Pakistani teachers thrilled to visit Amherst

  • Pakistani teachers
    Visitors Afrah Qureshi, Sani E. Zehra, Muneer Lashari, and Muhammed Tufail. Photo: Jack Rees
  • Pakistani teachers 2
    Abdul Wali and Gulam Mustafi, visiting with the English department. Photo: Jack Rees

Twenty eager teachers from the Instructional Leadership Institute for Pakistani Educators (ILPE) program visited ARHS on Friday, May 27, the kick-off to five weeks in Amherst.

The program is an annual exchange between ARHS and Pakistani teachers. Each side takes turns hosting; last year, five ARHS Social Studies teachers traveled to Islamabad to learn about educational practices in Pakistan.

“This exchange was born out of a conversation I had with the Embassy in Islamabad about four years ago,” said Social Studies teacher Sam Camera.

Ms. Camera has worked for many years as the Academic Director of the Pakistani Young Leaders Grant, which offers instruction to Pakistani college students. The students enjoyed Ms. Camera’s interactive, project-based teaching style.

Ms. Camera suggested the idea of a teacher exchange to the Embassy, which then materialized in the form of a grant.

Amherst is hosting the exchange this year, marking the second round of the program. Over 800 applicants submitted a questionnaire, from which shortlisted applicants were given a phone interview to narrow the list to 20 teachers.

“It feels terrible to have so few spots,” said Ms. Camera. “I hope this program will grow and offer opportunities for many more educators.” Ms. Camera is the teacher collaboration coordinator and the cultural events coordinator for ILPE.

The selected attendees represent all parts of Pakistan, both in their fields of study and geographic location. “We have people in computer science, information science, as well as the arts and humanities,” said ILPE participant Muhammed Tufail.

While the majority teach at private schools, others work at government schools (the equivalent to public schools in the United States.) “It really is diversity in all aspects,” said fellow participant Afrah Qureshi.

“There are two parts to this exchange,” said participant Muneer Lashari. “The main focus is academic.”

The program focuses on enabling Pakistani secondary school educators to “carry out innovative approaches to instructional leadership and school improvement,” according to an explanatory handout written by Ms. Camera.

Pakistani teachers shadowed ARHS students for a day, and observed teaching styles and methodologies. They also met with ARHS principal Mark Jackson, to hear about the school and his professional work.

For the last few weeks, attendees took part in classes taught by Professor Rebecca Woodland at UMass. Dr. Woodland is the Academic Director of the program. ILPE participants have been living in the university’s North Dorms.

At the same time, each Pakistani teacher collaborated with an ARHS teacher to prepare a lesson, incorporating techniques they learned in UMass classes. They presented the lessons on June 13 at ARHS.

The other goal of the program is “a mutual cultural exchange to get over cultural biases,” said Sani E. Zehra, another participant.

In addition to activities at ARHS and UMass, the teachers will be “eating dinner with Amherst host families; going to the Emily Dickinson Museum; learning to ride the buses to Northampton and Holyoke,” said Ms. Camera, “visiting the Fishway in Holyoke; playing cricket with the ARHS club; having an inter-faith conversation at the Jewish Community of Amherst; and traveling to Boston and New York City.”

For Ms. Zehra, the biggest difference between Pakistani and American schools has been the structure of classes. American students move between classrooms for different subjects. In Pakistan, students study in one class all day, with teachers entering and leaving.

Mr. Tufail noticed the focus on hands-on learning at ARHS, a stark contrast to the more theoretical approach taught in Pakistan, particularly at government schools.

Many American schools use formative assessments, which provide frequent, ongoing feedback. In Pakistan, exams are summative—evaluated against a standard—and administered once or twice a year, with a greater emphasis on rote learning.

Ms. Qureshi discussed the students at ARHS. “Teachers here have different expectations for their students,” she said. “Students can drink water and leave the room during class. There’s a lot more freedom.”

“I grew up in a mountainous area—an underprivileged, agriculture-based village,” said Abdul Wali, another participant in the exchange program.

After completing his collegiate studies, Mr. Wali returned to his home village to teach at a private school. He then participated in a bachelor of education program through a scholarship, where he learned various teaching methods. Mr. Wali currently serves as the principal of a government school for lower-income students.

Mr. Wali believes that changes should be made to Pakistan’s school systems. “Many people, especially women, can’t find empowerment due to societal norms,” he said, pointing to the country’s restrictive culture.

Infrastructure is another problem. Schools in rural areas lack proper funding to build facilities. In 2014, Pakistan spent 2.5 percent of its GDP on education.

“Some schools don’t even have washrooms,” said Mr. Wali. He also sees room for improvement in Pakistan’s English language learning program. “Teacher competence is an issue,” he said.

The country faces challenges refining the English language qualifications of its teachers. Although more than 70 dialects are spoken in Pakistan, most government schools provide instruction in English and Urdu.

The diversity, however, is also Pakistan’s strength—multiple ethnic groups are spread out across the country. “We are a humble nation of good people,” he said. “It’s important to find and pursue our common interests.”At the same time, he stressed the need to “give each other space and set limits.”

“Preserving individual cultures is just as important” for different groups to coexist, said Mr. Wali.

Mr. Wali reflected on his meeting with ARHS principal Mark Jackson. He observed the effectiveness of interdepartmental collaboration for both students and faculty, and the need to develop a curriculum that meets student demands.

When Mr. Wali returns home, as principal, he hopes to empower students to take greater responsibility for their learning. “Learning takes place in a conducive environment,” he said.

“I can’t think of a better way to build understanding between people—a common goal, a project to work on together is how we dismantle the stereotypes that the U.S. and Pakistan have about each other,” said Ms. Camera. She hopes the program will help improve the relationship between the two countries, which she described as “rocky at best.”

“People-to-people contact and particularly teachers—who each have contact with hundreds and hundreds of students—will only help improve this relationship, which is the ultimate goal of all these grants,” she said.