It is 12 summers since I qualified as a teacher. Joining the education sector has brought me countless blessings, opening doors to things I didn’t anticipate relatively early in my teaching career, including becoming Head of Religious Education at one of Birmingham’s leading comprehensives, writing a series of GCSE textbooks and speaking at student conferences all over the country.
Within just the last two years, I have been involved in the CPD of 250+ Religious Education practitioners and addressed more than 1,000 pupils at various events.
But my greatest honour so far, both personally and professionally, was in April when I went to a town called Rabwah, in Pakistan, to spend a few days with more than 80 teachers working in community-run schools and colleges. This was after the Caliph (supreme head) of Ahmadiyya Muslims worldwide, His Holiness Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, became aware of my textbooks and asked if I would be happy to run a teacher training programme there.
I was lost for words. But when a man you believe to be God’s representative on earth (he is Islam’s equivalent of the Pope) makes that sort of request, you don’t even have to think, but simply say yes!
Rabwah is one of the main centres around the globe for Ahmadiyya Muslims, a non-violent community in Islam which promotes ‘Love for all, Hatred for None’. Rabwah also happens to be where my mother was born, raised and educated. So I felt doubly privileged, and indeed excited, to visit the same surroundings where she would have learned and played with other children.
I was very nervous too. I hadn’t ever done international CPD before; the spiritual leader of millions was putting his trust in me; and I was travelling to a country most people would think twice before visiting (not to mention the difficulties faced there by fellow Ahmadiyya Muslims, who still face prejudice and persecution under Pakistan’s laws discriminating against religious minorities). Yet it reflects the Caliph’s commitment to education, particularly in less developed parts of the world. Therefore, I felt very fortunate to have been given such an opportunity, and considered it my duty to serve.
I was put in touch with the Directorate of Education (Nazarat Taleem) in Rabwah to come up with a four-day training conference during the Easter holidays. This would be with teachers of 9th to 12th grade (equivalent of GCSE and A level) students. My hosts were happy for me to lead the sessions as and how I saw fit. While they expressed a preference for support with general classroom management, teaching strategies, motivating students and examination preparation, I had pretty much a blank canvas.
My main challenges were to put together a programme from scratch that was suitable for an audience not familiar with British pedagogy (and whose first language is Urdu), as well as to make it last around 16 hours over four days (the conference took place in the afternoons, when delegates were freed up from teaching). This wasn’t simply picking tricks from a UK teaching toolbox and expecting it to fit into a Pakistan context. I had to think carefully what ideas and methods might work with teachers working in a totally different culture and setting, where any reference to ‘data’ and ‘differentiation’ would, quite literally, be speaking in another language.
I had my own understanding of why I was asked to conduct this training. For all the moaning and groaning about the state of British education – never mind the UK’s ranking in the 2016 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), where we sit 15th overall out of 72 participating countries in science, maths and reading – it still boasts a pretty good global reputation. For many parents wanting the best education for their children, Britain remains the promised land.
Compare that to a recent report from UNESCO in which Pakistan ranked as low as 113 out of 120 countries, and where more than five million Pakistani children are out of school. Additionally, the equivalent of 12 million 15-24-year-olds in Pakistan lack basic skills, which is the second highest number in developing countries. These statistics serve as a reminder of how education is very much a privilege, not a right, in Pakistan.
There is an enormous wealth of outstanding practice in the UK that I felt was worth showcasing. I sifted through all my teaching folders, papers, notes and anything else I had kept over the years, plus whatever else I could lay my hands on, to help me formulate something productive.
When I arrived in Rabwah, I met with Nazarat Taleem’s Deputy Director, Dr Mirza Naseer Ahmad, who briefed me on the organisation’s aims, history, achievements and current as well as future projects. In Rabwah alone there are 11 schools and colleges (including a special needs institute) and a further 22 in other, mostly remote parts of Pakistan. The directorate employs almost 800 teachers and educates 9,500 students from primary to masters level. It is no small operation, and I was impressed with the excellent work they continue to do, despite very challenging circumstances. The Caliph is very keen to build on this.
