Education in Pakistan: Tough lessons

We meet Teach For Pakistan, an initiative of the Karachi-based non-profit the Aman Foundation, helping the country's young students to a better future

When the lunch bell rings at Raana Liaqat girls’ secondary school, you could be in any schoolyard in the world. There’s the familiar expulsion of collective breath, the frantic clatter of rubber-soled school shoes on concrete and the flood of grinning faces, each and every child rushing to be out of the classroom and into the open. In the tumbledown neighbourhood of Ibrahim Hyderi in southern Karachi, however, there’s an extra reason for the kids to be relieved by their flight into the light: for much of the morning, they’ve been learning in the dark.

Ibrahim Hyderi is notorious for electricity theft, as poverty-stricken local residents and businesses piggyback onto others’ power lines in a bid to avoid paying utility charges. Karachi Electricity Supply Company (KESC), the local power provider, has responded by limiting the hours the school can run the low-wattage bulbs in its classrooms, in an understandable bid to deter these daylight robberies. Between 8 and 9am, and 11.30am and 1pm, are the only times during which power is available to the 221 students and their teachers.

“It’s very difficult to schedule classes in the dark,” muses Amna Akhtar, a 24-year-old finance graduate who has just spent the best part of an hour schooling 70 young girls in the finer points of mathematics – whether they can see the blackboard, or not.

“We have to shut the windows sometimes, and with three people to each bench, it can get very suffocating,” she continues. “The students become exhausted, they misbehave, and it affects their eyesight. However they show amazing resilience and they still want to come to school. It’s better than last year, when we didn’t have any electricity or even water for the washrooms. KESC knows about the school and they want to help us, but they are not able to do so at the moment.”

The irony is that Raana Liaqat, for all its electricity woes, is something of a beacon for schools in underserved communities in Karachi, and Pakistan as a whole. Amna and one of her colleagues, Fatima Rizwan, are among the brightest young graduates in the city. They have been parachuted into Ibrahim Hyderi by Teach For Pakistan, an initiative of the Karachi-based non-profit, the Aman Foundation.

Teach For Pakistan offers new graduates from the country’s top universities full-time paid positions teaching in under-resourced schools. The benefits cut both ways: not only do the children in the care of Amna and Fatima gain from their educated and enthusiastic tutelage, but the graduates themselves are given a crash-course in the challenges and complexities of Pakistan’s creaking education system, developing a range of highly transferable leadership and professional skills in the process.

“Teach for Pakistan is a two-way street,” says Ahsan Jamil, chief executive of the Aman Foundation. “The schoolkids get an adult who cares about them, often for the first time, and what’s more it’s a young adult who isn’t that much older than them. It gives the kids a new life path to aspire to. “At the same time, for the graduates, they get to experience leadership in action. When you finish college, you think you’re a genius, and then you come into an experience with kids who really desperately need what you have. You see how much of a difference you can make, and you see the change in the kids under your care.”

The cost of sponsoring one fellow for one year comes to less than $9,500, and Teach For Pakistan is supported by a range of corporate and individual sponsors from within the country, as well as abroad. The independent initiative is part of a wider movement, Teach for All, which was launched at the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2007, and boasts similar enterprises in 30 countries worldwide. In each school, from Buenos Aires to Beirut, young graduates are witnessing first-hand the obstacles and opportunities presented by the education sector.

“The younger generation understands Pakistan more than their parents, they are not tied to the old ways of thinking and they are more open to change,” insists Jamil. “These are bright students, very talented, and we are getting them to think about how we might better educate Pakistan. We need leaders, and to channel their skills into areas of neglect such as education is a tremendous thing.”

“My father thought it was suicide for my career,” laughs English teacher Fatima, 24, a political science graduate. “He saw me working in international relations and so he was very concerned initially when I said I wanted to move into the social sector.

Now he is happy because he can see how happy I am to be working here.

“We can make the students feel as though they’re being heard, and that’s very important,” she continues. “The attention that we give them is more than just about schoolwork, because at the end of the day what’s going to happen to them when we’re gone? We want them to become invested in more than just this class or that class, but the pursuit of education itself.”

Both graduates are beginning the second – and final – year of their Teach For Pakistan placements. The experience has already inspired Amna to reconsider her career path: eschewing a future in corporate finance, she is keen to return to graduate school and then focus on development economics or public policy. Fatima, meanwhile, is less sure where her future lies. She is determined, though, to leave a mark in her remaining months at the school in Raana Liaqat.

“To me, nothing matters more than results,” she says, sounding every inch the schoolteacher. “There are so many things that you can do, whether helping to build a computer lab, or a library or something else, but I have to leave knowing that my kids are learning at the right grade level. There are no two ways about it: nothing matters unless it shows on paper.”