students make a mistake in class, how can it best be corrected without making them lose face? On the other hand, if I make a mistake and admit that I did so, in the Saudi view have I lost their respect as a teacher?

    3. What’s the best approach to dealing with mobile phones, latecomers, speaking in Arabic, being off-task, and so on? Will they accept firmness (as long as it’s not in anger)? Or is it best to make a joke of it but be persistent?

    4. Is directness and debate socially acceptable in the classroom?

    5. What kind of topics are motivating for Saudis given the restrictions of culture and religion? What kind of topics are taboo?

    6. Do Saudi students enjoy dicsussing other cultures, or do they prefer to discuss their own culture?

    Bear in mind that as I will be in KSA, the students have quite a lot of influence and power, and my authority may be very limited. In general I am the one that needs to adapt, not them.

    Appreciate any insider views on this either from Saudi students or expat teachers.


  24. @ Catriona:

    I’m sure the Saudis themselves can answer you, but I thought I’d offer a response too since I’m also an ESL instructor and deal with this type of thing.

    With regard to a ‘no touching’ policy:
    The Quran says that there is no compulsion in religion. This means that no one can be forced to follow a particular set of religious beliefs – an individual must choose that for themselves. As such, if students want to touch the opposite sex while here in the US, that is entirely their choice (some even come here just so that they CAN have such unrestricted freedom). Touching is normal, acceptable cultural behavior here, so let them make the decision to engage in it or not on their own.

    What I meant earlier by no touching is that I personally began to refrain from touching Saudi males – as a choice I made to respect their religion (and now mine). We have to remember though that not every single Saudi believes wholeheartedly in the religion; many just follow it because it’s so ingrained in the culture and they’ve hardly given it any sort of deep thought. So when they come here, they may have no problem with adapting to the culture here. Their Islam is cultural rather than religious. Right or wrong, it’s a choice that they are free to make, and we shouldn’t impose strict rules on them when as ESL instructors, we are supposed to be teaching them the culture of the host country. What we should focus on (instead of telling them they can’t touch at all) is how people in our culture touch each other, what is appropriate and normal, and what is strange or rude or inappropriate (such as putting your arm around old ladies you don’t know). I bring the topic up often because students from all cultures benefit from it, as gestures and body language differ from culture to culture (and then have students themselves talk about what is comfortable, normal contact and what is inappropriate in their cultures. This will help the students have a better idea of how to interact respectfully with each other as well).

    Unfortunately, there have been cases with Saudis who have engaged in inappropriate touching with females that has gotten them in trouble with the law. Often it is a matter of them having no idea what is ok and what is not (and what various touching and actions from the opposite sex actually means, which can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings if they don’t know), and I believe it is very important for English programs to help our students adjust to the new culture and learn acceptable behavior.

    As for being friends with them, why not? Just always keep your eyes open and don’t be naive. Always remember the context they come from and how your behavior with them could be construed. There are Saudis who are very intelligent, open-minded, and understand the cultural differences very acutely, and who have no problems with befriending the opposite gender. And then there are those who are just looking for something else, lol. Also, as a general rule, instructors should always be careful about interacting with students outside of class – it’s kind of unethical to hang out with students while they’re current students… It could end up being a disadvantage in terms of grades and attention in class for the other students as you may become more biased towards the ones you know personally. Often, programs will have expectations regarding teacher-student interaction, so you might want to find out what they are.

    As for attire, since you are in a professional position, you should be wearing business casual, which is typically fairly conservative anyway. Just keep in mind that the more risque you dress, the more of a certain kind of attention you’ll get – not just from Saudis, but from all the heterosexual males in the classroom in general! If you’re willing to deal with all that, then go for it. You’re still following the norms of your country after all.

    @ Mike: I’ve only taught ESL, and I imagine EFL would be a whole different story. With ESL the students are in a position in which they have to adjust to the host country, so emphasizing the host culture is very important for successful adjustment. However, with EFL, the students are in their home country and cultures, so you would need to be the one adjusting to them, as you mentioned. So – I’ll let others comment on that.:)

  25. I just want to comment that everyone here is talking about his own experience. Saudis as any nationality over the world have good and bad individuals. We can’t blame all Saudis upon mistakes that occured from some individulas. there are many Saudis students are creative and talens. It is very important that you should know that the Saudi gov has been sending their best students (highly academic achievment + friends –corruption – and those who are badly doing) in order to boost there knowldege and improve their country. I am sorry to here that some Saudis individulas are being involved in some problemes but the teachers duity is to handle these problem wisely and to keep the situations under control.

  26. In Saudi, women are not allowed in a male class.. these comments are alien and strange to me..Like Commander Kurt trying to understand Vulcan humor…I have no idea what you folks are saying. Come to Saudi for the real deal.

  27. Very true…the women are not allowed in a male class. I remember my step-daughter telling me when she had to attend a class taught by a male professor she and the other female students were not seen and only known by their “numbers.”