The training was held in a beautiful auditorium at Nusrat Jahan Girls’ College. A total of 81 delegates (55 women, 26 men) took part, their subject specialisms ranging from English and Maths to Computer Science and Pakistan Studies. Some were newly qualified teachers, whereas others had decades of experience. I put together a presentation and conference pack for the attendees, with the sessions designed to be interactive. I stuck to English as my main medium of communication, because as many relatives and friends of mine will testify, Urdu is definitely not my strength! (more on this shortly)
We began by discussing some key elementary questions:
What is the purpose of education?
Why did you become a teacher?
Does your school have a set of clear aims and goals? Are these being met?
How can we make sure all students achieve their best?
This proved to be a useful ‘starter’ to the rest of the programme, as it enabled some initial reflection on what qualities constitute an effective teacher, and the educator’s role in providing students with the best learning experience.
I organised the training into four areas:
- Whole school vision
- Educational research and ‘can do’ culture
- Teaching and learning strategies
- Curriculum planning
The first area was also for the benefit of the directors and principals attending the programme. This included sharing particular structures any senior leadership team in a British school would ensure are in place – such as a teaching and learning policy, a system of lesson observations and book trawls, and performance management process – to ensure that the quality of teaching and learning is to the required standard. Such teacher-speak is of course painfully familiar to anyone who working in a UK context, but for many delegates at the conference, it was new learning. I often felt that I was speaking like a minister from the Department for Education…
I told the delegates that some of my ideas may not be considered applicable in a local or Pakistan-wide context, and that it was really down to them to see what would be practical, and if or how to incorporate them into lessons.
This was all the more reason to focus on current educational research on methods proven to be successful in motivating students and raising attainment. This included showing clips of inspirational talks from trainers like Amjad Ali to sharing Carol Dweck’s theory about growth mindsets and the “Power of Yet”, which the delegates were particularly fascinated by.
I admitted that I wasn’t the best example of the strategies I was presenting. But this is what teaching is also about – recognising one’s own weaknesses as a springboard for personal and professional betterment, to try different things, stick to the ones that work, be honest about what doesn’t, and to try again.
In fact, I was taught a very important lesson myself at the end of the first day when I asked the delegates to write any comments or questions on post-its. Two that stood out were:
Most teachers at the conference were highly proficient in English, but as this feedback revealed a few were less confident speaking it. So at the start of the second day, I apologised that I had made the mistake of assuming that everyone would understand me, and that while I was not comfortable speaking in Urdu, I would still try nevertheless – telling them also they would probably find my efforts amusing (and they weren’t disappointed!). However, I also used this as an opportunity to model a growth mindset and show that I was ready to embrace a new challenge, and to highlight that just as I was having to leave my comfort zone to communicate more in Urdu, so too should they when it comes to trying new approaches in the classroom.
During the week I had the opportunity to visit three of the directorate’s schools and see lessons take place, observing some of the teaching and facilities. No projectors and interactive whiteboards, no reprographics room, no dedicated ICT technician – I’ll remember that the next time the school network is down or the photocopier needs servicing! We do take a lot of what we have in the UK for granted.
In every classroom I stepped into, all stood up and greeted me with Assalamu Alaikum – ‘peace be upon you’. I spoke to teachers about their successes and struggles, and to pupils about their aspirations. Every teacher, regardless of their nationality, will always go the extra mile for their students, but seeing the dedication of these practitioners especially, with such meagre resources, was really quite humbling.
The second and third days were spent mainly looking at general teaching and learning strategies, such as for improving literacy, and catering for different learning styles as well as special needs students. We talked about the need to include every pupil and help them make progress, while also making learning enjoyable. I noticed in a couple of lessons I walked into, the teacher just talked and the pupils listened. I explained that just because a class is quiet and disciplined, doesn’t mean they are learning. Therefore, it was important to create checkpoints during the lesson to see what, if anything, each individual child had understood.
