Regular readers of this blog know that we often get comments from Georgia teachers who have moved abroad to teach and who urge their states-bound colleagues to join them in Abu Dhabi or Al Ain. Several of those teachers agreed to be interviewed for a recent AJC story. (Cobb parents might recognize some familiar names.)
One interesting fact in this story: A company that specializes in placing American teachers overseas gets more recruits from Georgia and Texas than any other states.
That ought to trouble state school Superintendent John Barge and the Legislature. Georgia should be concerned when strong teachers leave the state, whether they are going to the Mid-Atlantic or the Middle East.
Here is the story by AJC reporter Bo Emerson:
Carrie Cooper of Sandy Springs frequently encounters a traffic hazard on her way to her school-teaching job: camel gridlock. That’s because Cooper has traded Atlanta classrooms for a job overseas, teaching in the United Arab Emirates, and camel racers use a training route that crosses her daily commute. She is one of perhaps 200 teachers from Georgia, most from the metro area, who have accepted jobs in the Middle East.
Some have gone for adventure or for the better salaries, but many are fed up with the way teachers are treated in the U.S.
“I found it extremely frustrating to be a teacher in Georgia, ” said Sheldon Kohn, a Cobb County teacher who is in the middle of a two-year appointment in Abu Dhabi. Kohn listed the reasons for dissatisfaction back in the states: a loss of autonomy, a lack of respect, micromanagement by school administrators and “an emphasis on test scores above other measures of excellence.” In the Emirates, he said, teachers are appreciated.
Driving the trend is an effort by the government of the UAE to boost the English skills of schoolchildren there. They want native speakers who will teach only in English.
So many teachers from Georgia have found their way to Abu Dhabi, in particular, that they invariably collide. Jonathan Stroud, a former Pebblebrook High School teacher who teaches high school students in a desert town near Abu Dhabi called Al Ain, has run into Cooper at the mall. “It was strange to move halfway across the world and end up with a lot of people who talk just like me, ” he said.
Schools in the Emirates pay to fly teachers and their families home once a year, so this month many of Atlanta’s expatriate teachers are in Georgia. The new school year will bring them back overseas in September. Free flights are among the many perks of working overseas.
Others include salaries that range from $40,000 to $75,000; a $20,000 housing allowance (enough to pay for a four-bedroom, four-bath villa in Al Ain); subsidized utilities; cheap gas and virtually no taxes.
For Stroud, 35, the overseas stint was also an adventure. “A father of five doesn’t get much opportunity to travel. I never owned a passport, never left the country, Mexico or Canada included. I decided that this was too much of an opportunity to pass up. My children were young. They weren’t going to argue with me.”
Not many teachers make the trip in a caravan the size of the Stroud clan. Cooper’s children are grown, and she traveled on her own. Despite concerns about the status of an unaccompanied woman in the Middle East, her experience has been excellent, she said. “I feel like a very welcome guest.”
Of some local customs — women wear head-scarves and, in certain settings, must be covered wrist to ankle — she is philosophical. “It’s not my country and not my culture, ” said Cooper, 53. “I try to be respectful.”
Many of Georgia’s traveling teachers were recruited by TeachAway, a Toronto-based agency that specializes in placing American teachers overseas. Dave Frey, the firm’s director, said more of his recruits come from Georgia and Texas than any other state. “A lot of it has to do with the state of the job market there, ” he said. “A lot of teachers aren’t able to find work [in Georgia].”
Another impetus may be a deepening pessimism about schools in Georgia, aggravated by the cheating scandal in Atlanta Public Schools. (News of the scandal even made the papers in Abu Dhabi, Cooper said.)
“It is difficult to work in an environment where you are respected less and less each year, as well as compensated less each year, all the while being asked to do more, ” David Platt said. Platt, 40, and his wife Jennifer Hager, 33, both taught Advanced Placement science courses at Wheeler High School in Cobb County before they accepted a two-year contract in Dubai.
Now they teach students from all parts of the globe.
Traveling to the Arabian Peninsula has been an eye-opening experience for most of these Georgia transplants. They’ve found ways to cope with 110-degree days. Some maintain ties to Atlanta, while others, such as Sheldon Kohn, decided to sell both home and car before embarking on a new life. For many, the opportunity to travel in Europe and Asia compensates for being so far from friends and family at home in the U.S.
Though the UAE is among the wealthiest and most stable of countries in the Middle East, friends worried whether Kohn would be safe in Abu Dhabi. “I might get run over by a Bentley, ” he told them. “Other than that, we’re fine.”
Kohn and others said their biggest discovery has been how different life in a Muslim country is from their preconceptions.
“The people in this region have welcomed us with open arms, and have been some of the kindest, supportive and open-minded individuals we have met anywhere, ” Platt said.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog