The Challenges of Teaching in Afghanistan:
Prof. Margaret Jo Shepherd
The setting: a desolate, remote province in Eastern Afghanistan called Paktika, near the Pakistan border. The challenge: working with Afghan education professionals to introduce teacher training programs into a dysfunctional school system. The major players: former Iranian hostage Barry Rosen who, until a couple of years ago, was director of the Afghan Education Project—and a gracious-sounding, soft-spoken, highly articulate professor emerita from Teachers College (TC), Columbia, Dr. Margaret Jo Shepherd who, with her eyes wide open—as well as her heart—went to, arguably, one of the most dangerous places in the world to help create and sustain programs for teachers of primary school. The project, she says, attracted her because it was an outgrowth of years spent in special education, with learning disabled children, so many of them poor, like the children in Afghanistan.
She remembers the founding of the Peace Corps, the various initiatives funded by USAID (the largest broker of educational contracts –The World Bank is no. 2) and the day in 2002 when Carol Bellamy, then Executive Director of UNICEF, came to TC, which had a huge international education program dating to the mid 1950s, to talk about further involvement in Afghanistan. By then, Dr. Shepherd was an associate in Barry Rosen’s Afghan Education Project and had spent time at TC and abroad, assisting Afghan teachers with educational development, including writing and rewriting primary school texts for grades 1-6; working on a new primary school curriculum; and, as Senior Program Officer, working along with the Afghan Ministry in seeking funding for faculty development.
Dr. Shepherd also recalls (then) Major Michael Senzel who came to her in 2005 and suggested that she and some colleagues consider going back to Afghanistan to continue their work—with the protective assistance of the U.S. Army. Military efforts and reconstruction projects, she remembers Senzel saying, had to go “hand in hand” with education, especially in provinces like Paktika. She was hardly fluent in Dari (the official language of Afghanistan, or Pashto (spoken by the majority), but she was a highly experienced primary and secondary school education leader. For various reasons, the proposal did not move forward at that time, but earlier this year, (now) Battalion Commander Senzel, who had been redeployed to Afghanistan, approached her again.
The focus now was on trying to get 9th grade Afghan students to become teachers in primary schools by giving them curricular guidance, practical experience and mentors, an idea that was as difficult as it was idealistic. Off she went for one month this past summer, where she spent most of her time in Paktika. She knew, of course, that she was in Taliban country. What she did not fully appreciate was the continuing danger in the region and the necessity of living on an army base and receiving protection from the military, though having soldiers safeguard schools did not make for an easy or desirable implementation of education ideas.
She also increasingly realized how much her efforts were putting the children at risk. As recent car bombings have shown, Taliban targets are not confined to the military.
Dr. Shepherd also saw that she would be working less with academics and more with U.S and Afghan officials who were not necessarily knowledgeable about education. Since the 80s, USAID had been shifting contracts away from colleges and universities and toward profit and not-for-profit organizations for whom education was but one prong in a broader assistance drive provided by “Provincial Reconstruction Teams.” Businesses certainly know how to set up and monitor initiatives, Prof. Shepherd points out, but they do not typically include experts in education. At the moment, the project is in abeyance. But not Dr. Shepherd’s sense of mission. The program she was involved in was called Back To School, though in truth many of the children had never been to school in the first place, and the drop out rate, particularly for girls at grade 4, remains a problem. But she is hopeful and she is not alone. Her newest assistants include computers. “The spark, the enthusiasm the Afghan children have for learning and for their new school books,” she says, keep her going. Years ago just one million children went to school. Now that number is up to seven million.#