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From Chicago to Oman: Teaching English at the Sultan Qaboos University
Written by: Mariam Mazboudi
Last Updated: April 22, 2021
I had never thought about working in the Middle East. I knew the pay was good in that area, but I was comfortable and settled in Chicago with all my part-time ESL teaching.
In 2018, the International TESOL conference was held in Chicago. I had the Friday off so I went to check it out. It was the last day of the conference but there were still some good speakers and topics left to go see. After going to the sessions I wanted to see, I walked quickly through the poster presentations. I stopped at a presentation that a woman in India was making on using songs to improve vocabulary. At the end of her presentation, the woman thanked me and the other attendee for coming. She then asked me if I was Indian too. I told her of my background: Lebanese and Armenian. At the word “Armenian”, the other attendee turned around in surprise: “Armenian? Me too!” I was just as surprised to meet another Armenian, so we walked off the floor. She wanted to introduce me to her colleagues. It turns out they all worked at the number one university in Oman, Sultan Qaboos University, and they were looking to hire new staff.
They hurried to interview me. Although I was not interested in any other new jobs, I went ahead and followed along. At the end of the interview, they told me of the salary and benefits that went with the job, which includes free housing, paid travel to my home country every year, and paid time for summer months off. Still not sure about working in the Middle East, I asked my older sister about what she thought about the position. Since she works for the military, she quickly investigated the country and advised me to accept the position since Oman was “the safest country in the Middle East”.
I quickly did my own research on Oman. The contract would be for 3 years and I knew that wasn’t too long to be abroad. It was manageable. I quickly emailed them my resume and other thing they needed to get started on my contract and visa. I had to also get my dog ready for traveling abroad, which included getting a permit from the Omani Department of Agriculture. Fortunately, three months before my move, the University Induction team had partnered me with a “buddy” that I could ask questions to and who could help me with getting settled in Oman. She helped me with the permit for my dog. She answered many of my questions and gave me a breakdown of what I needed to purchase my first month, i.e. washing machine, bed linen, an unlocked phone, etc.
Upon arrival, a university representative came to greet me at the airport and helped me get my belongings. He also picked up my dog who was still in his crate. He gave me my SIM card and activated my phone for me. He also took me to the currency exchange. Once that was done, he introduced me to my driver, who took me to my apartment.
The following week after my arrival, I and the few other new teachers were escorted to the many buildings and departments to get our university IDs, our country IDs, our driver’s licenses, our new bank accounts, our physical at the hospital, and to fill out all the forms we need to have filled out. It was a very busy week but we had a lot of support. We, the new teachers, helped each other and formed new bonds, and to this day, we’re still friends and visit each other and eat together when we can.
Oman is a very peaceful country. It’s at peace with all its neighbors and maintains a neutral position politically since the Sultan has been educated in Britain and is open-minded. He advocates tolerance, and therefore, expats working in Oman will be met with polite citizens. It’s against the law to offend anyone with threats or insults and anyone doing so will be taken to jail. Compared to life in Chicago, it is therefore very peaceful and safe. However, don’t expect to have a lot of entertainment. Most people hang out at the mall where it’s air-conditioned and where you’d find the movie theaters and some restaurants. There are some galleries and national museums, but most expats do outdoor activities like hiking and camping in the mountains, which are cool in the summer.
The university where I work, Sultan Qaboos University, is a very selective state university and students come with a high GPA in high school. They have a Foundations program that students have to pass before they can start their studies in their colleges. The students are the most respectful students of all Gulf university students (from what I hear), but since in high school, they go to an all girl or an all boy school, they are very shy in class and are afraid to speak up, especially the girls. They guys wear their “dashdasha”s and their “kumma”s (hats) and the girls wear their “abaya”s but you can still see their faces.
The Foundations program has all the materials sorted and they have classes for each of the skills: Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing. They have workbooks and books as well as other materials online. Most of their homework is online and you don’t have to carry any work home. You teach 18 hours a week and have 8 hours of office hours. Each day you teach 2 classes, except for Thursday, and each class runs for 2 hours. You have to prep for the 2 classes (20 students per class) as they are aimed at different skills.
The university had an Induction Committee which helped you settle more quickly. The first week after you arrive, they help you get your driver’s license, rent a car, get your state ID, your university ID and all the necessary paperwork. The university provided the apartment rent free. Getting used to driving here took some time as there were hardly any traffic lights and most intersections were roundabouts. Moreover, it’s really hard to find good landmarks because most buildings and streets look alike (The Sultan wanted to distinguish Oman from Dubai or other Gulf countries and wanted to keep the homes painted in neutral colors and be not more than 3 floors high). However, if you have a GPS system like Waze, you can get around more confidently. Google maps doesn’t talk to the drivers here, but don’t let the cops catch you looking at your phone for directions. They do fine drivers for that.
Summers in Oman are very hot and humid. In August through October, I used to take an afternoon nap on the couch after I got home because the heat exhausted me even though I had air conditioning in the car and at home. Walking from the car and to the car was enough to break me into a sweat. The weather got better in November and in winter, it’s in the 70s and nice enough to sit outside and have dinner on the balcony. I had to get used to the week starting on Sunday and ending on Thursday.
I have met a lot of American, British and South African teachers here and we all hang out. Those teaching here say they love it and most stay on for six years or more. It’s a good place to work. You get to save a lot of money too and travel to other countries in the area. Dubai, Bahrain, Doha are examples of places I want to visit still. I went to Lebanon in November and had a great time. Working in Oman is worth checking out!
Mariam has a Master's in Linguistics (TESOL Certification) from Northeastern Illinois University. She spent time teaching Business English and tutoring children in English in Austria before moving back to Chicago to serve as one of International TEFL Academy's Online TEFL instructors. Mariam is currently teaching English at the Sultan Qaboos University, a prestigious university that is ranked number one in all of Oman.
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