Teaching ESL At Kuwait UniversityJeffrey L. Martin
jlm [at] gol.com
IntroductionIf you are like I was back in the summer of 1995 when considering an offer from Kuwait University, you have many questions about living and working in this tiny Gulf country. Unfortunately the literature in this area, when compared with information available about such countries as Japan and Korea, for example, is minimal.
This article seeks to redress the balance by providing you with information about my experience as an English language instructor in the Faculty of Medicine (FOM) at Kuwait University (KU) from September 1995 to February 1997. My wife and I left the United States knowing very little about Kuwait or KU, but with reassurances from a good friend who had been with the university for three years that everything would be fine. As it turned out, it wasn't all that difficult to adjust to life there or to working at KU. It was certainly an interesting experience, one neither my wife nor myself would trade away for more years in the US, Thailand or Japan, all countries where we lived and worked prior to moving to Kuwait.
The good news for those of you considering a position as an English language instructor with KU is that the university seems to turn down few applicants so long as they have a minimum of qualifications and rarely requires an interview. In my 18 months in Kuwait I met a number of peculiar individuals teaching English at KU that made me wonder who was doing the recruiting. That is not to say that Kuwait is a country full of flaky ESL cast-offs. I also met several talented, eager, and industrious teachers who were dedicated to their craft, involved in curriculum development projects, carrying out research, or in other ways contributing to their chosen field. However, given the comparatively low wages in Kuwait (versus those in Saudi or the UAE) and at KU (compared with those offered by two new private institutes which just recently opened in Kuwait), and the anxiety of many to live in a country so recently ravaged by war, it is understandable that KU may not get the top picks when drafting English instructors. This can be used to your advantage if you have little experience and wish to land a university position.
This article is limited in scope to teaching English at Kuwait University. It does not cover teaching other subjects, nor does it look in depth at teaching at other institutions within Kuwait, of which there are plenty. Even if you're not interested in KU, reviewing some of the information contained herein may give you a good idea of what it is like to live and work in this Gulf city-state. I hope you find this article useful and that if you have any questions you will free to contact me at the address at the top of the article. I will try to answer your questions in private email but hope also to address them in later editions of this article.
ContentsThis article consists of the following sections:
- A Note on Currency
- Qualifications & Remuneration
- Where to Apply
- How to Apply
- Contractual Issues*
- The Contract
- Visas and Airline Tickets
- Female Applicants
- Additional Work*
- Living in Kuwait*
Before continuing on, one caveat is in order - things change, even in Kuwait. Most of the information here is accurate as far as I am aware. I still have contacts in Kuwait who keep me up-to-date on changing conditions, but I of course may have missed something. I would therefore appreciate hearing from anyone with information contrary to what is contained herein.
A Note on CurrencyThe Kuwaiti currency is the Kuwaiti dinar (kd). One dinar is made up of 1,000 fils. One dinar is worth approximately US$3.30. If you'd like to see what it looks like, go to http://www.paaet.edu.kw/Info/HomePage/shaheen/kd20.htm.
Qualifications & Remuneration
QualificationsThe application process at KU usually begins with an interested applicant finding an advertisement for English instructors in one of the various print or internet ESL publications. The standard announcement on the KU Vacancies site http://www.kuniv.edu.kw/ku_vacancies.html includes the following information for positions with the Language Centre.
- American applicants
- M.A. in TEFL/TESL or Applied Linguistics
- At least 2 years of teaching experience to EFL/ESL students
- British applicants
- M.A. in TEFL/TESL or Applied Linguistics or B.A., English Language from a British University, and one of the following degrees:
- PGCE (TEFL/TESL or TESOL)
- Diploma in TEFL/TESL or Applied Linguistics
- RSA (TEFL) Diploma
- At least 2 years of teaching experience to EFL/ESL students
- M.A. in TEFL/TESL or Applied Linguistics or B.A., English Language from a British University, and one of the following degrees:
If you are interested in working at KU, do not be put off by the requirement for an M.A. in TESL/TEFL. There are many English language instructors at KU with degrees in English literature, education, psychology, and other fields in the social sciences. However, some type of ESL experience or certification to balance out the non-TESL M.A. will certainly improve your employability.
