Heart and Soul

The Mariamma Varkey Awards celebrate the teaching profession and the role of teachers in shaping the next generation. This year’s recipients tell us what winning means to them

CEO of GEMS Education Dino Varkey referred to teachers as “heroes” at the fourth annual Mariamma Varkey Awards (MVA) held on Thursday, 3 October at GEMS World Academy, Dubai. He said teachers make GEMS “powerful” because they dedicate their lives to educating “our most precious commodity” – our children.

He added: “The Mariamma Varkey Awards is particularly close to my heart as it reflects the high standards set by my grandmother when she first arrived in Dubai as a teacher 60 years ago. Thanks to her efforts and unwavering vision, GEMS Education is what it is today.”

Chief Pavilions and Exhibitions Officer Marjan Faraidooni from Expo 2020 said she was honoured to be asked to speak at the event and described the nominees as change-makers who display compassion and confidence in the classroom and who are inspirational as they continuously strived for perfection. The award continues to underline the importance of the teaching profession and symbolises the fact that teachers deserve to be rewarded and celebrated.

This year, 45 teachers were nominated for their year-long drive in motivating students and inspiring their colleagues. Mohammad Abusenenh from GEMS United School was announced as the Most Inspirational Teacher. Mohammad’s work has been transformational over the last three years both inside and outside the classroom. His students say his classes stretch them to think, react, imagine and create, not just regurgitate knowledge and this has had an evident impact, with a steady improvement in progress and attainment in Arabic and Islamic.

Outside the classroom Mohammad gets involved in everything from coaching soccer teams to KHDA panel participation and his commitment to educating the community about Islamic values and Arab culture is clear through numerous initiatives, particularly the school’s first ever student run National Day celebration.

The five winners were:
Mohammad Abusenenh of GEMS United School (Most Inspirational Teacher); Elspeth Mackie of GEMS Wellington Academy-Al Khail (Inclusion); Ramy Wagdy Aboudishish of Cambridge International School-Dubai (Arabic & Islamic); Annamma Lucy of Our Own English High School (Boys) – Sharjah (Early & Primary Years Teaching); Ayesha Aslam of GEMS Westminster School – Sharjah (Secondary Years).

Congratulations to all of this year’s nominees!

Mohammad Abusenenh was awarded this year’s Most Inspirational Teacher – pictured with CEO of GEMS Education Dino Varkey

Most Inspirational Teacher


What this award means to me:
Personally, this award means recognition and that I am on the right path to reach my goals. For me, it also means that following my heart does work, that doing what I love and what I am passionate about, works. The award has given me a boost of confidence within my career in education, to move forward with my creativity and growth. Winning this award means that I can connect with more people on a larger scale as well as support more students and create a positive overall change. I feel very proud to be able to set an example for my students and peer teachers, that working hard and being passionate about what you do leads to success.

Who or what inspired you to become a teacher?
Since my childhood, during high school and university years, I watched my teachers and professors, thinking about the positive impact they made on us, “this is your future, Mohammad” I said to myself. My passion to learn played a major role in my decision to become a teacher. This passion doesn’t only help to bolster my knowledge in my subject, but it also puts me in the position of a student, giving me a perspective about the learning process that can easily be forgotten when I’m in teaching mode.

What’s the best thing about being in the classroom?
The ability to make a difference in my students’ lives. Teaching is the most rewarding career, when I see my students make a breakthrough and begin to understand something they’ve been struggling with, this makes me feel the direct impact of my work on a daily basis.

What advice would you give to aspiring teachers?
Let your students feel that you are one of them. Remove the gap between you and your students. Be a role model because the best way to teach is by using your actions. And remember that you’re doing what you do for the students and not necessarily for you, the reason that you have chosen this career is to help another human being become a well-rounded individual.

Apart from your award, what was the highlight of your year so far?
I got engaged and I’m the new team leader for my department, starting this academic year.

If you had to teach a class on a deserted island, what five things would you take with you?
The Holy Quran, markers and sharpies, cardboards, books and a smile.

Winner – Inclusion: Elspeth Mackie

Winner – Inclusion


What this award means to me:
I am honoured to have won this award. For me, it is the culmination of my hard work and efforts to improve what my department and I can offer in terms of inclusion support for all the children in our primary school. I have spent the past four years studying to improve myself as an inclusion teacher, so that I can transfer my specialist knowledge to enable me to support students in a truly effective way. Firstly, I studied for and qualified as a British Dyslexia Association accredited specialist dyslexia teacher. After that, I qualified with the NASENCO award from the University of Middlesex and I am now currently in my dissertation year of my M.Ed. in SEND, also with the University of Middlesex. I am committed to learning so that I can keep up-to-date with the constantly evolving world of education. For me, the Mariamma Varkey Award is a recognition of the time and effort that I have expended and the changes that I have been able to make at my school as a result of this.

Who or what inspired you to become a teacher?
My mother inspired me to become a teacher. She was an inspirational person and showed me what a difference a love of reading can make. Her mantra was always, “If you can read it, then you can do it!” I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after graduation. I went to school and watched my mother work with small groups of children, teaching them to read and write. I remember enjoying that day and deciding that this was what I wanted to do.

What is the best thing about being in the classroom?
It’s getting to know the personalities of the children and helping them to form connections and understandings. There is nothing as rewarding as when a child experiences that lightbulb moment, when you can see that they have understood something that they have been struggling to understand. That, “oh, I get it!” moment is what teaching is all about for me.

