UK teacher Cassie Flint was in Pakistan with the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms programme when a terrorist attack killed more than a hundred students. She looks back on her experience of the country and its schools.
I teach English literature in a rural secondary school in the north of England where it's rare to meet people of different races or ethnicities. Horizons can feel smaller here, and although literature can take you to other worlds, I'm coming to realise that nothing opens the eyes quite like travel.
I had previously travelled with students to France and China, and I was amazed by the contrasts in the way people live and learn. But when my school connected with a girls' comprehensive school of 3,000 students in the north-west of Pakistan, it really made a difference to my professional and personal life.
I distinctly remember arriving with two other teachers in Islamabad. We walked out of the rather frantic and antiquated airport to a hectic scene. There seemed to be thousands of men in blue and white salwar kameezes. Dust was swirling and there were cars everywhere. We were given rose petal necklaces, and then an armoured car collected us and took us through the maze of the city to the hills.
That first visit to Pakistan had been overpowering in terms of the hospitality. The many officials and teachers we met were really concerned about our perception of their country. I'd seen things in the news, of course. But this was a real lesson in the importance of seeing things for oneself.
I was taken around a large private boys' school which uses English as its teaching medium. This is quite a challenge as most of the students have at least two other languages. We also went to a small girls’ school, which was way up the side of the city overlooking the Himalayas. It seemed like such a happy school -- they all did. Despite teachers working with extremely limited resources and huge classes -- sometimes more than 100 students -- the schools were well ordered.
When I returned to Pakistan in December 2014, I was on my own as the other two schools hadn’t been able to continue their partnerships. Security was more relaxed compared to my first visit and I had the chance to look around Islamabad. The next day, I attended a gala championing women in sport. The district commissioner was there to give his public support.
In the afternoon we moved to a conference on early childhood education sponsored by Save the Children and Australia Aid. Bright young female officials talked of the government’s commitment to early childhood education and care. In between the speeches, primary students danced and sang on the stage and were just delightful in their confidence and joy. Both of these events convinced me of how hard the government is trying to support girls’ education and the issue of keeping children in school.
On each visit to Pakistan I've seen real struggles to provide the most basic of schooling. But in every school, without exception, the children have been motivated and incredibly well behaved. At a women’s medical college I visited, a student told me she was from the Swat valley where she had gone to a school run by nuns. When her school was bombed by the Taliban, she saw her school friends maimed or killed. She had lost her own father in the conflict in her area. Yet here she was, determined to be a doctor, away from home and working hard. I said that in the UK we had heard what Malala Yousafzei had gone through. She looked at me from behind her shawl and I could see the trace of a smile. She said there were thousands of girls like Malala here. I’ll never forget that.
The next morning I began work at my partner school. After the school assembly, I went into the lessons I had been designated. Later in the afternoon, I was at a meeting with an educational publisher who supplies text books to government schools. It was then that I got a phone call from a number I didn't recognise.
A kindly voice told me that there had been a serious incident in a Peshawar school. From that moment, the whole visit changed. I didn't realise it at the time but the people around me all knew what had happened. It was as if they were protecting me by not telling me. Even though I didn't know the details, it was clear I had to leave.
I watched the news that evening in a little guest house with my partner teacher and two very eminent principals -- one of a boys’ school and one of a girls’. They told me at one point the principal of the Peshawar school was missing. Then there was a moment of hope. But it all changed as the news came in that her body had been found. My colleagues mourned the lady they had known.
I was sad to leave, but have vowed to return. The country has huge challenges to meet, not the least of which is keeping the children safe in school. I believe this challenge will be met.
As I write this, the big question sits there looking at us, challenging us all in governments and in schools to find an answer: how do we build a world where we can live peaceably with each other?
Connecting Classrooms can help develop your pupils as global citizens and you as a teacher.