Friday, June 13, 2014

Educate the nation

Rarely does one come across a person who doesn’t wholeheartedly endorse the cause of education in the country. Apart from, it seems, the lunatic Taliban fringe who shoot at girls and blow up schools to further their agenda, almost anyone you meet, with or without much insight into the affairs of the state, will impress upon you the need to double Pakistan’s education and health budgets as a panacea for its ills. Despite that, teaching as a profession, particularly school-teaching is considered to be at the bottom of the pile of careers most educated young people aspire to, particularly young men. Teacher absentee-ism is often lamented in published statistics and studies as well as a lack of physical infrastructure in government schools, like no electricity, running water, non-existent boundary walls and assorted equipment, but rarely is the mental and physical state of teachers, particularly in the 61, 793 private schools (Pakistan Education Statistics 2010-11) across Pakistan discussed in the national mainstream. To most, the idea of the government school teacher is epitomized by the image of the crooked professional who draws a salary without ever showing up for work. The private school teacher, on the other hand, is viewed as a perpetual under-achiever plodding on in a field no bright person would actively choose, unless they have a set of domestic duties that necessitates working in a ‘less demanding’ field.
The teacher is non-existent in the public’s psyche as anything but the lucky duck who comes home before the afternoon is out and enjoys long summer holidays lounging around the house. Yet nobody seems to be queuing up to become a teacher. What may be the reason for that? Besides money, one of the reasons people choose to continue in a field is job satisfaction, i.e the feeling of well-being associated with your work. This well-being that springs primarily from financial prosperity can also be bolstered by other factors. Doctors in Pakistan who have protested long and hard for better salaries may not get the financial rewards they need and deserve but ‘Doctor sahib’ exerts a powerful force-field of respect wherever he goes, different from even the most successful of teachers who even with private tuitions that can take their earnings to heights as great as a reasonably successful doctor’s are condescended to for benefitting from a broken education system.
There are several reasons behind this failure to build prestige for the practitioners of a profession as essential as teaching. Getting hired by a private school in Pakistan requires no teaching qualification. Pretty much anyone with a BA or an MA degree can walk in and be let loose on hundreds of unsuspecting young minds without ever having received any prior training. As a result even well-meaning teachers flounder and try to feel their way through the job on sheer instinct. Most private schools, money-making enterprises run like the worst of corporates, provide no benefits to teachers and there is little visible incremental ascent in the profession. Those who enter a private school under the title ‘teacher’ leave as teachers, even if grey-haired and bent, unlike their counterparts in government schools who at least have increasing designations, grades, salaries and benefits to look forward to throughout their professional lives.
Private schools all over Pakistan are completely unregulated with no Private School Teachers of Pakistan Association that could lobby for teachers’ rights, which means schools can be completely arbitrary in their hiring and firing processes and no one can take them to task for it. Major private schools with branches all over the country and owners rolling in the billions pay a pittance to teachers despite earnings as high as any corporate firm’s, resulting in most teachers’ brains shrinking to incorporate the four walls of their institutions. Such individuals, with so little exposure to the outside world cannot implement curriculum reforms, even if textbooks are updated and exorcised of their bigoted, xenophobic demons. Yet no school in the private sector is willing to expand their teachers’ horizons by sending them on educational trips abroad, an idea that almost seems absurd despite the fact that most big private school chains can afford it.
There is no inspectionary body for private schools in Pakistan either, something equivalent to the UK’s Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, an independent and impartial organization that regulates services which care for children and young people and reports directly to the British Parliament. Every week, they carry out hundreds of inspections and regulatory visits throughout England, and publish the results on their website.
Lack of such infrastructure makes for a slipshod system that is bound to have a hard time attracting and keeping motivated people in the field and continues to keep teaching at the bottom-most rung for any young person considering a career.

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