Western culture differs dramatically from Saudi Arabian culture, from religion, to education to music and food, even dress; they really are two different worlds. The challenges that a Saudi student might face here in the states are endless and adjusting takes time and a tremendous amount of effort. Let’s start by talking about education. In Saudi Arabia sexes are separated from day one. Males and females never attend school under the same roof, not even at university levels ( Flaits).
For a Saudi student, here in the United States, this is a substantial change that has the potential to be, even traumatizing to students, especially to those students still in primary schools. Imagine with me for a moment that you are a thirteen year old Saudi Arabian girl. Your father has just gotten a job in the United States. Up till now you have spent your entire life in Saudi Arabia in a traditional home, going to a traditional all girl school. The only males you have ever spoken with are your close male relatives. Now, it is your first day to attend an American public school.
You have a nice, dark complexion and wavy brown hair hidden away under your hijab. Never mind all the strange glances immediately thrown at you for your appearance the minute you step foot on the bus because of the way you are dressed, you expected as much. But you’re taken aback by the fact that well over half of these uncomfortable, judgmental glances are barreling down on you from the faces of boys. Your heart is beating hard and fast in your ears as you slide into the nearest vacant green leathery seat. You’re starting to feel your face grow warm and you just know you are seven shades of beat red.
You concentrate on your breathing; you can feel every eye on the bus burning into you, you feel completely exposed. And just when you think that things couldn’t possibly get worse, a boy about two years older than you decides the empty seat next to you is as good as any to claim for his own. He gives you a warm smile, which you return with a blank stare. So he takes it upon himself to try and start a conversation. He is friendly enough, but you can’t concentrate on a single word coming out of his mouth. Not just because your English is below proficient, but because blood is pounding in your ears. What does this boy think he is doing?
Your mind reels. The only thing you can think about is how angry your father would be if he saw this boy sitting next to you and you pray he never finds out. You have never spoken to a boy in your life, you wouldn’t know how to go about it, even if you wanted to, but your mouth doesn’t seem to be working now anyhow and all you want is for this boy to leave you alone before any tears manage to escape your eyes. You shut your eyes tight and count your breaths waaHid, ithnayn, talaata . . . You keep them closed for a long time and when you open them the boy has apparently gotten the point or been offended because he has changed seats.
You feel only a slight twinge of guilt but a flood of relief. Finally the bus comes to a stop and everyone files off. Upon arriving to the school you find that the boys here are less friendly and somewhat frightening. Some whistle or stare, some wink, some make inappropriate gestures with their hands or mouths most of which you do not understand, some scoff and finally some ignore you completely which comes as a relief. The girls here don’t seem to be interested in any kind of interaction with you at all. Most avoid eye contact but some blatantly glare. Your head spins, all you want is a quiet, safe place to hide.
So you retreat to the bathroom. Here you encounter a whole new set of awkward social problems, when a group of giggling girls, applying too much makeup, instantly become silent as you approach. You can feel the hostility as they take in your attire. Only one even attempts to smile at you. As if on cue, they all march out, fallowing a tall thin blond with a hot pink top, by the way the other girls dote, you can only assume she is their leader. You splash some cool water on your face, thankful for the silence and whisper a prayer to Allah, asking Him for the strength to just get through the day.
The bell rings so you find your way to first period and take a seat nearest the door, most students have to walk past you, which isn’t ideal but you feel safer because you can bolt at any time if the need arises. The teacher inters the room and says good morning to the class. He looks across the room and his eyes come to rest on you, suddenly it is hard to breath you feel like you have been caught in some kind of sand storm that is suffocating only you, no one else in the room seems to feel ill at ease in the least. You have never had a male teacher before and it never crossed your mind that you ever would.
This morning you prepared yourself the best you could with the idea of having to go to school with boys, you knew that you would stick out because of the clothing you wore and you knew it might be difficult communicating with the other children because your English is not that good, but it never occurred to you that you would have a male teacher! “good morning class, today we have a new student, miss Layla Almire,” never taking his eyes of you “ would you mind standing and telling us a little about yourself ? ” You slowly rise, “my name is Layla, I am thirteen, my family is from Saudi Arabia” you sit, unsure of what just happened.
That girl standing, speaking, didn’t even sound like you. She sounded confident, not falling to pieces on the inside as you are doing now; your heart is beating so hard and your hands are trembling. “thank you miss Layla, we are glad to have you in class. Now take out your text books and turn to page eighty-three we left off talking about…” most of the day passes in a blur, you go from class, avoid eye contact or conversations with the children, eat lunch alone, some of your teachers are male, some are female, you act like you understand what the teachers say even though half the time you don’t.
