“I took my child, with a broken arm, to a hospital, only to find that an accountant was available in the ER. Looking for treatment, I asked him to operate on my son.”
Sounds incredulous and bizarre, doesn’t it? Now consider this:
“I took my child to a school only to find that an accountant was available to teach. Looking for an education, I asked him to teach my son.”
Suddenly, the scenario feels a lot less ridiculous even though, in both cases, there is a clear mismatch in the required skill set to ensure a child’s wellbeing. In Pakistan, we are comfortable with the idea of just about anyone becoming a teacher, as if to say that children’s intellectual development is somehow less important than their physical growth and well-being.
I established Durbeen — a non-profit organisation working to raise the standard of public schools via reforms in teacher education — in 2017, to re-invent teaching as a rigorous, selective and top-choice profession in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s education system is caught in a vicious cycle. Standards of education are plummeting because the teachers who teach students themselves often lack professional knowledge and skills. They, in turn, have unqualified trainers and the teaching profession does not attract the best because its social status is low. Can this repetitive cycle be broken?
With this objective, we undertook a public-private partnership at the Government Elementary College of Teacher Education, Hussainabad, Karachi in 2019, where we are presently offering a four-year Bachelor of Education degree programme for aspiring grades One to Eight schoolteachers.
Our name, Durbeen, is the Urdu word for “telescope”, which features centrally in the company’s logo, being held up by an adult as a little girl looks at the sky through this telescope.
The telescope is a symbol of inquiry, which we believe should be the foremost goal of an education — asking good questions and seeking answers. But another meaning of ‘durbeen’ is far-sightedness, which is born out of a realisation there are no shortcuts to elevating the teaching profession and reforming public education, and that achieving this goal will take time, consistency and careful planning.
It was exactly the combination of these factors that led to a groundbreaking education reform in Sindh two months ago.
On June 2, 2023, the Sindh Cabinet approved the Sindh Teaching Licence Policy. This landmark policy aims to bring the same rigour and stature to the teaching profession as enjoyed by other skill-based professions such as medicine, accounting, law and engineering.
Under the new policy, the Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) teaching degree will become mandatory for aspiring government schoolteachers and all B.Ed. graduates will be required to clear a teaching licensing exam before they are employed.
Previously, elementary school teachers were inducted at BPS-14 government pay scales and candidates were required to have completed their graduation in any field. The Government of Sindh has now created 700 new elementary school teacher posts at BPS-16. These new 700 vacancies will only be offered to graduates of the B.Ed. degree programme who have also passed the licensing exam.
This reform has a unique position in the history of education in Pakistan. Most reforms are typically driven and funded by the prescriptions of donor agencies. They see mixed results and generally die out once donor support ends.
In comparison, this teacher licensing policy has been initiated by the Government of Sindh and has been developed in consultation with Durbeen, the Aga Khan University Institute for Educational Development (AKU-IED), Ziauddin University and other local stakeholders. But what necessitated this multi-sector initiative and how was its momentum generated?
In present times, most teachers come into the field, not because it was their lifelong dream to work with children and help them realise their full potential, but because their top two career choices didn’t materialise. Or their children are studying in a school, so they might as well teach in the same school for logistical reasons and discounts in the child’s fee, or because it is ‘easy money’, or because a government teaching job brings security and lots of benefits
The Fault In Our Ustaads
Let’s rewind to 2021. The Sindh government advertised more than 46,000 vacancies for primary school teachers (PST) and junior elementary school teachers (JEST) and primary school teachers. The recruitment test was a general knowledge test, based on the elementary (Class One to Eight) school curriculum.
Despite this low bar, out of 162,000 candidates who appeared in the teachers’ recruitment test, only 1,250 managed to pass! Eventually, the department had to lower the passing mark below 45 percent, just to fill the large number of teaching vacancies.
It is also pertinent to note that, in this teacher recruitment round, anyone with 14 years of education in any field was eligible to apply. Candidates did not need to hold professional qualifications in teaching (such as a B.Ed.) to be eligible for these teaching posts.