What advice would you give to aspiring teachers?
Make sure that you start each day as a new day and that you get enough rest. Teaching is a really demanding job, both mentally and physically. Don’t be afraid to admit to a student that you don’t know something. It is our job to model what learning is and that we are still learning as teachers. I would advise anyone wanting to become a teacher to always keep an open mind about things. Your students will teach you things every day.

What has been the highlight of your year so far?
Securing approval for the first KHDA Rahhal agreement for a student with SEND was a milestone as was establishing the ASDAN life skills and Small Steps programmes as alternative curricula for higher needs SEND children. Seeing 85 per cent of my SEND students make progress was excellent.

If you had to teach a class on a deserted island, what 5 things would you take with you?
Water, factor 50, whiteboards, pens and a boat!

Winner – Arabic and Islamic:
Ramy Wagdy Aboudishish

Winner – Arabic and Islamic


What this award means to me:
This award recognises the exceptional commitment of educators who have helped the personal and academic development of their students. I firmly believe that the influence of teachers is the driving force of student success. This award has had a magical impact on me because I feel now that I am a special teacher. I feel overwhelmed with pride and joy at winning and it motivates me to give more and to do better.

First of all, I would like to thank my dear students who contributed to my success and my fellow teachers and my school who supported me. I will continue to inspire and motivate my students and colleagues. Winning this award isn’t about finishing in first place. It isn’t about beating others. It is about overcoming yourself – overcoming your limitations and your fears. Winning means surpassing yourself and turning your dreams into reality.

Who or what inspired you to become a teacher?
My grandmother. She was a teacher before certification was required. In her 50s, she enrolled in college to receive her certification because the law had changed. Our school board paid for her tuition because she was such a great teacher. She has been the inspiration for a lot of teachers in our district, past and present. She taught me many things in my life.

What’s the best thing about being in the classroom?
I believe that there are five essential elements that are conducive to learning. (1) The teacher’s role is to act as a guide; (2) Students must have access to hands-on activities; (3) Students should be given choices and allow curiosity to direct their learning; (4) Students need the opportunity to practice skills in a safe environment; (5) Technology must be incorporated.

What advice would you give to aspiring teachers?
Connect with as many teachers as you know and find out how they’re doing. You will learn about motivating and engaging students, dealing
with failing students, co-teacher issues, endless paperwork and other ways to prepare you for the profession.

Apart from receiving your award, what has been the highlight of your year so far?
My ability to create different projects related to Islamic values and UAE culture across my school and other schools, such as the walk of tolerance and lunch of tolerance.

If you had to teach a class on a deserted island, what five things would you take with you?
White boards, markers, charts, a gas lighter and some newspapers.

Winner – Early Years and Primary: Annamma Lucy

Winner – Early Years and Primary


What this award means to me:
I have put my heart and soul into my work at OOB and to know that I have been rewarded means the world to me. It’s a boost to my profile. Receiving, recognising and winning this award has made me realise that I have an obligation to continue to mentor aspiring teachers. Personally I feel awesome that I am on the right path, doing what I love and what I am passionate about. Professionally it means I can connect with more people on a bigger platform, help more people and create positive change.

Who or what inspired you to become a teacher?
As my upbringing was under the tutelage of the Good Shepherd nuns from the age of three and 90 per cent of the nuns were teachers, They are my inspiration. They have nudged me relentlessly to achieve success. As a teacher, I humbly try to emulate their care and kindness to each and every one of my students.

What is the best thing about being in the classroom?
I love the way my students greet me by my name or with a smile when I enter the classroom. They ask me if I’m sick when I am tired. They share their ups and downs. When a new topic is introduced, I love to see the questioning expressions on all their faces.

What advice would you give to aspiring teachers?
Let us cater to the diverse needs of students and cultivate a welcoming, safe environment bursting with energy, passion and intellect.

Apart from your award, what was the highlight of your year?
Last year I was a runner up in the speech competition conducted by the Mahatma Gandhi Culture Association.

If you had to teach a class on a deserted island, what five things would you take?
A positive attitude, a solar-powered computer, first aid box, stationery and a mobile phone with a power bank.

Winner – Secondary: Ayesha Aslam

Winner – Secondary


What this award means to me:
To receive an award from an organisation like GEMS is an astounding experience. Being awarded means a lot because there were so many other great teachers nominated in this category. The entire journey was a learning experience and with this success, I am more energised and charged to take on new and challenging responsibilities which will benefit my school and the environment. Winning has been unforgettable and incredibly emotional. Your colleagues admire you and become motivated about how they can also make it possible in their professional lives. So, in closing, I would like to say: Just because I am a winner; it doesn’t mean I have all the answers; it doesn’t mean I never make mistakes; it doesn’t mean I’ve finished my journey; I am still learning.

Who or what inspired you to become a teacher?
I stepped into this profession by chance and the students in my first class were my inspiration.

What’s the best thing about being in the classroom?
The students, when they ask you questions and you are able to answer them.

What advice would you give to aspiring teachers?
Teaching is absolutely the most rewarding career. My advice would be to become a friendly facilitator and not a dictator. You should form a relationship with each child you teach. Truly listen and show them you care.

Apart from your award, what was the highlight of your year so far?
The achievement of my students in recent IGCSE ESL results, which was outstanding.

If you had to teach a class on a deserted island, what five things would you take?
Water, food, a board marker, a white board, a bunch of papers (I always record the creativity of my students), a laptop with internet access.