From Pakistan to Plymouth, Teachers Share a Common Language
by Gaye Gould
This summer, PSU welcomed 25 teachers from Pakistan for the first Pakistani Teachers Institute. It was, by any reckoning, an enormous success.
The institute was to build mutual understanding between the U.S. and Pakistan, and help educators enhance their subject knowledge, pedagogical skills and disposition toward new ways of teaching in such areas as science, mathematics, English, heritage studies and educational leadership. Although the institute was designed to “teach the teachers,” it is true to say that we in Plymouth learned as much from the Pakistanis as they learned from us.
Pakistan has one of the world’s lowest literacy rates and spending on education is less than two percent of the country’s gross national product. Following a 2002 visit to Pakistan, the late Thomas B. Moorhead (then U.S. Department of Labor undersecretary for internal labor affairs) and his wife, Plymouth State alumna Elizabeth Howard Moorhead ’72, shared with President Donald P. Wharton their vision of a program to assist Pakistan’s teacher preparation (see Plymouth Magazine, Summer 2002). The result was this groundbreaking cross-cultural exchange.
The institute was funded by a $250,000 grant from the South Asia Division of the Office of Citizen Exchanges, U.S. Dept. of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Dr. Curtis Huff, chief of the division, worked closely with PSU to make this institute a reality. Coincidentally, as the institute was taking place, the 9/11 Commission Report was released, which called for strengthening educational ties with Pakistan. Had we felt the need for verification of the value of the institute, this was surely it.
A large committee, led by Program Director Mary McNeil and comprised of faculty, an HR visa expert, Sodexho dining services, University police, administrative staff and others, met monthly for almost a year to plan—more frequently as the date for the institute approached.
In December 2003, I traveled to Pakistan to formalize a partnership with ITA/SINP (School Improvement Network Pakistan)—a public trust charged with modernizing and improving schools throughout the country. There were several faculty members who could have gone to Pakistan but, because federal funds were involved, the permission of the chief of mission in the U.S. embassy in Islamabad was required. Given the security issues involved, it was felt that permission for an American to travel to Pakistan was unlikely to be forthcoming. As a New Zealander, I did not face quite the same problems. (If nothing else, I’m in a good position to discuss the finer points of cricket. Indeed, the New Zealand cricket team, the Black Caps, was in Pakistan just a day or two before I arrived there.) I’m also familiar with greater Asia, having lived in Hong Kong for 20 years. And so I found myself en route to Pakistan.
The people at ITA proved to be excellent partners and, in helping us select the participants, they secured the involvement of top officials in the Pakistani Ministry of Education and teaching institutions. ITA also worked closely with the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. While in Islamabad, I met with about two dozen school principals and leaders of teaching institutes. Together we worked to fine-tune the selection process. We knew we wanted a relatively even mix of English, math and science teachers, all of whom would be in a position to become “master trainers” on their return. In the master trainer program, volunteer teachers conduct workshops for their colleagues to train them in best practices and student-centered teaching (called “child friendly” classrooms in Pakistan).
The visa application process took about four months. Finally, all but three participants had visas in time for the scheduled flight from Pakistan. Three men were delayed for several days: processing took longer for men than for women; then, after approval was given a security problem closed the U.S. embassy in Islamabad before the visas could be physically put into the passports. The men eventually arrived in Plymouth four days after their colleagues.
The 22 teachers who managed to leave Pakistan on the right day did not enjoy an incident-free journey. The July 7 closure of Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., due to lightning storms, meant they did not arrive on campus until 3:15 a.m., July 8. Despite their exhaustion after 54 hours of travel, everyone enthusiastically adjusted to life at PSU and quickly made friends with Plymouth folk—on and off campus.
The institute’s daily routine was nothing if not flexible. For most, the day began with a session on teaching in English. Although English is a second language in Pakistan (after Urdu), it is nonetheless the medium of instruction—actual or intended—in most schools. This presents a double challenge for Pakistani children: learning science and mathematics is hard enough but imagine doing so in a language that is not your mother tongue.
