Educator brings Queens experience to the Middle East

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At first glance, Queens and Egypt do not have much in common, but a former headmaster of a Forest Hills private school swears there are links.

John Philip Rogers retired from Forest Hills' Kew-Forest School in 1999 after working there for 26 years. As a member of the board of trustees of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, a commission that evaluates institutions of learning, he became a consultant to American-style schools in the Middle East, mainly in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

He spoke about his experiences Saturday, during Kew-Forest's alumni weekend, relaying an anecdote that he called the saddest thing he had ever heard, then turning it around to show why it gave him hope.

Rogers had noticed a new student in a Cairo school's hallway and asked how she liked things so far.

"With tears in her eyes, she said, 'I love it. I'm in the 10th grade, and this is the first time a teacher has ever asked me what I think,' " Rogers said. "Can you imagine, 10, 11 years in school and not once has a teacher cared enough to ask her what she thought?"

He said two elements prompted the girl's reaction.

"Element No. 1, all the way through college, is memorization" rather than think, analyze, ask questions, Rogers said.

The second, he said, is bureaucracy.

"The ministries of education across the world, including here, aren't going to change. People are protecting their own backs," he said. "What can change is the teachers."

The schools for which Rogers consults encourage students to express themselves rather than memorize and they bring in teachers trained in North American methods, he said.

"Egyptian teachers teach the way they were taught, which hasn't changed since the time of Ramses II 4,000 years ago. We expect children to express themselves," he said. "There is such a difference in the way teachers look at schools and administrators look at teachers in American programs."

The similarities lie in the students, high-spirited just like their Queens counterparts.

"The kids are little stinkers, just like kids here," Rogers said.

And yet there are subtle differences, such as in the concept of cheating.

"They can be a little devious. There's no word in Arabic for 'to cheat.' They use the verb 'to hide' in those instances," Rogers said. "It's a cultural thing, like if you can get away with it, it's not really bad."

Rogers divides his time between Egypt and the United States, flying back and forth as necessary.

"The commute's a little rough, 11 hours nonstop between JFK and Cairo, but I'll keep doing it because I can see we're making a difference," he said.

Which brought him back to that anecdote.

"What did that student say?" he asked rhetorically. "I love it."

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