Topics to Avoid When Teaching in the Middle East

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Special thanks to our partner schools in the MENA region for their input in constructing this list.

When teaching overseas it is imperative that we prepare culturally and become aware of the taboos that exist in different parts of the world. What may seem like a natural, open and acceptable discussion in one part of the world, can be a very sensitive subject in another part of the world. Many unaware teachers have been reprimanded and many at times did not even see an issue / In the words of one of our teachers:

“I worked in a school where the librarian had to black out any references in books that related to kissing and any pictures of pigs. My idea of reading Charlotte’s Web to the kids was gone as the main character is a pig. Nonetheless, everything is done in good faith to abide by the cultural and religious expectations of the region. I came from Canada where same sex marriage is acceptable and we even read books to Grade 1 students about the different types of families (2 mothers or 2 fathers) such idea would be deemed alien not to mention forbidden in the region. I had to quickly adapt and educate myself of the boundaries whether I personally agreed with them or not”.


The schools in the UAE teach Islamic Religion as part  of the curriculum. For non-Islamic students, there is usually a class on PSHE (Personal, Social, Health, Education). It is wise to avoid discussion which compares or contrasts the major faiths of the world. Do not make any derogatory remarks about any religion. It is better to politely alter the subject if the students ask about your religion. Remarks sometimes become misunderstood or misconstrued.

References to Israel

There is a strong feeling about the occupation of Arab territories and lands. Most people are extremely sensitive to the way the Palestinians are suffering, especially in towns such as Gaza. It is better to politely alter the subject and focus on the good that is occurring in the world today.


It is forbidden to discuss any ‘relationships’ between boys and girls; including those between homosexuals. This is strictly taboo. This is left to parents to discuss with their children when the time is right.

Sex Education

There must be no mention of sexual conduct either in a serious or even a light-hearted discussion. Sex education is always left up to the parent to decide whether to discuss this topic with their children or not. Sexual reproduction comes into the science syllabus. In most cases, this is fine as long as it only dwells on the biological process and does not, in any way, encourage sex before marriage. Some parents may withdraw their children from these lessons if they wish and it is only proper that parents are informed well in advance. One of the science teachers had to explain the sexual reproduction very carefully and avoid discussing the act of intercourse. The class was limited to the explanation of cells splitting during reproduction. An English teacher also had to be careful when explaining that sex could also mean “Male or Female” when filling out an application or survey in Western countries. When in doubt, discuss these topics with your school superior prior to teaching them.


Videos and Books

Always check through CD’s videos, books, and worksheets before viewing. Pigs are unclean animals and it is best to avoid stories about them. Drugs and alcoholic beverages are not allowed in the Islamic faith. Therefore, NO mention or discussion of these topics should ever take place in school. Romantic literature such as Romeo and Juliet which have kissing and show strong emotions should also be avoided. There are many other books and Shakespeare plays that could be substituted to avoid missing out on rich literature.


Food as an Art Form

Schools in some parts of the world may allow teachers to use food items such as pasta shapes in order to produce works of art. Many parents will take exception to this as food considered to be used for eating only and not to be wasted. Many schools in western countries will also refuse to utilise food in this way. The reason is that many people in the world do not have enough food to sustain themselves. Therefore, it is not a good example to be teaching the students to waste food products. In addition, Muslims observe the month of Ramadan yearly where they fast for long hours and thus using food as art would be seen as detrimental to the teachings.  There are many other paints and art works that can be done that do not involve food.


Physical Contact

There should not be physical contact of any form between teacher and student or between males and females. It is advisable to keep a good distance between the teacher and student in case of an accidental touch which could be misinterpreted. This could result in severe consequences. On no account must there be any kind of pushing, pulling, prodding or slapping. Corporeal punishment is not acceptable.


Addressing Students

It is common sense that teachers should never humiliate a student by calling him or her by demeaning expression. Names such as ‘silly boy’, ‘lazy girl’ or similar terms should not be used. One teacher shares a story of her experience in a noisy classroom:

“I was teaching a very noisy Grade 6 class and had finally gotten everyone to settle and be quiet and one boy continued to disturb, so I told him to “Zip It”. Immediately after everyone started laughing and word spread out and I was called into the principal’s office, she told me I must never use the phrase “Zip It” as in Arabic the sound has a similar meaning to the word “Penis”.

Shouting at students should be avoided as a noisy teacher often promotes a noisy class. Use alternative methods of maintaining peace and quiet and have a rewards system in place.


Dress Code

We get asked about dress code quite often. We consulted with several of our partner schools and came up with a guide dress code:Staff dress should be conservative and characterised by modesty. Clothing should be loose-fitting, rather than body-hugging. For both sexes, denim clothing is not allowed on the school campus. Bare shoulders, bare midriffs, low neckline, shorts and short skirts are inappropriate and unacceptable. Personal jewellery and bodily adornments including piercings should be discreet and kept to a minimum.  Visible tattoos should be covered as they are viewed as a distraction.

Male Staff

For men, trousers and tie must be worn. It is also suggested to have a jacket or blazer handy in case of visitors. Earrings and studs are not to be worn.

Female Staff

For women, the shoulders should be covered. Skirts should not be above the knee. For Islamic women, hajab dress is appropriate. Slacks are acceptable. In addition, whereas sandals with open toes are acceptable, ‘flip flop’ types are not. See-through or transparent clothes are totally undesirable.