Champions of Learning: How two teachers defy winter in Kashmir

[FPK Photo/Mohsin Mushtaq.]

On a bitterly cold day of January 2024, Nusrat Nazir’s hands tremble to write a square root formula. She’s sitting in a tiny classroom where pheran-clad students are glued to a white board. “Pass over the kanger to me,” she requests another student putting her Montex ball pen in between the half-written pages of her notebook.

Nusrat is among the group of underprivileged students mentored by two female teachers – holding the fort when majority in their tribe are either on sabbatical or retreat to their living rooms. The early birds flock the centre to get groomed for the March board exams.

Some two years after the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, Kashmir’s examination system was shifted from November-December to March-April session. The move mainstreamed the educational calendar of the valley with the mainland. The shift compelled the winter-weary students to continue the same class for the half of next session which coerced their parents to ascertain ways to keep their children integrated with academics.

“He would mostly choose bat over book in winters,” Fahmeeda Begum, mother of Arsalan Shabir, grinned. “But after the free-tuition started in his school, he became more serious about studies.”

[FPK Photo/Mohsin Mushtaq.]

The free-tuition was started at GMS Onagam by two teachers. They uphold the flame of education in frosty times of the valley. “I dedicate late nights to prepare lectures after completing my household chores,” says Gazala Noor, one of the two teachers covering Mathematics, Science, and English. “My son cries when I leave in the morning, but I’ve to keep the larger interest in mind.”

Encircled by students, Gazala sits on an old red plastic chair. She conducts the oral test holding a book in one hand, and warming the other. Shattered windows and plastered walls discomfort students as well as their teacher. To keep themselves warm, some of these students bring kanger to tuition centre. “It’s not safe to balance kanger in a classroom, they keep passing it to each other,” says Gazala. “But we’re left with no option. We’ve to keep it among them, so they can read and write properly.”

[FPK Photo/Mohsin Mushtaq.]

As Gazala takes the test, students fight for warmth. This tussle comes to an end when another teacher Safiya Shafi knocks the battered door. “Asalam’Alykum, ma’am,” students greet her in unison.

Safiya teaches Social Sciences and other language subjects until the afternoon when the tuition centre closes down. “It’s not a big deal to volunteer some hours for the children who are much like our own kids,” says Safiya, who walks over 3 kilometers from Kaloosa town to Onagam village in Bandipora district for free teaching.

From Monday to Saturday, Gazala and Safiya volunteer for two hours each to help students. They aim to encourage children from other schools to join the free coaching sessions. “Despite the official reluctance, we’ve accommodated three students from outside our school,” Safiya says. “We had initially planned to teach every student from the village, but the ground realities make it hard.”

Before the winter break in Kashmir, Gazala and Safiya were brainstorming to do something beneficial for students. They had previously experienced how students waste their time during winter break. They knew it was a challenge to bring them back on track. They had to tackle and train the first-generation learners having limited means available to them. They eventually contacted the school headmaster Javid Jawad and floated the one-hour initiative. “We decided to spend one hour with the students every day,” explains Gazala. “That’s how this education engagement shaped up.”

[FPK Photo/Mohsin Mushtaq.]

Before the duo’s volunteerism, the valley had seen some ambitious tuition plans for poor populace. In early 2015, former Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, inaugurated the Super-50 Coaching Program—an 11-month residential coaching initiative aimed at financially disadvantaged children of Kashmir. Subsequently, in 2016, during his tenure as the Director of Education in Kashmir, bureaucrat Shah Faisal initiated the Free Winter Coaching program in Bandipora district.

“Both programs yielded commendable results, with numerous students successfully qualifying for various competitive exams, thanks to the dedicated efforts of exceptional teachers who volunteered to mentor them,” remarks Ishtiyaq-Ul Haq, a teacher who authored the proposal to commence the initiative at Bagh High School Bandipora. “In 2017, we had more than 600 students enrolled in classes 9th and 10th. Unfortunately, it faced setbacks due to the leadership crisis.”

But in a setting marked by cramped classrooms devoid of basic infrastructure and heating arrangement, Safiya and Gazala steadfastly engage in their volunteer duties despite official reluctance.

[FPK Photo/Mohsin Mushtaq.]

Unfazed by the absence of personal comforts, the duo dedicates themselves to nurturing the intellectual growth of the students, ensuring they are well-prepared to excel in the imminent board exams. Meanwhile, Nusrat adeptly navigates algorithms with “near josh”.

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