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Celine Ribeiro, who joined as a primary teacher in 1986, is retiring after 34 years as head of policy and compliance at GEMS Modern Academy, Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Indian expat Celine Ribeiro had started out teaching students from a porta cabin in Dubai when she came here in 1986 from Mumbai, India’s business capital. Now, after 34 years of service at the same school, she is retiring on Thursday as head of policy and compliance at GEMS Modern Academy. She will be returning home, where she wants to do community service, travel and meet family and friends in different parts of India. “Let’s see what life has to offer, I’ll just be taking it as it comes,” said Ribeiro, 68.

‘I could never leave my family’

She had never thought of changing jobs during her decades-long career at the school. The “love and support of my Modern family” kept Ribeiro loyal to the school. She said the entire school is one family. “If anything happens to anyone – a student, teacher, staff or parent – the entire school community rallies around them. That is my family and I could never leave my family.”

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Celine Ribeiro back in time Image Credit: Supplied

Back in the day, when Ribeiro had joined, the school was located in Karama. Ribeiro used to teach inside a porta cabin that had an air-conditioner, a cupboard and a blackboard. Walking to a nearby Lebanese bakery for biscuits was an occasion she and her colleagues looked forward to.

“The porta cabin was a bit cramped but it was fun… Life was very simple; it was not hectic. There weren’t so many shopping malls. When we went home we didn’t have any laptops or mobiles. We would do all our work, like correcting books, preparing for the next day – everything was hand-written. I lived in Satwa and we would walk down to the beach, which was really empty. There were quaint shops in Satwa and you could get everything there,” said Ribeiro.

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Celine Ribeiro joined as a primary teacher Image Credit: Supplied

Over the years, the school moved campus twice (it is now located in Nad Al Sheba) and saw six principals at the helm. Ribeiro taught in the lower grades before becoming head of primary and then head of policy and compliance. But she always kept a close connection with teaching, classrooms and students. “I’ve been a teacher no matter what the ‘profession’,” she said.

Changing times

Like Dubai, teaching has also changed over the decades, and Ribeiro has seen it all. “Before, the teacher was on a stage in the classroom. Now the teacher is on the side. Pedagogy practices have changed; a lot of technology has been adopted by schools. And the child is now taking the onus of his or her own learning; they do their own research and prepare their own projects. A lot of freedom has been given to students in a way they can express their learning. There is no hard and fast rule, unless you’re doing the [Indian] board exams in grade 10 and 12, where it’s a very formal written paper,” Ribeiro said.

Recalling her path to becoming a teacher, Ribeiro said she used to study in a boarding school, in a convent with nuns. “Looking at the teachers who taught me and the nuns around me, they inspired me to be a teacher. Also, it was the lure of writing on the blackboard, to rub it out and get chalk dust on yourself. And when I got into teaching, the aspect that I enjoyed is when you’re teaching the children and their eyes go wide with wonderment.”

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Celine Ribeiro said she is moved by the love and respect shown by the community Image Credit: Supplied

She also remembers when, among “the plenty of memorable moments”, former US president Bill Clinton visited the school. Dr Abdulla Al Karam, director-general of Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Authority (KHDA) was also there, and he announced that the school was officially rated ‘Outstanding’. “We were over the moon, that was one momentous experience that is still in my mind,” Ribeiro said.

Moving tributes

Before her retirement, she has been moved by the love and respect shown by the community. Recently, over 700 students attended a virtual assembly farewell for her. On Monday, KHDA gave out “a huge thank you to the wonderful Ms Celine Ribiero, who’s retiring from @DxbModern after 34 years of service. Our DG Dr Abdulla & Ms Ribiero took a walk together this morning, talking about the past & the future”.

Sunny Varkey, chairman and founder of GEMS Education, also paid tribute to Ribeiro . He said: “Celine has been an inspiration to her students, current and past, who are doubtless still benefiting from her teaching and guidance across the globe. She is an example to her colleagues both in professionalism and in embodying the GEMS core values of kindness, respect, empathy, helpfulness and compassion each and every day of her extraordinary career at GEMS Modern Academy.”

School principal Nargish Khambatta said: “A teacher like Celine makes a difference to entire generations. Her quest for perfection, her optimism and her affection make her unique. She will always be remembered for the four pillars she lives by – faith, hope, love and charity – which inspire us daily. We wish Celine well and will miss having her around. She is always first in at school and last to go home. She is known for this as ‘The Iron Lady of Modern’ or just our wonderful Ms Ribeiro and always with the utmost respect and affection.”

‘I want to say thank you’

“The past 34 years, I’ve been mentored by my principals and my head of primary and the teachers around me. I want to say thank you to them. The respect, the love, the affection has just come flowing my way. I will miss my Modern family, the chatter, the laughs, the fun, the tears.

“I want to say thank you to the Varkey family for giving me the opportunity. I’m also thankful to the UAE government, I feel so safe in the UAE. This country has provided me confidence and freedom; it’s so welcoming of people of various cultures. The UAE has given so many opportunities to so many people and I wish them the very best. I will definitely visit.”