By Tooba Gufran Roghay
When we talk about the joys of teaching, it entails not only the profession, but the feeling of creating something; like nurturing a plant and watching it take roots into the soil and grow into a big strong tree.
It seems inspirational, almost magical; but what we sometimes forget is, that teaching is a multi-pronged task. You look at one aspect and it would branch out into multiple areas.
When a child comes to school he brings his own values, language, beliefs about knowledge, motivation (high or low), cultural experience and social learning along with himself. In order to effectively educate, we need to respect the uniqueness of the individual and see how we can use that to an advantage. I will not go into the ‘you can’t judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree’ dialogue, that has taken the educational Facebook pages by storm. Instead, I’ll jump straight to the point.
Just bear with me for two more paragraphs!
When you think of uniqueness, I want you to cast a wider net and think of the exclusiveness of institutions.
With close to little investment in education at the systems level, a multitude of school systems and educational boards have sprung across Pakistan. We have government, semi-government, private and welfare or NGO supported schools. This eventually translates into one statement: Each school has its own culture.
Shout-out to every teacher, school manager, coordinator out there; this is for you. I know it gets difficult. I know what it feels like when you read or hear about all these great ideas for teaching practice; and when it comes to applying them to your own schools it does not work out. But believe me when I say this: Every school has an edge and the work of the educationist is to hack it, and use it!
Overview- Aghaaz School
I have been working at a small school of approximately 120 students for the past 4 years. Aghaaz School started with a vision to create a difference. It began in a small two-roomed shack with 30 students and 2 classes. We had a lot of energetic volunteers and we felt like the dream could be achieved.
But as the work progressed, we faced all the problems that come with being a small school in an underprivileged area. For starters, we had a lot of energy but no direction, as most of us had little, or no teaching experience to guide us. So we ransacked Google and Pinterest for ideas and put up Facebook statuses asking for any teachers on our friend lists to share their planners and syllabi. We pored over books and files from Montessori courses and early childhood education programs. I became an educational enthusiast by default. In less than a month, my email inbox was littered with newsletters, blog posts and articles from various educational websites and forums that I had subscribed to. I started hoarding all the online freebies I could get my hands on: books, worksheets, posters, planners, you name it (tip: Google drive is essential).
The next step was to take this wealth of new information and effectively communicate it to the rest of the team. We needed a lot of meetings. With the number of people, there were always too many opinions about what works best. One spoke of values, one wanted a comprehensive syllabus while the rest wanted to focus on a strict school policy. Some wanted things to be radically different from how it is in regular schools whereas some wanted to follow the existing models of education to steer clear of any unexpected challenges at such an early stage.
We drew up our own educational objectives and designed our own activities and lesson plans. We tried a mix of old and new teaching techniques to see what fits best with the students. In 4 years, we have moved from 2 classes and a handful of students to 7 classes and 120 students. We now have a small staff of 8 teachers that are trained and led by our team. We have a health and nutrition program to take care of any difficulties students might be facing due to malnutrition. We also hold monthly sessions with mothers to help them understand importance of health, hygiene, best practices in children rearing and communication. It took a lot of time and work but when I look back, I know we have come a long way; and that makes the effort worthwhile.
After 3 years, a group of young people came to us with similar vision. They said they had no background in education and they were all students of finance. I was suddenly taken back to my days to when we started Aghaaz and I realised that we stayed strong because we held on to the basic premise. We READ OUR SCHOOL! And that is it. Every school has its own culture. Its own niche, that can be used as strength. It can come in any form but for us, it came in four ways: youth, student diversity, scale, and social media reach.
It came to us in the form of volunteers. They had the zeal, the energy, the focus and the time to develop a system from scratch, sustain it and take pride in the learning they got as a result. The young are relatively less resistant to change and so, we were able to pick up fresh ideas and put them to practice.
Students came in with mixed age groups and abilities. So we had students in Kindergarten between the ages of 4-6 years, and students in grade 1 from ages 6-10 years. However, it helped to foster a sense of community in the class. Most of the mothers are not educated and so they cannot teach their children. With the students living close by each other, we were able to make study-homework groups of the older plus younger students. As the older ones helped the younger ones, we saw significant improvement in the work they produced.
Initially I thought that it would be extremely difficult to motivate children who were used to free play on the streets, to sit and study in a closed environment. But I was proved wrong.
Once, I had to introduce the concept of Units, Tens and Hundreds in Math to Class 1 with the help of some small object. So in order to create anticipation for the lesson, I promised the students that we will be playing with a hundred marbles the next day. For some reasons I could not get the marbles and the students came to know. The next day, all eleven of them came and set out ten pebbles each. ‘We collected these off the street to play with, instead of marbles,’ they said.
We played and we loved it!
Lesson: My students have a lot of exposure and independence. Whatever they learn has to be relevant to their context and then they can be trusted to try out the learning in their own environments.
I confess. I read too much and then suddenly I want to apply everything. The size of the school seemed like a disadvantage, but it became a stepping stone towards greater communication between teachers and the managers. When you coordinate with 7 teachers instead of 50, it allows you for more frequent one-on-one discussions about lesson goals, student outcomes and progress feedback.
There is a closer relationship between school heads and the students as we have the time (and limited space) to frequently interact and connect with each student. Students know and believe that they can come to us with their problems and we will have time for them.
Social Media Reach
Our Facebook page has a fan-base of more than half a million and this means we have access to a large number of people some of which are teachers, writers, graphic designers and so on. It allows us to develop a network in which we can share, discuss and collaborate with potential volunteers. All the ‘mains’ of the school approached us from there and over time we have managed to develop a strong team.
I hope you draw the courage and strength from this and never give up on your small wonder- be it a start-up magazine, or school, a program, a book or a research. You just have to knock on the right door. Things do work out!
‘’Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.’’