In addition, any teaching experience after completing an undergraduate degree will count towards fulfilling the experience "preference" as well as qualifying you for additional salary increments.
BenefitsSo what is the university going to provide in exchange for your services? Before we get to the matter of salary, let's look at the some of the other benefits first. Comments on each follow.
- 8 weeks summer holidays, 2 weeks mid-year break
- Annual economy class return air ticket to the country of permanent residence to the instructor, his wife and three children
- Free medical service according to government regulations
- Furnished private apartments
- Computer access
- End of Service Gratuity
3 Health Care: The free health services are not something I would be eager to take advantage of, though I heard of people encountering good doctors. Once you get an eyeful of the facilities after your initial health screening on entering the country you'll see exactly what I mean. Fortunately, I never had need to use them. By the time you read this medical services may not in fact be free. There is talk of having foreigners pay for basic services. The figure being bandied about at the moment is an annual 160kd fee (US$528).
4 Housing: When I left Kuwait in February of 1997, the university had implemented a new housing scheme which gives employees the choice of furnished university housing at the Shuwaikh campus or a monthly housing stipend of 250kd for single teachers (US$825) and 350kd for teachers with dependents (US$1155), in addition to a 2500kd (US$8,250) furniture allowance.
The apartments on Shuwaikh campus are large (4-5 rooms, plus kitchen, living room, and two baths) and appointed with all the basics in furnishing (though the purchasing department will never receive a word of thanks from the people who have to use the stuff they selected). On the other hand, Shuwaikh is physically isolated at one end of the city near the port. If you live there and happen to work on any other campus except Shuwaikh, you will either have to depend on the university buses (which will pick you up in the morning and drop you off in the afternoon) or buy a car. In fact, even if you work on the Shuwaikh campus you will probably still want to purchase a car as there is very little in the vicinity of Shuwaikh and depending on the public transport system would be very inconvenient.
The housing stipend seems to be a better deal as you can choose the area of town where you would like to live, as well as whatever style furniture you like. In addition, the thrifty may be able to economize and pocket the difference, which can be quite substantial for someone planning to stay several years.
Please note that a portion of the furniture allowance must be repaid to the university if you work with them less than 4 years. The percentage which must be repaid depends on the number of years you have worked with KU.
The latest word from Kuwait is that teachers over 60 years of age MUST live on the Shuwaikh campus. Even those who are completeing a contract signed before they turned 60 must move into an apartment on the Shuwaikh campus upon their sixtieth birthday.
5 Computer Access: Technically available but check with the faculty where you will be working. Some faculties, such as FOM, provide computers in each instructor's office. At others there may be only a lab which students and teachers must share, or nothing at all.
6 End of Service Gratuity: Also not a bad deal. The formula is this:
- Base salary x 8% x the number of months worked
SalaryThe salary structure is less than transparent. When you check in at the Web site or receive an offer of employment from the university, you will find that your salary is determined by a number of categories that include:
- Base Salary
- Professional Allowance
- Allowance for M.A.
As of this writing, any type of teaching experience seems to be acceptable, from language schools, to primary school, to university experience. One is not more highly valued than the others in terms of the amount of money deposited in your bank account each month.
In his article "Teaching EFL at Kuwait University" (TESOL Placement Bulletin, Vol. 6, No.4, July 1996), Charles Wukasch states that Ph.D. holders are eligible for a monthly 50kd supplement. This may be the official policy. However, I knew of a woman with 15 years experience and a Ph.D. in International Education from a prestigious American university and she got paid as much as the rest of us with less experience and fewer credentials.
Also note that your salary is tax free, and that there is no VAT or sales tax in Kuwait.
