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‘Grades don’t measure intelligence like age doesn’t define maturity’

‘Grades don’t measure intelligence like age doesn’t define maturity’
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Mir Haseeb Abdullah

Mr. Waseem Aziz is a budding educationist from Baramulla town of Jammu and Kashmir. He was selected for the International Leaders in Education Program (ILEP) under the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship (ILEP 2017) Program. He has keenly observed the US education system during the fellowship tenure. He spoke to Mir Haseeb Abdullah, correspondent of Oracle Opinions, to reflect his observation and recommendations.

You were selected for Full Bright Fellowship, USA for a Teacher’s Training Program, please tell us about your selection and its background.

After a rigorous 3-tier selection process 64 international teachers, including me, were selected to participate in this Fulbright Fellowship (ILEP 2017) Program. The selection process is carried out by the Fulbright Commissions and the U.S. Embassies located in different countries. These 64 international teachers included 5 of us representing India, however, I was the only one from J&K. The 16 of us were assigned Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) as our host university while as the rest were sent to Arizona State University, Kent State University and James Madison University.
Participation in this ILEP 2017 program not only helped me in adding new dimensions to my pedagogy but also gave me a global platform to share my teaching experiences. The joy and honour is not only about the successful completion of the program but also the new platform it has provided me to connect and collaborate with international educationists and teachers from around the world. I intend to work collectively with my ILEP colleagues to bring that international ecology into the classrooms of our community.

What was this training program about and what were its aims?

The International Leaders in Education Program (ILEP) is a fellowship program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State that brings 64 outstanding secondary-level school teachers to the U.S. for a professional development opportunity. ILEP consists of a semester-long non-degree, non-credit academic program at a U.S. university including seminars on new teaching methods, leadership, curriculum development, lesson planning, teaching strategies, and instructional technology training. It provides international teachers with unique opportunities to develop expertise in their subject areas, enhance their teaching skills and increase their knowledge about the United States.
At the core of the academic program is an education seminar where I learned about new teaching methodologies, teacher leadership, lesson planning, and teaching strategies. I was given opportunity to observe and audit two courses at the university and participate in field experience at many U.S. higher secondary, high, middle and elementary schools. I attended and successfully completed instructional technology course also. Apart from field experience in U.S. schools, I was given opportunity to visit many places of historical, educational and cultural importance
These exchange programs intend to build lasting relationships that promote international understanding and collaboration between US and international teachers and students, provide in-service professional development to enhance teachers’ expertise in their teaching disciplines and furnish them with a deeper understanding of best practices in teaching methodologies, lesson planning, and the use of technology in education and to contribute to improving teaching in participating countries by preparing Fellows to serve as teacher leaders who are equipped to apply and share their experience and skills with their colleagues and students upon returning home.

How different are their Teacher’s Training programs than those conducted in Indian states?

U.S. is one of the leading countries when it comes to education and educational technologies. The way this ILEP program has been orchestrated is remarkable. The opportunity to be part of this prestigious program opened doors to new knowledge and perspectives.
The teacher training programs in U.S. are more professional and target-oriented. These programs are mostly hands-on and activity-based. The trainee teachers participate in different activities throughout the training programmes. Unlike J&K, the training environment is so lively and interesting.
Every theoretical coursework is accompanied by practical field experiences, presentations and terminal reports. These activities help the teachers to strengthen and increase professional knowledge through practical experience.

Which institutions did you visit and what were your observations about their infra structure and maintenance?

Besides being hosted by Indiana University of Pennsylvania, I was got ample opportunities to visit other educational and vocational institutions of the United States, especially in the state of Pennsylvania. Some of the institutions I visited were:

a. Indiana Area Senior High School, Indiana Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

b. Pittsburgh Brashear High School, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

c. ARIN Regional Education Service Agency, Indiana Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

d. Benjamin Franklin High Elementary School, Indiana Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

e. East-Pike Elementary School, Indiana Pennsylvania, U.S.A. f. Fulton Elementary School, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, U.S.A. g. Indiana County Technology Centre, Indiana Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Despite being owned and managed by government, these institutions have a world-class infrastructure and modus operandi. The government schools in U.S. have far better infrastructure even as compared to our private institutions.

You made the first-hand observations about American education system, please tell us how distinguished their education system is?

