Pre-service teachers attitudes towards a career in special education in the United Arab Emirate

Pre-service teachers attitudes towards a career in special education in the United Arab Emirate

Eman El. Naggar Gaad

The United Arab Emirates University as the main provider for qualified teachers in the country is seeking to improve educational services offered to children with special needs through teacher preparation programs. The study investigates how cultural, moral, societal, and professional factors affect student teachers selection of, and attitudes towards special education as a teaching profession. The study examines such factors in the contexts of current policies and trends that are adopted in the country.

To achieve the aims of the research, several qualitative research methods were applied to collect and analyze data, such as interviews, observation, and questionnaires. The study ends with a discussion of the main issues that emerge from researching this area and recommendation for future practice.


The United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) was established in 1977 as the first higher educational institute in this young, but fast growing Gulf country. It is the premier national university whose mission is to meet the educational and cultural needs of UAE society by providing programs and services of the highest quality (UAEU mission statement). As the main provider for qualified teachers in the country, this university is seeking to improve educational services offered to children with special needs through teacher preparation programs. While trying to prepare all future teachers for meeting the needs of learners in regular classrooms, there is always the need for professional special educators who can teach students with specific special needs. It is assumed that a complex group of cultural, moral, societal, and professional factors affect construction of children with special needs in general, and their teachers in particular. That includes cultural values and beliefs towards the children and their educators that might shape or affect pre-service teachers attitudes towards a career in special education. The study investigates such factors, and any others that may have a significant effect. The study found that the status of teachers of children with special needs was a primal factor in seeking a career in that field. The study also looked at encouraging and discouraging factors towards this career for pre-service teachers.

Research in the area of attitudes towards children with disabilities in UAE has focused on surveys that investigate the efficacy of the special education placement (El-Sewidi & Abu Shehab, 1995), and educating certain categories of children with special educational needs such as Down Syndrome (Gaad 2001). There are some promising research projects going on examining teaching effectiveness of special education teachers (Funded research Duqmaq & Alghazo, 2003 in progress), and meeting the educational needs of all learners in the regular classroom (Funded research Gaad 2003 in progress). However, empirical research that focuses on that effect of social factors on career choice of pre service teachers is something new.

The study also examined the role of current policies at the university, and at national level that affect teachers of children with special needs and their status in society. Researching such area has become important.

Research Methods

Several methods and research approaches were used. They were mainly qualitative, such as interviewing pre-service teachers who are not yet specialized as well as Special Education pre-service teacher. I have also interviewed some newly serving Special Education graduates as well as some of those with experience that exceeded five years of teaching children with special needs.

One may argue that qualitative research in general has been helpful in describing educational interventions but weaker in documenting the relative efficacy of educational interventions (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1995). I argue that the use of a qualitative approach here is required as we are dealing with cultural issues and beliefs that need to be analyzed in a qualitative manner.

I selected interviewees from a wide variety of areas of practice. For example, some participants were teaching in Special Needs classrooms in regular schools, others were serving in residential institutes, as well as a sample of those who served in day care units and independent schools. A structured questionnaire was also designed to use as a tool for gathering information from pre-service teachers in the UAE University special education programs. Before I finalized the questionnaire, it was piloted on a sample of 10 pre service teachers to see whether it had any serious difficulties. Comments of colleagues at the Department of Special Education were also considered in the revised version of the questionnaire.

I used qualitative methodology in this study to reflect experiences of participants and to allow the formulation of a series of recommendations, aimed at both pre-service and serving teachers. Such recommendations could also be helpful to some decision makers especially those who are interested in promoting the field of special education as a professional teaching career. The process of preparation and circulation of the structured questionnaire along with collection and analysis of data from different participants, lasted a period of eleven months.

Regarding my background as a researcher, in addition to being a long-term faculty member and an experienced pre-service teacher advisor, I am a British academic living in the Arabian Gulf for some years. I am a native Arabic speaker with specific interest and experience in studying the effect that social values and beliefs have on the education of children with special needs. Such cultural understanding and local knowledge assisted in assuring the validity of data selection, collection, and analysis.