  28. Salam,

    Being a Saudi student who recently finished ESL, I want to genuinely thank every one of you for your valuable experiences and insights about this topic. I was literally smiling wide occasionally while reading all of your comments.

    I just want to say that it’s you teachers who make the real difference, I myself, found far more better information about your culture than any media or book has to offer. It’s you who dissolved all boundaries, existed among us.

    While I do agree with most of your “facts” about Saudi students but, there are some examples that I consider a bit rare, it happens thought, it doesn’t represents the majority of us. e.g: uncovered women as prostitutes.

    The gap between the education system in Saudi Arabia and your country is quite vast, so is the cultural difference and it’s true that both of us should adapt enough to achieve a mutual understanding to the point where we can intellectually exchange the cultural backgrounds.

    It’s really fascinating when you meet another culture and get to know more about “us” people. We may diverse in religion, nationalities and culture but, we remain one big community and we mostly share the same values.

    Just my two cents:)

  29. I would love some tips on teaching Saudi Arabian WOMEN. I am an American ESL teacher, and have encountered some roadblocks with this: we seem to quickly butt heads. Any tips or helpful experience would be appreciated.


  30. Salaam Alai kum, Talofa,KiaOra and greetings from New Zealand. I must say the experiences that teachers have had I share as well.I’ve taught Saudi students and am a friend to many but through my experiences I agree with what Naif has mentioned.Its through understanding that we begin to learn from each other. When teaching a language,culture seeps in their as well and as teachers we may not be aware of the western cultural habits we teach our students. We may even take this for granted or use it to our advantage to have control in the classroom. I agree with the classroom teaching tips that teachers have mentioned above but is universal for most students that I have taught. The learning styles of Saudi students is similar to mine (especially my male Saudi students). Playing games, adding humor in every task I present,total physical response activities,dancing and singing etc. But some of these may not reach all learners. The assumption that we make about not getting Saudi students to think for themselves is something I have come accross though it is important to recognise this as an opportunity to teach students through rote learning and memorization (there is nothing wrong with this). I’ve had students memorise texts and then recite back to me. I then add critical thinking question in there to get them thinking. Inorder to teach we must first know how our students cultural strengths.I’ve had fun teaching Saudi males. I am about to deliver a Cultural Responsiveness Programme to teachers in New Zealand and look forward to it. I will have some Saudi students with me to present this. One thing that I find useful is the phrase,Inshallah! God willing-and it is with us-if we teach to their strengths then,God willing,we will all be engaged in fostering student centred learning to raising achievement for all!

  31. I found this very interesting and thank you for your post. I teach English as a second language at a private university. The majority of the students are Saudi Arabian. We do have other cultures such as Chinese, Japanese, Brazilian and Korean as well. I find my relationships with the Saudi “students” to be a love hate relationship. One pro is that my teaching has greatly improved. There are many challenges that Saudi students (not all) present to teachers as well as “other” students in the classroom. The bottom line is that Universities/Colleges and ESL programs are generating money from these students and although the majority do not adhere to the program and academic standards of Western education, their money fits into our capitalist agendas. Also, administrators and business decision makers are bending laws and rules to generate revenue at the same time educators are bending academic standards because they are struggling to fit a square peg into a circle.

    There are many things that I respect about the Saudi culture. First their sense of community. They are very eager to “please” and help others. Second, their commitment to their families. I absolutely love this about Saudi culture. Another thing is their commitment to their “God.” Saudi culture is the only culture that I know of where believing in God is not something shameful or embarrassing. Let me explain further. In my culture, if someone brings up God in a conversation or their practice of their religion, it is like a white elephant walked into the room at times. This is true more specifically in places like California or places where there is a wide mix of different spiritual, religious and non believers. Saudi’s are very confident about their “God” and practices and this confidence is what I very much respect. Likewise Saudi’s are very committed to their families. Without a doubt this is one of my favorite things about them. Family is the most important thing in their lives. They take care of one another and they respect their mothers and fathers. This is something I feel that most families in the USA lack for many reasons such as – single parent homes, divorce, media, .. the list could go on. Outside the academic setting they are uplifting and full of life’s energies and I enjoy learning their philosophies of life and have been touched and forever changed for the better at my outlook of life in general as well as have improved my teaching because I always need to be on in a classroom with Saudi’s.

    While there are many things I admire and respect about the Saudi culture. There are many challenges I face daily as a teacher that have continued to be a problem with no site of a resolution for many years. And I do have to mention that this is not the case for all Saudi students, but for the majority unfortunately. On a positive note however I have noticed that the Saudi’s that are coming over now are much more respectful to the teachers and policy makers in regards to following rules as well as they seem to have had a better education than the ones from the recent past – since 2010 till now. Researchers show that learning a second language comes much more fluently if the person is fluent in their own native tongue. Someone mentioned earlier that there was a “vast difference” between the Saudi educational system and that of Western culture and this is very true. Because of this there is a mass educational reform in currently in progress in the middle east – there is opportunity for recruitment in primary schools for teachers who are credentialed. Also, a handful of students have BS/BA degrees and seeking graduate studies in the US. Not only is the primary education different, there is also a difference I seem to notice at the “university” level in terms of “knowledge base” with humanities, arts, music, religious studies, and study habits.

