Rana Hussain’s sequined turquoise sari cascaded to the tile floor in the first grade classroom at Eagle View Elementary as she knelt next to a blonde boy reading next to her. He whispered to her and followed the words on the page with his index finger.
“Good job,” Hussain told the child as he read aloud, his voice barely audible among the hushed murmurs of his other classmates.
Hussain, an educator from Islamabad, Pakistan, expressed amazement at how well the students behaved under the direction of their teacher.
In Pakistan, teachers’ “voices tend to be high and their voices tend to be higher,” Hussain said. “It was soft and serene and really enjoyable.”
Hussain was one of 24 Pakistani teachers on a three-week tour of the United States through a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The five-year, $75 million program is part of a U.S. diplomacy effort aimed at improving the quality of childhood education in Pakistan. It’s an extension of a partnership between the United States and Pakistan that has grown since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2002, the U.S. government has given more than $20 billion to Pakistan.
The Pakistani teachers ended their stay in the United States by visiting elementary school classrooms in Fairfax County earlier this week. Besides Eagle View, they visited Daniel’s Run Elementary, Centre Ridge Elementary and Centreville Elementary.
The USAID project took on a new sense of urgency last month after the attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani girl who wrote a well-known account of her struggle for an education under Taliban rule. She was shot in the head in early October by gunmen under the orders of a Taliban leader known as “Mullah Radio.”
The push to educate more girls is one facet of the larger effort taking place in 75 colleges and 22 universities through the USAID Teachers Project. The goal of the ambitious program, organized by the Education Development Center, is to introduce new teaching degrees in Pakistan that place more emphasis on classroom experience and professional development. The degrees are largely modeled on U.S. programs and teacher certification classes.
Nadya Karim-Shaw, who is overseeing the project at the Education Development Center, said that 2,637 students are enrolled in the Pakistani program.
She called the USAID Teachers Project in Pakistan “quite historic.”
“This new degree could result in a sea change in classrooms, where children like to be, and are learning, and the teachers are enjoying feedback in the form of happy faces,” Karim-Shaw said.
During Hussain’s visit to Eagle View she said that stark differences exist between the learning environment inside schools in Pakistan and America.
Some schools in Pakistan’s rural areas don’t have electricity, much less the ubiquitous Smart Boards and computers seen in Fairfax County class rooms.
Rafaqat Ali Akbar, a professor at the University of the Punjab, said class sizes in America are much smaller. In Pakistan, it is not uncommon to have 40 to 50 students in a room, and some times as many as 80 to 100.
“It’s never possible for a teacher to manage,” classes that big, Akbar said. Compared to American schools, the ones in Pakistan he said have “a messy sort of environment. It’s dusty, there’s shouting, and hordes of students rushing through corridors.”
Additionally, Akbar said that many students currently pursuing a degree in teaching are woefully unprepared and only receive three weeks of training in the field.
At Eagle View, with an enrollment of 930 students who speak 42 languages, Hussain observed how the first graders engaged with their teacher during a reading lesson.
“Classrooms should be alive like that one,” said Hussain, the Education Development Center director of curriculum in Islamabad.
Hussain said that in Pakistan, where rote learning is common, students “don’t read — they chant.”
Besides literacy, one of the major issues being addressed by the government of Pakistan is enrollment. Hussain said that nationwide only 50 percent of all children are enrolled in schools.
For girls, Karim-Shaw said, those that do attend often don’t complete their education.
Hussain recalled that when she was in high school she attended the marriage of one of her teenage classmates.
On her wedding day, the bride had tears in her eyes as she told Hussain: “How lucky you are to be able to continue pursuing your education.”
The news of Malala Yousafzai’s attempted assassination sparked an uproar across Pakistan. Her name became a rallying cry for advocates of girls’ education battling a historically conservative culture.
In a way, “it really helped the country, the politicians, the people in the community, come together and ask ‘what’s happening here,’” Hussain said. “It really opened their eyes.”
The lesson to be learned from Malala, Hussain said, was that “You cannot punish somebody for speaking the truth.”