There were ethical considerations, for example I ensured confidentiality of all information collected. Pre service, and serving teachers were fully informed of the nature, and the aim of the investigation and their prior consent was sought. Limiting, protecting and safeguarding accessibility to the information maintained, together with safety and confidentiality insurance of hard data as well as the data stored in the computer we constantly assured.

Research questions could be stated as:

What are the main cultural factors,

issues and beliefs that determine the

social and professional status of

teachers of children with special

needs in the UAE?

What are the boundaries that define

and/or limit the selection of pre-service

teachers for special education

as a teaching profession?

How, and to what extent, do such

factors effect the selection by pre-service

teachers of special education

as a teaching profession?


I interviewed 51 pre-service teachers (not specialized yet). I have also interviewed 13 pre-service teachers from the Special Education Department. Serving teachers in many fields were interviewed too: 5 were serving in Day Care Institutions for the Preparation and Rehabilitation for the Handicapped (as it is known in the UAE). 3 out of these 5 teachers were new graduates (2001 and after), and the other 2 had been serving for more than 5 years in such institutions. In addition, I also interviewed 3 other serving teachers who were working in special classes in a regular school, 2 of them were new graduates, and one was an experienced teacher. Only 1 of my participants was a new graduate in special education serving as a kindergarten class teacher in a regular private primary school.

Pre-service Teachers in the UAE University

Although the United Arab Emirates is inhabited by a diversity of ethnic groups (Camerapix, 1998), mostly local students are enrolled in the UAEU according to university rules and regulations. The following table (Table 1) gives the reader an idea about the nature of our pre-service teachers over the last two academic years:

The following table (Table 2) shows that there are some pre-service teachers attending UAE University who originate from outside the UAE. The following table shows the number of College Of Education students from the Gulf Cooperation Council (1), Arab countries, and other countries.

Historically, the Education Department known as the College Of Education (COE) has served more female pre-service teachers than male. The challenge of motivating male students to enroll in the COE has been addressed by introducing scholarships. Each year, 200 scholarships are extended to men in an effort to diversify the college’s gender pool. As part of this motivation system, the UAEU pays male students specific amounts in UAE Dirhams (Dhs) in each year as shown in Table 3.

Studying male/female ratio, and local/non-local ratio may be of interest to many researchers as the tables above shows that very few non-locals, and very few men study to be teachers, which could be an indication of the social status of teachers in general. My research however focuses on factors leading to selection of special education as a teaching profession. There will be however in the discussion part of this research some issue drawn into analysis that will need reference to the above tables when looking at cultural values and believes that affect choice of careers.

What do pre-service teachers know about teaching children with special needs?

It is important to look at what pre-service teachers know about children with special needs before examining other factors.

When students enroll in the COE, they are required to pass a range of different courses that include exploratory educational experiences, communication skills, and critical thinking. Such courses are offered by the COE to prepare students to teach diverse populations. As pre-service teachers develop their personal philosophies, the faculty encourages them to value students with special needs. Faculty also fosters an awareness of different learning styles and teaches student teachers about instruction for diverse students.

One obligatory course that is required for all pre-service teachers is Education for Exceptional Children (known in the COE as SPED 101). The fourteen-week course on special needs education (as an integral part of the teacher-training syllabus in the College) was introduced ‘for the first time’ last year (fall 2002/3). The emphasis of the content of the course progresses from diagnosis, identification and referrals to practical steps to facilitate diversity in regular classrooms. Undergraduate students also study topics which focus on attitudes, legal rights and advocacy, policy issues, support services and meeting the diverse needs in regular classrooms.

Throughout the fourteen-week course instructional approaches, other than previously used “front lecturing” are used. This is to demonstrate and to introduce the approaches promoted in the COE Teacher Education Policy. The course content for continuing pre-service teachers of the COE focus on inclusion; practical steps to include all children in the mainstream, and support services and strategies for teachers to facilitate co-operation with different professionals.

Therefore, to answer the previous question, we now know that not only basic information but also provisional skills are offered to all pre-service teachers through the Education of Exceptional Children course. Furthermore, in a paper presented at the First International Conference for Teacher Preparation, UAE University, I published the results of a previous study showing that pre-service teachers awareness of, and attitudes towards educating all learners in regular schools has improved after studying that particular course (Gaad 2003).

