Aao Parhao – A school is as good as its teachers

Teaching and learning should be a spiritual undertaking, not merely a utilitarian one.

Nadine Murtaza April 26, 2015
Schools are like rivers; even when they are a thousand-years old, the water flowing through any given moment is always new. The irrefutable fact of the matter is that our experience of school, and what our education there ultimately amounts to, is defined by the personalities in our cohort, both teachers and peers, who run the course with us.

The traditions and values of the institution notwithstanding, it is the values of those around us, and their immediate treatment of us as individuals, which actually counts in the end. Anyone who has ever been bullied or marginalised at a first-rate school can attest to this whole-heartedly; as might anyone who credits an exceptional teacher at an unimpressive school for their success. How can this fact, once we accept it, help us transform schools into nurturing spaces that empower and embolden graduates to contribute towards a better society?

The answer, and whatever solution it entails, rests in the hands of teachers, because teachers are, at the end of the day, the ones who bring to life a school’s philosophy, they are the guardians of academic merit and achievement, the ones who maintain classroom culture, the ones who matter most.

Research conducted around the world has demonstrated that,
“Teacher expertise accounts for more difference in student performance—40 percent—than any other factor.”

And if the teacher is expected to educate the whole child – his personality, his habits, his values; if we are looking beyond merely tutoring students in algebra and literacy, this question, about motivation takes centre stage. What about the teachers? Why are they here? What makes them get up every day? What is their commitment to the personal development of other people’s children? And, where does it come from?

Perhaps the most critical question in education today is what is our role as parents, as school heads, as the broader community, to inspire and support teachers? What do teachers need in order to be inspiring and effective? If I ask myself what I would need, the answers come easily:

  • Freedom; space to experiment and be wrong, time to try something unusual.

  • Supervisors who lead from the front, inspiring colleagues, an environment that is intellectually stimulating; a school that believes in teaching as both a science and an art, the opportunity to learn new things every week.

  • Encouragement, peace of mind, respect. A steady stream of tea and permission to consume it safely at my work station; appreciation and supervisors who are invested in my personal and professional development.

  • Permission to bring my brain to work; control over my lesson plans, and over the pace of learning in my classroom, flexibility to tailor instruction to my students’ specific needs, permission to help design solutions to the problems I can see around me.

  • Trust and an open relationship with colleagues and parents, constructive feedback, support from administrators, access to mentors, resources and technology.

Building a committed, capable, and conscientious teaching team is not a simple task, but creating a great work environment is the best way for a school to attract excellent people. Every school wants to work with the kind of individuals who will use the above freedoms to the fullest, and who treat their work in school as a professional undertaking, as their career.

In order to build such an environment at NJ’s House, we ended up creating the following rules for ourselves:

There is no staff room

Staff rooms, in my experience, become the place where we sit and gossip, and invariably about our colleagues and the administration. Nothing threatens an open and honest work environment more than side conversations that cut out the very people they should be addressing. Instead, we take our tea and snack whenever we want, with our students, with friends in the art studio, in the kitchen, or even out in the garden. We talk gently in general, but especially to each other, we are accepting of our mistakes, welcoming of feedback, quick to correct what is out of place, we are delicate in pointing out the lapses of others, we make every effort to be direct about our feelings, opinions, ideas and concerns.

It takes a long while to build this kind of camaraderie, where everyone feels invested in everyone else. And it is accomplished by rewarding people who speak out, by thanking people when they are open and direct and critical, by appreciating the courage of team members who speak their minds, and by consistently modelling the gentleness you expect from everyone else. This takes a great deal of energy and generosity of spirit from every person on the team, but we now see it as our first duty to the school, and to each other. Each person here is welcome. Each teacher here is valued, by everyone.

There is nobody above a teacher

All jobs are essential; can you imagine how dysfunctional a school would become without people to clean it each day?

A school is run by 1) teachers who work with the students, and 2) administrative staff; principals, coordinators, and maintenance crews, who ensure the smooth running of facilities, manage communications, public dealing, accounting and the likes. But everywhere one sees that teachers are placed below the admin, and in a manner which openly implies that they must be unqualified to hold a more impressive position. I love the title ‘Head Teacher’ because it confirms that only an exceptional teacher is qualified to manage a school, that the head of school is engaged in daily instruction, that the best people at school teach!

As teachers collaboratively running a school together, we discuss the challenges we are facing in our classrooms, or in communicating with parents, in managing our work load, or in dealing with students’ special needs – problems we all face as teachers. The solutions we design are teacher-friendly and therefore more effective than they would be if an administrator was handing them down to us.

We acknowledge the emotional and physical fatigue we experience from time to time, we are kind and compassionate to each other, we respond to slip-ups with solutions instead of reprimands, and we celebrate each other’s victories, even the very small, invisible ones. In doing away with hierarchy and systems that boss people around, we have created a workplace where everyone is competing, not to please their supervisor, but to impress their colleagues, and to show that they can hold their own amongst a team of talented, creative, intelligent individuals.

