muslim student

“Don’t sad, Teacher.” Class was over. Minutes before, my class had been a shouting match of angry, agitated Saudi students. It was our third day together in a beginning grammar class. We were all stumped by tag questions. I’m a new teacher. My explanation was a disaster. They were out of their seats, shouting in my face: “This is crazy, Teacher! We will fail the level!” Heart racing, I stepped back, and used the only Arabic phrase I knew: “Haba haba, my friends,” I said. Instant calm. They returned to their seats. “I’m sorry this is difficult for all of us,” I said. “I will do my homework tonight, and try again tomorrow to explain this. You will do your homework tonight, and practice what you understand now. Together, we will help you succeed. Haba, haba. Step by step.” When I dismissed the class a few minutes later, one student approached my desk. He spoke on behalf of the other students. This is common with Saudi students. He clearly felt bad that I looked shaken from the earlier conflict, and he shared his concern: “Don’t sad, Teacher. Like you said, we will get there, haba haba.” This class was a pivotal moment in my interactions with my Saudi students. From my struggles, I learned 5 strategies that have improved my teaching.


  1. A little Arabic goes a long way. Even two little words really help my students feel that I respect them. Respect is a big deal for them.
  2. Make friends with the “spokesperson”. In my classes, there is usually a leader, the person who will set the tone for the class. Often, he is the best speaker. This leader changes from class to class, as people move up and down the social ladder. Learn whatever you can about the “spokesperson”. If he accepts and respects you, the others usually will too.
  3. It’s not you… Don’t take arguing personally. Arguing and negotiating are a part of their culture, and appear often in the classroom. Step back, diffuse with a joke, and move on. The students will too.
  4. Don’t worry, be happy. My Saudi students love a happy teacher. My students are willing to try new things, and love “hands on” learning. They are eager to please me, and truly don’t want to see me sad. When I have a positive attitude, they do too. We have a lot of fun together!
  5. Haba haba. Take things step by step. My beginning students need a lot of modeling. I have to scaffold each step. I build on prior knowledge, relate it to their lives, and then provide very short explanations. When they ask me questions, my new goal is to answer in less than 10 seconds, or defer the question until I can.
I’m still learning. Sometimes, my students still get overwhelmed and panic. Sometimes I fail at explaining gerunds. But I now know that we can build our rapport through these kinds of “crises.” I don’t pretend to be an expert in Saudi culture. But I’m learning to understand and enjoy my students. Step by step.
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Keri Anderson

Keri Anderson completed her TESOL Certificate from the School of Teaching ESL in 2012 and teaches in an Intensive English Program in Tacoma, WA.

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