Pre-service teachers views on the status of special needs teachers:

When we say status we could be referring to financial status or social status. In countries like England, for example, teachers of students with special needs get some sort of special needs benefit on top of their salaries (Gaad 1998). Such benefit does not exist here in the UAE. It is simply because teachers in general are paid generously. In addition, returned questionnaires showed that pre-service teachers did not worry that much about financial status, as teaching in general was considered a well-paid profession according to all interviewed pre-service teachers. Therefore, finance was not a factor in the selection of special education as a teaching profession in the returned questionnaires.

Social status however, was a concern for many interviewed participants. The research showed that many of them already thought twice before joining the department because they were concerned about their social status once they graduated. All those interviewed had already visited schools where children with various special needs attended as part of their exploratory course. During such course, some of them were trained in rehabilitation centers, while others were trained in special classes in regular schools. The following are word-for-word translation of extracts of interviews with pre-service teachers at the Department of Special Education. The following answers are to an open-ended question about their feeling towards their future profession:

“I think that my job will be very

rewarding. No money would give

the satisfaction that I will gain when

I teach a child to achieve something

that is worthwhile, such as looking

after himself, or learning something

that will help him to face the challenges

of life.” A pre-service female

teacher age 20.

Another pre-service teacher revealed:

“I want to be a special needs teacher.

See, I look at it this way, anyone can

teach science or maths to normal

kids, but you need to be a very special

teacher to teach a very special


Third argued:

“Ok, it might not be a very popular

occupation. I am also aware that it

could be harder than being a regular

teacher, but I will enjoy that, and

I don’t really care about what anyone


While there was almost full agreement among participants that the work that is expected can be hard and challenging, they understood that other things came with such challenges and the rewards would be invaluable. I would like to comment on this last participant’s statement about people’s view on this profession. This participant leeds us to a very important point, that is, what would people say? The research looked at the main social and cultural contexts that surround the profession of teaching children with special needs. For example an earlier participant considered her future profession as an unpopular career. She added that teaching children with special needs is not as popular and not as respected as teaching Maths or Science to regular children.

The “Labeling Process” may play a role here in stigmatizing such a career, and not others in the teaching field. Pre-service teachers were concerned about their labeling in society and how it could be linked to the labeling of children with special needs. One student teacher put it this way:

“My family was thinking that people

would call me moron, (in their

words) just like the children I am


Another said that she was hesitant because she did not want to be associated with any form of mental disability, as many people still do not differentiate between mental disability and mental illness. A third revealed that she was registered for a few weeks, then nearly decided to change the specialty because of the peer pressure when they started to call her names like teacher of the insane, and things like that. She then changed her mind and decided to face the challenge. She said that now she is getting ready for graduation, she is glad that she studied what she wanted, and not what everyone else wanted.

It is clear now that there is a form of attitude is formed in this society towards teaching children with special needs, and that attitude is linked to attitudes towards those who are taught due to their labeling in society. One would think straight of “attitudes” towards that person once we s/he has been labeled. I found the following interesting quote in search of meaning to attitudes towards someone: ‘broadly, the term attitude, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, means a ‘disposition’ which David Thomas, in his book The Experience of Handicap (1982), described as an acquired orientation towards or away from some object, person, group, event or idea’. (Sayer and Jones, 1985, p. 25)

There is an issue that could be behind that belief about children with special needs and their teachers. In a previous study I carried out (funded by the UAE government through the research sector in the UAE University) many serving teachers in the Emirates, as well as many parents expressed their views that the best place for many children with special needs is in Centers for Preparation and Rehabilitation, and not in regular schools (Gaad, 2001) despite the strong and positive attitude to include children with special educational needs in mainstream schools.

In reality the chance of inclusion of some categories of special needs such as Down Syndrome in a regular neighborhood school is low (Gaad, 2001). Cultural and social constructions still play a key role in placing people in provided services. As a result, teachers can be stigmatized just like their students. It is as simple as this: because these children are stigmatized in society, so are their teachers.

According to Goffman:

The attitudes we normals have towards a person with a stigma, and the action we take in regard to him, are well known, since these responses are what benevolent social action is designed to soften and ameliorate. (Goffman, 1963, p. 15).