These abysmal results can be attributed to several flaws in our education system. One major issue is that the standard of education in our schools has become so poor that school graduates are not even able to pass a test based on the curriculum of grades One to Eight. Another problem is that the teaching profession usually attracts those candidates who are academically weaker.
In 2020, Durbeen launched a social media campaign called ‘Teachers Matter’. The campaign sought to highlight the importance of teachers in national development. Under the campaign, Durbeen surveyed students at various universities and asked them why they did not opt for the teaching profession as a career.
While the usual responses were present — such as low pay — interestingly, what came out as the most common reason was the low prestige/status associated with the teaching profession. Most students said that the teaching profession did not command the same respect as other white-collar jobs such as medicine, engineering etc. For these students, the respect of a profession held more value than remuneration and other career benefits.
Somewhere along the way, the teaching profession has lost its stature in Pakistan. While we have all heard our parents and grandparents talk about their extraordinary teachers, sadly this is now the exception and not the norm.
Those teachers of yore were committed to the enterprise of education and believed in the transformational role of a good education. In present times, most teachers come into the field, not because it was their lifelong dream to work with children and help them realise their full potential, but because their top two career choices didn’t materialise. Or their children are studying in a school, so they might as well teach in the same school for logistical reasons and discounts in the child’s fee, or because it is ‘easy money’, or because a government teaching job brings security and lots of benefits.
There are a lot of reasons for choosing the teaching profession now but, sadly, a love for children and teaching is rarely one of them.
As a result, Pakistan has become trapped in a vicious cycle. The poor quality of teachers gives the teaching profession a negative image, which in turn drives away talented youth from choosing a teaching career, thus creating more teacher vacancies for mediocre candidates to fill.
How did the status of teachers drop so low in the span of just a generation?
The DECLINE OF THE TEACHING PROFESSION
The answer to this question is multi-fold. First was the political interference that set into the recruitment of teachers in the 1990s and onwards. Teaching posts became political favours and nepotism became common in the appointment of government teachers. Such incidents began to tarnish the image of teachers and here started the decline of the teaching profession.
Secondly, while Pakistan was attempting to professionalise the training of doctors, engineers etc. by establishing rigorous curricula as well as licensure, the same effort was not made in the field of teaching.
Starting in the early 1990s and going up to the late 2000s, teachers needed only to complete a one-year programme, called the Primary Teaching Certificate (PTC), to teach in grades One to Five and the Certificate of Teaching (CT) to teach in grades Six to Eight.
The PTC course required 10 years of prior education (matriculation) to obtain an admission to it, and the CT course required an FA/FSc certificate. To teach in grades Nine and 10, teachers needed to first complete a one-year B.Ed. degree programme.
These programmes were generally considered to be of a low quality and were mostly pursued by candidates looking to secure a government teaching job. Hence, these certificate programmes became more of a ‘job formality’ rather than a rigorous training in the knowledge and skills required of a professional teacher.
All this was overhauled in 2008 with the advent of a USAID project called Pre-Service Teacher Education Programme (Pre-STEP). The programme led to the replacement of the PTC/ CT/ one-year B.Ed. teaching qualification with a full four-year undergraduate degree in teaching, which came to be known as the B.Ed. (Honours) degree programme.
This programme had two specialisations: B.Ed. (elementary), which qualified teachers to teach in grades One to Eight, and the B.Ed. (secondary), which qualified teachers to teach in grades Nine to 10.
Two-and-a-half-year and one-and-a-half-year variants of the degree were also created to cater to students switching into the teaching profession with a prior Bachelors or Masters degree in other fields. The programme was developed by teacher-educators across Pakistan, and the University of Columbia, US, and held great potential in reforming teacher education.
Unfortunately, a major shift did not come to pass. A key shortcoming of the project was the allocation of resources. Most project funding was diverted towards developing an elaborate teacher education curriculum but little was spent on building the capacity of the teacher-educators who were to implement this curriculum.
As a result, an innovative and student-centred curriculum was placed in the hands of educators who were not familiar with the teaching and assessment methods needed to properly implement the new B.Ed. programme.
In most cases, the new B.Ed. programme ended up being business as usual, with no significant change in classroom practices. Furthermore, to attract talent to the new B.Ed. programme, the government had guaranteed employment for the graduates of the new programme. Unfortunately, when the time came, these promises were forgotten, and teacher education graduates were left to fend for themselves in the job market.
