I visited three rural schools in (Village:, Chamba, Hilana Sohawa) Dhirkot District Azad Kashmir from 11-14th June, 2014, conducting training needs assessment as part of a year-long commitment with the teachers. Like any person, going in for a new experience, I went in with a set of unfounded expectations. Indeed, I was in for a surprise.
1. Education of Women
I was very happy to know, that education was a priority for most households in the villages I visited. Student enrollment in schools was pretty much 100% (although I do not have statistical evidence to back this yet). A few of the locals informed me, very enthusiastically that women were more educated than the men. My theory is that the men go out to cities work, while they are still young, while the women stay at home and find opportunities to keep busy. Because the schools and colleges are often beyond reach, these women study at home, making good choose of distance learning opportunities. Most of them are graduates; a high number also has post-graduate qualifications.
2. Teacher’s Know-How about Teaching
Almost all of the teachers in these 3 schools had a professional qualification in Education (B Ed, M Ed). The qualifications (in all cases) had been acquired through self-study rather than being in a college classroom; yet the teacher’s familiarity with educational terminology and techniques was apparent. The informal discussions and formal interviews and focus group discussions revealed that the teachers recognized the “ideal” form of teaching: student centered, encouraging, aimed at life-long learning, but unfortunately, these values were not implemented in their practice. I would attribute this gap to two factors: a) the dearth of resources, human & material; and b) the teacher’s own progression upward in the academics without being in a classroom (let alone a progressive, constructivist one), only studying (read: remembering) to perform well in one exam and then another.
3. Fluency with English Language
Despite these challenges, both the teachers and the general population had between limited and professional working fluency with English. While most of the communication was in Urdu or their local language, they punctuated the sentences with various English words, including technical terms. They did not seem to be perturbed by my urban proclivity to switch from Urdu to English spontaneously, but showed understanding of what I had said in their responses. I believe this is the case because of a) exposure to urban centers, through families settled there and the back and forth of the male members of the family who work there; b) television (no surprises there) and c) English medium education, which lacks effect as most of the teaching and talking inevitably happens in Urdu, yet provides some minimal reading material and familiarity with words.
As an educator and trainer, these observations help to inform my work with the teachers in future. They also remind me of the importance of needs assessments and the necessity of going in with an open mind, leaving behind prior assumptions, when beginning work in unfamiliar contexts. But most significantly, these unexpected facts reflect the resilience and persistence that humans have when faced with obstacles stacked one on top of other.
I am excited to return to Dhirkot in a few months, armed with resources and trainings to give to the teachers, so that they can improve their instructional practice.
 For details about the levels of fluency: http://www.languagesurfer.com/2013/05/29/all-about-language-proficiency-and-language-fluency/