by Sarah Marten
David Bartsch originally comes from America, but he is now working in Qatar, which is situated in the Persian Gulf area of the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia to the south. Qatar’s economy has flourished in the last fifteen years due to its rich reserves of gas and oil, and residents now enjoy the second highest per capita income in the world. Education is very important to Qatar and this period of rapid economic growth has also resulted in many new educational institutions opening including various universities.
The University of Qatar is the first, largest and one of the most prestigious universities in Qatar, opening in 1973. David Bartsch has worked in the capital Doha for the last three years, as a Lecturer in a pre-university program in English. His job involves teaching English for academic purposes to students who have graduated from high school, before they embark on their chosen university course. The “Foundation Program Department of English” is the biggest in the University, with 150 lecturers teaching around 2000-2500 students enrolled on various courses. David recently spoke to Sarah Marten about his interesting role.
Why did you choose to work in Qatar?
Having lived and worked abroad before, I was used to meeting people from other cultures and it seemed a logical progression to look for a lectureship overseas. A desire to help other communities also motivated me, and I already had a background in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). My wife was also very happy to accompany me overseas, and she found a part-time job after we arrived.
I found my present job through an ESL teacher convention back in the States, part of which included a job fair for teaching positions overseas. I had a face-to-face interview at the fair, and was offered the job a few days later. The decision to move to Qatar was in some ways a difficult one, as I had never thought about working in the Gulf until I saw this post advertised. However, the work appealed, and I was offered a very attractive tax-free salary package which included free housing. When I was offered the job I really knew very little about Qatar, although I made sure I did some research before moving, and was fortunate in being able to talk to someone who had already worked here.
How did you prepare for the move?
The benefits package I was given by the University of Qatar included a relocation allowance, although we did not bring any furniture as our future accommodation was fully furnished. As we had been renting a property in the States, moving overseas was fairly straightforward. We did not need vaccinations, and just had to organise a few things such as closing bank accounts and selling our car.
I knew that English was widely spoken in Qatar, so other than some basic phrases, I had no real knowledge of Arabic. I had planned to learn this after we arrived, and I would still like to, although living here is very easy, even if you don’t speak Arabic.
The whole process from initial application and interview through to moving here took about four months.
How did the visa process go?
The University of Qatar organised the visa process for me and everything went very smoothly. You need a job in order to move to Qatar and so the University sponsored me. I was able to sponsor my wife so that she could accompany me.
What was it like in the first few days/weeks?
When I first arrived in Qatar, it was late at night, and the moist air and high humidity hit us in the face. We were immediately collected by a representative of the University and taken to our accommodation.
We were offered a modern three bedroom apartment, which is large and comfortable, and is situated on the university compound on the outside of the capital Doha. Most University staff live here – the facilities are excellent and include a clubhouse with swimming pool and open spaces. It is possible to employ full-time live-in help for around £175 per month, although this is not something that we have needed or wanted to do.
The University of Qatar offers all new staff an induction programme, which covers everything you need to know about settling into the country, such as opening bank accounts, and obtaining a driving licence and residents permit. They also organised medical checks and arranged the police check from the US embassy I needed before I could start work.
The weather here in Qatar can be extremely hot with very high humidity; temperatures recently reached as high as 62 degrees in Doha! This is unusual, and air conditioning, which is found everywhere, helps make things more comfortable, and the winters are quite pleasant. I have found that I have to adapt mentally as much as physically for the high temperatures, and just accept that when I go out it will usually be really hot. Keeping properly hydrated with water is really important, particularly if you do any exercise.
We have bought a car in Doha, although at first I found driving here really stressful and potentially dangerous. Since we arrived new driving laws have be implemented, which has made driving much safer and more enjoyable. I have also become a more sensitive and aware driver. Public bus transport is limited but available, and a metro system is being planned.
It was not long before we settled into a routine, very much like our daily routine back home, which included work, shopping and visiting restaurants occasionally. The supermarkets in Doha also sell many of the products that we were used to in the States, as well as many British products.
What sort of work are you engaged in?
Although Qatar is an Arabic-speaking country, the majority of our courses at the University of Qatar are taught in English. This does mean there is a significant demand for high-quality English teaching, to ensure that students are at the appropriate level before they embark on their first degree. The students’ existing standard of English can vary greatly.
