Alligators and crocodiles

By Sherif Osman, Cairo, Egypt

Reflecting on my teaching is a valuable skill I learned and developed during my teacher training, but I often find myself reflecting on my learning as a student and why I behaved in a certain way. I remember the time I was relocating from Kuwait to Egypt during the first Gulf war and moving from a British school to an Egyptian ‘international’ school and some of those early classroom experiences that still live with me ‘til today.

I vividly remember the first day of class. I must have been around 6 years old. The teacher put up a picture and asked if we knew what we saw in the picture. After she paused for all but 4 seconds, she proceeded to inform us that: “This children, is a crocodile, we have them here in the Nile”. I remember my hand shooting upwards in enthusiasm and when given permission to speak I said “No miss! This is an alligator”. The teacher chuckled and said “They are the same thing, however, the alligator is a baby crocodile”. I immediately responded “No Miss, this can’t be. Crocodiles live in sea water but alligators prefer fresh water”.*  I can still remember the look on the teacher’s face – a mixture of confusion, shock and anger. Her response to me was to send me to see the principal.

The principal was a bit of a scary character, if I am honest, and I was petrified going to her office. I sat there for a while before my dad was also summoned. He was worried as it was my first day at a new school in a new country and I was usually a good student. When he arrived, the principal explained what had happened and told my father that I should be disciplined and that an apology should be delivered to the teacher. My father then asked her if I was actually correct or not? To which she replied: “That’s not the point”. My father, who had always encouraged me to read and watch shows about animals, replied in surprise: “Why should he be disciplined if the teacher is providing them with incorrect information?” At which point, the principal asked me to leave the room, presumably to provide some sort of justification to his query!

This episode has stuck with me over 20 years, and I always remember it when the beginning of the semester is approaching. It has taught me to always speak up and question ‘facts’ which admittedly does sometimes get me in trouble, but I have also learnt to be a bit more tactile in my questioning to avoid offending people. It has also taught me to never underestimate what students know – no matter how young or old, experienced or not. I think this is especially relevant in the world we live in today, where information access is plentiful and no one person can claim to be the ‘fountain of knowledge’ for any one field. On reflection, I always think what would I have done if I was in my teacher’s shoes? Would I have utilised the student’s knowledge to generate a discussion that goes far deeper than “What is this animal in the picture?” Would I have made a mental note of that student’s interests to use in homework assignments? Would I have felt threatened that a 6 year old is correcting me? I guess I don’t know how I would have reacted then, but it sure does guide me on how I think I would react in the future.

* EdContexts facilitators: even though Sherif’s response was not completely accurate (crocodiles tolerate seawater but also live in freshwater), the teacher’s response is completely inaccurate (alligators are not baby crocodiles!), and her behavior in response to the questioning of her authority, obviously, problematic.

About the Author:
Sherif Osman
Sherif Osman currently works as part of the Pedagogy & Assessment team at the Center for Learning & Teaching at the American University in Cairo. He also teaches a range of courses at the Professional Educator's Diploma, a teacher education program at the same institution. Sherif has a rich background that encompasses academic and professional experiences in education. He holds a Master of Arts in Education along with the Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) from the UK where he also taught in a range of schools. Teaching in different cultures and contexts fuels Sherif's passion towards education and educational research.

3 thoughts on “Alligators and crocodiles

  1. Hi Sherif – thanks so much for writing this post for us! It’s a great story and reminded me a lot of the one Clarissa Bezerra (another edcontexts facilitator) told of her mother as a teacher:

    The story you’ve told here is a similar example of a teacher’s reaction at having their authority challenged by student – but from your perspective as the student. What I find interesting is that both stories show that situations like these may have an equally powerful impact on both student and teacher (I wonder if your teacher later reflected on – and perhaps regretted(?) her reaction?).

    I also love how you consider at the end how this experience might impact on your teaching practice today, if you were in the teacher’s shoes.

  2. Hearing this story made me feel that it embodied a lot of what is wrong with education in Egypt (and many other places). I wonder what would have happened to your spirit as a child had your father not supported you?
    Like Tanya, I hope your teacher has regretted her actions, but I fear if she continued to do the same (how was she for the rest of that year, btw? How were you in her class and other classes?)

    I think what is saddest about this story is the way the principal reinforced the authority of the teacher, to silence you. A six year old child!

  3. This is a great story Sherif! I remember asking in high school to be allowed to take welding class and was refused on the grounds that trades were not a good mix for my University Track course load. Next I came in with a note from the sculptor I worked for after school explaining I needed welding to help here build crazy looking monuments she made big bucks constructing and installing all over the world. This time it was “everyone knows there’s no money in art and it would be misleading to encourage the delusions of both an artist and a hormonally imbalanced “kid.” Next try, I brought in paychecks from both my former paper route (that paid 1/4 of what a sculptor’s apprentice made) and then it became my tawdry fixation on money over “honest labor.” Finally I pointed out She had a PHD and HE a certificate in counseling lower than the master’s degree in counseling my Probation Officer had. He got so mad he enrolled me in Calculus before I’d had Algebra which dropped my GPA to below university qualifying standards.

    That’s 44 years ago. My parents, both with master’s in Fine Arts and good incomes came in as a last attempt–no luck but they tried. After High School I went on to working in construction and training apprentices whose educational experience matched mine. We remained curious anyway so I wonder if this was really a lesson on reality–only given at the wrong age?

    BTW, this also answers a questionable assumption over the status and lifestyle of alligators and crocodiles arising from a Canadian rhyming book titled “Alligator Pie” that I proposed to Clarissa. Thanks Sherif.

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