There is nothing to hide

In the way that we benefit from empowering teachers to contribute to school policy, we also benefit from bringing parents on as partners. Parents have much to gain from how the school runs, and the most at stake. They may not all be experts on education but they are the best experts on their own children, an invaluable resource. Nothing is more terrifying than opening your classrooms up to visitors, and making yourself vulnerable to public scrutiny, but nothing is more powerful a motivator to teach well than this terror.

Forcing yourself into relationships that hold you accountable, that enforce transparency, and that push to be your best will only help you set the bar higher. The appreciation and genuine gratitude that parents will show you for being open and honest with them is more than worth the effort.

There is no credential fancier than hard work

Some of the best people on our team came to us with zero prior teaching experience, some of the least impressive had years of it. A person whose willing to work hard, learn, make mistakes, and take your feedback, is always going to be more valuable than someone who is highly qualified but unable/ unwilling to invest their time and their best ideas into the school.

There is no compromise on ethics

I would like to say unequivocally that we judge teachers who apply for jobs in the middle of a term – negatively. The same goes for teachers who speak ill of their previous school. Dumping your students midway through an academic term is irresponsible, and criticising an institution is easy. A person’s generosity and ethics will make them a more valuable team member in the long run than their credentials.

There is no VIP culture

In all this talk of democracy and building a workplace without a hierarchy it may seem counter intuitive to conclude, that the linchpin of this kind of collaborative and inclusive environment is a benevolent dictator. The primary responsibility of the benevolent dictator is to fight red-tapism and promptly crush any signs of bureaucracy or red-tapism when they appear.

She has to lead from the front; turn every conversation into a scientific, intellectual one; turn every problem into an open discussion about future solutions; set the example for accepting and correcting her mistakes; actively solicit the opinions and suggestions of her team; and place herself, despite her position of authority, above no one, thereby creating a round table, where all are equal.

I think the best model for an academy is a monastery, where peace is preserved and protected with great care and devotion so that the secrets of nature and the universe may be explored in earnest. Teaching and learning should be a spiritual undertaking, not merely a utilitarian one. And utopic though it sounds, all we require to achieve this is a transformation in our perceptions and our intentions.

There is little doubt that we already desire a better world.

This blog is part of an interactive campaign called Aao Parhao – Jo Seekha Hai Wo Sekhao (Come Teach – Teach All That You Have Learnt); a Call-to-Action to help change the future of Pakistani children, launched by the Express Media Group in collaboration with Ilm Ideas.

So join us, by reading, watching and telling us what you think. To be part of the Aao Parhao movement, please visit our website, like our Facebook page, and follow us on Twitter at to get regular updates about all our activities, learn about teaching opportunities and share the stories of inspirational teachers.

Nadine Murtaza She has been a teacher and curriculum developer for Headstart School for the last 8 years, since graduating from Bryn Mawr College in 2006. She is currently the Head of School at NJ’s House, which is Headstart’s new International Baccalaureate Program. She tweets as @chambelinadine (https://twitter.com/chambelinadine)
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

Facebook Conversations


Guest | 5 years ago | Reply | Recommend @ "There is no VIP culture" HeadStart/NJs is exorbitantly expensive. Your institution is the epitome of VVIP culture though behind the walls all may be equal-ish. You should have embraced/highlighted this quality of your institute in this article as a distinguishing feature. I look forward to sending my Very Important Children to your Very Important institution.
Nadine Murtaza | 5 years ago Dear Guest, This is a difficult point to make but I believe there is a difference between a product that is expensive and one that supports a VIP culture. NJ's is an expensive school because it employs highly paid professionals, it offers integrated classrooms and support for students with autism or special needs at no extra cost, we serve a homemade snack to every student every day, offer flexible payment plans, and most parents here feel we deliver good quality for money. We are a bi-lingual school where Urdu and English have equal weightage, our faculty hail from different ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds and we celebrate this diversity. We are working for free with charitable schools every weekend through Saturday Storytelling at Kuch Khaas, Headstart runs an excellent fully funded branch for SOS, and we are available at the government's disposal for any assistance or support they ask of us. No matter how badly we might like to, we cannot out of our own limited resources, and without any outside funding, run a first-rate school for the masses at rock bottom prices. We are teachers Sir, not alchemists.
Ahmed | 5 years ago I totally agree. Headstart school is an extremely expensive school. You people keep on increasing the fee on annual basis. If I take the example of F-10 branch which covers 3 houses (not even a proper campus) has incresed grade 2 fee from 16, 000 to 18, 900. An alarmingly increased rate. For a Grade 2 child its too much. It seems Headstart is running a business only. They are not bothered how parents and specially poor people are managing to give basic education to their kids. My child registration was cancelled just because I was asking for a discount on tuition fee. Quite thought provoking for a developing country like Pakistan
Sarah T Hassan | 5 years ago | Reply | Recommend In this rat race of prestigious schools which sees children registered with schools while still in utero, thank you for shedding light on what matters. If the teachers care, your child will be happy. If your child is happy she will learn. She will make friends and relax at school. As a parent, that's all i want. If she grows up to be an aeronautical engineer, I'll consider it a bonus. And caring teachers can be found at every school, mindsets need to change and nj's is doing just that :) go Nadine!
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