Taking Classes in America, Teaching in Kuwait: Trends and Patterns

Subject: Education
Pages: 10
Words: 2884
Reading time:
12 min
Study level: PhD


Studying abroad to be a teacher has numerous complications and difficulties that a future instructor needs to take into consideration before embarking on such an endeavor (Isakovski, 2009). Such complications are not limited to the obstacles that an international student would normally face when experiencing a foreign culture and teaching environment, rather, they also encompass problems in relation to a changed perspective regarding the type and culture of education that they were taught to teach and how this impacts their ability to relate with and teach students in their home countries (Dyrud & Worley, 2007).

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For example, studies such as those by Binbin et al. (2010)explain that there are certain “cultures of education” that are unique to particular countries wherein the style, method of teaching and the proven method that results in more receptive students differs on a per country basis. This was what happened to me when I went back to Kuwait and started teaching two classes in the summer 2013 at Kuwait University (KU).

At the onset of my teaching experience back in my home country, the feeling of being a foreign creature in an entirely new environment continued to pervade my actions due to the language and cultural transition. Lastly, there are prohibited and sensitive subjects which cannot be discussed during the class due to the strict cultural and religious undertones of the system of education. These limitations create a uniquely “constrained” type of freedom of speech that any instructor should be aware of.


The experience of studying abroad can be considered a method to learn from other cultures and observe their development in various areas of science. It is a chance to learn different languages and life styles and, as a result, helps to broaden one’s understanding of the world around us (Fitzpatrick, 2008). It is a method that has been utilized for decades, if not centuries; however it is still one of the most beneficial methods to export and import cultural trends, social patterns, and developed sciences (Garson, 2005).

One good example of this can derived from my personal experience of teaching two different practicum classes in Kuwait University (KU) in the summer of 2013 as a requirement for the Ph.D. program in social work that I was taking up at the University of Kentucky (UKY). The scope of this paper will be on the effect of difference in language, educational system, cultural shock, and freedom of speech and how this impacts an educator’s ability to properly teach.

Language differences

One of the main obstacles that I faced involved translating ideas and concepts that I was taught in English into their Arabic counterparts (Albaum, 2011). On paper it would apparently seem to be an open and shut case of simply translating ideas word for word, however, in reality English and Arabic have significant differences in terms of the way in which ideas are presented and in the case of Arabic there simply is no equivalent in the local language for particular types of English words and concepts (Albaum, 2011).

As a result, some of my attempts simply did not make sense and attempting to translate particular concepts by replacing them with a close equivalent often resulted in misunderstandings. In addition to that, the current governmental educational system utilizes a form of “militaristic” rote style of learning that emphasizes the internalization of information rather than examination and deeper introspection as I was taught in the U.S. As a result, students seem more inclined to memorize information as a result of being inculcated into this type of system rather than attempt deeper methods of examination involving the subject.

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The end result of both the language barrier and the different teaching culture is that there is significant discouragement for participation and creation among the students that I was teaching (McAdams, 1995). This means that when a instructor goes abroad to learn about different educational techniques, information and processes at which point they attempt to teach what they learned in their home country, they quickly find out the general receptiveness is different given the new educational culture they are currently experiencing.

Language difference is one of and the most challenging factors that an international student can face when they travel abroad and studies a different language (Walters et al., 2009). What makes it more difficult is when the student’s native language is not even close to the new language and the differences are huge such as speaking Arabic and studying in English. In addition to that, the language is developed by the culture, and even if there are two countries sharing the same language, they may face communication difficulties because their common language is shaped differently in a particular and unique environment (Walters et al., 2009).

For example, we can find that even though the State of Kuwait and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia share the Arabic language, each country had developed their own accents, slangs, and idioms. Even more than that, since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a large country, each state or county has a different accent, which makes it hard sometimes to understand each other.

International students who have been studying in public schools may take a couple of English classes, but they are about the basics and the students do not have the reason and passion to practice and develop their English language skills since the whole public education system and classes are in Arabic. Even when they join public universities or community colleges they study in Arabic as well. However, there are some intelligent students from public schools who have the goal to study abroad. They work to develop their English skills during their leisure time by joining private English institutions. Most of these students are planning to get scholarships to study abroad and others plan to get local scholarships to study in private universities such as the American University at Kuwait.