Even worse, all subsequent government teacher recruitment cycles continued to allow anyone (with graduation in any field) to apply to become a teacher and no priority seats were reserved for B.Ed. (Hons) graduates.
Re-imagining The System
At this same time, in 2015, I was working as an education consultant for the World Bank. Two years into this role, I had grown increasingly weary and jaded with development initiatives. In my four years of working in a government school earlier, I had observed firsthand the skills and knowledge gaps of government school teachers. I had wondered then how we could hold an expectation for student learning, when teachers’ own conceptual understanding was so compromised.
This thought continued to nag me during my years with the Bank. What was another governance reform or a better textbook or more infrastructure doing to boost the capacity of education’s frontline soldiers i.e. our teachers?
I became convinced that no amount of policymaking and investment was going to make a difference in student learning outcomes, unless there was a consolidated effort to raise teacher quality at its root.
I set a personal goal to establish an institution that would develop top quality teachers in Pakistan. But I questioned my own expertise in setting up this institution, since I was not a professionally trained teacher at the time.
I had a Master of Education (M.Ed.) degree by this point, but it was in International Education Policy and not teaching per se. During my graduate programme at Harvard University, I took a course called ‘Applying Cognitive Science Research Principles to Learning and Teaching.’ This course was a turning point in my thinking, because it forced me to re-evaluate what I thought I knew about teaching.
Prior to Harvard, I had spent several years teaching mathematics at a government school, and I had thought, at the time, that I was very good at it. But this course made me realise how little I understood about the science of learning and teaching. I was left wanting more but, unfortunately, I was already at the end of my programme.
So, when it came time to set up an institution that would exemplify quality teaching in Pakistan, I began to wonder if I knew enough. Could I achieve excellence in teaching if I did not embody it myself?
This lack of confidence led me to make the difficult decision to move to Singapore for a year in 2015, to pursue a Postgraduate Diploma in Education (PGDE) in Primary Teaching from the National Institute of Education.
I vividly remember many people around me at the time who tried to convince me that I was taking a step backwards by pursuing this PGDE. Why would you pursue a qualification in teaching if you already have a M.Ed. degree, that too from Harvard, they asked me.
The education secretary at the time — a well-meaning gentleman, with whom I had worked closely over two years — thought I was particularly out of my mind to be giving up a World Bank consultancy to become “just a teacher.”
But these dissuasions only strengthened my resolve, since it was becoming increasingly clear to me that most people considered teaching to be a layman profession, something that could just be learnt on the job. My instinct was telling me otherwise.
In hindsight, in view of all that we have achieved at Durbeen, I think the decision to qualify as a professional schoolteacher was single-handedly the most lucid and most beneficial career decision I have ever taken. The thirst for more knowledge of teaching that started at Harvard was quenched in Singapore. I dove deep into courses that taught me the unique teaching methods associated with each topic of the social studies, mathematics and English curricula.
I learnt about cognitive science and how children learn and develop in my Education Psychology course. I learnt about the many ways in which learning can be assessed. As part of the programme, I spent two months as a full-time school teacher, where I learnt how to apply theory to practice.
A thousand light bulbs went off that year! I would never look at teaching in the same way, and the programme made me understand the craft behind creating a truly student-centric, inquiry-driven and deep-learning experience for children.
Some of my most memorable learning experiences from Singapore included designing a problem-based maths lesson, for which we developed an open-ended problem (which could be solved in a multitude of ways) to teach students about square roots.
We re-imagined traditional school field-trips in a social studies course by developing an extensive series of inquiry-based tasks for a particular field-trip location. Each task was interconnected and all of them generated insights that consolidated into what we call a ‘Big Understanding’ in social studies i.e. an overarching concept or idea that leads to deeper understanding of how societies operate.
These understandings transcend specific facts and events and help students make connections between historical events, human behaviours, cultures and societies. In English, we learnt about how language skills must be integrated in classroom instruction and how these skills must be developed in authentic contexts that hold meaning and purpose for children.
