When we think of a school principal, rarely does the image of a 23-year-old female comes to mind. Farida Serag El Din, the youngest high school principal, is a graduate from the American University in Cairo with a double major in political science and philosophy in addition to a minor in psychology.
Serag El Din then went on to work at CIRA, a K-12 education group in Egypt with 24 schools operating under the “Futures” brand, as a community and stakeholder engagement officer. The schools offer national and international curricula at mid-market pricing, as well as British, American, French and German education tracks in select schools. She is now a principal for grades 7-12 at Futures British School, and has been so for under a year.
We had the opportunity to sit and chat with Serag El Din to find out more about how she got there, and what her visions for education are.
Did you always know you wanted to be in the education industry?
I dreamt about opening up my own school that would be different in all ways since I was little. This is still my dream and I believe I am working towards it.
When I worked at CIRA, I began realizing that working from the upper management office was not good enough, as I was not really able to make a difference on the ground. When the principal position opened up at one of the schools and the CEO whom I work closely with nominated me, I was over the moon, as it finally felt like I would really be able to make a change.
What did you not like about your school that inspired you to want to make a change?
I was born and raised in El Gouna. As a community, I loved my school, but it was the way we were learning that did not resonate with me. The curriculum was one-sided, and I wanted to be familiarized with the other perspectives. I began asking myself questions: Why do we only learn in a certain way? Why make 100 people take the same exam? Why get evaluated using the same methods when we are all different?
However, when I came to Cairo and saw the other schools and how they operated, I realized that my school was top notch in comparison.
What is the relationship between what you studied and your current job?
The courses I was studying at university made me depressed at times, as I had absolutely no clue where I was going with this. Even after graduation, I only applied to CIRA because my mom worked there. One thing led to another and here I am.
Now I know that what I studied proved to be the perfect mix for being a principal, as political science taught me how to deal with situations, and that at the end of the day, everything is politics. Psychology taught me how to deal with different people and students, and philosophy always gives me an idea about why I am dealing with specific situations in the first place. It all turned out for the best.
What inspired such a tough career at a young age?
I think it is a benefit that I am young, as I can speak from a more honest perspective. I understand the students better, and they open up to me a lot faster because I am close to their age and so I can relate to them, unlike when the principal is much older. They talk to me about drug problems and sexual problems. I feel like when we are closer in age, they are willing to believe what I say because it is more realistic to them.
Kids often come to tell me “finally there is someone who can actually feel what we are going through.” I believe that because of how close I am with the students, that by end of the school year, bullying will decrease drastically. All you have to do is talk to the students, put them in the shoes of the kid they are bullying and make them understand the whole situation, and then keep doing so everyday. So far this technique is working. Reverse psychology is very successful.
What was your family and friends’ response?
My family is my perfect support system. They tell me that they have always known it, but then again all parents do. My friends are proud of me and like to show me off which is a great mood booster always, but then there are some who just laugh at me and see me as a conspiracy theorist and wonder what I have to teach the kids.
What progress have you made since becoming the principal?
The school was not in the best shape because they have had four different principals in under a year. There was a lot of organization needed before making any changes just to keep everything intact. I have established a hierarchy, where everyone knows who they are in the team and what their role is, and I have implemented the rules that were lost between principals.
Now, I am trying to change the attitudes and perspectives of students, teachers and parents towards school and education, especially to make teachers and parents focus less on grades and more on the individual wellbeing, and to listen more to the kids and to try and stop enforcing their own opinions. I am also trying to improve the quality of knowledge; the way they learn. There has to be space for students to question, and I want the teachers to offer all the different perspectives, not just the one they need for exams.
What are the major challenges you face? How do you deal with managing older employees at such a young age?
Imagine a 23-year-old, ex-Gouna resident, AUCian who is the principal and the youngest employee in school. Trying to break the ice while being respectable and decent and while remaining an effective leader is the major challenge, especially with the teachers.
Because they are older and have been here for longer, they aren’t willing to change as much, especially when a person my age is urging them to. A lot of them think and even sometimes say: “who are you to tell me” or “what do you know to tell me to do so.” Trying to fix things without referring back to my idealism is not an easy thing. You can’t always be kind and caring as sometimes you just need to be the boss.
Another challenge is knowing that 300+ students have their future in my hands, as the foundation of their personalities is being shaped here. This thought really scares me. Punishing children is also very tough for me, and so I try to change the situation so I don’t need to do it. To strengthen my leadership skills, I attended a leadership program at AUC to make sure I am doing things right.
Ironically, my relationship with the parents is going great, even though I thought it was going to be the other way around.
For now, I am trying to make this school feel more like mine, and then maybe turn it into my dream school. I am just trying to create the healthiest environment within the boundaries I have.
How is your dream school going to be different and what are its characteristics?
I dream of a new system, where wellness – in terms of mind, body, spirituality and inner peace – is valued and put first in education, while being aware and knowledgeable about the world around us. I believe in a system where students at a young age can choose the subjects they want to study, so they can focus on what they are good at while also learning other subjects but not in as much detail.
Assessments and development will be available, but without the standardized examination system. They will also be encouraged to be fluent in at least two languages, have good survival skills, learn self defense, and be good in art and music. They will learn all the different perspectives in everything, not just the one offered. Religion will be offered as spirituality lessons so kids of all religions can join in the same class. I just basically want to help raise children who are fully rounded individuals in all aspects of life.
It is no secret that the educational system in Egypt is struggling. Do you see that there are some efforts to change that?
In general, parents and teachers struggle to accept the idea of change. Most of them don’t care so much about school and education, and just want a diploma. I have a problem with this mentality: how can you not care about what is being placed inside your kids’ heads or how it is being placed?
I think that all of the efforts being put in now are positive, but when you look at the bigger picture, I just think that there is not enough harmony between the government, the society and the stakeholders involved in the educational industry. Think about it, many people view teaching as a normal job, the people training teachers are not efficient, parents just want grades that will get their children into university, and the government is a bit oblivious to the needs of the society. Everyone is going in a different direction.
Simply put, I think the academics in education is a mafia and that schools have become businesses rather than sanctuaries in a more in-your-face way.