(EDITOR'S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton was able to travel to Qatar and Oman as part of a professional/cultural exchange grant program, and promised to keep her students and our readers informed by writing periodic accounts of her trip. This is the 11th installment.)
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton was able to travel to Qatar and Oman as part of a professional/cultural exchange grant program, and promised to keep her students and our readers informed by writing periodic accounts of her trip. This is the 11th installment.)
By Susan Hamilton
For the News Tribune
EDUCATION CITY, QATAR - Our hosts from QFI arranged two experiences for the group which we all were very excited about: touring schools in Education City, and touring Al Jazeera News. We were also fortunate to visit the mosque in Katara Village and tour the State Mosque.
Education City is a part of the Qatar Foundation, the parent non-profit for QFI, our hosts for this professional development opportunity.
They have made a tremendous investment in education. The campus consists of several K-12 schools offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum. The IB curriculum diploma in an internationally recognized and consistently standardized curriculum. This means if one is moving around a lot, in the military for example, and wants to ensure that their child’s education is consistent from one place to the next, choosing schools with the IB program will be most likely to have that result.
The IB program is structured a little differently than we might think of in this area. The focus is on modes of inquiry, action, and reflection. It involves teaching students to engage deeply and think critically about a variety of topics within a content area. If you are familiar with the Advanced Placement (AP) program in our schools, think of it like an AP program for all content areas beginning in kindergarten and continuing through grade twelve. Each year is leveled and builds upon the skills used in the previous years.
We asked about average class sizes at Qatar Academy, which houses primary, middle and high school in separate but conjoined buildings. They have approximately 1,100 students. There, the average class size is 20-24. Each classroom at every grade level has two full time teachers: one English and one Arabic, as well as one full time aid. That makes the adult-to-student ratio in each room from kindergarten to high school between 1:6 and 1:8. We were all so jealous.
Most of the teachers in our group are looking at average class sizes exceeding 30 with only one teacher in the room and no aid ever. One of the primary grade teachers with us is going to have a class of 38 kindergarten students next year with no aid. Her adult-to-student ratio is 1:38. And we wonder what is wrong with eduction in America.
Each school also has one principal and three assistant principals, a school psychologist, one counselor for each grade level, occupational and speech therapists, as well as an autism and a behavior specialist. Parent teacher workshops are offered every two weeks to increase parent engagement. These workshops could be on anything from positive parenting to signs a student is using drugs. Library lessons, reading, and math initiatives are taught in home room. All students K-12 are required to read three books per week, one fiction, one non-fiction, and one Arabic. Students in fifth grade, eighth grade and 12th grade complete a capstone project in the topic of their choice, which is presented and judged at exhibition for their school. High school students are so required to complete seventy hours of community service in addition to their capstone project.
We spent several hours speaking with administrators, and teachers in the schools. We were able to observe students, but we did not interact with them directly. We toured classrooms at all levels, and by the time this experience was over, we all felt more than a little sad about the state of our schools compared to what we saw in Qatar. What these students have at their fingertips is simply unbelievable. For one, they have the National Library of Qatar, the one I described in my last segment, within walking distance or a short tram ride of their schools.
Schools are separated by grade levels as they are in the US: primary, middle and high school. Every student takes art and music twice a week. There is an early learning center for ages 6 months-2 years, and the equivalent of our Head Start pre-school. There are magnet schools for STEM, music, languages, and the arts. For students with learning disabilities and other special needs, there is a special school designed for them: Awsaj Academy (sounds like owsage in English).This school is outfitted with every conceivable accommodation a student may need. Some of the ones we saw while we were touring the school were: VR Goggles, robots, special keyboards, interactive floors, mounted interactive projectors, and special sensory rooms with dimmed lights and soundproofing for students on the autism spectrum.
Students can attend Awsaj full-time or they can attend for certain content areas. Most of the students are full time. Any student who has been identified as struggling in math and or reading may attend Awsaj Academy, the special education school. A student does not necessarily need to be on an IEP to attend.
