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Issues persist at CNA
campus in Middle East

UPDATED

Conditions at the College of the North Atlantic in Qatar (CNAQ) continue to deteriorate, rather than improve. That's the opinion of David Berry, a former employee who holds nothing back in his criticism of the college.

I have written about the CNAQ several times since November of 2007, when I talked about the college's poor state of morale.

A subsequent post suggested that human resource issues at the college were just the tip of the iceberg.

I was first to report, in June of 2008, that a Qatari court ruling on severance law would cost the CNAQ millions.

Soon after, I posted a powerful essay from another disaffected employee, alleging that, what started as a "technical college" was now devoting half its staff to teaching English as a Second Language. The writer also said Qatari society was racist, class-based and abusive of migrant workers from other countries.

David Berry contacted me in August of last year, with more shocking allegations. We've been playing a game of correspondence ping pong since then, and have exchanged more than 15 notes. Now it's time to pull back the curtain on another dysfunctional aspect of the CNA in Qatar, in particular on the Language Studies and Academics (LSA) Department.

"I fear that the bad management of the college is not only making life in Qatar nightmarish for College employees, but, long-term, will serve to tarnish Canada's and Newfoundland's reputation abroad, as it disastrously ill-serves its Qatari clients," Berry said. "The management of LSA is currently, for example, facing a complaint by the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission, for firing an instructor suffering from depression, rather than, as the contract stipulates, allowing him sick leave."

According to Berry, the individual in question had asked his superiors for their understanding as he dealt with an anxiety problem, for which he was receiving medication. Instead of receiving the support he was seeking, the employee was dismissed.

"No malfeasance was claimed," Berry said. "The pain and suffering of the employee and his family were grossly exacerbated by being required to vacate their home and the country, as well as the job, on a few weeks' notice. The family had just had a new baby."

Berry added that other employees have not had their contract renewed, at the last minute, without previous warnings of any concern with their performance. In fact, he was also dismissed in a manner that he considers highly questionable.

"I have this medical condition that is called lazy eye' by some but is professionally known as strabismic amblyopia'," Berry said. "I believe that this may have had a role in me not being renewed at the college. This is common practice in the Middle East: to not hire people who seem to have a visible medical condition even if it doesn't affect their performance."

Berry reminds us that numerous complaints have already been made against the college, in courts in both Qatar and Canada. "Some are now at the appeal stage, the college having lost in the first instance," he said. "However, the college has deep pockets, and seems ready to fight every step of the way. Kevin Baker, responsible for the Qatar operation, has warned present employees in public meeting that, should they take the college to court, they will be blacklisted and never hired by CNAQ again."

But the allegations don't stop there. According to internal memos supplied by Berry, at least five individuals have been dismissed who were among the most qualified teachers on staff, each with Masters degrees. In fact, most were heavily involved in various committees at the college. On top of that, all five had Asian wives. Whether this was a factor is difficult to say, though East Asians, it should be noted, are not looked upon highly in the racist society of Qatar.

How can this be allowed to happen? Partly through the teacher performance review process, which is grossly inadequate by any measure. And these are my words, not David Berry's. Any fool can look at this system and recognize immediately that it is unfair, woefully incomplete and wide open to abuse.

In essence, a teacher's contract can be renewed or not based on a short period of "classroom observation," anywhere from 50 to 100 minutes. That is, someone from management can sit in on one class, then decide that teacher's future as an employee unilaterally and with no other form of appraisal or oversight.

Berry said he was assured that classroom observation was intended for professional development purposes, and not meant as the sole criterion for renewing contracts. "Instead, they are now used as a weapon by management. They are used because managers can control the results. They can shape, interpret, and manipulate the results of a classroom observation. More reliable and accurate alternatives to classroom observations are ignored and not used because they are less easy to control by management. For example, many colleges and universities in the Middle East use student evaluation to evaluate teachers. But CNAQ management has consistently refused to use student evaluations."

After such an observation, Berry had a surprising meeting with his associate dean. "She said the class was terrible and I had only confused the students. She clearly exaggerated and blamed me for things that were beyond my control (e.g., "your students were late to class," or "didn't like the way I taught this grammar point"). I disagreed, but was allowed no formal input. She had the results of her observation already typed up. She didn't leave any space for me to write comments (which previous observers have done). I believe that this associate dean is barely qualified to make such a judgement. I believe that she has no direct EFL experience, nor even much adult education experience. Indeed, I have a Masters degree in EFL and a CELTA (a highly regarded teaching certificate), and I don't even feel that I am an expert. There are several others who are in positions of power in the EFL department who are unqualified, but are there because of cronyism and willingness to blindly obey management."

