Verna Duckworth didn’t entirely return from her time in the Emirates – a part of her is still walking along the Arabian Gulf at sunset, contemplating the course she has charted for a generation of young minds.
Wrapped in layers of loose clothing, the petite 54-year-old teacher glows as she relates the meaning of the two years she spent revamping the school system in the Arab country.
The United Arab Emirates, created in 1971 as a federation of seven self-governed principalities, is a predominantly Muslim country located near the Arabian Sea. The oil-rich desert region couldn’t be more different in custom and appearance than Abbotsford, where Duckworth works within the English as a second language program for the school district.
The single mother of three daughters has always been open to change. In her 30s when she got her education degree, her early teaching years included a placement in Japan. She joined the Abbotsford district in 1997, teaching at the elementary level and also working in the district’s ESL program while earning a masters from Simon Fraser University.
Duckworth, looking for something new in her career, was intrigued by the challenge and location of the UAE job posting. When she arrived in 2009 as one of many educators who have tried to bring the country’s education system up to standard, her goal was to gain the trust of the teachers and ministry employees.
Duckworth was in charge of 12 female Emirati teachers and two assistants at a school in Sharjah, the third largest city in the UAE, and was tasked with developing a language curriculum that would help high-school graduates succeed in the post-secondary arena.
A wealth of natural resources in the Emirates have allowed for rampant development and tourism, however, tribal loyalties determine most policies and the young country’s struggle is encapsulated by the lack of funding to public schools.
With students testing low alongside countries of comparable wealth, Duckworth was hired to guide a primary grades English program called Madares al Gahd (MAG), or Schools of Tomorrow in Arabic, onto a path of consistency – something she says was difficult to achieve within a Muslim culture.
The biggest obstacle was the inclination of authorities in all levels of education to fall back on In Sha’ Allah, or God willing, apathy as an explanation for why things were not accomplished. The amount of patience required had driven the previous MAG recruit to leave the position early.
She says the lack of standards and resources, such as working in a school with only 97 books, affected her as an educator and reinforced her view on how privileged the Canadian system is in comparison.
Class and gender inequity is also deeply ingrained in the economy of the Emirates, and Duckworth says she couldn’t help but be touched by the plight of hard working residents who were punished financially in accordance to their place of birth. Egyptian, Indian and Filipino workers, for example, along with women in general, are all paid disparate wages, with Emirati men earning the most. With only 16 per cent of the population Emirati, foreigners make up the majority of the work force and the country struggles to establish its identity and direction as result.
Duckworth recalls feeling compelled to purchase a computer as a gift for the school’s janitor – a man she says was of remarkable intelligence and kindness, but financially trapped by the class structure as he supported his family back home in India. Duckworth says people move to the UAE despite the oppression because it is still an improvement on where they are from.
She smiles over the smaller accomplishments during her time at the girls’ school, such as learning to recognize the librarian by only her eyes behind her traditional face covering and getting the principal to lift the hem of her abaya to reveal Calvin Klein jeans underneath.
Duckworth slaps her knee as she speaks about the time she asked her colleagues to help her find her own abaya, the traditional black robe of UAE women, and their joyful hysterics over her desire to dress like them.
Five times a day, the adhan, or call to prayer, would float over the city from the minaret of the nearest mosque and worshippers would stop what they were doing to pray. While she has only seen the inside of a mosque on a tour, her most powerful memory is how the observance brought everyone together during the hectic, humid days.
The effervescent Duckworth adopted some of the cultural intricacies, and accepted others with grace. She believes that the impression held by people who have never been to the UAE about the country is generally inaccurate, and that she was struck by the similar foundational values of family and community.
She shakes her head at some of the harder emotional moments though, like helplessly watching a kindergarten age girl reduced to tears for speaking to a construction worker.
From the living room of her newly built townhouse where she lives with her youngest daughter and an exchange student, Duckworth offers a glance though a thick binder of language protocols and lesson plans she says is her legacy to the Emirates. Compiled with the assistance of a handful of other MAG employees, she is told the guide will be implemented throughout the country by the next wave of foreign educators.
Modelled on a European standard, she knows the system could work. She can only hope that the next teacher to fill her position continues in her stead by taking the time to see the beauty of the country and earn the respect of its educators, otherwise In Sha’ Allah, she might be back.