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Educating in the Middle East context is unique. Daily, thousands of educators in private and National school settings, across all the seven Emirates, work alongside each other with the aspiration of maximising student learning. This uniqueness stems from the multi-cultural richness of the individuals in each school setting. Few places in the world provide such an opportunity for different ‘first’ language speakers from different countries, different religions and different ethnicities, to work together for a common purpose.

Coaching and/or mentoring has long been considered an effective way to develop people. The literature is rife with a plethora of models, approaches and strategies to develop leaders and teachers in education. Unfortunately, the origins of much of this research are monocultural and monolingual, not specific to a context like the Middle East. The intercultural element though, adds another dimension, or layer of complexity that cannot be ignored, as too often individuals ‘fail’ when placed on/in international assignments and situations (Story, 2011).

‘Intercultural’ in the United Arab Emirates school setting describes two or more people from often very diverse cultures, often without the same lingua franca (mother tongue or same first language) interacting daily. Both international, but predominantly National schools employ experienced educational leaders and teachers from all over the world to work alongside, often Arabic first language speakers, to develop leadership and teaching capacity. Yet many of these expatriate (expats) teachers and leaders may not be equipped to deal with the complexities of this new cultural environment, resulting in a reduced capacity to deliver.

The following are some broad considerations educational employers and potential expats should consider when working in an intercultural context.

  1. Ability to Acculturate – The level of cultural intelligence or intercultural sensitivity of the individual, the possession of which may help the individual transition to the new international environment. This has implications for induction processes (Gundling, E., Hogan, T., & Cvitkovich, K. 2011).
  • Cultural Nuance – The ability of the individual to assimilate and adapt to the new cultural context. Three elements need to be considered here:
    • Ability to interact in a polychronic culture. Expatriates come from monochronic cultures, whereas the Middle East is considered a polychronic culture, characterised by such things as multiple interruptions, distractions, focusing on events, people and undertaking multiple tasks at one time (Al-Omari, 2008; Hingston, 2012)
    • Ability to interpret meaning from non-verbal signs. The Middle East is also considered a high-context culture (Hingston, 2012) where meaning is not explicit and interpreting meaning often comes from non-verbal cues.
    • Understanding Power-distance relationships. The Arabic culture is considered as having a high power-distance index, where challenging authority is considered to be culturally inappropriate (Hingston, 2012; Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J. & Minkov, M., 2010). These factors combined or in isolation can equate to the frustration experienced by the expat.
  • Culture Shock – A very real condition experienced by most expats to a lesser or greater degree (Hofstede et al., 2010). The acculturation or culture shock curve is a concept that attempts to define an individual’s ability to work through stages of adjustment and become “fully competent” in their new culture (Lucas, 2003).
  • Language – Language, for people in an intercultural context, is a significant challenge (Cooper, O’Roark, Pennington, Peterson and Wilson-Stark, 2008). Lacking fluency in a common language is considered to be a formidable barrier to effective capacity building (Peterson, 2007). This fact has implications for employers in terms of the use of translators to break down communication barriers.
By: Gregor Cameron