Over one full semester we are responsible for teaching English to over 2100 students, within the team of 150 teaching staff. When students first come to us, we give them a proficiency test and they are assigned a level between one and four. Students can spend a maximum of four semesters with us, which equates to two full academic years, with their time in our program ending when they achieve an appropriate score. score on the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) or other exam. Most of the students come from the local area and surrounding regions, including North Africa, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.
How many hours do you work?
I normally have 18 hours of contact time each week; although at present I am released from teaching for four hours of this for various committee duties. I currently serve on the Student Services Committee, which involves organising extra help for those students who need this, as well as interviewing potential tutors.
So at present I teach for about 14 hours a week, and of course there is all the marking and preparation on top of this. The more experienced you are, the less time this generally takes.
How did you find the Higher Education sector in Qatar?
The Foundation Program Department of English here at the University of Qatar is very well-organised which makes the job much easier. I have found all my colleagues to be very positive, supportive and encouraging.
Lecturers in Qatar are very much seen as authority figures and students are used to a more formal approach which starts in school. However, I have also found that you need to earn the respect of students before they trust you completely.
One of the main differences here is that this University is segregated into two adjacent campuses for men and women, with separate lecture halls, laboratories and other facilities. As a male lecturer though, I am able to teach both female and male students. There is no contact between students of opposite sex, although things are perhaps slightly more relaxed than they used to be.
Having worked previously in America, the cultural differences between students in the two countries are marked. Virtually all our students here are Muslim, and about 90% still live at home, with obvious parental control. As a non-Muslim, I have not felt uncomfortable in this environment.
What about your work with the students?
The students who I work with are those who are not yet ready for the academic environment of an undergraduate degree. Clearly my job is to help them improve their English, but also to help them to become independent learners and further develop critical thinking skills.
High school education in Qatar tends to focus on rote learning, and I am therefore involved in a process where the students’ thinking can start to shift in order to benefit fully from Higher Education. Many of my students have limited experience of the wider world, and if they have travelled, it is not usually far beyond the immediate Middle East.
What is the social life like?
Our social life here has been good, but this is because we have made the effort to join in and get to know people. I have seen people who have not become connected leave and go back home. There is lots going on here in Doha, from musical groups to arts and sporting societies. We have made friends by joining our local church and getting involved there. It can be hard to meet local people, partly because there are so many expatriates living here, but those I have met are very friendly. One very pleasant surprise has been how safe it is to live here. Although the Middle East has a mixed reputation in this regard, both I and my wife feel very secure when going out here, in fact even more secure than some places in the US!
What have you enjoyed most about your time in Qatar?
One of my best moments outside the classroom was when a mature student invited me out to his camel farm in the desert outside Doha, where we tasted fresh camel’s milk, and I felt very honoured to meet the student’s family and friends who have mixed modern and traditional Bedouin lifestyles.
Within the University I have taken great delight from being able to celebrate victories with my students, and see them progress happily onto their chosen courses.
Do you face any particular challenges?
It can sometimes be hard to keep motivated when the students do not seem to be making enough progress, perhaps because they need to put in more work themselves. Their academic backgrounds and abilities vary considerably, as does their approach to study. It is therefore important to keep focussed on the successes.
Have you got any advice for other academics planning to work in Qatar?
You need to keep a flexible and well-balanced perspective about working overseas at all times. It is best not to keep thinking about how things used to be at work “back home”, especially since “home” can start to take on an unrealistically rosy glow once you are abroad.
The other really important thing for anyone working abroad is to get connected with other people, preferably not just people at work. Here I live in the same compound as colleagues, and it can be a bit stifling if you never escape! In a different country you may very well have the opportunity to mix with people from professions or social groups that you would not meet at home. This has certainly happened to me, and it has been great! Of course, befriending co-workers is also beneficial, and I have gained so much from relationships with Tunisian, Maldivian, Turkish and Egyptian colleagues, to name just a few. This has been a real adventure for me and given me the opportunity to view the world through the eyes of these compatriots.
David Bartsch has had varied teaching experience. Upon being licensed to teach music in 1998, he held several positions in the field in the US mainland and in Saipan, a US possession in the Western Pacific. He then taught basic educational skills to prisoners in a youth detention center, at the same time volunteering in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program. This experience prompted him to return to school to be trained in teaching ESL; he received an MA degree in ESL from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA, in 2007. After graduation he moved to Qatar, where he teaches in a pre-university program at Qatar University.