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Faculty Profile: Layla El Heilani, IB French Teacher

March 11, 2021


Tell us about your path to Léman. 

I grew up in Brussels. My parents are from Syria and Lebanon, but they studied in Europe. My entire family lives in Beirut, Damascus, Dubai and the UK. I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Modern Languages and Literature from Université Libre de Bruxelles. 

I've been teaching in Brussels for almost ten years; English and Dutch to French high school students. I've been very passionate about it. There's nothing else I would want to do in my life. I love being a teacher and I feel very useful being a teacher. And I feel like every day is new. My husband's American and it was time for us to move to America after spending ten years in Brussels together. I knew that I did still want to either keep teaching English as a second language or French. When we moved to Brooklyn, I started looking for jobs and I took this interview, and I landed the job and I was ecstatically happy. 

How many languages do you speak? 

I speak four languages. I was brought up at home in French, Arabic and English. But then Dutch is a national language in Belgium and it's something that you have to learn. I started learning Dutch at the age of six or seven and then I started teaching it. I studied it at college and then I started teaching Dutch at high school as well.

So how has being multilingual benefitted you personally and professionally? 

The magic about languages is that it enables you to think in different languages and you can't help but compare the differences from one language to another. There's always something that you lose in translation. But then the advantage of having a good knowledge of all these languages is that you still manage to convey the message the best you can in the language itself. It helps you build empathy better knowing more languages, it helps you understand the culture and access the culture better. 

What are your first impressions of Léman? 

I am very happy I landed this job. It couldn't have been any better. The school is stunning, the amenities are amazing. We have this wonderful library with graphic novels and I'm a big graphic novel reader. There’s a pool in the building and a 360-degree view of Wall Street and Brooklyn and New Jersey! I love the students. They are so international, all very interesting and unbelievably polite and well-behaved. I had a very similar experience in Brussels as well, but it's not half as international. So even though Brussels is very cosmopolitan as well, it is still quite different.

Everyone works very hard here, and everyone's very good at their jobs. I’m amazed by the fact that here no one ever rests and works very hard because they don't take their position here for granted. I feel like, you know, everyone understands that it's a privilege to work here.

What do you like about teaching at the high school level?

I love it because students at that age are very independent and they're autonomous and very good at research. And you can actually do very interesting things. I need that in my life. I need to have very constructive conversations and I love that age because I feel like I'm contributing to immediate future citizens, and it's important for me to contribute to making sure that they're going to be responsible, but also that they go out there with hope and energy and good values.

What do you hope your students take from your class? 

I hope they will want to travel to Europe because Europe is an amazing place. The values are amazing as well as the history. I want them to go out there and meet Europeans and practice their French in a French-speaking country, and become more confident in their speaking abilities, and become fluent and not shy about their skills.

You use the active pedagogy teaching method. What does that mean and how do you implement that in your classroom? 

I worked at a Decroly school, which is basically very similar to Montessori. I believe that you will always remember something that you do better than something that you're just told or read.

I usually like to have my students work in groups or in pairs doing active projects or role-playing. Sometimes I ask them to synthesize the material themselves and try to present it. I give a lot of projects that ask students to research and find examples of what they are studying and create their own visual aids by cutting and pasting papers. It’s difficult to do now because many of the students in the class are online, but I do have them work together in breakout rooms and that’s been working well. 

What do you like about teaching at an IB school? 

The IB is very international, and I love that the themes are always evolving. There's constantly new, complex material that you can cover in your classroom. I love to talk about the environment and sharing the planet. There are so many ways we can all contribute to trying to save the planet. The IB is very intricate, and I love that we get to talk about identity. I'm obsessed with identity and I think it's all the more relevant in a country like America, which is built on immigration and especially in a city like New York where everyone is so cosmopolitan. We've been talking about that in my class and I very much emphasize how important it is to recognize different identities. Where you belong and how complex your identity is and that you should never feel compelled to choose one over another, but that you can be all those things at a time and that you should cherish and recognize every single one of them. We’ve been reading Les Identités meurtrières de Amin Maalouf (In the Name of Identity) in my classroom, which I also read when I was 17. It made me come to terms with the feeling of conflicting identities. Reading it with my students now is like coming full circle. 

What are your goals going forward for the rest of this year and moving forward at Léman? 

I want to cover as many themes in depth as I can. I want to make sure that I can build empathy in my students and make sure that my students are collaborating even though they are online. I want to make sure I can still cheer them up and make my classes fun and interesting. As a teacher, I always want to give all my heart and be there 200% for my students.

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