The Real Heroes of Pakistan

The Open Society Foundations have been engaged in improving the quality of education in Pakistan for a number of years now—working with researchers and civil society to support advocacy efforts. I personally became involved when I joined a team researching public schools in the country. At the time, almost everyone believed that the public school system in Pakistan had failed, and they were not wrong. Schools were delivering very poor quality education, at a relatively high cost per child and were not even succeeding in either enrolling or keeping enrolled children in school. The solution being proposed then—and still advocated by many today—was large scale privatization. But we did not agree with the solution.

Our research team, with help from the Open Society Foundations, decided to study the issue in more detail. We decided to look at public sector schools that “worked” and to try to understand how some schools, even a minority, in the public sector, were able to succeed. The idea was to understand what worked and why, and to try to see if those lessons could be applied to other poorly functioning schools. The results of that study, titled What Works and Why, are available, but they are not the subject of this post.

We visited a primary school for girls in a small village in Swabi district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. We reached the school unannounced and quite early in the day. Since there were both male and female members in our team, one of the female members went in to announce our arrival (so that any female members of the school who wanted to observe purdah, and be concealed from the male members of our group, could get their wraparounds).

The headmistress, Maryam Bibi (not her real name), came out to greet and welcome us: weather-beaten, thin, but very high energy, she was all smiles and excited to show us around her four-room school. The school was amazingly clean and orderly. Classes were going on in all the four rooms and some of the verandas as well. And the girls, very confident, very engaged, were busy with their studies. We met the teachers, all present and all very positive about what they were doing in the school, and then we had a session with Maryam Bibi.

Maryam Bibi was in her late 50s, a few years from retirement. She had been in that school for a couple of decades, but had been a teacher since her youth. Maryam Bibi was not from the village, her family lived several hours away. Given her salary and the time and cost of travel she did not go home every day. Instead she stayed in the school from Saturday morning to Thursday evening and went home only on the weekend. The community had made a room for her in the school where she slept at night. She got up every day at six in the morning, and before the students and teachers arrived had swept and dusted the school clean and got everything ready.

Maryam Bibi taught and supervised teaching during the school day, and in the afternoon she coached the elder girls from the village and did this until well into the night. She has taught generations of girls from that village. More than one teacher in the school said that their inspiration for becoming a teacher was the headmistress and they wanted to become Maryam Bibi themselves.

I saw some boys sitting in this primary school too. Maryam Bibi explained that since the boy’s primary school was not well run, a lot of parents sent their young boys to her school. What made Maryam Bibi tick? “I learnt this from my elders, I want to teach girls, this in the only thing I ever wanted to do, and I will continue to do it as long as I can.” Clearly it was not for the money, work conditions, or benefits that she was in this business. It was her passion for teaching that helped produce some of the best students in the area.

We visited two other schools in nearby villages that day. A boys’ school, that was not on our list of good schools and it showed that right away. The teacher was more interested in getting boys to work on the vegetable patch outside the school (and it was not for practical training) and having his cup of tea. We also visited another girls’ school that looked a lot like Maryam Bibi’s school. We were not surprised to find that the headmistress there, much younger than Maryam Bibi, and a couple of other teachers, had been students of Maryam Bibi. When we mentioned that we had been to Maryam Bibi’s school, the headmistress immediately said “she is my teacher, and I am a teacher because of her. She is my role model and I want to be like her.” Is there a greater tribute for a teacher?

The education department in Peshawar has tried to transfer Maryam Bibi from her school a number of times, as part of a regular practice of transfers every few years. But every time they tried parents and community leaders from the village have gotten the orders reversed. Although most people in the village are very poor, they have been supporting the school and the efforts of Maryam Bibi in every way they can. Despite the rural and fairly low development setting, this school was an inspiration and a revelation.

Swabi, like a lot of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Pakistan, has been hit badly by fight against extremism in this country. In many places there have been bomb explosions and threats against schools too. And the government continues to spend too little on education and does not accord the priority the sector deserves. But not only have brave souls such as Maryam Bibi remained undaunted, they have also become beacons of hope in our society. And the way communities and parents have supported the teachers shows where the priorities of the communities lie too. Maryam Bibi was not alone. During our research we met a number of women just like Maryam Bibi whose dedication, devotion, and untiring efforts had and were shaping generations. Maryam Bibis of Pakistan are the real heroes of this nation.

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These are the people who are holding the skies from falling down. Their integrity, honesty, strength and belief in the values of being human are truly uplifting.
Indeed they are true heroes. We need more such write-ups.

Quite an inspirational and true story. Such people are actually teh real hero. Hats off to them

Thank you for writing such an inspiring piece.

Pakistan will prosper and develop because of many silent torchbearers like Mariam Bibi. May Allah give her long life and strength to make such a long lasting impact on our future generations.

now the time is to follow these footsteps and to make positive contributions towards our motherland. it doesnt matter how small or big these positive contributions are as every positive step forward will count and it will tip negativity and doom out of our society and nation. Inshallah.