Those Who Can Do, Don’t Teach
I can safely say that nothing I learnt in the Education Policy programme at Harvard University equipped me to teach the way that I learnt in the PGDE programme. My teaching skills after Harvard and after Singapore were truly miles apart.
Professional teaching is not something that one picks up along the way or learns on the job. It has its own body of specialised knowledge and ever-expanding research, the application of which needs to be constantly practised and reflected upon.
There are no shortcuts to developing professional teachers. It is not a skill that one can learn through online programmes or through ‘short’ courses. It requires time, reinforcement and practice. If we all agree that five years are an appropriate duration for an M.B.B.S. degree, why do we question the duration of four years for a B.Ed. teaching degree programme?
I suppose therein lies Pakistan’s great travesty — we have come to equate teaching with an unskilled, layman profession. Both the public and private sector schools, including our elite schools, hire ‘teachers’ with no professional qualifications.
If candidates possess an undergraduate degree in English language or literature, they are hired as English teachers. If they hold a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics or engineering, it is assumed they can teach maths or science. The remainder of the teaching enterprise is left to on-the-job training or, even worse, individual trial and error!
In Pakistan, the folks who stay on in classrooms as teachers are usually those that are unable to pursue better opportunities, due to a multitude of reasons. Only a few devote an entire lifetime to teaching out of a genuine love for their students, even though they have the talent and means to avail other career opportunities.
In contrast, there are many for whom the classroom is merely a stepping stone towards better positions in management, consulting and entrepreneurship. The more experienced a teacher becomes, the more likely he or she is to leave the classroom, at the exact point when they are most likely to benefit students!
In the rare cases when talented individuals do decide to pursue careers in education, they prefer to opt for all educational specialisations except teaching. This is exemplified in the USEFP Fulbright scholarship programme, which has graduated hundreds of students with foreign degrees in education. The vast majority of students opt for degrees in education policy or comparative education, rather than teaching. This reflects a pecking order even within the field of education, at the bottom of which is classroom teaching! Those who can do, don’t teach.
Forging Tomorrow’s Teachers Today
What will it take to make teaching Pakistan’s top choice profession? The answer is as complex as the problem.
Multiple levers must be pulled at the same time, to really make a difference in the quality of our teaching workforce. It is important that the government limit entry into the teaching workforce to only those who possess professional qualifications and licensure, in the same way that this is mandated for doctors.
Work environments and cultures must also be conducive to professional teaching. We also need media campaigns to re-brand the teaching profession into something that our youth admires and aspires to. While higher salaries are important, it is also important to raise the quality of teacher education institutions.
There is hope yet on the horizon, since some of these solutions are already underway. On the back of the Sindh Teaching Licence Policy will follow another very important initiative aimed at raising the quality of teacher education institutions. A key determinant of the quality of such institutions are teacher-educators themselves, who must be able to model the same academic planning and pedagogies that are expected of professionally trained schoolteachers.
Unfortunately, there is a critical dearth of such teacher-educators in Pakistan, which has greatly limited the quality of Pakistan’s teacher-education programmes. To fill this gap, Durbeen has partnered with the University of Oxford and the Malala Fund to establish a graduate programme (Master of Science) to train the faculty needed to teach in B.Ed. programmes.
This programme will develop top-notch teacher-educators who will go on to teach in Government B.Ed. Teacher Education Institutions across Pakistan where, in turn, they will develop top-quality schoolteachers for public schools.
We have a long way to go but the wheels have started to turn. To overcome decades of neglect, the government, private sector, NGOs and civil society all need to play their part.
If you are reading this article, the single greatest part you can play in this movement is to change the narrative on who becomes a teacher in Pakistan. If you know a young person amongst your friends and family, counsel them on the transformational role of a teacher and the lifelong gratitude that students hold for good teachers.
Tell them about the tremendous intellectual challenge and gratification that teaching brings. Tell them about all the personal benefits that a career in teaching will bring and how a teacher will now earn at par with bankers and engineers. Only with this collective effort will we ensure that the best amongst us, who can do, teach.
The writer is a professionally trained primary schoolteacher and the founder and CEO of Durbeen
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 6th, 2023