In Kuwait, there are very few public colleges or departments where students study in English such as those seen in medical universities, engineering schools and English literature departments. In addition, there are rarely places in the current emloyee market within Kuwait that hire employees based on their capacity to speak English fluently.

In addition, it should be noted that language and thinking have a distinct impact on each other. The way in which people write and use language represent how they think and vice versa. Therefore, the culture contributes in shaping people’s thinking and language. Thus, the transition between different languages shaped in different cultures is not limited to translation, rather, there is a huge psychological transition that requires sufficient mental preparation by the students.

It should also be noted that there are some concepts which cannot be translated effectively into another language. These concepts have been shaped in a unique language and method of understanding and, as such, once they are translated the original meaning of these concepts might get lost in translation. The words may be translated but the cultural sense and deeper meaning behind the words are sometimes hard to explain when translated into different languages (Komins, 2002).

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However, the effect of learning in English and teaching in Arabic goes further than that. Based on my personal experience, sometime there are words in English which are not found in the Arabic language and vice versa. There are also some words and concepts which have different meaning when translated between the two languages (Komins, 2002).

In addition, the different way of thinking may allow the use of some words in a specific situation in one language, while it forms a grammar issue or misunderstanding in the another language. These are some of many obstacles that any international student could face when traveling abroad and studying in a different language. Therefore, the students who travel abroad have to be open-minded and aware of the new cultural trends and differences in language context that they may encounter (Hill, 2005). Thus, learning a new language has to be done along with learning the cultural context where the language originated from.

Educational system

The system of education in Kuwait is divided into two main domains, namely: public and private schools. The government usually sets the various standards and lesson plans for public schools, while companies or different private organizations manage the private schools. However, it should be noted that these private schools still need to be under the government supervision and have to follow the policies and standards set forth by the government.

Depending on where the private schools came from (as seen in the case of the Cambridge international school system with a network of multiple branch private schools in various countries), it is usually the case that each school has its own unique educational strategy and goals unlike the public schools where there is strict level of conformity to teaching styles and lesson plans (Al-Shaye, 2011).

While government funded schools and colleges are free of charge, there are issues relating to the general quality of the education that the students receive. Studies such as those by Moseley Reeder & Armstrong (2008) state that while it is admirable that Kuwait provides free public education to its citizens, the fact remains that the quality of the education is generally lacking with graduates from the grade school, high school and college level courses often lagging behind their peers in terms of analytical ability and the capacity to understand new concepts. This has resulted in a greater level of demand for private schools, however, they are expensive, and relatively few parents within Kuwait are capable of affording the yearly school fees (Al-Shaye, 2011).

The advantage of the private school system in Kuwait over their local counter parts is that the system of education and style of teaching that is utilized is often rooted in the teaching methods seen in western schools. As a result, teachers in these establishments are often highly skilled and qualified and help students to develop the necessary analytical tools to be able to understand the lesson being taught rather than merely memorizing the information and repeating it like a parrot (Metle, 2001).

Furthermore, such establishments have well tested vision, mission, curriculum, and tools to help maximize the capacity of students to learn. As a result, despite the increased cost, students from private schools often learn self-directed learning initiatives resulting in better long term learning habits which translates into superior performance as compared to their private school counterparts (Almoosa, Storey & Keller, 2012).

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Cultural shock within the main culture

As a profession that deals in creating the future generation of workers and leaders of our society, teachers have the obligation to deliver a message or a lecture that teaches students the knowledge and skills necessary to help them achieve success in their future profession (Hastings, 2006). Even though the teachers and students share the same language and culture, the teachers sometimes face obstacles in teaching and managing the class (Fowler, 2005). Students as well may face some difficulties in being able to achieve the expectations of the teacher. It is based on these that in the section below I will be elaborating on the various obstacles that I encountered through personal experience.

It is interesting to note that the teachers at KU were predominantly educated in western countries and got their Master’s and Ph.D. degrees from either the U.S. or U.K. As result, they have an educational background that is totally different than what regular Kuwaiti students are used to experiencing with their teachers in high school (Almoosa, Storey & Keller, 2012). I noticed that the teachers had different teaching skills and approaches to education as well as had different expectations toward students. It is at this point where the cultural shock happens between new teachers and students despite sharing the same culture and language.

