Almost 29 years ago, SEKEM School was rising to be the starting point for a new generation to build a sustainable society. But how did the beginnings of SEKEM School look like? How does it differ to other public schools in Egypt? And how does SEKEM School tries to be an alternative model to the governmental school system, that was ranked second-last place out of 140 countries worldwide for its primary education? With a marvelous storytelling talent, Gamal El-Sayed, the director as well as a witness of the early beginnings of the SEKEM School, gives answers in an interview with SEKEM News.
Gamal El-Sayed: In 1987, SEKEM School was established on the SEKEM Farm near Cairo. At that time, I was working as an Arabic teacher in a public school close to it. Two years later, SEKEM School showed a need for more experienced teachers. Thus, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish invited the teachers of the neighboring schools to a meeting and I was one of them. We had a deep conversation about how to improve the education system in Egypt and how to help the students to explore themselves. Dr. Ibrahim’s genuine belief in the role that education plays in achieving progress in a society and his humbleness were the convincing reasons for me to join SEKEM School.
SN: Why are you calling it “a convincing reason”?
G.E.: During that time, I was like many others, who could not understand what Dr. Ibrahim was willing to do when he started to reclaim a piece of dry land in the middle of the desert. I thought that I was satisfied with my job at that public school. However, I was curious to know what this man was thinking about when he decided to establish SEKEM Initiative. The meeting was a good chance for me to satisfy my curiosity and made me understand that there is so much more than I could imagine at that time.
“I am working here for 27 years, and till now I am still learning something new every day.”
SN: So, what did you find different at SEKEM School compared to other Egyptian schools?
G.E.: SEKEM School is built in the middle of the greenness of the SEKEM Farm, far away from the crowdedness of the city. This strengthens the bonds between its people and the nature. The teachers at SEKEM School work on empowering the students’ individual potential, to develop their personal character. I found this challenging, because usually in Egypt the teachers only have to stick to the syllabus. SEKEMs teachers are very familiar with SEKEMs vision, which is focusing on building a sustainable society. Hence, involving the teachers in a continuous development strategy is inevitable. I am working here for 27 years, and till now I am still learning something new every day.
G.E.: At the moment, SEKEM School has 750 students and 110 teachers. SEKEM is a well-known role model for Sustainable Development through its holistic approach within the four dimensions: Ecology, Economy, Cultural and Societal Life. Accordingly, SEKEM teachers should be aware of the current local and international challenges in those four sectors. We support this awareness by integrating them in various activities and providing them with sessions in regards to several urgent issues, for example the effects of climate change, water scarcity, desertification and many other topics.
“SEKEM teachers should be aware of the current local and international challenges.”
SN: Although we are during the summer vacation now, it is normal to see teachers and students at school as if it is during school days. Why is that?
G.E.: At SEKEM School, this is quite normal. During the long vacation period SEKEM teachers attend trainings. This year, Heliopolis University staff offered workshops on leadership and communication skills to our teachers. Also the pupils come to SEKEM School in summer and participate in various cultural and artistic activities. One of the prominent activities is the choir, which has its own style in presenting different kinds of music, whether oriental or occidental. In addition, they are learning handicrafts in SEKEMs Vocational Training Center (VTC) and going on educational trips, like visiting museums.
G.E.: SEKEM Initiative is like a fruitful tree with many branches, but all of them are connected through the same roots within the same ground. If no one watched out the rising fruits, it would putrefy and the tree would be useless. I am responsible for taking care of the fruits, but also maintaining the well-being of the soil and the roots. Before I joined my current working position, I had been a teacher at SEKEM School and was involved in many training sessions at the VTC to fully understand the nature of SEKEM. Today, I am the director of the SEKEM Schools and taking care of the school’s public relations and external contacts to keep the important networks. I closely cooperate with Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish, who trusts me to have internalized the vision and to communicate it accordingly.
“SEKEM School needs teachers, who are looking for further self-development.”
SN: As you said, the SEKEM School has a completely different approach to education compared to conventional schools. How do you find the teachers that are able to understand and implement SEKEMs teaching and learning vision?
G.E.: First, we search for the goodness in the teacher’s heart, which is reflected mainly in his or her doings in certain situations and in their beliefs. SEKEM School needs teachers, who are looking for further self-development as well as to achieve the prosperity of the community. If the teacher believes in the values embedded in continuous learning, it will be reflected in the way he or she delivers the educational message to the students.
SN: The World Economic Forum currently ranked the quality of the primary education in Egypt to the second-last out of 140 countries worldwide. The Egyptian education system obviously faces huge problems. How is SEKEM School trying to overcome such enormous challenges?
G.E.: I think, the teachers play a huge role in this. That is why SEKEM is strongly integrating the teachers into its holistic philosophy, which fosters fairness and equality between the community members. We can guarantee a well-developed and educated society, if we have enlightened teachers, who can profoundly and emphatic teach their students the principles of humanity, a healthy environment and a fair society instead of mindless rote memorizing.
Interview: Noha Hussein