Berry was advised that his contract would not be renewed. When he pointed out that many previous observations were favourable, and that he had contributed more than his share to committee work and the development of materials, this was ignored.

"In not renewing my contract, the dean said none of that mattered," Berry said. "The dean said that, outside of the classroom, collegiality' was the only contribution that mattered. All my work for CNAQ on committees, material development, etc. was minimized into this vague term. The judgement, then, was based solely on this one classroom observation, by a marginally qualified observer."

Berry gave me an internal memo, highly critical of the classroom observation process, which used scholarly works to demonstrate that "administrators reserve the highest ratings for their friends or protégés." or, conversely, they "use the evaluation system to get rid of people they dislike."

This raises special issues for CNAQ, the memo said, with its "unfortunate history and press coverage."

"If we are already dealing with a toxic atmosphere,' this form of evaluation seems liable to make it worse," the memo reads. "It is not just that evaluation through classroom observation by administrators has no empirical foundation, but that it is too obviously open to deliberate abuse or unconscious prejudice. Just as an evaluator will naturally favour someone with the same teaching style, other prejudices are also likely to emerge. Evaluators are logically equally likely to favour teachers like them in other ways as well. However honest and fair administrators actually are, the process by its nature will produce suspicion and ill-will."

The memo made some incontestable points. Yet, it was roundly ignored. Life continues on in that otherworldly kingdom of Qatar.

Things seemed to reach some kind of head late last year, when it was announced that the contract for the CNAQ President, Hal Jorch, was not being renewed. I have a copy of the memo, from college president Jean Madill, making the announcement. Below is an excerpt. Note how little is said of Jorch's non-renewal, and how much is made of Enid Strickland's renewal.

I want to take this opportunity to update you on the CNA-Q Campus President's search process and to inform you of a decision regarding the CNA-Q Vice President Academic position.

As many of you may know, Dr. Jorch's contract is coming to an end in August of 2009. As a result we are beginning the search process to fill the contracted position for the next three year period.

(This is followed by six paragraphs, outlining the search process.)

On a related note, the Vice President Academic's contract was also coming to close in August of 2009. Given the dedication of Enid Strickland to the campus, the learners of the State of Qatar and the strong relationships that she has built in Qatar over the past five years, we offered and Enid has accepted a new two year contract.

It would seem that Dr. Jorch was not damned by faint praise more like no praise at all. I have no idea about the back-story on this one. However, based on what we've seen so far, it would seem that Dr. Jorch made the mistake of rocking the boat somehow.

Meanwhile, The Gulf Times, the daily newspaper in Doha, Qatar, reported late last year that the Qatari government was planning to launch the country's "first community college." The article makes no reference at all to CANQ, even though it was first, which raises questions about the Qatari government's commitment to the college.

In closing, in case you haven't read enough already, I present the full text of a post that appeared in the CNAQ forum at Dave's ESL Café, about morale among employees at the college. It appeared October 13, 2008.

My sense is that things are getting worseat least, morale is. A year ago, you heard complaints about incompetent management, and complaints about unmotivated students. Now, you generally hear only complaints about management. Are the students that much better? Not likely. Management must have gotten worse. Students now look like fellow sufferers. Much of this is that, a year ago, people were still prepared to give management the benefit of the doubt. They had gotten rid of a very unpopular Dean, perhaps now they would set things right. For a time, it was still possible to blame many problems on the previous Dean.

But the promised improvements mostly did not happen, or turned out to be only window dressing, or seemed to be deliberately scuppered by management when they felt the heat was off. Now the only disagreement is whether it can all be explained by incompetence, or whether there must be malice involved as well.

Some details: It is less possible than it was to keep your head down, mind your own classroom, and ignore the chaos around you. Management remains as incompetent, but is now increasingly micromanaging.

Cronyism seems as bad as or worse than it has ever been. Lack of transparency is as bad as or worse than it has ever been. Almost all communication is by rumour. Now management has begun to fire instructors or not renew seemingly arbitrarilyoften terminating the better-qualified instructors.

The one thing that has improved: pay keeps going up.

So much for the good news.

There seem to be a lot fewer students this semester, and a lot of instructors who have no teaching duties. Management insists this is temporary, but one wonders whether the offal is hitting the ventilation system. Qatari businesses may be realizing that the 1950s public school approach at CNAQ is not the most efficient way to bring their staff up to speed in English.

And why would it be? Besides defying all current research in language acquisition, it makes little sense economically. If these students were going to pick up English easily using old-fashioned little red schoolhouse methods, they would already know Englishthey studied it through high school. And if such non-communicative approaches are the answer, far cheaper to hire Egyptian and Syrian schoolteachers than to bring schoolteachers across the Atlantic Ocean and the African continent, paying them huge and growing salaries, and accepting their cultural peculiarities. If you're not going to do the immersion or communicative approach, any trained teacher would do as well.

