I still remember the look of disgust on my physical education
teacher’s face at elementary school when she informed the whole class
that we smelled of “pee”, like sheep.
Attitudes like that, combined with a rigid emphasis on rote learning and
a near total lack of encouragement of critical thought or creativity,
left me with less than pleasant memories of my school days.
You don’t need to be an expert to see that the Arab world needs urgent
reform of its public educational system. I first went to school 30 years ago
but it seems that practically little has changed. Today when I walk
into a classroom in any Arab country, it feels quite the same as when I
was a pupil.
But what disturbs me the most is the verbal, and in many cases, the
physical abuse that students have to endure.
Here are a few examples that I witnessed of teaching methods that
clearly will not guarantee the best future generation in this region.
– A 24-year-old teacher, chatting with a colleague, referred to
one of her pupils as “beheem”, or animal. The pupil in question, a boy
with thick glasses, overheard the remark and hung his head in shame. The
two teachers were trying to send a few students home as their school was
expecting a visit by an official from the Ministry of Education. They
wanted to keep what they described as their best students to present to
the official. In the end, the official did not turn up that day.
– In a lesson about what pupils – who all came from underprivileged
families – would like to be when they grow up, one bright boy piped up:
“I want to become a doctor.” To which the teacher promptly replied:
“Don’t have dreams that are beyond your reach”.
– With a wooden stick, the teacher hit female pupils on their hands
after they were unable to recite a verse from the Koran. To hide their
embarrassment from their classmates, some of the girls smiled at the
– Beating boys is another story. I walked out of a girls’ classroom and
heard the sound of a large wooden stick falling on the hands, backs and
legs of the male pupils across the courtyard. Usually when school staff
know they have a visitor, they try to be on their best behavior. In this
case they seemed to regard the beatings as a perfectly acceptable part
of daily life at the school. When I complained to the principal, he
replied: “This is the only way that works with them.”