Next was heritage studies, with Blake Allen demonstrating how to use both natural and con-structed landscapes as teaching tools. In a country where teachers have few classroom resources, using what you have around you is important.
The final morning session was subject-specific, in English, science or mathematics. Many PSU graduate professors opened up their classrooms to the Pakistanis. The science teachers were often off on one scientific adventure or another, and the administrators were on their own for a full week of all-day classes. The final three days of the institute were devoted to training the teachers to be trainers themselves.
The five weeks were not all work. On the final Sunday evening, the Pakistanis took over the Newfound Room in Prospect and prepared a sumptuous Pakistani meal for all the PSU faculty and staff involved in the institute. The women used some of their beautiful head-scarves to decorate the room and adorned one wall with the wedding photos they had brought with them. We learned that a bride’s (to us) surprising look of great melancholy is culturally required because marriage, for a woman, means leaving the only family she has known as she becomes a member of a new family.
The middle-class women in the institute were successful professionals and those who are married were here with the enthusiastic support of their husbands. Despite this support, there remains in Pakistan a wide gender gap and this affects education as much as anything else. The Ministry of Education is committed to narrowing not only the gender gap but also the rural-urban gap. Women in the rural working class are not as fortunate as those in the middle class.
Blake Allen also arranged numerous “road shows,” taking our Pakistani visitors to Portsmouth (and the Black Heritage Trail), to Boston (and, yes, the Duck Tour), Mt. Washington, Hubbard Brook, Quincy Bog and Sabbaday Falls on the Kancamagus Highway, followed by lunch in Glen. Other outings included a baseball game in Manchester and relaxing by the river at the Allens’ wonderful 19th-century home, where the Pakistani women delighted in learning to swim, fully clothed in beautiful silk robes.
Perhaps the most enduring memory is the numerous expeditions to Wal-Mart, where many gifts for family back in Pakistan were purchased, including copious quantities of American candy.
The institute was hit with tragedy when we learned that the husband of one of our participants had died suddenly and at a young age. Our bereaved friend was a favorite with all and the loss she experienced affected everyone deeply. Yet, even in tragedy, learning and cultural exchanges continued. Sgt. Pete Chierichetti, of the University police, escorted the grieving woman to Boston’s Logan Airport, and graciously remained at her side until she boarded her plane. Conversation between the two was limited; although a woman in such circumstances is able to answer any necessary questions put to her, she is otherwise not permitted to speak with any males who are not blood relatives during the four-month mourning period.
Blake Allen also spent several hours at Speare Memorial Hospital as other participants faced some health emergencies. The ER at Speare was definitely not intended as part of the Heritage Road Shows!
There were some humorous unscripted moments of learning. For example, four of our participants who visited relatives in New York one weekend discovered (let’s be fair; many Americans fall into the same trap!) that there is more than one “Plymouth” in the U.S. Chief of University Police John Clark came to the rescue, launching a midnight rescue mission to Massachusetts.
The institute ended as it began, with travel and weather problems. Hurricanes lashing the east coast meant delays on the homeward journey. It is a tribute to the personality and patience of everyone involved that people were always able to find something to laugh about. Five of the men ended up having an unexpected night in Washington, D.C. They needed to have “exit interviews” at Dulles Airport; failure to comply would have meant never gaining future entry into the U.S. Dr. Huff, who saw everyone off at Dulles and took care of the stranded men, assured me that they remained in good spirits.
The Institute was a first for PSU and we learned much about the logistics of such an endeavor. Before leaving Plymouth, the Pakistanis were already planning their own reunion in Pakistan in September; those involved at PSU can understand the sentiment because we all now enjoy a very special bond. We are part of Pakistan just as Pakistan is now part of us.
Gaye Gould is assistant professor of linguistics and ESL in Plymouth State University’s Department of English, and coordinator of the graduate program in language and linguistics. She lives in Glen, N.H., and maintains homes in Asia and New Zealand.
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