As the DPS-MIS prepares for another eventful year in academics and beyond, Community sat down with the ebullient Principal Asna Nafees for a long chat.
Tell us about your growing up years.
I was born into a moderate family which had ideas that women should be empowered and educated. I have four siblings; one brother and three sisters. My parents strongly believed that education is the only tool that could take us forward. Paying our school fees might have been hard on them but they never let us know about it. Since they wanted us to get quality education, we went to St. Andrew’s School, Visakhapatnam, which had at the helm the wonderful Principal Romala Bennett. It was a great school where we learnt much beyond textbooks and subjects.
Thanks to our parents, we learnt a lot at home about morals and values, be it how you treat others or how you relate to them. Back in Visakhapatnam, in South India, we grew up in a huge community that had a pan-India representation. Owing largely to that, today, I speak at least five languages reasonably well. Although my mother sent us to English medium schools, she was a strong proponent of us learning Urdu, our mother tongue.
Ammi would read a lot to us. During the summer break, it would be routine for her to read to us till late hours. From philosophy to literature, she would gladly read to us anything in Urdu she could catch hold of. Thought that, I learnt the value of reading. Even today, I read extensively.
How were the years leading up to your beginning as an educator?
I believe that most of us don’t use the knowledge that we get in schools and colleges, but what we use are the skills that we gain over the years. Right from my childhood, I realised that I possessed leadership qualities in me. I was always chosen as the house captain or the school head. In Class 11 and 12, I was the head girl and I would go out of my way to get things done. I must have been 17 and in college, when I realised that I do well in leadership positions. Then, my life changed drastically. At 18, I got married. The only thing that I requested for was to be allowed to continue my education. It’s with absolute respect that I say that my father-in-law and my husband Mohammad Iqbal stood by me and told me to pursue what I want.
I completed my graduation in Zoology, topping the University. Right after I had my first baby in 1991, I pursued my post-graduation, MSc in Zoology, in Hyderabad. Today, my son Mohammad Ibrahim is 25 years old and a landscape architect. Quite like his father, he loves bikes and adventure. While I received tremendous support from both my parents and my in-laws, the latter’s support was especially crucial because I was married into an extended joint family that had lots of people living together.
How did your journey as an educator begin?
When my husband, a distributor of library books, got a transfer, we moved to Kerala. We spent three years there, which is when I began my career. We spent a lot of quality time with our growing children — our second son Mohammed Shoaib is now 19, pursuing his third year of Law studies. Kerala is such a beautiful place to be. My husband and I could go on the bike around all of Kerala, me sitting pillion with the kids. Soon, as I began teaching Hindi and English to Malayali children of Grades 1 and 2, I realised that I had the ability to teach easily and also connect easily with children and co-workers. So I completed my B.Ed with the second baby in my arms.
With his transfer to Tamil Nadu, we stayed there for almost 10 years. I joined the new TVS Lakshmi School which was just establishing itself. This taught me management skills and systems. I grew very quickly. By the third year, I moved up as academic co-ordinator. I dabbled with a lot of multi-tasking in that school which sort of hardened me to take up any challenge. For instance, I taught Biology to Grades 9, 10, 11, and 12; English to Grades 6, 7 and 8, and story-telling to junior school students because that’s my passion. After putting in almost six years there, I got an opportunity to work at Crescent School in Madurai, a residential school for girls, as principal.
Being in charge of a school for girls must have opened up a new realm for you as an educator?
Indeed. I landed there and learnt how massive a challenge it is to teach children who come from the neighbouring districts — all girls from extremely rich backgrounds and yet probably not having been exposed to a civilised or a refined way of life. The students were children of politicians, party workers, or feudal lords, and such. These four years would be the most gratifying years of my educational career as I was able to motivate children who didn’t want to open a book and study, to not just study but to think big and dream big. Today, those kids write back to me saying I’m a microbiologist, an engineer, a doctor, or a marketing head, and it makes me absolutely proud that girls who couldn’t speak proper English or had no value for education have been empowered today to take up roles where they are contributing to society.
How did your move to Qatar come about?
One day, I got a call from Doha telling me of the vacancy at DPS-MIS for the post of a vice-president. I wasn’t prepared for it at all but applied anyway. Very surprisingly, following an interview in Delhi with a large panel of learned people, I was selected. Again, my husband was extremely supportive of my moving here. He travels between India and Qatar as half the family is here and half there. Around six months after I joined DPS-MIS in September 2010, as Vice-Principal, I became the Principal. In India, I was managing an Indian school with 300 students. Here I started managing a school with 3,300 students. Today, I manage this school with 300 teachers and close to 6,000 students! This is a huge learning experience for me because it is a school that’s technology-driven and also you are dealing with a pan-India culture as we have students from all over India. We also have students of about 30 other nationalities, even if their representation is small: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and also North African countries.
What are some of the interesting aspects of being at the helm of DPS-MIS?
My work involves a great amount of man-management. Ever since I have taken charge, I have heard people speak of the positive change in the school’s environment. Feedback like how the school has become friendlier to parents and students is always heartening to hear. I remain a proponent of the idea that a school should provide a happy learning environment, which I have been able to achieve along with my team and management. My management is headed by people who understand what education is. Some of the initiatives we have taken up are digitising systems in schools, holding extensive training programmes for teachers, opening up avenues for students so they can go for programmes outside, an increased focus on sports, alumni meets, and so on.
What are some of your fondest memories from your time as a student?
I particularly remember my kindergarten teacher Mrs Kajotia with affection. I was maybe four and didn’t want to sleep during the compulsory hour of sleep time. I would keep crying. I remember her holding me in her arms and telling me, ‘I will take care of you’. As she would continue correcting books, she would tell me that I, too, can put a tick mark once she finishes ticking them. I remember this because of the love and grace with which she held me.
You seem to be emotionally well-tuned into students of all kinds…
I would say my role models are parents, followed by Principal Bennett, and Mr Gopalakrishnan, who headed the TVS Lakshmi school and taught me to be a people’s principal. They had a huge impact on how I deal with people. I have always forged a deep connect with slow learners or children going through emotional or behavioural issues. It’s surprising that we usually walk into a classroom and think everybody feels included and normal. The truth is every child has a history. Some are undergoing such difficult situations and yet every morning, they must wake up and attend school. If you are able to reach out to those children — which I can, thanks to the Almighty — there’s nothing that matches the connect you create and bring change in the emotional behaviour of the child and make him or her feel accepted and loved.
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