Four things to never discuss in a Saudi Arabia classroom

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I have been an ESL Teacher for more than 15 years and a Teacher trainer for the last three. Now I help new teachers start their journey traveling and teaching English abroad.

Saudi Arabia classroom don’ts.

The idea of choice doesn’t really crossover in a lot of cultures.

Not that there is no choice, but the idea itself: that one has a choice and it’s their right if they make that choice or not. This was very difficult for a lot of my students to understand.

In their culture, it’s inherent not to question authority or norms. Things are the way they are and there is nothing to do about it. That is what they are taught. Some, after trust has been established, voice their distaste, but the majority do not dare. Because a lot of thinking leads to one feeling like they have control over their lives, and therefore have a choice in that life, which makes certain things discouraged in discussion in most countries I taught in. But more so in Saudi Arabia classroom than any other.

Four things you do not discuss in Saudi Arabia classroom.

Teachers are told this in one way or another as soon as they arrive. They are:

Politics
Religion
Women
Sex

But what do you get when you actually tell the students that you are not supposed to discuss these things with them? Well, you get more questions about it.

But first, I’ll talk about the idea of “choice”.

I ate a piece of bread with my left hand. Three students saw me do this in the hallway. Their eyes popped and they walked up to me and said “Teacher! Harram!”, or “Forbidden”. I thought it was their usual nonsense to mess with me so I dismissed their comments and thought nothing of it.

Then as I occasionally do, I switched forks at lunch and I was using my left hand to eat when I got a message on WhatsApp and was replying to it with my right hand.

Another student saw this and came up to me again and said it was wrong, and when I asked why, he said he’s going to be honest with me. In Islam, he said, you eat with the right hand and the left hand is meant for cleaning your ass after using the squatter toilets. So people are not supposed to eat with their left hand.

When I got back to class after lunch, I posted this question as a class discussion for our listening and speaking portion. And I was amazed. All the students were adamantly defending the rule. Then I asked what if someone is left-handed? They all said, he must learn to use the right hand.

I continued, isn’t it up to the individual to decide what hand they want to use to eat? Isn’t it more important that the individual eats rather than what hand they use to consume the food?

These questions infuriated some of them and I had to calm them down and explain that it was just a discussion and not a jab at their belief system. Some, of course, took a while to understand that it’s okay to talk about things.

I realized then, while having this discussion, why we are not supposed to discuss the four things listed above. Because if a simple discussion on the idea of choice riled them up like that, what would a discussion on the above topics do? They would definitely leave you beating your head.

What is written is what they understand and anything else is seen as standing against what is written.

In other words, to ask questions and discuss those questions as common in Western classrooms is something that’s more or less frowned upon and taken very seriously.

Yet that is precisely what the students that have studied extensively complain about the education system not just here in Saudi but in other countries.

What do you think?

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