Dr Nermine Ismail: School's in
Some 35 years on and her ambitions remain undimmed
Profile by Inas Mazhar
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"Teaching is a most rewarding profession. It is the only job in which you see the results of your work almost immediately. And so it was that I began to work as an English teacher at the English School. Five years after I had left I returned, though this time as a teacher and mother."
Nermine Ismail entered this world in the nineteen fifties, that most revolutionary of decades. Born in Cairo she was the third child of a military officer. Eventu ally there would be five children -- two boys and three daughters, while her father, Ahmed Ismail, would become minister of defence, leading Egypt to victory in the Sixth of October War.
Her father's military commitments obliged him to travel around the country, sometimes with the family in tow and sometimes without. When he was serving in places that offered the facilities necessary for family life -- being close to schools among the most significant -- then the family would accompany him to the posting. "But if," says Nermine, "he was stationed in a desert camp, with no facilities beyond those required for army life, then we would stay in Cairo with our mother. As a consequence our childhood was spent in many places, Suez, Sinai, Al- Arish and Qantara among them."
Having a military father resulted in a relatively strict domestic environment, though her father was, Nermine says, "both strict and kind".
"Because he was away most of the time we would be indulged during vacations. He was very much our mentor, instilling a sense of independence and responsibility in his children. It was father who really set the rules of the house, though it was our mother who implemented them. She was remarkably supportive, of both her husband and children."
"He never spoke about his job at home. During the 1967 and 1973 wars he was practically living in the operations room. In 1967 we were with him in Ismailia. After a long day he would come to the lodgings and sleep the night with us and sometimes tell stories about the soldiers under his command. And I remember clearly the eve of the October War. He came home, stayed with us for some time, prayed at dawn and bid us farewell."
"I can still remember his words to my eldest brother. He asked him to take care of the family during his absence. We had no idea that there would be war."
"He left us to our own devices and seldom interfered in our decisions," says Nermine.
Of the two brothers, one is an ambassador in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the other a surgeon. The three sisters -- Soha, Nermine and Dina -- all work in the field of education.
As a child Nermine attended the English School, now known as Al-Nasr School, in Heliopolis. During the mid-1960s she was living with her family in Sinai. It was there that, at the age of 16, she was spotted by a young airforce doctor while at the cinema with her family. His name was Ahmed Ismail.
"He was 11 years older and I didn't have time to get to know him very well. My father liked him and approved of our marriage and so did I. Girls at the time were fascinated by handsome men in uniform. And so we got married."
"I was still a student in the secondary stage at the English School. My husband, like my father, traveled a lot. At the time many girls would quit school after marriage but I didn't. I was determined to continue my studies and earn my certificate (Thanawiya Amma). Unlike many men my husband encouraged and supported me and I went on to get my school certificate." After school Nermine joined the English Department at Cairo University, by which time she was the mother of two young boys, Amr and Mohamed. Yet despite the pressures -- and as the daughter of the Minister of Defence and the wife of an increasingly well-known doctor there were certainly alternatives -- she remained determined to forge a career of her own. "I wasn't interested," she says, "in coffee mornings, chat and gossip. I wanted to feel I was useful, in whatever way that might be."
While at university she worked as an interpreter for the Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee, collaborating with the then minister of culture, Youssef El-Sebaie.
"I managed to work and take care of my husband and children. Nobody helped me. I managed on my own. My mother had always taught us to depend on ourselves, to be self- reliant and manage our own business. 'You have to learn to be responsible for a family as I had to learn,' she would say. 'I have raised the five of you and now you have to take that experience and teach your children what I taught you.'"
"By the time my sons were school age I began to feel that I needed a job that would allow me to fulfill my ambitions but also to continue nurturing my children. I decided on a compromise, which was to begin teaching. It was something that had always interested me. Teaching is a most rewarding profession. It is the only job in which you see the results of your work almost immediately. And so it was that I began to work as an English teacher at the English School. Five years after I had left I returned, though this time as a teacher and mother."
The job neatly dove-tailed with her other responsibilities.
"I used to go with the children to school, return home with them and help them with their homework."
Two years into her new teaching career she became head of English and deputy headmistress. Three years later, in 1975, she became, at the age of 27, headmistress, a position she held for eight years until 1983, when the then minister of education, Fathi Serour, invited her to become an English advisor at the Ministry of Education where she worked for three years. She then joined Al- Azhar University as a post-graduate student, studying education and child psychology, which she continued at Cairo University.
Then, when her former boss, Minister of Education Dr Fathi Serour, became speaker of the People's Assembly, he asked her to join him as office manager of the People's Assembly Information Centre. A year later, in 1991, she received a PhD in Comparative Education from Budapest University. By 1994 she had been appointed Executive Manager of the People's Assembly, a post she continues to hold.
In 1993, while serving at the People's Assembly, she founded Futures Language School. She was principal of the school for five years, during which time she also acted as executive director of the Cairo Investment and Development Corporation and was chairperson of Future International for Construction, Management and Cultural Enterprises.
"I wanted to implement new trends in education that I had observed abroad. I was striving for an improved education system, one in which, rather than the child simply being fed information children are encouraged to be more creative. I wanted to combine other activities alongside academic study. Those activities would be graded alongside more conventional schoolwork. Unfortunately, I faced an uphill struggle persuading parents. They thought creative activities a waste of time. And the teachers, they too resented change. My aim was to make children love school, to encourage a sense of belonging, an identification with school and all its activities."
Not that everything has gone Nermine's way. Disagreement among the owners of Futures School resulted in her resignation. But that, in turn, led her to start her own project, the International Schools of Egypt, which incorporates five different institutions -- the English, French, American, British Schools, and a German School planned to start operating next year.
"I always believed learning languages was very important. In each of my language schools children are taught three languages alongside Arabic. Some believe it is too much for the children, but they are at the perfect age to pick up language. During 35 years in the field of education I have found children amazingly receptive to languages. We live in a country that has been exposed to different cultures throughout its history -- Turkish, French and English. And there is an obvious need to develop a multi-lingual workforce to enhance job opportunities," Nermine believes.
Dr Nermine Ismail now has six grandchildren. Tellingly, they all attend her schools.
She has received a great many awards during her career. Among many nominations the Nasr City Education Board selected her as best principal and her work has been commended by, among others, the Campaign Against Pollution and Drug Addiction, the Egyptian Learning Disabilities Association and the Ministry of Education.
In addition to being a member of a great many international professional institutes and also undertaking extensive work for charitable organisations she has also found time, in what looks like an overflowing schedule, to produce a number of publications, among them: Supervision in the Classroom, How to be Successful in Life, A Student's Guide to Homework, Study Tips for all Subjects, So You Want to Get Good Grades, How to Improve your Study Skills, Preparing your Child for Kindergarten and Egypt: Land of Civilisation.
Yet despite so much acknowledged success she remains as ambitious and motivated as when she set out on her career 35 years ago.
"I want to inspire a sense of leadership in our children. I want to enhance self-esteem in children. I would like to develop the use of IT in our education system. I am working on developing skills to be successful. We have to provide children with tools that will foster the making of choices."