From our studies of relatively better schools in Pakistan, we know that head teachers made those schools tick. Mariam bibi's story fits the pattern. But while the research, as well as such incidental encounters with great head teachers, demonstrates the centrality of the role of such leaders, unfortunately the stories of such head teachers are not visible to people who will benefit most from them, the other head teachers and teachers in Pakistan. While conducting data collection for a study pertaining to science education, I recently visited schools and teacher education institutions in Punjab and Sindh. There, I came across some head teachers who felt helpless and angry for a variety of reasons. Reading the story of Mariam bibi, I wondered about the myriad ways this story could benefit these other head teachers, if only it was available to them. Unfortunately, what is available to them are training programs totally devoid of such evocative stories of role models. One hopes, therefore, that such stories will someday become widely available to other head teachers and teachers. Given the current reach of electronic media, this does not sound like asking too much...

This comment may sound somewhat unrelated to the theme of this post, but I thought it was worthwhile to put these thoughts out there in the public space.
In my previous comment, I suggested that it was important for such stories to be heard by other head teachers and teachers. But is it? Is it possible to inspire others so they could develop similar motivation, energy, responsibility to care for their schools and students as Mariam bibi? This question suggests thinking hard about ways in which institutions and individuals find it useful to change or improve the current situation [or status quo]. There may be many reasons for why I'd like to change the way I function. Here I am concerned with only one, i.e. when my very survival or sustenance is threatened by the status quo. One of the ways, a group of professionals [head teachers or teachers in this case] may opt to change for good is when their existence is challenged. This is akin to the good old ‘evolution of the species’ story. What is true for individuals may also be true for forms of organizations. For public schools to survive they must become better and those associated with the public schools must do something to make them better. To cut to the chase, what I am suggesting is that when under threat, folks do what they must to survive, and if survival entails improvement so be it.
The economist Albert Hirschman suggested that public organizations improve due to voice or influence, while private organizations are driven to improve their quality due to the threat of exit by their clientele (Albert O. Hirschman. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-27660-4). Perhaps, another response through which the public schools may improve is 'threat of privatization. This thought makes me wonder if one of the reasons public schools do not fare so badly in the United States is because they are always under attack by those who want to privatize them.
I apologize if this comment appeared as shooting at a tangent from the central theme of the post. However, it made sense to do so in order to think about how such evocative stories could be made a basis for positive change.

It is crucial that inspiring stories such as that of Maryam Bibi are made accessible to other teachers. Even those already struggling against the odds need to feel connected to a community that has not given up. We need to think of creative ways of using the electronic media as well to make these much-needed connections.

Maryam bibi
i appriatiate your work. I am Also running a NGO school named City Of Knowledge for deserving students with very little fees. I need your help for funraising/ seeking doners for school construction and other necessities
Iftikhar Hussain

It is heartening to know the story of Mariam Bibi. Am a teacher myself in a school of slum area of Lahore and tend to teach disadvantaged children. And I know it is an arduous work.I found it quite interesting if other people have managed to do it effectively. However I am not interested in knowing the personal profile of these heroes as mentioned in this report. I am more interested in knowing how things actually work to make a success that of Mariam Bibi.

Since the author visited the school that works well ... I am here to raise few questions.
Queries are all about how teachers teach and how children learn in that school. Are teachers are capable enough to teach all subjects effectively?
what about checking content knowledge of teachers?
Did Mariab Bibi guide her teachers for teaching herself? What about Mariam Bibi's own qualification?
How teachers tackle with problems dealing with children's learning and behavior?
What about Children's heath?
what about dropout ratio, results, syllabus, infra structure of that particular school?

Ansewring to these question would be very useful in my teaching.



Dear Ms. Saima,
Thank your for your comments. Some of the questions you raise are addressed in the What works and Why study that is referred to in the post itself. The study gives details of schools we studied, the test results, what was taught, the qualifications of teachers and so on.

The story of this teacher was inspirational I felt. And in the context of the school, her personal history, and the choices she made. But, of course, it does not allow any generalizations.

Thank you again for your mail.
Warm regards,

I am perplexed by 'your reply'. you wrote in your piece that " We met the teachers, all present and all very positive about what they were doing in the school, and then we had a session with Maryam Bibi". So I am very interested in knowing what do you mean by 'Positive' in this sentence? Is 'teachers' presence' is the positivity?

How do you judje a story of a school to be inspiring without an evidence of learning? In my view the store of 'so called' Mariam Bibi is inspiring ONLY if she enables the teacher to teach effectivly and children to learn successfully. Otherwise this story (as well as 'Tale of two schools' ) is just bogus . What do you think?

Atleast the pdf report 'what works and why' that I have seen does not contain any information about "details of schools , the test results, what was taught, the qualifications of teachers and so on".

It is an overall review of education in Pakistan and self proclaimed success stories of few Head Teachers (just like you have mentioned in your post. Nothing more than That!!!

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