Friday, July 9, 2010

On My Visit to a School In Karachi

I've been thinking about how to write this post for a while because it was such an eye-opening experience. I need to put some things into context first:

I've been to Karachi almost every other year of my life. I'm in my mid-twenties now, so I've actually been there quite a lot for an American-born Pakistani. But then again, I don't really consider myself the typical American-Pakistani plagued with identity issues. I'm sure that makes me much less annoying (you're welcome).

In the past, I used to stay with my extended family: aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. (who ranged anywhere from lower-middle class to simply middle class). So prior to this trip, I had an incomplete idea about what the state of education was like in Pakistan. I mean, I knew there was a system in place, but I didn't know how useless it really was.

I remember my cousins spent a lot time with private tutors getting additional help. In fact, a lot of them would cut classes or school altogether and instead meet with their private tutors and/or study on their own. To this, I said, "What the fuck?" That alone should tell you something about the state of public education in Pakistan. Kids are actually cutting to learn more and better themselves to get ahead. Amazing.

On this visit, I stayed with my mother-in-law and through some family connections, was able to meet with a senior executive at The Citizen's Foundation (TCF), a private, not-for-profit institution. Their mission is to "promote mass scale, quality formal education for less privileged children" in Pakistan. TCF not only provides qualified teachers, but they also build their own schools, establish their own culture, provide ongoing training for their teachers every summer, and offer scholarships to students who cannot afford to go their schools.  It's like Teach for America, but on crack.

The senior executive at TCF arranged for me to visit a local TCF school in the Garden East area of Karachi. Although the school year was over, they were still running summer programs. As soon as we entered a classroom, every single kid gets up and in unison greets us. They had not been notified in advance we were coming - so they clearly did this often. What shocked me was that they all then sat down and waited for the teacher to continue teaching. In absolute silence. I couldn't get over how disciplined they were. And apparently, this is nothing new. I'm told most South Asian classrooms are like this (this includes non-TCF schools). Kids genuinely treat adults with respect. I have students attempting dry sex in the back of my class and these kids can't wait to get on with lessons? What the fuck am I doing in this country? 

I remember at one point, I fantasized about dragging a few of my students by their necks into this classroom and saying, "Look. Look! JUST LOOK AT THESE KIDS YOU SPOILED BASTARDS!" I'm sure they would respond appropriately:
"Mista, these kids be mad whack. They be studying all day and shit. Nerds. I'd beat their asses in a fight."

After the visit, we went back to the senior executive's office at TCF headquarters. In summary, here's what I learned - Pakistan is facing is a "supply-side" problem. That is, they have students who desperately want to learn. They have the motivation, but the nation lacks schools, teachers, money and structure. A teacher is not even viewed as a respectable position in Pakistan. Plus, the salary is miserable: cab drivers can earn higher wages than school teachers per some Dawn newspaper article I was reading in his office. That's no surprise given Pakistan spends only about 2% of its GDP on education.

For the underprivileged, it is difficult getting children into schools when they are needed to support their families. Child labor laws aren't heavily enforced in Pakistan (this includes the H&M shirt you're wearing) and if you're a family of six struggling to make ends meet, you're going to need your children to work. That creates a separate problem because even if the child has access to a local school, his/her family can't afford to let him/her go. To combat this, some non-profits have begun to offer families meals in exchange for their children to come to school. Shehzad Roy's Zindagi Trust foundation is one such program and has seen some success.

This has all been a lot for me to process. As someone who is in the trenches of the U.S. education system, I now feel supremely privileged and disgusted with myself and everyone else. Here, we often toy around with the idea of paying students to come school as an extrinsic motivator. My school even has an internship program that we use to "sell" our students into coming to school. That still sometimes fails because our students just don't seem to want to come. They have access, they just would rather not. Meanwhile in Pakistan, schools catering to the underprivileged are offering families food because then they can afford to send their children to school. I feel bad just writing this.

I'm extremely thankful for my teaching experiences here, but lately, I've been wondering. Where am I needed more?


Mr. T said...

Yo Mista!

Yes, our kids are spoiled and don't even know it... all of what you said is accurate, but, where are you needed most? Remember why our kids are the way they are, and just because it is easy and nice to imagine a classroom where the kids listen to you and respect you by virtue of you being the teacher, are the kids here any less worthy if their actions are not entirely conscious, but more accurately a bi-product of familial and societal influences which are hard for anyone to mitigate?
Just a thought.
(plus i rather you not leave the country :) )

Yo Mista said...

Mr. T - good point. I think the premise of my post was pretty much me just dabbling in a fantasy where the kids appreciate what they have AND I have a lot of resources at hand.

Obviously our kids are in such a position because of our own institutions, creations and societal influences. It's obviously easy for me to say, "well, screw this." Both parts of the world are equally in need.

Anonymous said...

Wow. What an eye-opener. I already know that what you wrote is true in many "underdeveloped" nations, but it is always helpful to read eyewitness accounts. This entry should be required reading in our school.