The sound of “Allahu Akbar” several times daily and the permeating dust of the desert surrounding the Nile Valley have changed very little since Napoleon’s entourage first described the city of Cairo, Egypt, in the early 19th century. But for Blythe Barkley Bonnafons, BMus’09, MEd’10, a “world of experiences” awaits outside her classroom door, and every experience becomes a lesson for this newly minted educator.
As a first-year teacher of English and music to primary students at the International School of Choueifat, Bonnaffons has the opportunity to visit many of the glories of Egypt: the pyramids and the Sphinx, the Citadel and the Egyptian Museum. She’s also experienced the challenges of life in an unfamiliar country far from home.
“This city is dusty and polluted, the traffic is crazy and often the simplest errand becomes a huge ordeal,” she says. “But Cairo also holds extraordinary beauty. Alongside the most dismal of buildings, mosques and other magnificent structures are built. Above car horns and the shouts of vendors, you can always hear the call to prayer projected over loudspeakers. I love it here.”
Bonnaffons is the first graduate of Blair’s five-year bachelor of music/master of education program to teach abroad in the program’s 14-year history, says Associate Professor Thomas Verrier, director of teacher education and wind studies. “She’s a wonderful musician and incredibly open to new possibilities,” he says.
The International School of Choueifat, a private school with close to 1,700 students, attracts the sons and daughters of leading Egyptian families, including the country’s minister of education.
“I have taught privately and spent time in classrooms connected with my education degree, but this is my first ‘real’ teaching job,” Bonnaffons says.
Her students are remarkably similar to American children. “They’re full of energy, generally want to please and often get distracted by their peers,” she says. “And their parents are very, very heavily involved in their children’s academic life.”
Her two English classes are very small, but the 10 music classes contain 32 students each. All instruction is in English, which is the second language for most students, and teachers and students alike are discouraged from speaking Arabic.
“Classroom management is a huge challenge,” she says. “But it still amazes me how a neon bassoon sticker can make the worst kid behave for 55 minutes.”
A flutist, Bonnaffons has difficulty finding time for her own music since she’s staging two musicals this year: Oliver for the middle-school students and Annie for the second- to fourth-graders. “Most of my free practice time is spent trying to get the piano score under my fingers,” she says ruefully.
Her Blair classes definitely helped prepare Bonnaffons for her new position. “All the courses I took on general music were really helpful as far as offering me practical knowledge and tons of resources I can use in the classroom,” she says.
She notes that teaching in a foreign country can be “incredibly lonely” at times. “Teaching itself is a challenge, stepping outside your own culture puts you at another level of vulnerability. But that vulnerability is largely what attracts me to teaching abroad. I can admit that I don’t know anything. I am as much a learner as I am a teacher.”
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: Courtesy of Blythe Bonnaffons