The teachers that were educated abroad were used to engaging in discussions with the students, asking questions, assigning specific tasks, sharing opinions freely as well as utilizing critical thinking when it came to dealing with teachers and other students in western countries. In contrast, the students from public high schools in Kuwait are used to just being carful listeners since the teachers rarely used any form of discussion or critical thinking (Almoosa, Storey & Keller, 2012).

These students take this teaching method to heart and expect that it will be the same thing at the university. The problem with this is that university classes often focus more on deep introspection and analysis regarding particular topics which these students simply have little experience in doing. As a result, new teachers often find it necessary to start from scratch when it comes to helping students develop the necessary critical thinking processes necessary to understand the subject matter at hand (Almoosa, Storey & Keller, 2012).

What must be understood is that the culture of education in Kuwait is significantly different than those seen in western societies due to the influence of Islam on the educational model. Students are not taught to question, raise opinions or critically analyze particular subject matters, rather, they are expected to respect and listen to the teacher at all times. Teachers are in effect placed on a pedestal with students often feeling reluctant to participate or share ideas which in turn adversely impacts the teaching process. The end result of such factors is that teachers often “give up” so to speak in trying to create an atmosphere of engagement and idea sharing and wind up just sitting in class and reading from the textbook.

They simple stop using any new teaching methods or skills development to help improve their students and they even stop encouraging students to engage in lectures, participate or share their opinion. It is usually the case that these teachers are frustrated from the student’s low level of critical thinking aptitude and their non-participative mentality and mainly default into simply stating information instead of actively trying to promote deep introspection and critical analysis of the subject matter.

Admittedly the problem is quite pervasive within the university I taught at, however, the problem was not entirely because of the lack of sufficient methods of critical thinking development during high school, rather, part of the problem is due to teachers simply not caring. Teachers at the university should not just come up with a plan for lecturing, but should also come with a plan of encouraging students to participate and share opinions, and teach them that there is nothing to be scared about when talking with respect (Kostovich & Bermele, 2011).

They should also assign students to accomplish simple tasks such as presenting a project in power point and working with groups either inside or outside the class and seeking various references from different regions. For example, giving them scenarios or some applications to participate as a group within the class. These tasks create a sense community within the class and helps them reduce stress and fear and increase their level of confidence and critical thinking (Cwick & Benton, 2009). Through such activities it would be possible to help slowly increase the capacity for learning of these students to an acceptable level. All that is needed is the willingness on the part of the teacher to actually implement such changes.

Freedom of speech

Freedom of speech is an elastic concept that is based upon the various nuances that are inherent within a particular country. People shape the definition of this concept in ways that is suitable to their societal characteristics such as religion, culture, education, values, and ethics. They may share some common criterions and may disagree with others. Therefore, the scale of the concept differs among people in different regions depends on their society’s characteristics.

However, from a personal perspective, as long the speech is not offensive toward any group of people and does not carry any type of discrimination, it can be considered a relatively positively method of disseminating ideas (Bodycott & Walker, 2000). This means that what is being said should have some respectful barriers in ways that should not insult the beliefs of a culture, religion, race, language, or ethnicity. Otherwise, it would not be called free speech; rather, it would be likened to slander. Since the State of Kuwait is labeled as an Arabic and Islamic country and the dominant religion in the country is Islam, there are some prohibited and sensitive subjects (Goodnite, 1994).

For example, speaking about God (i.e. Allah in the context of the religion of Islam) and how he looks like and how we believe in him without seeing him; such topics are considered taboo and educators should not talk about it. The specialist in the religion may talk about it and have some answers, but this is one of the subjects that is prohibited to discuss (Pherali, 2012). This is particularly important for new teachers to take into consideration when teaching in a foreign culture since the “liberal nature” of idea sharing that is prevalent in the west is not as present in other countries and can result in significant repercussions and reprisals.


Even though the teaching experience was tough, it was exciting. The language and cultural differences, educational system, and freedom of speech are the main important factors for any educational sector that an instructor should be aware of and be well prepared for.

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