Iceberg, meet Titanic. Titanic, meet iceberg.

Cue credits. Celine Dion voiceover.

UPDATE: I have received three comments so far from people at CNAQ (presumably instructors), all critical of this piece, but all anonymous. I contacted each, by return email, but none will use their full names. In a nutshell, they are accusing me of "spreading lies and smears" and "using only the statements of a disgruntled former employee."

If my source for this story was just one person a voice in the wilderness I would not have used it. However, I have been contacted over the last year by several people; all former employees, and all saying essentially the same things as Mr. Berry. In the interests of fairness, I will not be using any more anonymous sources for this story. I do invite current and former instructors of CNAQ to leave their comments, no matter what their opinion of the college may be. All I ask is that you sign your name, and leave a verifiable email address.

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Comments

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Recent comments

  • Qatar Teacher
    September 17, 2011 - 10:10

    Dear Geoff What you have heard is only the surface. Give me a way to tell the truth without being fired and I will provide not only accusations but email proof. We really need someone on our side

  • Darren Conley
    December 13, 2010 - 15:23

    My wife and I have been employed by CNA-Q in the EFL department for over two years, and I have to say that I can't believe the kind of exaggerated, grotesque picture that this article paints of the college, and the EFL department in particular. Both of us have found our experiences at CNA-Q to be fulfilling and exciting, with more room for growth and opportunities for advancement than in any other institution that we have taught with in the past. I have never heard any employee describe their time here as "nightmarish", although there certainly have been people who have not connected well with the situation in this part of the world (culturally, but also sometimes professionally). Complaints about the experience of teaching at CNA-Q are typically more along the lines of "my students are always late" or "this country is boring" or "it's too hot". Management complaints are the same (no better, no worse) than any I have heard at any place of employment. In fact, I have heard far more praise for the Dean who manages our EFL program than criticism. The suggestion that someone would be dismissed from CNA-Q because of a "lazy eye" or an "Asian wife" is absolutely ridiculous. Three quarters of the married white men in the EFL profession are married to Asian wives (including many happily employed teachers currently at CNA-Q), so to find that a group of men whose contracts were up all had Asian wives is hardly surprising. Also, the fact that they were all highly qualified ("with Masters degrees") is typical of the majority of EFL teachers at CNA-Q. A Masters degree has become the baseline standard in most desirable EFL teaching positions. Classroom observations at CNA-Q are part of the employee probation period, which is outlined in the employee contract. Each teacher is observed twice during the first two semesters of their contract, with the understanding that this is a safeguard against management having made a poor hiring decision. The process is very systematic, and the review criteria are made available to all instructors as part of their initial orientation package. I find it strange that someone who had been serving on committees at the college (who is obviously past their probation period) was being observed at all, unless there was cause for concern about their teaching abilities. However, I am not personally aware of the details of this situation. As for the quoted post from Dave's ESL Cafe from well over two years ago, rest assured that the situation is much different now. The new Dean is wonderful (as mentioned above), and overall enrollment at the college is at an all-time high. It's so high, in fact, that we were stretched to the max for EFL teachers this past semester, and have had to hire several more just to keep up with projected intake. Now let me offer my own opinion about some of the negative comments that have been offered by previous employees. There are many factors at work when one is teaching here in Qatar. The money is good, the benefits are excellent, and the chances for professional growth and for travel and PD opportunities are unparalleled. However, there are also many challenges - the heat, the culture, and the more-restrictive lifestyle. These factors lead to several possible problematic situations: First, people here grow quickly accustomed to the perks and benefits offered by this job, and many tend to develop an attitude of entitlement because of this. Instead of thinking "wow, I'm so lucky to have this opportunity", they end up thinking "I really deserve all this", which quickly leads to "I deserve better". When they end up encountering disappointment in any form (not getting that seconded position they wanted, or not getting approved for a PD request, etc.) they start imagining how much more respect they got back in Canada, and consequently take it out on the college or the culture. There are also those who genuinely don't like the heat and have a disdain for foreign cultures and cultural priorities in general. They want to hammer their Qatari students into Canadian students, and are understandably frustrated when this backfires. So once again it gets taken out on the culture and the college. There are some who come here and find it very easy to "coast", skimping on their academic duties and flying under the radar so that they can take advantage of the ample vacation time and travel opportunities, and sometimes abusing the proper definition of "sick days". When management finds out about such situations and decides that they might rather have dedicated employees than teachers who only want to "milk the system", these people are not the first in line to have their contracts renewed. And there's nothing wrong with that - if someone is not living up to the obligations of their contract, why should the employer be expected to continue to offer them premium pay and benefits? In the comments, John mentions that people at CNA-Q only renew their contracts so that they can continue working while they search for new jobs. Among the many friends and colleges that I regularly converse with at CNA-Q, I do not know of a single person who is actively looking for a new job. I know some who are planning to return to their old jobs in Canada (which are being held for them), and some who are only planning on working for 3 to 5 years because they want to return to friends and family in Canada, but that's it. In fact, I know many teachers who are mourning the fact that they may have to give up their jobs at CNA-Q because of certain Canadian tax obligations that kick in after 5 years abroad. Beyond this, I have several teacher friends who are begging to come teach here, and one who came here for a week in order to thoroughly research the country and the college. She was very critical in the questions she asked, and after having spent a considerable amount of time with many of the dozens of happily employed EFL instructors here, her research led her to apply to CNA-Q, and there's an excellent chance that she will be here with her family next year. Finally, in the spirit of conducting journalism with integrity, I would encourage you to contact the management in the EFL department directly with your concerns. We are currently in the process of attaining accreditation with the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA), and part of the requirements for accreditation is that many of our policies and procedures be made publicly available. If there are any questions about how teacher and student evaluations are conducted, reasons for why employees might not have their contracts renewed, or statistics for enrollment growth or student satisfaction, they can steer you to accurate information. Please understand that the information in this article represents a very small (but vocal) minority, and that the silent majority are only silent because the experience of working here at CNA-Q speaks (quite positively) for itself. Darren Conley EFL Instructor College of the North Atlantic - Qatar

