Alexia Dochnal ’22 interviewed Middle School English Teacher Ms. Ritta El-Manadily, who taught at TASIS from 2005–2020 and believes that the student should always be at the center of one’s teaching universe.
When did you start teaching at TASIS?
I started teaching at TASIS in 2005. I have always been an English teacher, but at the beginning of my time here, I also taught English as an Additional Language (EAL). Now, I teach mainstream English to students in the 7th and 8th grades.
What is your educational background?
I have an M.A. in Humanities with a specialization in English Literature, a B.A. in English Language and Literature, and a certificate in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL).
Can you briefly describe your career in education prior to TASIS?
I have been teaching for more than 30 years in many different countries and continents. I have taught both English and ESL at the university and middle school level.
After graduating from college, one of my favorite experiences was working at the Japanese Embassy in the Cultural Section. I worked there for almost a full year before getting married.
I later taught technology in Costa Rica as the Assistant Technology Director. I organized technology workshops for teachers to help them get acquainted with their teaching equipment and gave technology classes to students. Interestingly, I also taught journalism to middle school students. We published four newspapers a year along with a literary magazine, an initiative which I brought with me at the start of my time at TASIS.
Another opportunity that really stood out to me was working at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Education. I got to standardize the curriculum for Egypt nation-wide and write lesson plans for different schools that are still used on a large scale today!
Ironically, it happened by accident. I have always loved math and science, and I was in the high school scientific division, hoping to become a medical doctor, dentist, or engineer like my father and siblings. Unfortunately, I could not realize my dream. I have always been nearsighted and it would have been extremely straining on my eyes. Doctors advised me to pursue a different path. Consequently, I decided to choose English as my major. A perfectionist, I pursue anything and everything with a passion. This approach made me fall in love with the English language.
What do you like most about teaching English?
Apart from it being my mother tongue and one of the most beautiful languages, English is linguistically very complex and historically rich. I love its etymology, and I love how it has assimilated so many different words from languages like German, French, Latin, and Greek.
What I love most about teaching English is teaching literature, especially the creative part, such as poetry and short stories. It is interesting, fun, and unpredictable and allows the teacher to do so many different things with the students, taking advantage of its unique variety.
What’s your favorite thing about teaching in the Middle School?
I have always been fascinated by what young students have to say about a specific topic. Whenever I talk to them, I know I am getting a candid and unique perspective. As people grow up, they become more influenced by what they have learned and experienced. In other words, adults’ behaviors and ideas are biased because they are reflections of their upbringing and education. Children’s perspectives and opinions are pure. They say it as it is. I love the transparency and the purity that comes from students at that age. I learn from my students as much as they learn from me.
What do you like most about TASIS, and what makes the school unique?
As a student, I went to an American school in Beirut, Lebanon. Due to my previous experiences at international schools, I am accustomed to an environment similar to that of TASIS, and I feel so much at home here. As a teacher, I’ve always worked at American or international schools in different countries and continents. These schools offer a great opportunity to meet and work with students of all backgrounds. To me, it’s the diversity that is striking. The students come from different countries, they speak different languages…it’s just fabulous.
TASIS offers a unique opportunity for young people to explore different cultures, and I think that when the students grow up, they will be great assets to the community as a result of having been exposed to such a diverse range of cultures. I’m very grateful to TASIS because of its exceptional students. Apart from my colleagues, the main reason I am here is because I really love the students at TASIS.
What were your interests and passions when you were growing up?
When I was seven or eight, my music teachers discovered that I had a nice voice. They would give me solo roles in concerts and performances, especially around Christmas time. I love to act, too. Every single time there was a play at school, I would be on stage, usually in the main role. Thanks to my good memory, I knew all of my lines and those of the other actors, too! I was also very good at impersonating other people—especially my teachers. I would imitate the way they spoke or the way they wrote on the board, and it was very entertaining. I like to dance, too. I never went to a dance school or pursued it professionally, but I participated in talent shows for fun.
"The trick is to teach the students in a way that makes them forget that they are learning. The most durable knowledge is the knowledge acquired for its own sake."
Who is your inspiration—or a person who had a significant impact on your life—and why?
There are three primary figures who continue to inspire me, and who taught me invaluable life lessons. The first is my father. Sadly, he passed away 34 years ago, but I still feel that he is here, present in my heart. He was fearless, and a truly great man, a man of principle. He taught me to speak my mind and tell the truth, regardless of the consequences, and to be utterly intolerant of injustice. To him, injustice was the worst possible thing. He taught me to have self-respect and dignity, which has stayed with me to this day.
My mother is extremely intelligent, quiet, and taciturn, but when she speaks, they are always wise and necessary words. She told me to always think before you speak, and to be patient. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But when you listen, you may learn something new.”
The third figure who continues to inspire me is my husband. We met in 1987, when we were both selected to do an advanced diploma in teaching ESL with Cambridge University for the Royal Society of Arts. He teaches at the Scuola di Commercio and has never failed to show dedication and passion. Even after 33 years of teaching, he is always innovative in his lessons and has a great relationship with his students. After a hard day of work, which is hardly ever trouble-free, I feel blessed to be able to go back home and talk about my day with someone who fully understands what it’s like to be a teacher and the challenges that it brings. He has always been my rock, and he motivates me to remain passionate about teaching.
How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
My teaching philosophy is simple: the student is at the center of my teaching universe. It is with the student that I start, and it is with the student that I finish. It is the student that I seek, and it is that student that I find. In other words, I strongly believe that both the teacher and the curriculum should work together with who the student is in order to suit the student’s abilities, talents, strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and attitude toward school and the world at large. I walk towards the student, rather than stand still and wait for the student to come to me. I am the one with the experiences and qualifications, so I should be the one to adapt to the student’s needs, not the other way around.
Literature is a subject that allows me to explore a wide variety of life’s aspects, especially its challenges and nuisances. The trick is to teach the students in a way that makes them forget that they are learning. The most durable knowledge is the knowledge acquired for its own sake. That’s what I strive to achieve; it is the core of the student’s motivation, and the core of learning itself.
Many students describe you as, above all, a teacher who is very passionate. What do you think is the most important trait for a student or person willing to succeed?
The question answers itself. As long as you are willing, you will learn. Willingness is the key. Passion is extremely contagious because the students can feed off the energy of the teacher. When they see how passionate you are about your subject, it automatically transfers on to them.
In English class, the main focus is studying stories and the way in which they are told. How do you think that literature plays a role in shaping a young person’s mind?
I once read in a psychology book that reading is the most effective way for young people to develop empathy because it allows them to see things from a different perspective. Literature teaches kids how to treat each other; when you show empathy, you know how to deal with others. People who read voraciously, especially those who read a wide range of different genres, are better human beings than those who don’t. We are all so different that you have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes to understand them; learning how other people think can help develop the mind of the individual. Of course, reading helps improve a student’s writing and vocabulary, but above all, it enhances a student’s ability for self-advocacy and broadens their horizons.
In the words of George R.R. Martin: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.”