Becoming a teacher in Pakistan is somewhat accidental and often circumstantial. I am yet to meet anyone, anyone at all, who while being a student (during his or her undergraduate days or perhaps, even in high school) would say I want to become a teacher in a school. There may be many reasons, perhaps most of them very valid, for not opting for this profession. Nonetheless, it does leave the system all the more poorer as becoming a teacher is not a viable career choice. It is often the lack of ‘other options’, social pressures (against other careers for women) or a myriad of other circumstances that create our teachers. Rarely is it love of interacting with young minds, the joy in sharing knowledge and the passion to change society. Despite this, the fact that most of us have been touched by a teacher or a mentor in a classroom at one point or another in our lives is a testament to those who work with utmost dedication.
There has been a lot of work, both by scholars and public policy professionals, on the systemic failures of our education system. The challenges range from security to corruption to feudalism to poor economic policies. However, that is only one side of the story. We also need to think about how to cultivate better teachers and encourage this as a profession that is a viable career choice for both men and women.
Let us start with a positive example. Over the years, Finland has become somewhat of a poster child for a robust, efficient and successful educational system. A lot of work has been done in understanding why Finland, of all the countries, enjoys one of the most successful educational systems as measured by student performance. There are many reasons, but a key reason is also associated with teaching considered to be a highly-respected, competitive and viable profession. In discussions with my Finnish colleagues, I have been reminded time and again, that along with doctors and lawyers, teaching comes up as a profession to which talented students aspire. Of course, changes such as these will not happen in Pakistan overnight and would require a generation or more for us to accept teaching as a profession worthy of pursuit, but we have to start somewhere; we have to start now.
In Pakistan, like in many other parts of the developing world, teaching suffers from two plateaus or bottlenecks. First is financial. Teachers do not earn very much, and in rural areas, this may be next to nothing. But a bigger problem is the absence of any clear mechanism for a salary raise. Teachers have to fight to get paid, rarely get the raises that they deserve and find no incentive except participating in tuition centres to make ends meet. While it works well for those who teach sciences, the options for a teacher of history or civics are far more limited. The second bottleneck is career progression. Teachers stay within the same rank for decades and if they are not interested in becoming an administrator (or do not get the opportunity), they essentially stay stuck. It is not about becoming a director or a principal, but it is about having an opportunity to implement the ideas and use the wisdom and experience of decades. Despite staying in the same job for years on end, they hardly get a chance to change the system.
So, as we think deeply about the most fundamental problems plaguing our society, we should not only think about more secure and functioning schools and better facilities, but also about how to make teaching a viable profession, how to provide regular training and how to create not only financial incentives, but also opportunity to impact the system and policy.
The future of the nation certainly depends on the youth who may be somewhere today in some classroom, but it also equally depends on the teacher, who will shape the thought of that future leader. Let us not ignore those who shape our future.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 13th, 2014.