More than simply getting on with the job.

I wonder what is going through the mind of this father as he returns his children to school?

I wonder what is going through the mind of this father as he returns his children to school?

Two news stories today have given me cause to reflect upon and celebrate the dedication of teachers. Yet both also present tales of terrible tribulation and could provoke a feeling of despair. However it must be said that despite great adversity, the professionalism of some teachers shines through.

The well respected Pakistan daily newspaper Dawn, today carried an article written by Syed Ali Shah with the headline A dismal state of education in Balochistan (1st June 2015). Balochistan is Pakistan’s biggest province covering more than 40% of the country’s land area. Its provincial capital Quetta is the largest city in the region where the University of Balochistan is located, with an Institute of Education and Research which has a proud history of training teachers. Despite this apparent commitment to education, the Balochistan government has recently declared an education emergency in the province.

It is reported that there are more than 7,000 single room schools in the province, each with a single teacher attempting to address the needs of children across a wide age range. The dropout rate from schools is high and two out of every three girls in Balochistan never have an opportunity to attend school. Teaching conditions are clearly less than adequate, and teachers are struggling with minimal resources and a lack of clear policy direction.

A separate news item, covered by several sources including the Guardian and Reuters news agency describe how children are returning to school following the devastating earthquakes in Nepal. In some areas of Kathmandu and other districts parents and volunteers have built wooden makeshift classrooms, and elsewhere have erected tents in order that children can gain some shelter and return to some semblance of normal education. Parents and children have expressed their joy that schools, even those in temporary accommodation, are once again opening their doors, however, many have also stated their apprehension about separation of children from parents, even for the short duration of a school day.

One eleven year old girl named Sabina told a reporter that:

It’s better to be in the school though I am scared of another earthquake.”

For those of us living in comfort it is difficult to fully appreciate the fears expressed by this girl.

These two news stories highlight the tragedy and trials of people living in desperate situations. It would be easy to see only negative features of the items that have caught the attention of the world’s press. However, I believe that there is another aspect of these situations which we could easily miss.

Teachers who are working in the dire school conditions in Balochistan, and those who are attempting to rebuild educational provision in Nepal are showing a dedication to their task which could easily be overlooked. They will attend their schools each day with minimal resources, and with little knowledge of what the future holds, but with a commitment to ensure that their pupils are provided with opportunities to learn. It has often been said in my own country that the school is at the heart of a community. It is at schools that lifelong friendships  begin. They are places where children develop a passion for sports or art or music, and where hopefully they are enabled to learn the skills, knowledge and understanding that will equip them for the rest of their lives.

Those teachers in Nepal and Balochistan who went to their classrooms this morning have received relatively little mention in the news items highlighted in this blog. It is almost taken for granted that they will continue to provide the service that is expected of teachers in far easier situations. I am sure that they too, just like their students, have apprehensions with regards to their safety and the ways in which they will teach in far from adequate conditions. I am equally sure that they will continue to demonstrate the professional integrity which ensures that they will continue to focus upon the needs of their students.

Progress halted, but we must believe that this is only a temporary situation

It will take many years for Nepal to recover from this terrible situation.

It will take many years for Nepal to recover from this terrible situation.

In October 2013, along with my colleagues Jayashree and Johnson, I attended the Asian Federation on Intellectual Disabilities (AFID) conference held in Delhi, Northern India. This was the second time that I had attended an AFID conference, having previously presented a paper at this event when it was held in Singapore. Whilst many conferences follow a set pattern of researchers presenting papers to other researchers, the AFID conference is quite unique in that it provides a platform for people with learning disabilities and other special educational needs, who are encouraged and supported to present their own ideas and issues to the gathered audience. This blend of academic papers and personal life experience stories makes for a stimulating few days in which researchers, parents, administrators and people with learning disabilities share a platform, participate together in social activities and learn from each other.

These conferences are attended by delegates from many Asian countries. Individuals from Japan share their ideas with others from Sri Lanka and Korea, whilst those from India discuss current developments with others from Malaysia and Afghanistan. Issues of inclusion are debated and there is an atmosphere of shared respect and willingness to learn. The conference takes place every two years and unfortunately I am not able to attend this year’s gathering in Sri Lanka.

It was whilst looking through the published proceedings from the Delhi conference in an effort to find some information for one of my Indian students, that I came across a report given at this meeting by Sachidanand Shrivastava from the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities (NAID) in Nepal, an organisation founded in 1981 to support people with learning disabilities and their families. Mr Shrivastava spoke with great passion and pride about the achievements of this organisation across a country which faces many geographical, demographic and social challenges. He described the commitment of individuals who were attempting to develop facilities and provide resources and training in 23 districts of the country. Many of these are remote and require innovative approaches to the provision of support and great dedication on the part of those professionals and volunteers prepared to work there. There are certainly many children in Nepal who are being afforded an opportunity to receive an education as a result of the interventions of the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities.

I remember at the time of hearing Sachidanand Shrivastava being impressed by the enthusiasm with which he presented his report, and wondering at the often difficult circumstances in which he and his colleagues were working. Having stumbled again upon this report whilst looking for something quite different in the AFID conference proceedings, I found myself thinking about this dedicated professional and his colleagues, and wondering what their circumstances must be now.

The devastating earthquakes that have destroyed so many lives and so much of the infrastructure in Nepal over the past month, has brought the country sharply into focus. This remote region, a favoured destination for mountaineers and wealthy tourists has suffered the most horrendous trauma, leaving its population in fear and despair. As with any such natural disaster, those who have suffered the greatest losses are the most vulnerable within the country. Television images of destroyed towns and villages, with people living in tents and queuing for basic necessities such as food and water, provide a graphic reminder of the destructive power of nature and its impact upon the lives of the victims of this terrible event.

Inevitably I found myself wondering about the fate of Sachidanand Shrivastava and his colleagues. Whatever their situation it is probable that much of the effort that they have made over so many years, to provide facilities and improve the lives of people with disabilities, will have been destroyed. It will obviously take many years to restore Nepal to the situation that existed prior to the earthquakes that so cruelly struck this region. I suspect that it will be a long time before the good work of the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities is once again supporting vulnerable individuals and their families. However, having met Sachidanand Shrivastava I am convinced that even as I write this blog, he will be formulating a plan to continue the work to which he has been so committed over many years. At present it must seem that normality will never be restored, but we must have faith in the fortitude of individuals who will rebuild Nepalese society over the coming years.

I do hope that Sachidanand Shrivastava and his colleagues are safe, and that I will have an opportunity to hear more about the work of the National Association on Intellectual Disabilities in Nepal in the future.