By Abdullah Saqib:
In school, my interest was always in Mathematics and problem-solving. But as a youth growing up in Baramulla, a small town in Kashmir, I had absolutely no access to career-related information. According to me at the time, engineering was the only option constituting both Maths and problem-solving. So, after studying at St Joseph’s School till 10th Class, followed by Govt. Boys Higher Secondary, I took up engineering for the next four years at NIT Srinagar.
My experience at NIT Srinagar was amazing! The teachers were professional and helpful, especially my guide, M Ahsan Chisti, who was an excellent motivator. He also kind of inspired me towards my current profession. But more on that later.
During my course, I got placed in the Samsung Research Institute, Bangalore. I went on to join there and worked for two years, till October 2015. It was a good experience. However, I felt more inclined towards doing something completely different – something in the area of education in Kashmir.
I have always had a feeling that education, especially in Kashmir, is used as a political tool. For instance, free classes will get launched but without any real focus on quality of the education. At most government schools attended by students after 10th Class, there is no focus on numerical aptitude. However, in all the entrance exams you will be tested for your analytical powers.
So, these kids get really confused and wonder what exactly they were studying for these two years! Overall, I feel our education system is churning out clerks and not helping in thinking out of the box. Yes, some people do think differently. However, it is not because of, but despite our education!
At first, I considered setting up a higher secondary school. But around the same time, I connected with someone looking for alumni of NIT Srinagar to join Avanti Learning Centres as teachers. This role matched with my aspirations of doing something in education in Kashmir, and it is what made me return to my homeland.
My first task after joining Avanti and understanding its pedagogy was to teach kids of 12th Class for advanced JEE. When I was about to start my first class, I felt very nervous as I had zero experience of teaching. But the moment I started and saw the motivated kids around me saying ‘Kashmir ke sir hai. Mazaa aayega!‘ (our teacher is from Kashmir, we shall have fun!), this ignited a spark in me, and I ended up loving teaching. So, from my very first class, onwards, the kids liked my teaching and I discovered a teacher within myself.
Since then I have been teaching for approximately six months in Kupwara and Handwara, which are located just 40 km from LOC (Line of Control). The students are of average level mostly because in the JKBOSE (Jammu & Kashmir State Board of School Education) using a calculator is allowed. I think this is a big block in the path of education; their calculating ability has become disastrous!
However, now they have started working harder and improving, as at Avanti, we make sure students aren’t using calculators during class exercises. How do I motivate them? By telling them that this dependency on calculators won’t help them for their entrance exams!
I always encourage my students to ask all their doubts, feely. But at times, this has backfired. One of my kids in 11th Class had to withdraw his admission from one school and is now going to another school just because he asks too many questions! After this happened I had to spend a whole class explaining to children that they could ask questions at Avanti only, and not in their schools. It really pained me to do this, however, such is the approach towards education these days.
An odd question I get all the time is inspired by the notion in Kashmir that only those who have pursued MSc in a subject should teach that subject. On coming to know I am an engineer, one kid looked puzzled. “Is there a problem? Are you not able to understand,” I asked. “Sir, I am able to understand every bit of it. That’s why I am puzzled. I thought that you have done some extra course in chemistry,” he said!
During my childhood, my father used to sing to me a prayer in Urdu, which had a lyric about spreading the light like a candle. I always wondered how I would achieve that. Well, that is exactly how I feel about becoming a teacher. Additionally, you are always in a learning state when you are a teacher and that’s really the best part of being a teacher.