Goffman claims that such stigma can affect the social role that one expects from such stigmatized persons. He linked social role with a person’s status, defining a social role as the enactment of rights and duties attached to a given status (Goffman 1969, p. 27). He linked stigma of children with special needs, and stigma of teachers of children with special needs to what kind of role society, or a particular audience in society expects from them. One can argue that if children with special needs are not popular children, so teaching those children is also not a popular career. According to the literature, many societies still look down on children with special needs and find them to be docile and more mischievous than are other children without special needs Booth (1996). Since teaching in Arab society is so connected to learning to read, write, and count (Gaad 2001), teachers of such children could be seen to be failing their social role and duties once children are failing to achieve the traditional reading, writing and counting targets.

It is not just society that can determine the social role, and minimize the ability of those children and their teachers. Teachers, themselves, may have a role to play in stigmatizing those children, too. According to Wishart and Johnston (1990) the highest (most stereotypical) ratings given to children with special needs were by mothers of their own children, and by special needs teachers.

There is no doubt that it is especially important to encourage pre-service teachers to enroll to specialize in Special Education if we are to increase the numbers of teachers of such children in the long run. Statistics reveal that the number of student teachers taking Special Education as major is increasing in the United Arab Emirates University. One may wonder what could have caused this after the discussion of the above cultural boundaries, and perceptions. University staff revealed that a strategy to encourage students to specialize was introduced. Fact sheets about special needs in the country were distributed to all newly registered students, advertisements were on the radio and other media. However, according to students, it was people’s changing attitudes that also helped in encouraging them to make the move. They revealed that while many negative attitudes towards children with special needs and their teachers are floating around, forming a kind of cultural stigma, there is also a change of attitude that is taking place and gaining hold.

According to some pre-service teachers:

“Everyone is talking about exploring

a new field of teaching, rather

than traditional ones.”

Stories from life after graduation may help preservice teachers to seek a career in Special Education.

“I heard that once I am specialized

in this particular field, I will find a

job more easily than if I was a graduate

of any other field.”

“I wanted to be different, I liked the

term “special”, and “teacher of children

with special needs” better.”

“People are changing their attitudes

now. When my sister, who is now

serving as a teacher of Arabic, wanted

to be a special needs teacher, my

father said no. Anything but a

teacher of those nuts. When I talked

to him last year, I found that he was

not that happy, but did not stop me

from specializing. I think people’s

perspective of this thing is now different.”

“Mother said to me when I was hesitant

whether or not to take that way

as a profession, well, if every university

student declined not to

specialize in that field those kids

would end up outnumbered with no

one to care for them.”

Serving teachers interviews

Serving teachers’ interviews revealed further concern regarding cultural construction of the social role of special needs teachers. A serving teacher, working currently at a Center for Rehabilitation of the Handicapped (as it is referred to in the UAE) noted that she is concerned about what people think of her, but not as alarming as in her earlier days as a teacher in the center. She said that in the first year of working, she used to be more concerned about people labeling her as the “morons” teacher, and many other negative labels. Despite the fact that most people who referred to her like that were family members, or friends, and, according to her, they did not mean any harm, as they were just joking, she still felt very bad about it. She claimed that as the years went by, she could handle the pressure, and the experience made her stronger in standing up to such comments.

Another new graduate claimed that she made sure she was employed in a special class in a regular school. When she was asked to expand further about reasons behind that decision, she claimed that although she studied inclusion of all learners in regular schools and found it a reasonable educational option for children with special needs, that was not the prime reason. She actually wanted to avoid working in a center for the handicapped, and wanted to “belong” to a staff of a regular school. She did not mind the fact that she teaches those children in a special class most of the time. She revealed that:

“People outside see me going into a

regular school, so I don’t really care

if I am teaching in a special class or

not, as long as I am working in a

regular school. I hate to be labeled.”

Another teacher claimed that after serving 8 years in a center she is now thinking of moving to be a resource room teacher in a regular school. That, in her view, would give her a better social status. The idea of referring to her as a teacher of children with special needs caused her stress over the years. She said that although she was very enthusiastic when she was training to be a teacher, and loved her role, the reality had put her off, and she ended up with denial of that special role. She would just refer to herself as “a primary teacher”, rather than “a special needs teacher” unless she had to, in the case of filling in forms, and addressing someone in formal letters, for example.

