What could never happen in Pakistan is happening in Plymouth.
Forty Pakistani teachers are spending a month at Plymouth State University learning about innovations in American education and how to translate them for use in schools at home.
In Pakistan, the teachers are divided by geography, ethnicity and professional hierarchies – not to mention 17 languages – making it unlikely they would ever meet or work together.
But on this small college campus, they are colleagues and friends.
“In Pakistan, historically, a group this diverse has never come together,” said Blakeman Allen, director of the Pakistani Educational Leadership Project. “Last year’s group used to joke that in Pakistan … they would never get along. Then they were here, and they had to get along. They were so busy, they had to become a family.”
The program, which started in 2004, is funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Through its office of citizens exchange, the bureau funds several dozen professional exchanges each year aimed at furthering U.S. foreign policy and providing foreign participants with a chance to enhance their knowledge and address challenges in their countries.
Just a few days into the program, the group gathered in an art gallery that was once a baseball glove factory. They discussed integrating the arts into the classroom to help students succeed. They watched a puppet show and broke into small groups with American teachers to list their hopes and dreams for students, both at home and in school.
Though there were many common goals among the American and Pakistani teachers, such as “child-centered teaching,” the Pakistani teachers added items such as “safe from terrorism” to their list.
Allen said some past participants have had members of the Taliban take over their schools. Some teachers didn’t tell their families they were going to the United States out of fear for their safety.
“We do hear all these stories, but they just get on with it and do it. They’re so resilient. The ones we’ve had here are so dedicated to their students and their institutions,” she said.
Increased funding this year allowed the number of participants in Plymouth State’s program to double in size to what Allen calls “the Fab 40.” A mix of public and private high school teachers and professors from teacher-training colleges, they are spending four weeks attending workshops for up to 13 hours a day. The group also will spend time in Washington, D.C., before returning home to train their colleagues and put action plans in place.
Allen said it is a challenge to make sure the program is equally valuable to each member of the group, but the focus has been on making it an open, cooperative effort. Several participants said Thursday they’ve been impressed by that approach.
“Collaborative work is present here – no boss system. Friendship is more tangible here,” said Shama Miraj, who teaches in a girls high school in the Balistan region of northern Pakistan. “This is a very fantastic opportunity.”
Over lunch in the campus dining hall, Miraj and others said they often have few resources to offer students, and struggle with Pakistan’s low literacy rate, particularly among girls and women. They said they admire the discipline and organization they’ve witnessed in the United States, and look forward to bringing new teaching techniques home with them.
“This is a great cultural exchange,” said Naushaba Nadeem, who trains teachers at a college in Islamabad. “We hope that we will learn to implement some good things in our system.”