Wall hanging that says, "Good Morning... Let the stress begin" with a figurine of a frog carrying books next to it

No Place Like Home: American Teacher in Saudi

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I lived as an expat in Saudi Arabia from 2005 to 2013. This blog was written about my first experience as an English teacher there.

Some time after the tears of euphoria dry and reality sets in, anyone who has emigrated from their native land experiences what is commonly referred to as “culture shock.” For some, this simply means getting used to a new language, people, and way of life.

For me, it meant learning the “school system” as a new teacher at an international school in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia…

I arrived to work on my first day of teaching (which incidentally was about two months into the school year due to delays in my visa) prepared to have a class schedule, a student list, and an actual classroom. I thought perhaps I’d get the official teacher’s handbook complete with all the details, major and minor, of what I’d need to know and do as a new employee. And the teachers’ editions to the English texts I’d be using wouldn’t have been so bad either.

Instead, I got a stack of another teacher’s exams on my desk and was told to grade them.

“The supervisor said you have to mark these,” the teacher said as she deposited an enormous pile of her midterm exams on my desk. To top it off, the subject was Literature (which I would not be teaching, and even if I would be, I hadn’t read any of these stories! How then was I to evaluate students’ comprehension of them?)

I had the vague feeling that I was being taken advantage of, but I couldn’t be sure. After all, I was new to the school (in fact new to Saudi Arabia), and I had no idea if this was how things worked here.

Or didn’t.

As she walked away, I detected a hint of triumph in her gait. She turned and added almost apologetically, “It’ll help you get to know the students.”


To add insult to injury, when I finally got my class schedule and wanted to know where my classroom was, I was told I had to go to the students.

I then walked helplessly around the school searching for my students’ classroom. When the search was to no avail, I spoke to a supervisor to ask for help. I thought maybe she knew where the students’ classroom was.

“What?” she said indignantly. Her eyes scolded me. She raised her voice when she said, “You didn’t tell the students where to meet you?”

What? I didn’t even know who these students were.

My confusion must have shown on my face because she then said, an air of boredom and frustration in her now lowered voice, “You must find an empty classroom and tell the students to meet you there.”

That was a task to say the least.

First I had to find a group of girls who (rumor was) were somewhere in this massive building. (That should narrow it down). But I could use a teensy bit of help, a small hint perhaps…?

The supervisor regarded me as if I’d just asked her the first letter of the English alphabet. (I sensed I wasn’t making such a good impression as that “hot shot” English teacher delivered fresh from the States.) “Look at their class schedule to find out where they are now!”


Now, that was a no-brainer. …But…um… 

I just assumed it was a small oversight that I wasn’t given their schedule.

One glance at the woman’s face told me I shouldn’t ask my next question….

But I couldn’t help myself. I just had to know where I might get my hands on this coveted student schedule of theirs…

“It’s posted outside their homeroom!”

Hmm… Yes, common sense, of course.

But… um…

Where was their homeroom?

I glanced hesitantly at the supervisor…and decided against asking.

“Right,” I said, smiling as brightly as I could. I had to at least pretend that my intelligence quotient met the minimum of that of a teacher.

But my thoughts were frantic.

Where would I find a classroom after I found their homeroom then looked at their schedule to find the classroom they’re in now so I could tell them to go to that classroom I found where I would teach them? (I never bothered wondering why they had to leave that particular room in the first place.)

“If no other teacher is using a room,” the supervisor said finally, “you can use it.”


Not wanting to waste more time, I disappeared into the hall to start “the hunt.”

Finally, my speed walks and quick peeps into classrooms (“So so sorry,” I’d say when I found my eyes meeting that of an annoyed teacher interrupted midsentence as the door opened and I peered inside) led me to a genuinely empty room. Then I whizzed back to the students (whom I’d miraculously found…their identification made quite easy by clusters of them wandering aimlessly through the halls because of an assumed “free lesson”) and told them which classroom to go to (after introducing myself quickly, of course). I also instructed them to get their books and line up outside the designated room to wait for me. (In the meantime, I had to “capture” a few hallway stragglers who were pretending they were not part of this class).

As I arrived trailing behind a line of about 25 seventh-grade girls, another supervisor was waiting for me outside the classroom I’d found.

She snarled at me. “Why are you late to class! These girls should not be hanging in the halls.”

Deep breath. Now… exhale…

There is no place like home. There is no place like home. There is no place like home…

“And where are the exams?” she demanded as if I’d stolen something.

“Right here.” I gestured my chin toward to an envelope cradled in my arms.

“You are not allowed to carry the exams around. You are to return them to the section supervisor immediately after marking them!”

“Well…um…I had a class.”


She began studying me as if I were an exhibit in a foreign museum.

“You’re new, aren’t you?” she said. She was speaking more to herself than to me, and she frowned momentarily as I handed over the bulky manila envelope that was tearing at the sides due to the excessive amount of exams jammed inside.

I just blinked back at her.

There was pity in her eyes. Not sympathy. Pity.

I’d wasted her time.

She sighed before walking away…

Later, in the staffroom, I had a plan, an epiphany actually. I would organize the disorganization!

So throughout the day I took notes on all the empty classrooms I’d found and the classes I’d had in them, being sure to memorize their locations by using hallway landmarks such as students’ art projects and colorful banners.

Then, that night, in the comfort of my home, I sat before my computer feeling energized as my hands were poised on the keyboard ready to type. I felt as if I were accomplishing “mission impossible.”

Inspired that I’d actually found a method to the madness, I sifted through my papers of hurried pen strokes and scribbled notes. On the computer program, I made a table. I divided it into rows and columns before typing in the info I’d gathered. I then used the gray shading to indicate my “teacher planning periods” (which I’d later learn were really “substitute for whoever’s absent” periods) and the school’s assigned breaks.

After about an hour of mental wrestling, formatting and typing, and re-formatting, it was done.

Ah! The joys of… a piece of paper.

I printed out the schedule and felt a sense of satisfaction when I went to sleep that night.

In the morning, I cheerily arrived to school and hung the printed paper on the side of my desk. (Too many desks cluttered together didn’t allow much chance for hanging anything on a wall).

When it was time for class, I gathered my books and double-checked my neatly organized printout before proceeding to my lesson.

…Only to discover that my designated classrooms were now being used by other teachers.

“But it was vacant yesterday,” I said as diplomatically as I could to the occupant of my room.

The veteran teacher smiled, amused. “Yes, but they have my class twice a week. I always use this room on this day.”

My heart sank.

This could not be happening…again.

And so…

I was speed walking and peeping into classrooms. (“So so sorry,” I’d say when I found my eyes meeting that of another annoyed teacher interrupted midsentence as the door opened and I peered inside). …Then after finding an empty room, I whizzed back to the grumbling students and told them to gather their books and line up outside the classroom I’d found.

Whew! I exhaled at the end of the day.

But I wasn’t totally defeated. All wasn’t so bad.

No, I couldn’t use my fancy “empty classroom” map of mental landmarks complete with colorful student art and banners. But I could use that fancy schedule of my classes I’d printed out and posted on my desk in the staffroom.

…Until I was informed that my schedule was changed.

I wasn’t smiling when the teachers near me snickered.

One kind soul had the presence of mind to give me a genuine, sympathetic smile.

And her kind eyes said what I could laugh about only later…

Welcome to Saudi, ukhti. This is your new home. And there’s no place like it in the world.

Trust me.

Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. Join UZ University to learn how you too can find your writing voice and share inspirational stories with the world: UZuniversity.com

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First published via saudilife.net