Where to ApplyThere are three places you can apply for an English language post. The Language Centre (LC) is a clearinghouse for language teachers and the entity which you are mostly likely to encounter placing advertising or appearing at ESL conferences for recruiting purposes. The LC provides instructors to the following faculties (or colleges):
- Administrative Sciences (business)
- Political Science
- Engineering and Petroleum
- Shari'a and Islamic Studies
- Science and Graduate Studies
On their web site the LC claims to also provide instructors for the FOM and Allied Health (which covers among other things nursing, physical therapy, and medical technology), but this is in fact not the case. These two faculties hire independently of the LC. If you wish to work in these faculties, you must apply directly to the directors of their English programs. In the future, the English departments in these two faculties will merge once construction of new facilities at the Jabriya Medical College have been completed. Allied Health is currently located on the Shuwaikh campus. If you would like to increase your chances of being offered a position, apply to all three with separate letters of interest and CVs.
- Director (Dr. Yahiya A. Ahmad)
- Language Centre
- Kuwait University
- P.O. Box 2575
- Safat 13026
- Tel: (965) 481-0325 or (965) 484-1741
- Fax: (965) 484-3824
- Email: Lcentre [at] kucol.kuniv.edu.kw
- Director (Ms. Rita Catherine Al-Abdullah)
- English Language Division
- Faculty of Medicine
- Kuwait University
- PO Box 24923
- Safat 13110
- Tel: (965) 531-2300, ext. 6612
- Fax: (965) 531-8454
- Email: cathy [at] hsc.kuniv.edu.ku
- Director (Mr. David Rosen)
- English Language Unit
- Faculty of Allied Health Sciences & Nursing
- Kuwait University
- PO Box 31470
- Sulaibekhat 90805
- Tel: (965) 484-2243, ext. 4869
- Fax: (965) 483-0937
- Email: Rosen [at] hsc.kuniv.edu.kw
How to ApplySend a cover letter expressing your interest, along with a resume or CV to one of the above. Email is, of course, much quicker and far more reliable than the Kuwaiti postal system. If you wish to mail hard copies of your materials, you would be better off sending them by courier such as DHL or Federal Express as your materials are sure to arrive in a reasonable amount of time. The same cannot be said for material sent via regular mail. In my experience the directors of Medicine and Allied Health are more than willing to review email applications. I am not quite sure whether the LC is as accommodating.
You need not expect to be interviewed for a position. KU routinely hires language instructors without as much as a telephone interview. On the other hand, representatives from the LC have been known to visit and recruit at TESOL conventions on occaision.
The ContractThe bureaucracy at KU is incredibly thick and thus it takes quite a while for paper to move through the system. Once the director has decided to make you an offer, it must first be approved by various persons or departments within the hierarchy before you are actually faxed, mailed, or telexed an official offer. If you wish to work in Kuwait, be patient. I do not believe the LC turns down many applicants, but it does take time for them to get around to making you an offer.
The actual contract will not be presented or signed until you get to Kuwait and jump through several bureaucratic hoops, including presentation of your original qualifications (diplomas and certificates), a health screening and fingerprinting. After all that is done and the bureaucrats are satisfied that you are a person worthy of living and working in the country you will be presented with a one year contract, renewable thereafter in increments of two years.
Visas and Airline TicketsThis is all taken care of for you by KU. Before your departure date, you should receive a faxed copy of your visa, which you will exchange in Kuwait airport for the original. You should receive by courier your airline tickets. For US applicants, questions about these matters can be handled through the university's office attached to the Kuwait Embassy in Washington DC.
After replying positively to an offer of employment do not be surprised if you hear nothing from the university for several weeks. Again, patience is required if you wish to work in Kuwait. This does not mean you should just sit back and wait. I would suggest you keep peppering the LC or whatever contacts you have with faxes, telephone calls, and email. When dealing with Kuwait, apply the old adage of the squeaky wheel getting the grease.
Female ApplicantsBe forewarned: while the university will provide transport and housing for a teacher's dependents, this is only the case when the instructor is male. Female instructors intending to bring over a husband or children will not receive any additional stipends for dependents. I personally knew of an English woman whose husband was Egyptian and they would not provide transport or additional housing for him. In every other respect, however, female applicants are treated the same as male applicants.
