The Keys Philosophy: A Teacherly Story with Nesreen Alaily

Everybody loves a good story and nobody tells one better than a teacher. These are Teacherly Stories: for sharing authentic moments, shining a light on the human side of teaching, and celebrating the incredible teachers we know.

Our next series of stories are from Nesreen Alaily, a grade-two teacher who works in Dubai. She is half-Palestinian half-Egyptian, a Mom of three, and has been teaching since 2009.

Nesreen Alaily with a butterfly.

“I became a teacher so that I could be closer to my eldest son. He was going into nursery, and I knew that I would need to help him learn as he grew up, but there was so much that I didn’t remember from my own school days. I started to educate myself about his curriculum. Then the principal of his nursery offered me a job and I thought, okay why not? At first I just wanted to be near my son, but from the first month there I found out that I’m very passionate about education.

I had two children by the time I was studying for my PGCE. It was challenging to have a full-time job, be a mom, a wife, and do my assignments all at the same time. I used to wait for the kids to go to sleep at eight, then I had a chance to do my reading and research online, and the next morning I would get up and go teach. This is one thing that I’m very proud of, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my family: especially my husband who is always supportive. I have three kids: Yousef is twelve, Faris is ten, and baby Maria is eight months old. My kids are very proud of me being a teacher. I can see it in their eyes. Plus they’re more confident with their work because they know they’ll always have someone to help them if they’re struggling. It makes their learning easier. Before this interview, I asked them to go upstairs so I could speak to you and they were teasing me saying, “oh, so you’re going to be famous.” I know they are proud of what I’m doing.

Nesreen Alaily with her two sons.

There are two people who have really inspired me as a teacher. The first is Randa Ghandour from Mirdif American School. She is my ex-principal and I really look up to her because she began her career very young; she started a school out of a villa in Dubai, and she’s a Mom as well. She overcame so many obstacles to expand and get approvals but she did it and now she has a wonderful school that’s a family-owned business.

The second person, who I only met briefly, is Ron Ritchhart. He’s a Harvard professor, and I attended one of his workshops in Spain a couple of years ago. He focuses on how to start an innovative culture in the classroom and writes about the eight forces that drive this culture. I can’t go one day without thinking of one or all of these forces. They are very practical, starting from stating your expectations, having a routine with your students, the language you use, and your time-frame. The book is called Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools. I would recommend it to any teacher.

Nesreen Alaily with Ron Ritchhart

I believe that each child has a special key. If you as the teacher can’t find the key then you won’t build the right kind of communication with the child. You also have to get to know the parents. They will tell you about the child: how to reward them, what they like and dislike, what motivates them and what their habits are like at home. I taught a little girl who was very moody. Sometimes she just didn’t want to work and she would completely disconnect. So I had to come down to her level and ask her about the things she likes in life. I used these things to grab her attention whenever she had a mood and she didn’t want to participate. This is what I mean by the key. Another child might respond with singing, another might prefer to be outside. Each child has a different key, so you have to modify your teaching to their personalities.

Nesreen Alaily with family.

In my first year of teaching, I was standing in the playground with my class nearby and I walked away to talk to a colleague. When I looked back, I realized that all of the kids were following me in a row. I was like the mommy duck and they were the little ducklings. I didn’t know back then that I had to tell them everything I was doing. I learned the basics in the first year: how to manage a classroom and how to go down to their level and make eye contact. I learned that they’ll copy your tone when you speak to them. My principal once complimented me on the noise level in my classroom. I don’t stick to a very quiet level… it gets creepy sometimes when teachers have a silent class. Education is a matter of discussion and they need to be comfortable to share their ideas out loud. It’s not the military. We’re here to learn from each other, I always tell them, our environment should be open.”

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