Teachers have always strived to take their noble profession beyond the realms of just academic progress, to inspire and instil good values in children. The fact that the UAE is home to the Global Teacher Prize, the annual $1 million award by the Varkey Foundation to a teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession, is proof that there are plenty of educators who go to great lengths to raise the bar when it comes to education. Friday meets three Abu Dhabi-based teachers who are going out of their way to inspire students through their own passion for various causes:
Mental health advocate: Liam Kelly, Diyafah International School, Abu Dhabi
Liam Kelly’s personal list of achievements this year includes singing on stage with his students at the school concert, riding the world’s fastest rollercoaster, and handling a tarantula. While these may seem trivial to most adults, for Liam, 40, it is a feeling of liberation as he battled severe anxiety as a child.
Growing up in the countryside of Moneyglass in Northern Ireland, where ‘you weren’t allowed to be worried or stressed,’ Liam remembers spending most of his childhood struggling with his inner demons. ‘At the age of nine, it became apparent to me that I was a worrier as I was struggling to sleep and eat,’ he says.
At the age of 15, Liam began to realise that he was really struggling with social interactions and had to do something about it. So he trained himself to manage his worries as he was too embarrassed to talk to anyone else about it.
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His worst nightmare as a student was being asked to stand up in class and say something. ‘I’d become very nervous and even struggled to breathe. Unless you have been through this, it really is difficult to understand.’ He tried to hide from the teacher and the rest of the class. ‘But it didn’t work,’ says the teacher who is Head of Year 5 at Diyafah International School, Abu Dhabi.
In retrospect, Liam believes that the root of his problem was that he always aimed to be a people pleaser. ‘The one person who I always tried to please the most (and still do) is my mum, Margaret. My biggest regret is not telling her at a young age how scared I was at school and life in general,’ says Liam.
Every night while he lay in bed, Liam would rehearse a conversation in his head with his mum about how he felt. ‘But the next day, I just couldn’t do it. It was not because I didn’t trust my mum, rather that I didn’t want to disappoint her.’
When it came to choosing a career, Liam knew that he wanted to help children like himself who struggled with everyday challenges. ‘I wanted to become the teacher who understood the potential of every child and who they could speak to without any worry.’
He completed a BA Honours from Sunderland University in England and arrived in the UAE in 2016. As much as he enjoyed teaching, he felt he had to chronicle his childhood angst to help similar children in distress. To that end, he began working on the Worried William series of books then.
Based on the travails of a character called William, a nine-year-old, the books focus on the internal conflicts a child faces in school. Liam narrates William’s struggles as he copes with bullying, pressure, lack of confidence and other adolescent issues.
By the end of this year, his second of the 21-book series will be out.
Along with the book series, Liam has also started an outreach programme for mental health, working with schools such as Brighton College, Abu Dhabi; Cranleigh Abu Dhabi; Al Diyafah International School, Dubai among others. He has also collaborated with the Abu Dhabi chapter of Darkness Into Light (a global movement against suicide and self-harm) in their school tours each term.
‘With these sessions, I address parents and children with stories based on my own life. I tell every group of parents the same thing: The greatest gift that you can give your child is your time. It gives parents a great insight into how children worry at school and home. In addition to this, it will help parents spot and identify signs that their child is actually worrying,’ says Liam.
At the same time, children learn that there are different ways to deal with everyday struggles and that they are not alone.
One of the best responses he received was from the mother of a 10-year-old boy who had clammed up due to some internal conflicts. ‘After the session, I got an email from the mother saying that the boy had broken down while going to bed that night and confided to his mother that he was being bullied at school. He said he got confidence from the Worried William man who said you had to tell all your problems to your mother. The mother was really relieved as she knew the boy was hiding some emotions but couldn’t realise what it was.’
The project also delivers talks and workshops in schools and clubs, where children get the opportunity to discuss their inhibitions openly. It also helps parents get an insight into the life of a child suffering with worries and everyday challenges. ‘I alert them on red flags of anxiety and how they can approach the subject and start the conversation with their children,’ says Liam.