ResponsibilitiesHere is what the LC has posted on its Web page:
Duties & Responsibilities
- Evaluating student performance, according to course criteria, and keeping an accurate record of marks.
- Keeping an exact record of student attendance.
- Submitting student absence report forms when appropriate.
- Participating in Curriculum Development Committee (CDC).
- Attending General Staff, Level, and Test Development Committee (TDC) meetings.
- Preparing items for Norming Tests and Mid-term and Final examinations.
- Preparing supplementary materials, as needed. Proctoring and correcting Norming Test, Placement, Mid-term, and Final examinations.
- Reviewing textbooks and graded readers for potential use in the programmes.
More importantly, what you need to know is that for most teachers none of the above applies. Most teach their classes, keep attendance, counsel students, and give tests. While I did not work for the LC, I knew many who did and I recall very few instructors mentioning committee meetings. Of course much depends on the faculty in which you work. Some will be more activist than others, but in general I can tell you that all this stuff about committee work is something that exists largely on paper or in someone's mind.
So what exactly will you be doing? The language programs at KU are largely ESP programs and cater to the specific needs of the students within each faculty. Some colleges, such as Medicine, conduct their entire program in English. (In fact at the FOM the majority of instructors are foreigners.) Most of the students in this faculty are well motivated as their careers depend on an ability to function in English academically. Other faculties, such as Shari`a, are nearly all Arabic. In such cases the motivation to study English may be less.
The language program at each faculty differ in terms of the number of class and credit hours required, as well as objectives, curriculum, and content. However, the general administrative structure is similar at each faculty. The director of the program, most often a Kuwaiti, works with a group of coordinators responsible for managing courses within the department's program. Coordinators are instructors who have been at the faculty for at least a year, though new instructors may be pressed into service if there is a need. Coordinators are responsible for selecting course texts, supplying teachers of that course with supplementary materials, and synchronizing the teaching to insure consistency and unformity across several sections of the same course. This is especially important in the writing of exams and in student assessment. In addition to these managerial duties, the coordinator also teaches one of the sections of the same course. Such a setup naturally requires people who are cooperative and enjoy working as a team. As an instructor you will have to work closely with at least two coordinators, possibly more, as well as a handful of instructors.
So what is in this for the coordinator, you ask? They do not, in case you were wondering, receive any additional financial remuneration for this work. Some enjoy the chance to manage the direction of a course, develop materials, and work closely with other teachers. Others do it simply for the chance to do something different, while some do it under duress. However, all coordinators receive fewer teaching hours in exchange for their administrative responsibilities. Some therefore become coordinators so they don't have to teach the full 15 hours required under the contract.
Class sizes range from 12-30 depending on the faculty, enrollment, and the number of instructors available. In the FOM we never had more than 20 per class, but we were a relatively small program. Classes in larger faculties, such as Aministrative Sciences, tend to have larger number of students per class.
Education at KU is not gender segregated (though there are a few who would prefer to make it so). You will have male and female students in your classes. However, they rarely work together and usually sit by mutual agreement on opposite sides of the room. Women are not required to veil themselves in Kuwait and many do not. However, some of your female students will come to class wearing the abbaya, the full length black outer garmet , as well as a scarf, veil, and black gloves, completely concealing themselves. It is quite a challenge to relate to these students, who are little more than voices.
Additional WorkThis question often comes up because the university salary is generally a bit low compared with salaries within other Persian Gulf countries and more recently in comparison with some of the ESL institutes that have begun operations in Kuwait. It is entirely possible to save money without taking on additional work, but generally the lack of social facilities leads most instructors to spend their large amount of free time padding their bank accounts.
Several faculties offer summer courses which you may elect to teach. Officially, in order to teach a summer course you must have 1) worked at the university for one year (or two semesters) and 2) taught the course you intend to teach over the summer. As with most rules, they are not set in stone. I personally know of someone who did not meet either of the above criteria yet still did a summer course. The summer semester runs approximately six weeks, and you are compensated two months salary per course. If you happened to hire on in the middle of the academic year, you do not meet criteria 1 above, and your pay will therefore be halved.