    I believe the biggest challenge I continue to have is the lack of respect of US culture and the laws and rules. Not all students are like this, but the majority. If they dont like something (anything) they try to change it. They negotiate constantly in terms of assignments, classroom lessons, attendance policies, lates/tardies… all practices to be honest. Or they dont participate at all. And just as a note – my teacher evaluation scores are above average. I do my work: I create curriculum, I try to create a student centered classroom, I promote new ideas and changes as a class, but when you have one or two or half a class that are really challenging in the class, the classes are painful and exhausting!

    These students challenge the whole class. They do not do homework, refuse to do in class assignments, cheat on writing assignments, come late, do not come at all – and then give excuses and relentlessly ask you to excuse their absence, they also blame the teacher when they do not pass, complain to other students, complain to administrators. These types of students are time consuming and people such as other students, administrators and teachers are exhausted of their energy and their resources grabbing at every psychological and behavior modification necessary to help these students. These students unfortunately become the center of the teachers attention at times taking away from students whom are cooperative and go with the program. Not all Saudi students are like this, but unfortunately the majority are. They seem to have a “self entitlement” type personality and this may stem from their culture and also their morals and standards which they live life by.

    I have had Saudi students whom are respectful and fit into the classroom dynamic, but they come in waves. What the people of Saudi Arabia and the policy makers fail to realize (or they may be realizing now with the educational reforms) is the future consequences for these students actions. Yes Universities/Colleges and ESL programs will continue to take in and process students who continue to fail because of the monetary gain. Even though some students fail over and over and over in classes, this is especially true at the ESL language program level, administrators and policy makers let these students stay, because they are part of the bottom line. But in my opinion there are a number of future consequences that all involved fail to address, at least openly. For one, all students are representatives of their families and their country while in the classroom and abroad, if students are acting in ways such as the latter mentioned, their reputations are on the line. China, one of the fastest growing populations in the US are also represented in the classroom..

    I cannot speak for Chinese people but if I felt that Saudi students were difficult to deal with I would not want to do business with them in the future, why would they? Same with other cultures. I see this. I hear it. Second, administrators and policy makers whom continue to allow these problems to repetitively occur are not addressing the negative consequences such as stress levels that increase on both students and teachers. I personally have brought up these issues not to complain but to seek solutions and for one reason or the other administrators are either too busy to deal with these issues in the classrooms or flip the responsibility on the teacher and address it as the teacher is unable to handle classroom stress – which is not true in all the cases. All teachers and students feel the stress both directly and indirectly. For one it takes the attention away from helping students that are following the program and do want to learn. Second, the more time the teacher spends addressing these issues in the classroom the more time the teacher is spending dealing with negative issues rather than positive issues, very much exhausting the teachers ability to foster the most affective positive classrooms. Last, I feel that there is a threat to the high standards that the US education system has. For one, the ESL programs that pass students whom are not prepared for Universities essentially are passing the buck to those Universities. It essentially is like a trickle down theory, where as everyone is affected. So if ESL programs are bending rules and laws and educational policies in the name of capitalism, I guarantee so are Universities and Colleges. Therefore, I believe the USA;s high standard of education is lower than it was before this flood of unprepared Saudi students.

    So while there are many wonderful and positive things about the Saudi culture as a whole, the negatives are overwhelming and there is a need for educational reform for all involved. This is the future, we need to address the future consequences of all involved. This is the future of our educational system. I feel that Saudi students, all students, need to go through some culturally sensitive training prior to being sent to any country, they need to have a certain level of knowledge base prior to being sent to this country therefore they should be tested prior to being in the USA, and also policy makers and administrators need to understand that while they are dealing with problems, teacher’s are dealing with them all the time and this is not good for anyone involved.

    The challenges in the classroom:

    Last these are some comments that I agree with from above:

    “@ Mike: I’ve only taught ESL, and I imagine EFL would be a whole different story. With ESL the students are in a position in which they have to adjust to the host country, so emphasizing the host culture is very important for successful adjustment. However, with EFL, the students are in their home country and cultures, so you would need to be the one adjusting to them, as you mentioned. So – I’ll let others comment on that.” – I totally agree with this.

    “Playing games, adding humor in every task I present,total physical response activities,dancing and singing etc. But some of these may not reach all learners.” I like this quote from the person above. This is exactly the representation of Saudi I see. They play games.. they think it is funny.. it is physically exhausting. It is funny and cute at first, but really has no purpose in the classroom if students are not learning.

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