Nestled in the remote mountains of northern Pakistan, Chipurson Valley has a total population of 4,000 people. It sits less than 80 kilometres from the border of China and is connected to the rest of the country by rocky, dirt roads that lead to the Karakoram Highway (KKH). At over 15,000 feet above sea level, the KKH is the highest paved road in the world. It’s also one of the most scenic.
Along the road, signs welcoming visitors to the “land of many dreams” appear. Since 1905, the Aga Khan Development Network has been working to ensure dreams of children in this forgotten land have a chance at coming true. For many, that starts with quality education.
Unfortunately, when it comes to education, children in the valley are often left behind. Given its remoteness, the valley’s schools have lagged in comparison to the region’s urban centres. When Atta-Ur-Rehman first came to Chipurson Valley as a new school principal, the signs were clear. Teachers were frustrated with the lack of resources and support, and sometimes struck students to discipline them. Parents were unhappy with their children’s progress and frustrated with the school's performance.
Since then, this Chipurson Valley school and over 270 other schools in the Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral region – most of them public – have been recipients of a unique programme that puts children at the centre of learning activities. In 2016, the Aga Khan Foundation began an innovative education project called the School Improvement Programme (SIP). SIP takes a “whole school” approach to education that involves all stakeholders – from parents and teachers to government officials – to work towards improving learning outcomes.
A challenging environment
At the Government Girls High School Kirmin, a SIP school in Chipurson Valley where Atta-Ur-Rehman is headmaster, the biggest challenge is the shortage of teachers. That shortage is a reality for schools across Pakistan, but is most acutely felt in the rural areas, resulting in some overcrowded classrooms and teachers managing multiple grades of children in one class without adequate training.
The remoteness of the school makes it less attractive for highly qualified teachers, who would rather live in more populous and connected towns and cities like the main town of Gilgit.
Extreme weather conditions that plague the area from October to April are an additional hardship. During winter, temperatures can drop drastically, making it too cold for children to go to school.
According to Atta-Ur-Rehman, the most significant change since SIP is the teacher’s behaviour towards the children. When he first came to the school 10 months ago, the teachers struggled to manage their classrooms in ways that did not involve corporal punishment. Now, he says, staff understand core concepts of instructional leadership and effective teaching methods that allow them to more effectively, and ethically, oversee their classes.
Teaching the teachers
The core foundation of SIP is its training model, which builds the capacity of teachers to tackle a variety of challenges faced in Pakistan’s government schools: from shortages of teachers and supplies to a lack of parental involvement.
With the support of the Aga Khan University Institute for Educational Development’s Professional Development Centres in Gilgit and Chitral in northern Pakistan, select teachers, head teachers and government officials become trainers and receive rigorous training on the following topics:
- creating school development plans using a whole school approach;
- honing instructional leadership skills and building education communities of practice;
- building knowledge and skills in early childhood education and development;
- promoting a reading culture through the Reading for Children programme; and
- managing multi-grade teaching.
These educators return to their school clusters and administer the essence of these trainings to their teaching peers. In addition, select key resource teachers receive training in English, Maths, Science and Urdu, so that they can serve as mentors for their peers and encourage teachers to learn from one another. These relationships, and the professionalism sparked by the training, have begun to motivate teachers in SIP-supported schools in unimaginable ways.
Teaching from the heart
Headmaster Rehman notes a key change in his school since the implementation of SIP: the style of teaching and learning, which relies on the exchange between students and teachers, has improved. “Attitudes of teachers are now… warm and supportive,” says Rehman.
Moving away from a traditional approach, where teachers “chalk and talk” as a means of transferring information, SIP empowers teachers to adopt a child-centred model. Role playing, drawing, storytelling and craftwork are just some of the examples of learning activities that teachers now promote, with the training they have received.
“Before,” headmaster Rehman says, “children were silent listeners, recipients of education.” Now with SIP’s child-centred approach, students are active participants in their own learning. The lessons stimulate questions and further thinking – and develop a thirst for more knowledge. Much of this can be attributed to the teachers’ newfound enthusiasm for their role in the children’s development.
When asked what he is most proud of, the headmaster beams: “The staff are committed now. The teachers, who are the driving force, are coming to school and engaging.”
The walls of the staff room at the government high school are covered in paper cut-outs of a moon and stars. On the moon, it reads “Qualities of a Good Teacher” and its accompanying stars spell out the respective characteristics, as identified by the school staff and community members in a recent SIP activity. These traits include “mentor”, “intellectual”, “honest”, “punctual”, “well qualified” and “energetic.”
In contrast to the colourless walls and cold cement floors of neighbouring schools that have yet to experience the programme, schools supported by SIP offer a warm, inviting and welcome space in the classroom with wall-to-wall carpet, displays and learning corners for the early years.
Coupled with children’s laughter and singing, the warm environment attracts and invites parents, community members and even local government officials to be more involved. The valley may be isolated from the city but this school, and its vibrant classrooms, is now at the heart of a new life for these children.
Putting children first
At the Government Girls Primary School, Shahida Parveen, a science teacher, talks about how SIP taught her a “child-friendly” style of teaching: “Before, I followed the lecture method, with no interactions with my students,” Shahida says. “Now I work and teach a practicum; and the children do the work and are more engaged.”
One head teacher, and mentor, speaks of seeing the joy in the eyes of the students when teachers first began to engage them. She notes that the pride they feel and the joy they get from learning continues to grow each day. “I’m seeing more and more interest from the children,” she says. “They are interested now. They ask more questions.”
Helping achieve their dreams
What do teachers in this remote valley hope for their students? For many, the hope is that they will become active and fruitful citizens of Pakistan, who give back to their community. Who promote peace. Who are kind.
The teachers understand that quality education is key for their students to fulfil their potential and achieve their dreams. And these teachers in SIP schools now possess the tools and skills to help those dreams become reality.
This text was adapted from a story published on the AKF USA website.