Teaching in the UAE is not for everyone. However, it’s one of the best ways to make money while traveling the world. Daniel and I taught in Abu Dhabi from 2014 to 2016, and this was our experience.
Average Income: $2,000 month to $5,000 month
Free Housing/Utilities: Yes
Tax Free: Yes
Free flights: Yes
Vacation Days: We got three weeks Christmas, two weeks at spring break, eight weeks over summer break, two or three long weekends, and half days during Ramadan.
Certifications Needed? Yes and no. Abu Dhabi is now requiring a teaching degree or certification (TEFL won’t cut it), but I taught there from 2014 to 1016 with only a college degree. In Dubai, a college degree alone with out a teaching specialization can still land you a job for now.
Contract Length: Most schools will require you to sign a two-year contract.
Where to Find a Job:
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I found my job teaching at a SABIS school in Abu Dhabi through the career portal on my university website. My husband (only boyfriend at the time) and I both did a phone interview, and I took a bus from Boston to New York for an in-person interview as well. They try to set them up for those who can make them, but it wasn’t required. We both were informed that we had the positions for the upcoming school year in February, and we signed the contract in March.
The contract included housing, utilities, flights at the beginning and end of the school year, healthcare, and a $2,200/month salary, equating to $26,400/year. However, we also received a raise our second year and a $10,000 bonus upon completion of our second year.
All in all, we received about $66,000 each in monetary income over the two years. With the value of the free housing, tax free income, and flights, the package was worth closer to $86,000 for the two years of work. Considering we were on vacation for about 7 of those months, it was a killer deal!
Every teacher (and I mean EVERY) also tutors kids under the table. The fees for an hour session usually range from $40 to $50 each, and there were some weeks before final exams where I was banking $1000 in tutoring sessions alone. It adds up fast.
Cultural Expectations vs. Reality
The culture shock that I experienced after I moved to Abu Dhabi was real and definitely not easy to adjust to. When I first arrived, I thought that I’d be making a major lifestyle shift away from my drinking and party days in college (because it’s the Middle East, right?).
I was SO wrong.
There’s not a lot to do out in the middle of the desert, so we would hit the brunches hard. Brunch there is a magical thing. In the UAE, it means that you pay a set fee and get access to a five-star buffet and open bar for four or five hours at a time. Once those were done, we’d grab a taxi and go dancing or drinking for the rest of the night.
There were beaches in Abu Dhabi, but we lived out in the suburbs (Khalifa City A), so they were farther away. It was also too hot in the summer and fall months, and they tended to be expensive to enter.
Instead, we’d usually opt to buy a Groupon to one of the luxury hotels and spend a day lounging in the pools instead. In Dubai, there is a little more to do (the Jumeirah walk, Dubai mall, or Miracle gardens, for example), but you can only go to a mall so may times before you feel like you’re back in your pre-teen days.
On longer weekends while teaching in the UAE, teachers would rent a car and drive down to Muscat or east to dive off of the Omani coast. The other Emirates like Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah also offered some variety to explore but not much. All in all, the UAE is a strange place. If you don’t drink, and you love to explore the great outdoors, it is definitely NOT the country for you.
Now for the questions that I know you’ve been wondering about.
Yes, the UAE is Muslim. The call to prayer woke me up every night, and we often saw women dressed in burqas. However, they are pretty lax about applying their cultural rules to foreigners. When it came to clothing, my general rule of thumb was to show my shoulders or my legs, but never both. With one or the other, I was usually fine. However, when we went out drinking, dresses, short skirts, and high heels were the norm.
The UAE is 80% expats, so there is a LARGE divide between the Muslim Emiratis and the western population. For the most part the Muslim culture did not affect me much at all. I read a lot about horror stories and crazy arrests before I went, but they are rare and only usually if you really piss off the wrong person. I have a friend who passed out drunk and woke up at the police station TWICE without consequence. It’s not as scary there as the media portrays it to be.
There were about forty other twenty-something Brits, Irish, and other English speaking teachers working at our school, so our friend group was built-in. We all lived in dorm-style apartments and hit the nightlife hard together.
We would also frequent the “Ladies Nights” weekly, which was basically just when bars shrug their shoulders and let all women drink for free.
The best part about the lifestyle for me, though, was the travel.
During our two years teaching in the UAE Daniel and I got scuba certified in Thailand, stayed in a treehouse in Sri Lanka, saw Mount Everest while hiking in the Himalayas in Nepal, camped on a beach in Oman, ate our way through the Christmas markets in Berlin, enjoyed the nightlife in Porto, and rang in a New Year in Barcelona.
I made some lifelong friends in the deserts of Abu Dhabi, and the social aspect of the schools and carefree lifestyle (lots of money, lots of travel) was an amazing experience.
My Experience Teaching in the UAE
The school year runs from late August to late June. As teachers, we were required to show up two weeks early our first year and one week before the school year started our second year. Those two weeks are all the training you get before you’re thrown to the wolves though, so it’s NOT easy in any sense of the word.
I think any teacher can agree that the first year on the job is difficult no matter what. I was emotionally exhausted, I came home crying after work, I had stress dreams so intense that I would walk around my apartment handing out play-doh and talking to my students in my sleep. Working hard every day to be upbeat and emotionally available despite what’s going on in your personal life or how poorly the students behave definitely takes some getting used to.
It was tough because in the US, if you dislike your job, you can quit and find a new one. Teaching abroad is unique in the sense that your job, visa, and housing are all rolled into one. I couldn’t exactly quit if I was unhappy because I would be deported and on the hook for a $1,400 flight home. That being said, NOT every school is the same. If you have a teaching degree (unlike me), your school quality and salary will increase significantly.
While tough to deal with, it was also nice to have that push to stick it out through the homesickness and culture shock. I’m so glad that I did. I thought about giving up many times and not signing for the second year (and second year bonus), but staying was the right choice. The second year was so much easier in every way.
What else did I go through that I wasn’t expecting? Something that definitely needs to be mentioned is a unique feeling of isolation from the rest of the world. Isolation may be a strong word, but I definitely felt very far away from my friends and family in the US.
Part of it was the 8 hour time zone difference. Our school week also ran from Sunday to Thursday, which meant that when everyone on social media was enjoying their Saturday mornings, I was prepping and going to bed early for school the next day.
Additionally, we worked on Thanksgiving, slept through the Super Bowl, and there were absolutely no Christmas or Easter celebrations in school. We missed two Christmases at home with our families because flights home were too expensive (although, our European friends didn’t have that problem). Still, I wouldn’t trade the experience that I had there for anything. For me, the benefits definitely outweighed the cons!
So, in recap, over our two year contract, we taught for 17 months and travelled for 7. We made extra money easily on the side and banked $66,000 each in tax-free cash before we left. If any of this sounds good, teaching in the UAE just may be for you!
PS still exploring your options? Visit the Working Abroad Series to learn more ways to make money while you travel and find in-depth guide to teaching online ESL classes, working as an au pair, getting a job as a flight attendant, finding work as a translator, start a digital marketing business, breaking into freelance writing, or even working on a yacht!