His name is Yasser, but you can say “Yes, sir”

Gawargy Yasser teaching at Roosevelt High School in Petworth (photo courtesy Gawargy Yasser)

By Zannat Faria
Riders Times Editor
Roosevelt High School

Chosen from hundreds of candidates through a US State Department program, Gawargy Yasser is the newly-arrived Arabic teacher for Roosevelt High School (13th and Upshur Street NW).

“It makes me very proud to be chosen,” Yasser said. “Makes me proud and means the hard work I do was appreciated.”

Yasser is one of seven teachers selected from 600 applicants. He comes from Assiut, Egypt, which he describes as a friendly and lively place. “People there visit each other everyday or every other day, unlike the States where everyone seems busy. The nightlife is 24/7 awake!”

The Teachers of Critical Languages Program (TCLP) is sponsored by the US Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which promotes mutual understanding between the people of the US and all other countries. The program recruits teachers from foreign countries to teach their native languages to American high schoolers.

“This program chooses seven or eight people from Egypt, two from Morocco, and about 20 from China. And [right now] they are all over America to teach Arabic and Chinese. These [languages] are called critical languages because people speak them a lot,” Yasser said. “There was an application,” he said, “for the program that included every English teacher in the country.”

Arabic is the official language of 25 countries throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa and is spoken by roughly 400 million people worldwide. Although the number of Arabic speakers in the US doubled between 2000 and 2014 ,according to US Census data analyzed by Pew Research Center, few people actually know the language fluently — meaning knowing this language is in high demand. Learning Arabic gives you an advantage, helps you to stand out.

“This is why it [the State Department] brings native people to come and teach,” Yasser said.

At the moment, Roosevelt is the only DC public school to have the opportunity of hosting a foreign Arabic teacher. In fact, Yasser made a huge sacrifice by leaving his wife and two kids back home in Egypt for a whole school year.

“I talk almost everyday [with them], maybe more than once,” said Yasser. “Once when I get back from school and once before I go to bed.”

Navigating DC and the new environment of Roosevelt has had its ups and downs. “At the beginning I suffered from being lonely, a stranger away from family. Facing challenges from students, and then there comes the adaptation period.”

Yasser notes some major differences between American and Egyptian schools and his struggles of learning new ways to keep an American class engaged.

Teachers in Egypt, Yasser says, “Are in a [more] respectable position, so students respect them. Showing respect in my country is very strict.”

Yasser says, “The ways in which teachers are respected in Egypt is different from how they are respected in the United States. Egyptian students show respect by standing up when the teacher enters while my students here show respect by asking question about me and my culture.”

Gawargy Yasser teaching at Roosevelt High School in Petworth (photo courtesy Gawargy Yasser)

Here he was surprised to see students not stand when he enters as students do in Egypt. On one occasion, one student put his feet on a desk, while some others spoke while he was speaking, and some refused to work. Of his 40 students, they’re in four different classes, with one as small as three students, one as large as 20. Yasser said large class sizes don’t work well for foreign languages. “Especially in level one. In higher-level classes it would work because now students are able to communicate.”

He would like to teach students who have actually selected the class and said that in order for the TLCP program to continue at Roosevelt, “The program needs to change.”

In the meantime, he has developed numerous strategies to engage his classes, including the use of music. “English music that has Arabic words [like the kids’ song] head, knees and toes,” Yasser said.

With a song that most American students are familiar with, Yasser said it was much easier for things to click and for students to comprehend. In other classes, Yasser uses kinesthetic learning techniques and repetition. Sometimes it works and sometimes not, but he is learning new skills and developing new strategies all the time.

Overall, Yasser said he appreciates teaching at the high school and is looking forward to helping to ensure the 2-year program, now in its final year, continues at Roosevelt in the future.

Ed Note: Petworth News is pleased to publish an article from a Roosevelt High School student. Journalism is a critical necessity, and encouraging youth to learn and thrive in journalism is something that Roosevelt HS is trying to do — but they’re suffering from lack of funding to keep their school paper and journalism program active. Financially, DC is doing well, and hopefully the Mayor’s office and DCPS can allocate funds to help Roosevelt’s educational opportunities expand.

This article has been updated.