By the end of the day you are completely drained emotionally, mentally and physically and you are so relieved when it is finally over. But at home, you don’t want your parents to worry about you, especially your mother; the trip has been hard enough on her as it is. So you fake a smile and fight the urge to skip dinner and turn in early. After clearing the table you can fight it no longer, you tell your family that you have homework and retreat to your room. There you silently cry yourself to sleep hoping the morning does not come too quickly because you know what’s waiting for you when it does, your second day at an American public school.
Saudi girls are painfully shy around men because their culture dictates that they have no interaction with men outside of close relatives. (Flaits) Coeducation can be difficult for male students as well because they are from a society where men are dominant, so being taught by women may be a very challenging thing to get used to (Flaits). To accommodate for these particular challenges, (first of all teaches need to be aware of the cultural differences), male teaches can help with these cultural challenges by not calling the female student out too much in class or talking to girls directly, by keeping a comfortable distance in a sense.
And female teachers can try not to be too assertive, to avoid resentment from male students. Saudi’s in general, do not take criticism well, especially in public. It is viewed as an attack on their honor. It is for this reason that teachers need to be gentle when confronting a student about inappropriate behavior and never should this be done in front of the rest of the class. Saudi’s take it very personally if they are not trusted. This is a good reason not to accuse them unless you have strong evidence for your case. Trust and honor go hand in hand.
I was not aware of this when I first began college and started hanging out with a group of internationals, I was not aware of many things. One night we were all at my friends and I was ready to go home but my friend was too tired to drive so his friend offered to give me a lift. I “politely” refused. Because I was raised never to get in a car with strangers, I thought this was common knowledge “don’t get into cars with people you don’t know”. This man took it very personally, he started to raise his voice, speaking in Arabic, and then left in a huff.
I asked my friend what he said, it roughly translated to “ fine if you don’t feel safe near me then I will just go” I felt slightly guilty but at the same time I thought it confirmed that this guy was a hot head that shouldn’t be trusted. Abdulah and I have laughed about our first meeting a lot since; he later became one of my best friends. This man wouldn’t hurt a fly, it’s just not in him, he is one of the kindest people I know. He has come to understand why I refused to get in the car that night and I, how disrespectful it was to refuse his help in front of all of our friends.
Another challenge for Saudi students is the same for all immigrant students, language barriers. Students may need special accommodations to further acquire language skills. They may need additional time on assignments and additional clarification on direction for assignments. It is important for teachers to be patient with their students and not mistake the students lack of understanding for laziness. Some additional challenges, for teachers working with Saudi students, are keeping their attention, their interest. Saudis get bored very easily and quickly.
Keeping their attention can prove to be quite difficult. Speaking with a fellow teacher I was given insight on how she kept her students engaged. She told me that Saudi students can be quite competitive so incorporating games with prizes or score boards is an effective and healthy way to inspire them to “stay on top of their game” she suggested things like writing on the black board, matching objects to words and spelling B’s where every point is tallied and any kind of learning game in general,to be effective methods.
I have come up with a few of my own ideas to keep their interest and get them to study on their own as well. “THE LETTER GAME” have a bag full of random letters written on cards, at the beginning of class pull a set number of cards and place them in plain sight of the entire class, give the students a set amount of time to spell as many words as they can come up with from those cards, when the time is up tally the number of correct words the students got right, the one with the most words is awarded some kind of incentive.
This accomplishes two things, challenges the student mentally and may lead to study outside of the class. Since the letters are completely random knowing their vocab will not be enough, because competition is such a part of their personality the intention is to get them to do independent studying, the more words they know, the better chance they have at winning the next go around. Racism is an infectious disease that plagues our public schools and even with all “bullies will not be tolerated” campaigns.
Teachers need to keep a close eye out for students that might be being mistreated or harassed for the color of their skin, the god they believe in or the close they wear. In conclusion, there are many things that a teacher can and should do in order to make international students feel more at home in their class rooms. First and foremost, learn as much as you can about the students culture, this helps go a long way in helping the student.
Secondly, when it comes to Saudi students, respect is key, don’t be too assertive if you are a female with male students, if you are a male with female students keep your distance, do not call out your Saudi students if they have, or are suspected of doing something wrong, speak with them in private. Thirdly offer accommodations for language barriers and engage them in some healthy competition to keep them motivated. And lastly, keep an eye out for racism or abuse from abuse from other members of the school.