Qatar does have a testing schedule which is similar to the one we use in our schools, and Awsaj Academy is no exception. However, their testing is handled a little differently from the regular schools. Students’ achievement is based upon growth and not on scores. So, if there was a student in the sixth grade who was reading on a third grade level at the beginning of the year, that student would be tested for mastery of the third grade level skills at the end of the year, not sixth grade level. The goal is to see steady growth within the context of the students capabilities and not unfairly test them at levels where they simply cannot achieve.
While no one wants to discuss common problems in schools, we all asked questions about bullying. We were sad to learn that even in schools which are providing state of the art technology, outstanding accommodation for special need students, and higher level thinking instruction across the board for all ages, that bullying still exists. It seems that bullying is a universal problem, and one which the Qataris are also struggling to solve. Our group took some comfort in knowing the US is not alone in this struggle, but would have loved to hear the Qataris didn’t have any problems with bullying so we could get some tips to bring home.
Surprisingly, the school which has the most bullying in Education City is Awsaj Academy. Our group was a bit shocked to learn that because we all anticipated that segregating these students would protect them from being singled out. Apparently separating them has unintentionally created a hierarchical situation among the students in Awsaj.
Education city also houses a world class university system. There are six American University campuses in Education City: Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth, and Weill Cornell Medicine. Also included in the university complex are Bin Khalid University, a Qatar based graduate school, and UCL University.
Each of the universities were chosen for their strongest program, for example Northwestern was selected because they have an exceptional journalism, communications, and photography program. This is what they provide for students at the university campus. The campus provides apartment style housing at no cost for students who are accepted to one of the Universities and receiving financial aid. Many of the university professors are from the United States and Great Britain. International students are accepted as well. Thus, the university system in Qatar houses a very diverse population, of which Qatar is very proud.
In case you’re interested, I was able to find out about what it’s like to teach in Qatar. Students are taught English and Arabic for equal amounts of time from K-12. With the exception of the Arabic class, all classes are taught in English. Many teachers and administrators are from other countries, but specifically from Great Britain and the United States.
If someone were interested in teaching abroad in Qatar and were lucky enough to get a job offer, these are some of the benefits one could expect: Salary of approximately $58,000 tax free; paid medical, dental, and life insurance; free relocation; free housing; monthly stipend of $538 for transportation or purchase of a car; free utilities; paid tuition of up to $19,000 per year for each of your children; paid airfare home in summer (five weeks) to visit family; a work week from Sunday-Thursday, individual planning daily and team planning weekly; work hours from 6:45 a.m.-3vp.m, but teachers only have students until 1:30 p.m. daily; these are contract jobs of two to three years, the average is two years and is renewable if mutually agreeable.
Most of the teachers and administrators we met from the US had been teaching in Education City between three to seven years, and all were very happy. Some of the younger teachers were using this as a GOOD (get out of debt) job. They had been able to pay off student loans and were now saving money for a home before they travel back to the United States to teach.
One teacher we met had relocated from the US for a job at Qatar Academy. This teacher is married with children and moved from a two-income situation in the US to a one income situation in Qatar. Since moving to Qatar three years ago, both spouses, who were full time teachers in the US, paid off their student loans and the family is now saving money every month. This teacher expressed how much better the family’s quality of life was now that one parent was home and they were no longer working to pay off debts. Despite the appearance that Doha is a place for the wealthy to live, this teacher assured us that the family lives very comfortably and wants for nothing.
Our group wanted to spend so much more time in the schools; we are teachers after all and naturally curious. To stay any longer than we did would have been too much of a disruption, and while we understood, we were sad to leave.
Like our time at the schools, which we all enthusiastically enjoyed so much that we stayed a little longer than we were supposed to; I had originally planned on including a discussion about our tour of Al Jazeera News and the mosques that we visited in this article. Unfortunately, I over-stayed my writing time talking about education, so I will save the discussions on news and mosques for my next and last article detailing this experience.