The final day was mainly set aside for curriculum planning and delegates to work in their departments or small teams to apply their learning from the conference and prepare a lesson or scheme of work from templates I had created. For many of them, it was the first experience of collaborative working with teachers from other schools and colleges in Rabwah. I went round to each group to observe their discussions and planning, and to offer further guidance or answer any questions they had.
Reconvening in the auditorium, a spokesperson from each group presented the main points from their team’s deliberations. It was evident they had utilised a lot of the ideas from the week to inform their planning and felt motivated to try new things, which was really pleasing. The exercise was a massive success.
Throughout my stay in Rabwah, I was overwhelmed by the warmth, kindness and respect extended to me. This was solely due to everyone’s total love for the Caliph, who had asked me to run the training. I kept emphasising that they were in the unique position of receiving his direct guidance, and that if ever they needed inspiration in the classroom, they should simply remind themselves that every child is a child of the Caliph.
The feedback I received (comments from post-its and emails below) was heartening as well as humbling. The Director of Nazarat Taleem, Mirza Fazal Ahmad, insisted that I visit every year as only then, he said, would such training continue to be effective. The directorate is now starting a newsletter for teachers to share a new strategy they have tried since the programme.
Upon my return to the UK, I sent a 40-plus page report to the Caliph and within a week also went to meet him. I was astonished when he told me he had already read it, and commented on some of the photos I had included, as well as asking many questions about my visit. He was also interested in my suggestions on the next steps needed in Rabwah.
This was an amazing, unforgettable experience that made me gain many precious and priceless things – the confidence and blessing of the Caliph, an increased love for my mother’s birthplace, and many, many new friends. I’ve also learned to better appreciate our own education system and the rich skill set British teachers have which is very much the envy of, and has the potential to make a huge difference in, other parts of the world.
“There are a lot of ideas in my mind for the students but I was afraid to implement them. Now I will try it, insha’Allah (God willing)”
“I’ll try to create a more relaxed environment for all the students by encouraging, praising and motivating them”
“I have learnt that good work should be placed in the form of posters that will be more effective and motivational for the students to work hard next time”
“Mostly I do all these things in class and it’s had good results but unfortunately I was neglecting my own daughter in this regard. I will follow all these rules for her because as you said, she is Huzur’s (His Holiness’s) daughter as well and I was not preparing her for serving the community”
“The activities and lesson plan strategy are all very effective. I will surely try every single activity for the improvement of my students and hopefully other teachers will do so insha’Allah (God willing)”
“I feel very excited and I’m looking forward to applying these ideas with my students”
“May Almighty Allah bless you with the best of His treasures! It was a heart-warming and reviving experience to listen to someone especially sent by Huzoor Anwar (His Holiness). Perhaps the words are not sufficient to express the feelings of gratitude. Your kindness, patience and consideration will always remain with us as a cherished memory. I will share all the strategies with my Principal and colleagues. I am sorry not to have any photographs of the event but I promise to share some of my students’ when they would work according to your guidelines. Jazakallah (God reward you) for sparing your precious time for us. You and your family will always remain in our prayers.”
“The honor and privilege was ours that we were the chosen ones to be with you, who was sent to us by the Khalifa (Caliph) of this era and the coming as well. These sorts of workshops must be continued because it’s a great way of knowing each other as being different nations under one flag. I pray for your success and I’m very much thankful to you for being here for us when we needed some motivation and courage.”
“The cause of your tour, your commitment and sincerity of purpose motivated me a lot to continuously reflect on my ways of teaching and mould them to attain a progressive teaching and learning atmosphere. The resources you shared with us were very relevant and practical. Many of the activities were fresh and adjustable. I learnt many new things. It was an honor to be a participant of a workshop that was visioned by Huzur e Aqdas (His Holiness) himself. Your advice to consider every student as a child of Huzur will always inspire me to check my methods regularly and improve them to attain the quality these children deserve. Thanks a lot for highlighting this dimension of responsibility. Please also pay our humble thanks to Huzur for this opportunity when you convey our salam.”
“I personally want to thank you to share your knowledge and experiences with us. The atmosphere you provided us to talk to each other is commendable. I hope you also enjoyed that experience. Thank you again.”