Work has also begun on a new girl series called Super Sam, in which a young girl deals with the challenges of being popular. Another project in the pipe line is a collection of poems called Hidden Words that is written by Liam, parents of worried children and the worried children themselves. It will be published in English and Arabic.
In the foreseeable future, Liam plans to promote his project and help children who are suffering in silence. ‘My publisher, Austin Macauley, have been absolutely amazing and they have given me an opportunity to fulfil my dreams. I also hope to research and educate myself with more literature to gain an even bigger insight into the mental health area.
Apart from all this, Liam plans to end the year by facing two more personal challenges; the XLine Dubai and Skydive Dubai.
‘I am trying to conquer my biggest fears. I hope (like the other events) by openly talking about it, I can get the support from people around me to accomplish it.’
To date, he claims he hasn’t fully overcome his worries but has just learned to manage them.
Three tips from Liam for children with anxiety:
1) Know that it’s OK to feel worried.
2) Talk to a trusted person.
3) Talk when you are ready.
Teaching through interaction: Manal Mahmoud Hamad, Al Ethihad National School, Al Ain
Back in 2009, Jordanian expat Manal Mahmoud Hamad got a phone call that left her lost for words. She had just been informed that she was being conferred with the prestigious Abu Dhabi Award.
‘How did they find me?’ was the first thought that occurred to me,’ she says.
An advocate of environmental protection and awareness, Manal has been a science teacher for over the past two decades. Her work and dedication have been recognised with a number of awards from both the education and environmental fields. She was presented with the Distinguished Environmental Teacher Award, the Hamdan Bin Rashid Award for Teaching Excellence and the Sharjah Award for Voluntary Work in the environmental field, among others.
Her goal? Encourage students to expand their ability to find practical solutions to evolving issues.
After graduating from Kuwait University with an undergraduate degree in Microbiology and Zoology, Manal studied at the Amman Arab University for Graduate Studies, where she completed her Master’s in Educational Psychology.
She still remembers her first job interview as a teacher at Dar Al Arqam School in Jordan. ‘I was waiting to be called in when I noticed two children crying. It was their first day and they simply refused to get into the classroom. I went over and asked them calmly what was wrong. Then I told them that they were going to have fun in class and enjoy their time. After a bit of cajoling, they agreed to go to their classes,’ she recollects.
The Principal, who had witnessed the incident, gave Manal the job on the spot, stating that no interview was necessary as she seemed to have a natural connection with children.
She arrived in the UAE in 1994 and landed a job at Al Khama’el Model School in the Western region.
As a teacher, Manal, 58, has adopted methods of applied learning, in particular, organising annual school projects focusing on environmental issues such as pollution, global warming and desertification.
Over time, these projects have helped to seed positive environmental behaviour in students of all ages by combining classroom and extracurricular activities.
Rather than reading out from a book, Manal believes in getting children to experience first-hand the issues in the environment and she takes the kids on field trips at least twice a week. They are taught how to classify organisms, their habitats, life cycles, etc. ‘There is no point in just reading a book or showing a few slides to teach about our world. Children need hands-on experience to understand the concepts better. I encourage a lot of brainstorming and discussions in my classroom where kids are pushed to think and react.’
In another hands-on approach, children are encouraged to tour the school and find out potential areas of water or any other resource wastage. ‘They spot any kind of leaks in pipes and make notes of it. Then they inform officials at the Municipality and ensure that everything was fixed,’ she says. The students have also created a proposal to save water and have presented it to the Municipality.
Presently working in Al Ethihad National School, Al Ain, Manal also researched on the ‘Project Zero’ methodology of teaching from Harvard University to design a customised curriculum and assessment pattern as a strategy for teaching.