Terms like “the one who teaches the dumb”, or “teaching those kids will affect your brain” was regularly mentioned in teacher’s responses to a question: how are you referred to by various member of society? One serving teacher revealed that her own family often bullied her, as they did not like the idea of her graduating as a teacher of special needs. Her parents refused at first, and then had to agree as she threatened to withdraw her application to the College Of Education all together. An older woman in her family told her when she took her first appointment as a teacher in a Center for Children with Special Needs, that if she kept in touch with such children, especially those with mental disabilities when pregnant, she would carry a similar child.

Two teachers serving in a rural area Center for Children with Special Needs claimed that while they are aware of social labeling, and construction of teachers of children with special needs, they would carry on doing what they were meant to do. One of them confirmed that she is proud of the job, after studying many years to gain its qualification. There is always the ignorant comment that might upset me, she said, but I defend my career and I know that one day people will not undermine it, and will appreciate it just like any other teaching job. I always say to critics: if my job doesn’t bother me, why does it bother others?


What people think, and what people might say, in a certain culture, is very important to members of such culture. The influence of cultural membership on individual development and growth is something that simply cannot be ignored Burtonwood (2002). Cultural influence is very important to Emirati locals here in this young, but fast developing nation. Tables 2, and 3 showing the ratio of male/female pre-service teachers is interesting, and considered by the Ministry of Education as alarming. In fact to a degree that required rapid intervention by the government, announcing this generous monthly allowance for males who would seek a career in education. When pre-service teachers were asked briefly to comment on this ratio, they were aware that it was the social pressure, and construction that led male university students to avoid a career in education. This society looks on teaching as a “female thing” as a pre-service female participant revealed during an interview, so male just won’t do it.

Social construction plays a key role on males not selecting teaching as a professional career. Similarly, it limits choices of, and marginalizes teachers of children with special needs. We see that this society has constructed teaching in general as a feminine career, and the result is a severe shortage of local male teachers. Despite money, and encouragement, males still do not like to be teachers because society considers teaching feminine.

Pre-service teachers knew that they would have a tough career ahead of them and this may be a disencouraging factor against specializing in special education. Beckman, (1983) argues that the cumulative impact of daily hassles and difficulties in dealing with children represent significant stressors that may subsequently affect parent and family functioning, and teachers are not that far from such a risk.

My research also showed that there is still yet a negative aspect that forms the social construction of those who work with children with special needs in general, and with mental disability in particular. Many myths and mysterious traditional stories are still carried through generations. Although the younger generation tends to have grown out of such illogical assumptions, older generations yet still believe in them, and express such assumptions as part of their heritage.

Although one may think that cultural attitudes towards something can be changed through media or awareness campaigns, in practice this is difficult. Culture is always local, as Garnett (1994) argues. While cultural processes are generalizable, “how things are” is always experienced as locally specific. This means that changes are resisted with reference to local particulars. It also means that changes won’t take root if the details of local soil and conditions are not taken into account Garnett (1994).

On that basis, if I want to suggest some helpful tips for future practice, I believe we need to work on both levels. While working on the national level through media, whether read, or seen, and religious institutions if they are influential, we also need to work on the roots, and that means promoting special education within the College Of Education itself. A student advisory service can offer special education through advisors, rather than leaving it as the option of only those who decide to take the cultural challenge. The use of the Internet in this fast-developing country could also be helpful in promoting awareness about special needs, and those who work in that field. Designed web sites that provide fact sheets especially to young people searching, or browsing the net out of interest to seek a career in Special Education. Information technology today has advanced over that available only a few years ago and will continue to improve. Agencies that know or learn how to make effective use of it will benefit themselves and those they serve(Ashbaugh, 2003).

