It was early afternoon when I walked into the main entrance of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). The main lobby reflected the scene of a slow but beautifully choreographed dance. I was immediately greeted by two of their male hosts, who enquired about the purpose of my visit and promptly ushered me to a comfortable couch. All around the lobby, assistants and staff of KHDA inter-mingled with guests, who either sat on couches, at desks, stood around in deep conversation or sat immersed in meetings held in small transparent glass meeting rooms.

On my way to the couch, my eyes caught Dr Abdulla, he was in light conversation with a number of guests who were about to leave. Dr Abdulla, personally escorts all his guests out, a courtesy he also extended to me, at the end of my interview with him.

I sat down and was offered my choice of hot beverage. As I waited for my opportunity to speak with him, I noted that even though he blended in so easily with those who were present, there was still an aura that was distinctly his. He magnetised people to him.

I had met Dr Abdulla on previous occasions and getting the chance to speak with him brought to the fore, what many other persons who have had the opportunity to meet him will agree with … he is a visionary, honest, personable and extremely engaged with education and the work that KHDA is spearheading in this vital sector.

Dr Abdulla came over to greet me personally and escorted me to a meeting room where he would share some of his thoughts on the work that KHDA is currently doing, its impact on the education system and Expo 2020 among other topics. I invite you to get to know a little more about the man, the mission and the work of KHDA.

Serious - Dr. Abdulla Al Karam

Why did you decide to start the Teachers of Dubai project?

We started teachers of dubai to celebrate World Teachers’ Day, but quickly realised that Teachers’ Day should really be every day. This initiative celebrates teachers and the work they are doing. It also highlights their positive stories and experiences. We are delighted to have parents doing the content. We’ve had wonderful interaction from our local community, so far – from parents wanting to thank their children’s teachers; to other teachers showing appreciation for their colleagues; to ex-students showing their gratitude for their teachers’ role in their education.

What are you most excited about for the upcoming Dubai Expo 2020?

I feel that in our generation, this will be the greatest event that we will experience. It is the greatest experience that I will have. I can travel to Milan and other countries to see expos … we do that and it is great. when I was growing up, as a child, we didn’t have cars or these great towering buildings. Now, we are in this position to host the expo, which will bring 20 million people from all over the world here … we have come a really long way in a short time. It will be the pinnacle for my generation.

What are your thoughts on the occasion of celebrating the UAE’s 44th National Day?

Many of us will agree that the UAE has made significant strides over the years. We are stronger than ever. I think we are focused now on the aspirations that have been set for us for 2021, when we will be celebrating 50 years. There are many targets that have been set; our mission to mars, being the happiest nation and so on. At present, I think we are looking at the strength of the UAE. National Day is not only for nationals; it is for everyone. We look forward with hope, to accomplish our aspirations and that things will continue to get even better.

Share 2 major ways that KHDA has contributed to the significant improvements in education over the last 7 years.

When KHDA was founded over eight years ago, one of our goals was to first focus on sharing information with the public. The information that was available at the time was very basic and only covered areas such as how many schools, type of curriculum and fees, etc. There was a need to have a system that indicated the quality of education that these schools have, so parents know what they are subscribing to. Putting that information out via our school inspection reports ratings changed the education scene dramatically. Now, schools are looking at each other in terms of what is working within their individual campuses. It has also become a tool that parents use to have dialogue with the schools. This has facilitated dialogues between schools and parents that were not there before. It has also contributed to policymaking based on assessments made of the schools and how they are performing.

The second initiative is What Works. Creating a platform on which schools can share ideas, collaborate with each other and highlight the outstanding programmes and the people involved was extremely important. KHDA’s involvement is to facilitate, so the experience is more authentic for the teachers, administrators and other key stakeholders. It is one school sharing with others what works despite limitations that some schools may have. It is vital because of the uniqueness of our diversity. There are 17 different school systems in operation. Having this kind of access allows you to pick the best in the world.

What is the best advice that you have received? How has it helped you?

The best advice that I have gotten and I also share is that the most important thing is for you to be happy. Happiness is so basic and so pure but it is quite important. In the past, people focused a lot on working hard, achieving success and prosperity in order to be happy. They pursued happiness. Today, despite what some people may say, we are living in the best of times. There is more access to education, food, safety, comfort and a lot of things that past generations did not have. For this generation, happiness is now. Happiness is the prerequisite for working hard, achieving success and prosperity. If you are happy, everything works. We should not keep happiness as a goal to aspire to. Why keep such a beautiful thing for the future?

What makes you happy?

I am happy to be alive. Every day, I am happy because each day is a new day.

What sports are you interested in and why?

I love sports. I am who I am today because of my involvement in sports. Growing up, playing soccer was a way of connecting with my peers. We didn’t have the malls or any other place to go to; except the sea and that was for fishing. We would use the stone benches as our goal posts and make the ball from old socks. If you had a football back then, you were a big deal. I used to visit my dad at his place of work, partly to see what he was doing but mainly to visit a shop, which was close to his place of work. I saved money and bought sweets there. I took the sweets back and sold them at a marked up price. I then used the money to buy a trophy. I planned a soccer tournament. The winner would get the trophy and everyone wanted it. Being involved in sports helped me to analyse, plan, strategise, calculate and execute ideas. Each sport that you play helps you to achieve something. Doesn’t everything seem easier?

What message do you personally want to give to teachers?

I read this somewhere that there was a child, who while growing up was always told by his mom, that the most important thing in life is to be happy. This child grows up and starts attending school and each year, the teacher would ask, ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ He would respond, ‘I want to be happy.’ The teacher would tell him that he misunderstood the question. Finally, as a teenager, one day he decides to respond to the teacher after being told that he misunderstood the question. His courageous answer was ‘no, you have misunderstood life.’ Life is about being happy. It is not about being an engineer or something else.

My message to teachers is I would love for all teachers to be happy, because teachers have the ability to give students the tools to be happy. You hold the secret to happiness for the students because they look up to you. We know that the job can be challenging and there is pressure. I encourage you to look at the positive side. You hold the keys to happiness, not only to yours but also for others.

Dr Abdulla shared many nuggets of wisdom during our interview. He stressed the significance of happiness, the aspirations of the KHDA and the value of collaboration, transparency and access to information. Your happiness depends on you. It may sound cliché but think about it … what are you like when you are happy. Doesn’t everything seem easier?

By Carolyn Lee

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