Opportunities also arise during the semester in various faculties because of over-enrollment or understaffing. Notices are often sent to all the faculties with information about additional classes available within a particular faculty. This may mean, for example, that while your position is within the Faculty of Science, you could pick up additional classes within the Faculty of Aministrative Sciences. As KU does not have a central campus and is spread throughout the city this would mean commuting between campuses.
The university runs an adult education program in the evenings from the Adeliya campus (site of the Faculty of Aministrative Sciences). Notice is usually sent around to the various faculty requesting interested teachers to sign up for conversation, grammar, and TOEFL courses. Compensation here is at the rate of 15kd (US$49.50) per class hour, one class comprising approximately 40 hours.
Finally, the university also has a TOEFL preparation program for high school students wishing to attend university in the United States. Classes in this program meet every evening, five days a week, at the KU Adeliya campus. Compensation in this program is generally higher than in the adult education program so positions are not often available.
There are several other institutions outside the university which employ ESL instructors. Unfortunately I know little about working conditions there, but have provided a list of URLs and email addresses for these institutions, as well as several international schools.
Living in KuwaitKuwait is a tiny country. It is so small that driving for two hours in any direction from the center of the city puts you in another country (on in the Gulf). There are 2.5 million people in Kuwait and only 1 million of them are Kuwaitis. The remainder are imported labor, just as you will be if you choose to work there. Most of the laborers brought into Kuwait, except for female house servants, are males from Egypt, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. One of the most serious and pressing public policy issues in Kuwait (and Saudi Arabia, where similar conditions exist) is the country's over dependence on foreign labor. Most Kuwaitis, especially if they have college degrees, hold out for government jobs, which are essentially lifetime appointments with generous retirement benefits. Very few opt to work in the private sector, where wages are depressed as a result of the importation of inexpensive labor.
However, the number of foreigners in Kuwait makes it a truly cosmopolitan country. I never in my life met so many people from so many cultural and linguistic backgrounds as I did while living in tiny Kuwait. If you enjoy meeting people from other cultures, or if you enjoy eating or trying new foods, Kuwait is certainly a wonderful place to live as there are opportunities to meet people from all over the world and to sample Arab, Indian, Persian, and North African cuisines.
Religious practice is guaranteed in the constitution. There are several Protestant and Catholic churches in the city center with large congregations and Kuwaitis tend to be very accommodating towards non-Islamic religious beliefs and practices. In fact what most Kuwaitis find peculiar are those who profess no religion or spiritual ideas.
Certain articles are proscribed within Kuwait, including pork and alcohol. Many foreigners (and Kuwaitis) find ways around this, however. Almost everyone I knew made their own wine. This is an open secret in Kuwait, which is evident by the large amount of bottled grape juice stocked in the western supermarkets. Nearly every week I went shopping I saw at least one foreigner with a case or two of grape juice and several kilos of sugar in his or her shopping basket. The more inventive have found ways to brew beer as well. And of course there is a black market of commercially produced spirits, though for most ESL teachers it is a bit pricey. Other avenues of obtaining alcohol include friends stationed at Camp Doha (the US military camp) or with the United Nations (which still maintains a monitoring presence on the Kuwait-Iraq border). And lest you think bringing in a bottle or two of spirits is inviting a jail term, you should know that the smuggling of small amounts of alcohol is a bit of game played between expats and customs officials. I knew several teachers who made regular trips to Bahrain and the UAE, where alcohol sales are not prohibited, and routinely brought back bottles of whisky and other spirits. Several of these same teachers had also been found out on occasion, which resulted in nothing more than the confiscation of the contraband.
In general, the rule seems to be that so long as your are producing or importing small amounts for your personal consumption the authorities will turn a blind eye. Distribution and selling is another matter. These WILL land you in jail. If you are entering Kuwait for the first time, I would advise you not to attempt to bring any alcohol into the country. Politically motivated campaigns to crack down on smuggling may occur between the time you read this and the time you leave for Kuwait. You may arrive in the country only to end up in jail or on another plane back home. Once you arrive you can sus out the political mood on the ground and make informed decisions about your next overseas trip.
