Emma and Hannah have been attending a local preschool here in Maadi, for the last two years. Emma started just a few months after we arrived in Cairo, and Hannah joined her sister when she turned 2 ½. One of the main reasons we chose to send the girls to preschool is to help them learn Arabic in a natural way. We searched several preschools and found that many quality ones focused on teaching the kids English. We wanted the quality and the good care associated with these preschools, but didn’t want the English teaching that was included. We eventually found a preschool maintained by one of the local Coptic churches, which had a basic program, but caring teachers. One of the most important factors for us was that the teachers and children were all Egyptian Arabic speakers. We knew our girls would be immersed in the language.
At the beginning, Emma, then age 3+, didn’t really know any Arabic. But since she was so young, we figured she would be able to function without language until she just assimilated into it. I got encouraging reports from the teachers frequently as they told me that she was understanding them, then understanding the children and finally, communicating with the children in Arabic. She didn’t speak with us in Arabic often, but we would try to gauge her understanding by asking her what she learned different days and different vocab words.
By the time Hannah joined Emma, I knew that the big sister would be able to communicate anything necessary for the little one. Hannah was excited to join Emma as she went with me everytime I picked Emma up or dropped her off. She already knew the teachers and some of the kids. And so they both attended three days a week for half a day.
Over the months, I got to know the teachers more and eventually did a little volunteer teaching in English/music once a week. It was a fun challenge for me teaching preschoolers who don’t speak English. It stretched my Arabic and gave me a chance to teach some fun things to my own girls too! It was a good situation and we were happy to stick with it for Hannah once Emma enters school in the fall.
This was until a few weeks ago when I took Hannah into school in the morning and only the two aides were present. They asked me if I had been to the parents’ meeting the night before and I told them I hadn’t heard there was one. They then proceeded to tell me what was going on.
Apparently, one of the little girls in the class had gotten out of the classroom one day the previous week without the teachers noticing. Now this classroom is located inside a building which is set back a ways from the main gate of the facility. This building is by no means set up to be a preschool as it belongs to the villa-coffeeshop of the Coptic Church across the street, but it works. I couldn’t quite understand from the conversation, all of it in Arabic, if the girl had just gotten out of the classroom, only to be apprehended by someone sitting in the coffeeshop portion of the facility, or if she made it all the way out the gate before being noticed by a passerby and then returned to the room. There is a difference here, of course, as the second scenario is more serious especially given that a busy traffic circle is close to the gate, and also that a stranger returned her. I am thinking this is what happened. Praise the Lord there was no harm to the little girl, but you can imagine her parents’ fear and anger when they learned what happened. This news quickly reached the school’s supervisor and then ultimately, the bishop in charge of preschools in the area. By the time I talked with the teacher aides that morning, they were planning on all being fired even though some had served there for more than 20 years.
I was really sorry to hear this story and the plight of the teachers. Yes, it is definitely an oversight which could have been catastrophic, but I don’t know where all the blame lies. Ultimately, the teachers are responsible for each one of the children during the day, and so, the fault lies with them. At the same time, they felt they were being taken to task without any chance for answering for themselves, or any consideration for their previous years of service. I felt bad for them and told them I would give a good word for them if asked.
I immediately had the opportunity for this as I left the room that morning, leaving Hannah in the classroom with just a few other children whose parents either hadn’t heard the news or trusted the teachers anyway. I ran into one of the men responsible for the preschool program and he told me the story once again after apologizing for not informing me of the parents’ meeting, but he didn’t have my phone number. He was definitely upset with the teachers and said two things needed to be done: 1) reconfigure the classroom to keep the children contained, moving the bathroom within the facility; and 2) replace the teachers. I did my best to support the teachers saying that if they fixed the first problem, then this shouldn’t happen again. He didn’t seem convinced, but let me know the preschool would remain open the rest of the week before closing for a period of time.
Hannah finished out the week with the two teachers aides as the two teachers themselves refused to return to the place where they were being treated unfairly. I was told that I could check back within about a month to see when they would re-open. Or at least, that is what I understood them to say in Arabic. By this time, Emma had begun a summer course, so she was at that five days a week, and now Hannah was home with me and Layla five days a week! The first few days were rough for her as she couldn’t wait to go pick Emma up from school so she had a playmate! It had been a long time since she wasn’t with Emma during the day, and she wasn’t sure what to do with herself. We did get some quality time in, going shopping and cooking lunch, but I did have to restructure my day from what I was used to.
After a few weeks, I returned to the villa to check on the progress. I ran into one of the teacher aides who was now working the cash register at the coffee shop. The other aide had found work in the baby section of the preschool and the two teachers were hoping to open their own preschool within a couple months. I was glad that there was some reshuffling rather than everyone being totally let go, but this aide told me that the preschool would not re-open at all. That was a surprise to me, but that was the decision that was reached. She then told me about the other preschool opening and gave me the teacher’s number. I was glad to hear of that option as I really had developed a relationship with the other two teachers and the girls and I were all comfortable with them.
So that is where we are today. After talking to the teacher on the phone, she said I can come see her new place in a couple weeks and decide if Hannah will attend or not. In the meantime, I’ve told Emma and Hannah what happened at their old preschool, and they seem to understand to a point. The other day, Hannah related the story to her grandmother this way: “My school is locked. A kid got out and the policeman brought her back.” Hopefully she can have a new school soon.