When Shannon Smith was dreaming of her life as a teacher, it is safe to say that she never dreamed where that teaching career would lead her.
A Tewksbury resident and Academy of Notre Dame graduate, Smith went on to earn her graduate degree in 2008 and her Masters in 2009. From there she held teaching positions as a substitute teacher, a long term substitute teacher, a tutor and even taught Spanish speaking children English as a second language.
Like so many young teachers, what Smith didn’t have was a full-time, permanent teaching position. A dedicated professional, Smith longed for a classroom to call her own.
Today, Smith has achieved that goal but, where she is living her dream might come as a surprise.
Smith is a teacher in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Geographically, UAE lies at the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula bordered by Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar. Culturally, Abu Dhabi is quite literally a world away.
So what made this 25-year-old woman end up so far away from family and friends?
“Well, I didn’t have a lot of options,” explained Smith, in an interview conducted via Skype. “I was upset at having lost a potential position and this job came up on an e-mail.”
Amazingly Smith's road to Abu Dhabi was lightening fast. After reading the e-mail Smith decided to apply and, within a few days, she was headed to New York for an interview. There, she met with one woman from the United States along with two Arabic teachers. Initially, Smith was told that the position was filled but, the next day, was called with an offer in Al-Gharbia, the Western Region of Abu Dhabi.
Once she was offered the position she was forwarded a contract which she had less than two days to read over and agree to.
“I had a list of pros and cons,” Smith explained, “and since the contract was only for two years and could be cancelled with a month’s notice I decided I was going.
"Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing but I just knew I had to go. It just felt right."
Of course, signing the contract and telling her parents about her plans were two very different things for Smith.
“I didn’t tell my mom until after I signed the contract because I knew she would try to talk me out of it. Even then I talked to my Dad about it first!” she said.
So, after a few internet classes on UAE’s culture and religious rules, Smith packed up and headed on her adventure.
“I was afraid of the unknown and excited all at the same time," she said. "I have never been away from home for more than two weeks until now.”
Today, Smith is quickly adjusting to her new life in Abu Dhabi.
“Going by myself was so scary,” she explained. "But I have met so many new friends. Thank goodness for all of them.”
Smith’s classroom is a KG2 which, in UAE, is the equivalent to Kindergarten. While some of her students attended KG1, or Pre K, many did not and had not yet begun to learn English.
“I’ve taught English as a second language,” she said. "But I’ve always been able to speak my students’ language also.”
Initially, many of the young students were intimidated by the thought of having an American teacher but it didn’t take Smith long to win them over.
“This is week four and it’s getting a lot better," she said.
At the school each American Teacher is paired with an Arabic educator and, side by side, they teach students everything from reading and writing to math.
“I’m not used to teaching like this,” said Smith. "But I’m slowly getting into it and getting used to it.”
The school itself is quite small and Smith has come to think of the staff as somewhat of a family. One of the youngest American teachers in the UAE program Snith is learning to over both language and cultural barriers.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of it,” she said, with a laugh. "But before I even got here I saw that it was the right thing to do.”
The goal of the UAE schools is teach young students English while, at the same time, preserve their native language. For these students the education that Snith provides will help them to get into college without having to spend years in a prep school mastering English.
Eventually the vision in UAE is that these very students will graduate from college and return to the education system as teachers who are willing and able to pass on their English language skills to younger students.
Of course, it is not just the students who are benefiting in all of this.
“I’ve grown up so much,” said Smith. "Having to be independent and take care of myself in a foreign country.”
So, what does the future hold for Smith when her two year contract runs out? “I really think I’m staying," she admitted. "I love it even though things can get real crazy and overwhelming!”