“You can’t think of teaching as a job. You have to think of it as a vocation.” It was very sage advice that I received in my first year of teaching and it still guides me to this day.
In Australia, my favourite subject to teach was Year 11 Ethics. I loved challenging my students to think for themselves – to reflect on their values and the kinds of people they wanted to be. I loved tapping into their idealism and their belief that we can make a difference in the world.
Four years later, holding tight to the side of the Jeep as it jostled and swayed over the rugged hillsides of Central Asia, I couldn’t help thinking that I was literally half a world away from my bright and cosy classroom. I looked out the window at sun-aged brown hills without another person in sight before we took a turn and suddenly came across shepherds guiding their flocks of black and white sheep and then, a small oasis of green that surrounded mud brick houses. My sense of awe at seeing this part of God’s creation gave way to nerves as we drew closer to the village. In spite of the 43C weather, I put on my socks so as to be culturally appropriate and readjusted my headscarf. My local colleagues and I were about to meet with the Ministry of Education and the Head of School in these parts. We hoped to convince them to allow the high school graduate daughters of the village to join our teacher-training project in the city.
We knew we had our work cut out for us because what we were asking of them is so counter-cultural. For a young unmarried woman to not be under her father’s or brother’s roof overnight can bring a great deal of gossip, if not shame to the family. Yet work was urgently needed to help village girls to go to school and stay at school as long as possible, in order to curb one of the world’s lowest literacy rates for women. One factor for why girls in villages do not go to school is because there aren’t any female teachers. We hoped to change this.
Negotiations with the Ministry and Head of School ended, and we made our way to one of the girls’ mud brick home. Huddled in one of their two rooms and surrounded by family member of all ages, we sipped our tea and listened to the parents’ fears: of gossip; of damage to the family name; of family opposition; of letting their daughters study for a couple of years only to see people from the city with money and power get the jobs and then never turn up in the village to teach; of how the families will put food on the table because at least now their daughters can sell some craft pieces to make ends meet. A family allowing their daughter to move to the city is an act of tremendous courage. The back and forth conversation quietened as a meal was spread before us in the true spirit of hospitality in Central Asia. Overwhelmed by both their struggles and their generosity, I ate quietly, smiling at the girls, acknowledging the hope in their eyes.
Fast forward again, to the beginning of our teacher training program in the city. In my classroom and in their spare time, the young women from the village work so incredibly hard, determined to shape their own futures. We will learn about classroom management, and social and emotional intelligence, and critical thinking, and how to actively engage students in their own learning instead of using the traditional method of rote and repetition. God willing, after two years I will visit them in their classrooms in their home villages and mentor them. But mostly, I pray in hope for these precious young women, that after everything they have overcome to be here, they will return to their villages with their heads held high, they will teach with love and integrity, and they will shine the torch on the capabilities and dignity of women and be a role model for the next generation of girls in their villages.
Jodi is a teacher-trainer, serving the girls and women of Central Asia.
Names have been changed.