More pernicious than the banning of alcohol, however, is the censoring of books, magazines, and films. While there are two movie theaters in Kuwait, showing mostly products of Hollywood and Bollywood, it is hardly worth the effort to attend the western movies as most are largely big-name action films. These are the least objectionable in terms of content to the censors. Love stories and anything remotely related to sex is heavily censored or banned. Same applies to videos, though the music market seems to be a little bit more open. I guess the censors have a hard time understanding some of the lyrics in foreign music and assume it must be innocuous. Selection, however, is very narrow. It might be a good time to learn about Arab, Persian and North African music.
Print material is also censored for both graphic and editorial content. Pictures of women in swimsuits and low cut blouses, for example, are routinely marked over with the censor's black marker, as are articles, quotes or comments deemed politically or religiously offensive. With the advent of the internet, however, protecting the population from dangerous ideas is becoming a bit of a problem for the authorities as digital copies of much of the banned material can easily be downloaded to your computer.
So, what is there to do in Kuwait? There isn't much history - if the Kuwaitis didn't tear it down in the name of development, the Iraqis and the Allies obliterated it in the effort to protect their access to cheap oil. There are a couple of museums, but they are sad affairs. If you like sport there are plenty of health clubs, in addition to many clubs organized around water sports and team sports. In addition, if you have a research project you've been wanting to do or reading you've been wanting to catch up on, Kuwait is a great place to do it as you will have plenty of time and few other distractions.
Shopping is also a favorite activity of the Kuwaitis, though you probably won't be interested in traveling halfway around the world to blow your salary on consumer goods. But if you want it, they have it. There are several upscale shopping malls, and the Salmiya high street features such shops as Next, Gap, Sony and Technics dealerships, as well as a Mercedes showroom.
The Friday market is a huge weekly open air market that is always fun to visit if for no other reason than to take in the sights. You'll find almost everything imaginable on sale here, including livestock, Persian rugs, antiques, furniture, household items (such as laundry detergent, kitchen ware, and other daily necessities), clothing, and just plain old junk that someone carted out of their garage, storage shed, or basement.
Gold is also a big item in the Gulf and there is plenty to be had in Kuwait, though from my brief shopping forays I do not believe it is an especially great bargain. Most of the jewelry is imported from India and given the cheaper labor costs there you probably do save a little on labor and spend a greater proportion on the gold itself.
Driving around in your car is another favorite pastime of the Kuwaitis, especially the young. There wasn't a weekend when we didn't hear a caravan of 5-10 cars cruising down the street honking their horns. If you're going to participate, a cell phone is de rigor.
Outside of restaurants and coffee shops, there are very few places for informal social gatherings. There are no bars, discos, or music clubs. Many of the large hotels attempt to fill this gap with seasonal events such as bazaars, or weekly musical performances by local musicians.
If all of this sounds a bit bleak and uninviting, there are without fail weekly gatherings of expats in apartments all over town for those who like to party. With no bars or restaurants available for socializing, many expats become part of social circles that hold weekly gatherings, the meetings rotating amongst a circle of friends.
ConclusionIn February of 1997, just five days before leaving the country for Japan, I wrote the following about my experience at KU:
Kuwait has been interesting and I'm certainly glad I had a chance to live and work in this part of the world. As I was telling an English teacher from the States interested in teaching at the university here, Kuwait University is a great place for teachers who have little experience or who want to experiement with methodology or curriculmn. Professional standards in all fields are low, so there is usally no one to care what you do in your classes or to challenge your motives for introducing changes. For those without an agenda, however, it is a deadly dull place for the same reasons. If you don't have the energy to do something on your own, no one will push you to do anything beyond show up in class and not alientate the students.I think that about says it all.
I hope this information has helped you in making some kind of decision about whether to apply or accept work at Kuwait University. Please feel free to write to me with your comments or questions at jlm [at] gol.com.
The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. III, No. 10, October 1997