‘I remember one of the projects that we implemented was on passive smoking. The students in the campaign met people in malls and on the street.’ One of the students, under supervision of the teacher, spoke to a man who was smoking, advising him to quit for his health. ‘So compelling was the student that the man dropped the cigarette, squished it with his shoe and vowed never to smoke again,’ says Manal.
The teacher also remembers two students – sisters – who were very active in their plastic recycling campaign. ‘Their mother was very supportive but their father initially ridiculed their efforts. But after a few months, the father could also be seen helping them collect waste and participating in activities. The whole family is now working towards one goal.’ It shows the power of children’s voices, she feels.
Ten years since the Abu Dhabi Award, Manal still remembers it as a dream.
‘On the stage I asked His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, how they decided on me for the award. He said, “you are the kind of people we are looking for”. For me, that was the best compliment I’ve ever received. But I also felt I had to carry on my path and should never be deterred,’ says Manal. Her short-term goals include attaining a PhD in education and environment, while in the future she wants to write a book based on her experiences.
Eco warrior: Neeraj Bhargava, Abu Dhabi Indian School
Dressed in their red sweaters, 998 students of the Abu Dhabi Indian School (ADIS), huddled together in the football ground for a noble mission on a cool December morning last year. They were attempting a Guinness World Record for the largest human image of an infinity symbol, to draw global attention to the rising issue of water depletion.
As one of the oldest schools in the Capital (established in 1975), ADIS has achieved many laurels in varied fields. But for its principal Neeraj Bhargava, sustainability and conservation of natural resources go hand in hand with academic achievements. Ever since he joined the school in 2016, he has implemented several techniques and campaigns to promote best practices among children.
‘Our children are not the ones who created these issues yet they will bear the greatest burden of its impact,’ he says.
‘We try to encourage children to come up with creative solutions for such campaigns. The idea for the infinity loop came from the children themselves. They wanted a mathematical symbol that could be linked to water conservation and chose infinity,’ he says.
The attempt was aligned with a water conservation campaign called Hold the Drop, initiated by the school in November 2018. All the children from kindergarten to Grade 12 of the 4,800-strong school were given water-saving faucets and brochures to educate themselves on the importance of the task they were undertaking.
‘We asked them to spread the word to their friends and neighbours to help reduce water consumption and enhance awareness,’ says Bhargava.
The efforts did not go in vain. A statistical survey done by the school recently showed a 12 per cent decrease in water consumption in the school.
Bhargava, who holds a Master’s degree in Cell Biology from the Government College of Ajmer, taught at the renowned Mayo College, Ajmer, before coming to the UAE. ‘Ever since I can remember, I have had the urge to spread knowledge and I always knew I would be a teacher,’ he says.
Outside the classroom, Bhargava and his eco-crusaders have undertaken many conservation campaigns including the ‘Endangered Fish Campaign’, ‘Save the Hamour Campaign’, ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ and many more. Around 2,000 students have been involved in these projects.
‘The projects that we undertake have inspired our students and the wider community to think critically and differently. Because of the quality of our projects, we were chosen by the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi to mentor six other schools in the capital including Sunrise, Emirates Future International and Nada School, Dunes International. This collaboration of mentoring schools has aided students in communicating with their peers on a regular basis and coming up with innovative solutions,’ he says.
The students also act as watch guards to identify potential leaks and wastage of energy resources across the campus. ‘We take their suggestions very seriously and implement them’.
In the recent session of Hold The Drop held at Mushrif Mall in June, more than 200 children presented skits and demonstrated techniques on water conservation. They actively engaged the crowd, advocating the cause.
Right now Bhargava is basking in the pride that his school is ranked number one among Abu Dhabi schools in the Education World Global School Ranking.
But he knows that these water conservation efforts are just a drop in the ocean. ‘The problem of this magnitude needs to be addressed more aggressively and I think campaigning through social media is the best way to capture the attention of the young generation. We are also undertaking a major research project that involves solar energy harnessing and water conservation, which involves our children and all other stakeholders.’