Recovered from Stroke, Nooman Kacem Is Back on the Job

Kacem at his desk in the history department office. Photo by Sawyer Thompson.

Nooman Kacem, a longtime GDS world languages and history teacher, returned to teaching this semester following a five-month health-related hiatus. Kacem’s 38-year tenure at GDS was interrupted on August 15, 2021, when he suffered a stroke and took a break from teaching during his recovery.

The aftermath of the stroke posed a new set of challenges for Kacem. “There are a lot of things I don’t understand,” Kacem said. “I remember [Head of School] Russell Shaw reached out and gave me a call after my stroke and he said, ‘Nooman, are you reading?’” 

“I didn’t think of the depth of the question,” he continued. One month after the stroke, when Kacem began reading again, he found himself skipping over and confusing words. Through practice and consistency, he was able to return to reading the way he did before.

Though his return hasn’t been without difficulties, Kacem is glad to be back at school. “I missed the students very much, and that was a very good stimulus for me to come back,” he said. He currently teaches two courses, The Middle East Since World War II and European History, and hopes that the lighter schedule will ease his transition back into teaching. 

GDS’ former director Gladys Stern, who died in November at 104, hired Kacem in 1984. The two had met years earlier, according to Kacem, when he was working at Washington International School (WIS).

Several years before coming to GDS, Kacem quit his job at WIS to return to Europe, where he had lived as a young man. “I was burned out,” he said. He worked in public relations and as a translator for a Saudi company in Switzerland and spent time traveling. “I was free,” Kacem said. “I did whatever I wanted to do. But I missed teaching.” 

Kacem visited Stern in ’84 after returning to D.C. In his telling, she said, “Darling, I don’t have a job for you. I have only one class—what do you want me to do with one class?” He told her, “I miss teaching so much. I don’t care.”

Kacem said that he taught only one class in his first month at GDS, after which Stern created a full-time teaching job for him. A few years later, she made him chair of the language department.

Kacem’s wife, Aicha Kacem, teaches French at the GDS lower/middle school. When a French teacher left in the middle of the 1989-90 school year, it was up to Kacem to find a replacement. Gladys suggested he hire his wife. “I said, ‘I can’t, that’s nepotism, Gladys,’” Kacem recalled. “She said, ‘I am the director of the school. Hire her,’ which I did.”

Through his teaching, Kacem hopes to impart to his students the ability to think critically and analytically. “Teaching history, you have that great opportunity to give them the time and the chance to think, to analyze,” he said. 

Kacem prefers to allow his students liberty in the classroom, taking a more hands-off approach to teaching than some. “I think I’ve found a nice compromise,” he said. “I trust them—I give them some freedom to do their work.”

According to sophomore Rachel Schneider, who had Kacem for eighth-grade French, he took a less formulaic approach to teaching, following a less rigid curriculum than most. “His class was a little bit stressful,” Schneider said. “You never knew what was going to happen.”

Despite his class’s unpredictability, Kacem’s discussion-based teaching style made every day “an adventure,” according to Schneider. 

What has stood out to students about Kacem is his ability to form connections with every student of his in a way that makes learning more personal. 

“I really like that he finds a connection with every student,” sophomore Indira Issatayeva, who is in Kacem’s European History class, said. “He’s a really good teacher, and his class is very fun.”

“Students who have had him have enjoyed him a great deal,” Carlos Angulo, a colleague of Kacem’s, said in an interview.

Despite Kacem’s hiatus, he continues to be a familiar face for many. “He’s an institution here and it’s been fantastic having him back; he really adds so much joy and so much enthusiasm to the school,” Angulo said. 

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