  • John
    October 16, 2010 - 05:23

    Sherry asks open ended questions to support her argument which she cannot answer. I only have time to answer one. Employees at CNAQ seek to renew their contracts because they have moved 8,000 miles away from home and many gave up jobs which they cannot return to. Most have families. For one thing is difficult to find alternate jobs because of geological isolation. It is irresponsible to travel back and forth because of the family. Children are not chattel. It would be poor economic planning and difficult for a career to swich jobs every two years. Those who renew do so for purely economic reasons and to protect their families. They renew contracts and then do the very minimum possible at the colloege and continue searching for new jobs. Canada also has been in a recession which makes it hard even for single teachers to relocate. One way to gauge how happy instructors are is to view the adult evening education brochure. Instructors at all Canadian schools teach courses on weekends or evenings in continuing education. In CNAQ there are only 2 pages of course offerings rather than 20 pages, mostly first aid and so on. There is one technology course. Instructors are asked to volunteer to teach continuing education courses or night classes and out of 300 instructors there are about 8 who do so. The numbers say it all... Morale is the lowest of any College and we just wait until we have sufficient capital and a job prospect to move back home. For other information search for articles on the instructor survey that CNAQ used to assess this situation and you will find that CNAQ has the lowest instructor satisfaction and poorest management review of any college in Canada. The proof is there to read.

  • Sherry
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Dear Mr. Meeker,

    My name is Sherry Ruth. I have been an English instructor at the College of the North Atlantic - Qatar since October 2005. My initial reaction at reading your article is shock. I can't believe that anyone would think that instructors were dismissed because they had Asian wives or certain medical conditions. I knew David Berry and worked with him on our social committee (and found him to be a very amiable colleague), but never heard from him or anyone else that he was being let go for unjust causes.

    Every employee has their grievances and no employer is perfect. We are a relatively new college and, as I would expect, it takes time to iron out the inevitable bumps of starting such a project. Things are still not perfect, but improvements have been massive - even since my arrival in 2005. One error from your article that I can note first hand is our use of student evaluations. These are in place, professionally administered, and have been college-wide for at least 3 semesters. I find it hard to belive that management did not want this valid and useful tool because it was less easy to control .

    I have taught in a number of other educational institutions and I find CNAQ to be no better or worse than any other. In fact, I'm impressed by the high level of educational resources and professional development that is available, and the sense of community amongst colleagues is second-to-none.

    Why do so many employees seek to renew their contracts if this institution is so overtly abusive and prejudiced? Why have so many of our students expressed satisfaction from our college and continued on to do well in the workplace? I am not from Newfoundland and I am not a friend or protege of any administrator, however, I feel that I have had a voice when expressing myself to management and, overall, I have been quite satisfied with my experience as a CNAQ employee. It's not perfect here, but you'd be hardpressed to find any place that was. Perhaps, to offer fair judgement, you should contact our management and see what they have to say themselves before jumping to too many conclusions.

    Respectfully,
    Sherry Ruth

    EFL Instructor
    College of the North Atlantic - Qatar