My research has shown that society in the UAE has some set ideas, and beliefs about teaching children with special needs. It was very clear from the data, that people linked children with special needs, their schools, and their teachers. When those children were labeled, marginalized, and called names, their teachers were too. So what does it take in order to change society’s attitude? One option is to consider the adoption of inclusion on a national scale as a means of educating all learners in regular schools. In that case there would be no more name-calling for special needs teachers, as they would melt among others in the regular school. Additionally, if they are seeking to be known, or constructed as regular teachers, inclusion might give them that label and secure their ultimate status. Slee (1996) argued that the success of a society in reconstructing a system of inclusive schooling is not, however, measured through the effectiveness of its capacity to make “others” fit. It is more correctly gauged through evidence of the specific expressions and valuing of differences in a new set of social relations.

To conclude, this research has shown that cultural beliefs and constructions in the UAE play a role in undermining the role of teachers of children with special needs, and that has effected pre-service teachers’ attitudes towards seeking a career in special education. Pre-service teachers are members of this society carrying its beliefs and traditions through generations. A set of recommendations was presented to change such attitudes that may be helpful. However many internal and external agencies need to work together in order to shift such attitudes. Internally the kind of education that pre-service teachers get, is already shifting attitudes from negative to positive towards children with special needs. Perhaps extra topics and tasks in the offered courses could concentrate on the social status of the teachers of children with special needs. Factors that affect this could be added to this already successful program.

This option could change the old beliefs about teachers of children with special needs internally. The old ways, however, will not be transformed easily unless they are inadequate for the majority of people (Lieberman, 1990). Pre-service teachers can communicate with their colleagues in other countries, exchange ideas, course materials and texts. (Rodney, P. & Fellenius, K., 2001). It might be helpful when they see how other pre-service teachers are dealing with social pressure.

Externally, work could be undertaken on many levels. It is important to raise awareness, even in changing attitudes in the family of a child with special needs about special needs children and their teachers. The child is no longer viewed as the primary recipient of services or interventions; instead services and training are directed at the complex and varied needs of families (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1997; Hardiman, Drew, & Egan, 1996). Since the thrust of much of this training is directed at family empowerment, empirical evidence on the characteristics of the family environment, coping and social resources are essential.

The research has shown that serving teachers can believe in something, but do something else, not only because they have limited power over being placed in a certain school. They may believe in the inclusion of all learners in a classroom, but want to avoid societal labeling. While experienced teachers coped better with social labeling, and construction of their role, some may still find it shameful to belong to an institute that educates only children with special needs. One can argue that serving teachers are the professional mirror that reflects ideas and beliefs about the profession to those who will adopt this profession in due course.

It was also clear from the data that teaching children with special needs is considered a stressful job. Research has indicated that the stress an individual experiences is not a simple function of the number of demands placed on that individual. If personal resources are adequate to meet those demands, the individual can successfully adapt, even if environmental demands are considerable (Moos & Moos, 2002). The question here is: what are the personal resources needed to cope with such stress? In my view, understanding the nature of the profession and those who will receive the educational service, is a good start. Pre-service teachers need to understand their future clients, as one may refer to them. Loving the job is important, but maybe not enough, loving the learners is more important.

Finally, I hope this study has offered a realistic account of the importance of social influence on a special profession that serves very special members of society.

Table 1

College of Education: Emirates of Origin for Students 2002-2003

Emirate Abu Dhabi Ajman Al- Dubai

Female/male f/m Fujairah f/m


2001- 971/76 82/03 502/15 70/08


2002- 792/66 63/01 448/15 55/06


Emirate Ras Sharjah Umm

Alkhaima f/m Alquim

h f/m


2001- 500/09 447/13 48/02


2002- 451/06 414/08 46/02


Total female students enrolled 2001-2002: 2620

Total male students enrolled in 2001-2002: 126

Total female students enrolled 2002-2003: 2269

Total male students enrolled 2002-2003: 104

Table 2

Name of Gulf Cooperation Arab Other

Nationality Council Countries Countries

Female/male Female/male Female/male

2001-2002 172/09 16/04 01/100

2002-2003 180/09 15/04 01/100

Table 3

Amount Allocated for Motivation System for Male Student Teachers

Year in 2nd 3rd 4th Diploma year


amount 1000 Dhs 2000 Dhs 3000 Dhs 4000 Dhs


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EMAN EL. NAGGAR GAAD Department of Special Education College of Education United Arab Emirate University

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