U.S. education system is decentralized in nature. In J&K we have same funding, rules, regulations, curriculum and modus operandi for all the government-run educational institutions but in case of U.S. different school districts have differentiated funding, rules, regulations and modus operandi. As already stated they have a lot of technology in their classrooms which makes teaching-learning process more efficient.
Moreover, they spend a lot on education sector. The schools of every district are mainly funded by the property taxes paid by the residents of the district. Every school has a School Board consisting of some local members of the district and these boards are critical public link to government schools. The members of these school boards make decisions about school programs by incorporating the view of their community and make sure that the tax money of the community is spent in the best possible manner.
A few more things that make the U.S. Education System different is the way every part of it is fully organized, the performance of teachers is assessed annually, the schools offer a lot of after-school programs and the way people offer their selfless volunteer services for the development of this education system.

What is their educational policy and how do they implement it?

Well, describing the educational policy of U.S. in reply to just a question may not be possible. One thing I would like to mention about their educational policy is that its decentralized and differs from one state to another. Even the schools within a state but in different districts may vary in the way they impart education.
They spend huge amount of money for education of their community and do not politicize this sector at any cost. The federal government provides some funding to each state, but as much as 95% of education funding is provided through state and local taxes like property taxes.

How do you see a US Teacher now, and how different is he/she from JK teacher in thought and practice?

A U.S. teacher is fully equipped with technology in the classroom. Teachers back there update themselves mandatorily on regular basis. Besides this, the performance of U.S. teachers is assessed on semester or yearly basis. Non-performing teachers are identified for assessment, assistance, and supports, and then dismissed if they don’t improve. Teachers back there are techno-savvy, professionally strong and update themselves regularly. We seldom see such a trend here.

How do you see JK education system now, what reforms are necessary on urgent basis?

For last few decades, despite being one of the most beautiful places on the planet, Kashmir has not been so beautiful educationally. On one side, there have been herculean advancements in science & technology and we have been talking about inter-planetary travel but contrary to this we, in Kashmir, have failed to uplift the educational standards of our children. Although there has been mushroom growth of government as well as private educational institutions but that has not been of much help qualitatively. Not only government schools but private schools also have failed to come at par with the educational standards and strategies that are being adopted globally.
Personally, I feel that there is a need to overhaul the education system of J&K. We need to work on Activity-based learning, integration of vocational education with our academics, capacity building of teachers, strategies for making the system more organized, introducing more technology in the classrooms, building a better learning environment and there are so many other facets.

Please provide the recommendations that are necessary for development of our elementary education system.

Prior to leaving for my fellowship, I wrote in one of the local newspapers about the same. My opinion has not changed much about the same. The elementary programs in our schools should support the physical, linguistic, social, emotional and cognitive development. The way content is delivered in the classrooms should be efficient, livelier and student-friendly for which there is a dire need of well-trained teachers. We need to have well-trained teachers in these elementary levels as these levels are foundation to educational excellence. Moreover, at these elementary levels learning should be fun, students should enjoy learning instead of turning them into cramming machines.

Kashmiri students are known to be intelligent students, how would advise them to lead their career in the light of your training at USA?

Every student is intelligent in one or the other way. Don’t just compete each other for getting highest grades. Just remember “Grades don’t measure intelligence like age doesn’t define maturity”. A student should be determined, committed and focussed in whatever he or she does. The purpose of education should be learning than to just compete for grades. In my opinion, students shouldn’t even undermine the importance of non-conventional disciplines like sports, art, film-making etc. There should be a change in paradigm.
I remember how students in U.S. even considered career paths like being political scientists, Cost Estimators, Hydrologists etc.
Parents, teachers and society should encourage these disciplines as a career option right from the beginning. Besides self-awareness and opportunity awareness, as a society, there is a dire need of strengthen proper guidance and counselling for career selection.

How did Kashmir society respond after you completed this Program? Did JK Education department or private educational institutions ask for your observations and advices on education policy and structure after your visit, or is our society less sensitive on these lines?

There were 64 international teachers who were selected for this program. After the successful completion of this program, the fellows from other countries were felicitated and provided with adequate platforms to share their program experience with other teachers, students and community members. Reports were sought from them about the program. In many countries, separate events were organised by their respective Embassies to welcome and share their fellowship experiences.
Well, I did not expect any felicitations but yes, I was keen enough to share my experience with my department, fellow teachers and community. Individually people were too excited to know about my experience and I shared the same with them with same zeal and energy. I was approached by several private educational institutions to hold some interaction sessions with their students and teachers. But when it comes to my department and society, I think there is a lot to be done to make these institutions understand the importance and usefulness of such internationally recognized and prestigious programs.
I believe that every opportunity comes with great promises but with greater responsibilities as well. Fulbright Programs train fellows for being “agents of change”. I am looking for a proper platform where I can be an agent of change and I believe I will get my due share, it’s just matter of time.

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