By Ms Shiraz Lafhaj, Head of Curriculum Development, Teach For Qatar and a Teach First Ambassador
I used to jump on to the London Underground at Shepherd’s Bush and take the Central Line to Liverpool Street. From there if you take the 242 bus it will go through Shoreditch towards Dalston. I would get off at Kingsland road.
I made that journey once a month when I was 16 to attend workshops that my school had nominated me for — leadership development workshops for students from under-represented groups. I didn’t really see myself as being under-represented because I was from London, where everyone is from somewhere else, but my school had made such a fuss about us taking advantage of opportunities so, with my headphones in, I’d catch the bus to Kingsland Road.
I had a great time in school. For most of my friends or their parents, English was a second language and being eligible for government-funded free school meals was just normal. I recognized that the school up the road was much fancier than ours, and I saw how different the houses around my school looked compared to those in my area, but apart from that my friends and I were quite content. I enjoyed the escape of school and homework and I knew that I needed at least 5 A-C grades including Math and English if I was to get anywhere in life, as this had been drummed into us during my GCSE years and later on at A-Level (school-leaving or university entrance exams in the UK).
My A-Level English teacher was the first person I had met who had been to Oxford University. I just assumed that I would go to university, but I hadn’t really put any more thought into it beyond knowing that I’d have to fill in forms at the local council office to sort out a student loan. I didn’t know at the time that my A-Level English teacher was a Teach First participant. Along with some of my other teachers, Ms. Winfield helped put places like Oxford University in sentences that included my name. I was a good student and would do well — for them it was that simple.
My train journeys became longer when I started university and it was on those trains that I first saw England outside of London, the stretches of green much bigger than the park that I used to walk through to get to school.
I look back to those university years a lot.
I remember a professor being surprised that I didn’t know the meaning of a word in her seminar. It took me double the amount of time to write essays because I didn’t know half of what everyone else was talking about. I was terrified of presenting in front of others, and with my track record of shaky hands and muffled words, another professor laughed at me when I told him I was applying to go into teaching.
I went on to become a teacher with Teach First, gain a Masters in Leadership and work with Teach First as an Associate Tutor during two Summer Institutes. Seeing things from the other side of the classroom, in front of the class instead of behind a desk, is what really got me stuck into education. What a privilege it was to work with and for children who were just like me, and to return the kindness that Ms. Winfield had shown me just a few years prior.
Three years later, after moving abroad to teach, I was connected with someone interested in starting Teach For Qatar. I had been active with Teach First and travelled to Sweden as part of an International Task Force to learn more about the strengths of their comparatively successful education system. My network within the Teach For All community had grown over time, and my name was mentioned when the conversation began in Qatar about becoming a Teach For All partner.
As a foreigner in a new country, I found myself back in the Teach For All fold. Teach For Qatar has grown in five years to reach over 13,000 school children with almost 120 teachers, all of whom I have had the privilege of working with as an Associate Program Manager and now Head of Curriculum Development.
With Teach First I returned to the classroom in a school just like the one I went to. Teach For Qatar has given me the opportunity to work with many truly exceptional teachers, for girls and boys just like me — but this time in my father’s mother-tongue. I have stood with great pride between the ‘us’ and the ‘them’, as teacher and as student. I have gone from a student watching fights in school, to breaking them up as a teacher.
Wherever I have been, I am most at home in the chaos of a classroom. And this year I have the honour of watching one of my own students begin her Summer Institute as a Teach For Qatar Fellow.