A School With a Difference by Dr. Tariq Rahman

The UNESCO as well as many linguists agree that children should get their basis schooling in their mother tongue. Pakistani schools, as I have argued in my article published in this section earlier (Dawn 23 November), generally impose alien languages upon them. There is, however, one school which makes a conscious effort at giving respect to a language other than English. As it is an elitist English-medium institution for small children it has provided a model which can be replicated.

I heard of this school from its principal, Yamima Mittha, whom I had known when she was a schoolgirl herself. She told me that in her school, Mazmoon-i-Shauq, she taught little children through English and Urdu. One day I went to see the school in a posh sector (F 8/3) of Islamabad. It was a mild October day (29th to be exact) and Yamima’s office was comfortable without being cooled or warmed.

Yamima told me that she got the idea of establishing a school of her own when she was looking around for a school for her own children. One reason she disliked the schools she went to was because they had open contempt for Urdu. Besides, the children were taught all about Western festivals, even Halloween and Valentine’s Day, but knew nothing of indigenous ones such as Baisakh. They also had no ideas about our art forms such as dancing. Yamima’s mention of dancing came as no surprise to me because I knew that her mother, Indu Mittha, is a highly accomplished dancer and dance teacher. Then she told me to have a look around at the classes.

‘But’ tell me how do you actually teach in Urdu and English here?’ I asked her.

‘We have designated Urdu-speaking and English-speaking teachers’, she replied.

I learned that the Urdu-speaking teacher only spoke Urdu with the children. The English-speaking one only spoke in English. Yamima, for instance, was an Urdu-speaking teacher. As principal, she argued, her choice of Urdu---despite her own English schooling childhood---raised the prestige of the language. The message being conveyed to the children was that Urdu was nothing to be ashamed of. It was as prestigious as English and the children need not look down upon it.

Then we went around to the classes. The school only has playgroup, kindergarten and two levels. There are between twelve to fifteen children per class though the senior most class is smaller. I found one class being taught in English while another one was going on in Urdu. Yamima talked to everyone except me in Urdu and I, rather confused as to what my designation should ideally be, talked in a mixed jargon which would have got me thrown out of the school promptly had I been a teacher there. The way of teaching was most interesting. The children worked on themes. As the theme was Africa they did all sorts of things on Africa. They even found bones of a fossil in the garden (buried by the school authorities of course). And they made pictures and wrote the names of animals in English as well as Urdu. There was at least one Urdu term I did not know but this I did not tell the children.

The youngest children were a treat to meet though one of them did not condescend to tell me her name. The other one made up for her friend’s reticence by reading out half the lesson in an animated voice I asked the children about their languages and they told me about them. But Punjabi children, I suspect, said they spoke Urdu at home. This is generally true but that is the parents’ fault not that of the children.

I asked her whether she got good teaching material in Urdu. She told me that this was a major problem since most material, including videos, were in English. However, she and the teachers tried to find or create material in Urdu also. Later I saw science books with lessons in both languages---again containing terms I could guess at but ones which were not part of my daily vocabulary. Moreover, though these were very small children, their handwriting in Urdu and English was fairly good---something I cannot claim for my writing in any language!

Besides teaching in two languages, the children are exposed to music and dancing. They learn that this part of the world had its own culture of which music and dancing were forms of art. They also do handiwork. Then there is a gym, a rather modest room in the basement, which contains a punching bag. Children can punch it to let out their energies and aggression. Since I had heard from someone that children are told to imagine they are punching the teachers they are angry with I asked Yamima if this was so. She denied this vehemently saying that they were not supposed to imagine anyone or tell anyone that they had anybody in mind. All that she wanted was to provide a chance to the children to get some exercise and channel their hostility, whoever it might be against, in this healthy form. I told her that psychologists actually recommend this kind of activity. She replied that this was exactly why she had  started it to begin with.

The teachers are all Montessori trained and the salaries are better than in other schools of this kind. As she said, the best investment for a school is in its faculty. I especially enquired about the autonomy, the space, given to the teachers because the contemporary trend in Pakistan is to curtail teachers’ autonomy by excessive monitoring and very strict lesson plans etc. Yamima told me that space was given to them in the sense that they had a voice in determining what was to be taught. However, there was monitoring too. What struck me as excessive was that all the teachers had to sit with the principal every day after the children left in order to discuss the events of the day and individual children. I thought this was too tough on the teachers but Yamima defended the practice in the name of efficiency.

While meetings and monitoring do contribute to efficiency, they overburden the teachers, take away their freedom to teach in the way they want and lower their self-respect. Personally I prefer the former practice of giving the teachers a completely free hand to teach as they wish. I know that this means that some teachers will not teach much but such people do not teach very well even when being monitored. And in any case such people are very few and there is no profession in which they do not exist. The presence of a few black sheep does not mean that such draconian regimentation should spoil the fun of teaching for all.

Anyway, on the whole I found Yamima’s school an excellent place for children. It is probably the only elitist school which tries to create respect for our own culture and language. In my opinion the state should ensure that mother-tongue teaching at the primary level should be a commonly accepted practice. There should be teachers who speak only Punjabi (in Punjab); only Pashto (in parts of the N.W.F.P); only Sindhi (in parts of Sindh); only Balochi or Brahvi (in parts of Balochistan) along with Urdu (the link language) and English (the international language). Yamima’s experiment in creating respect for our true self, our identities, should be encouraged and replicated---all aspects of it including the indigenous music and dancing---so that we do not become defective clones of alien cultures.