Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2004 (12.3)
Page 16

Reader's Forum
Respect for Students

Some people argue that the Soviet education left us an enormous legacy, which is reflected in the high literacy of the population in Azerbaijan. That may be true, but we also inherited an ideology-based curriculum, an extremely centralized management system and numerous other problems.

Left: One of the many friendly faces of
Ichari Shahar (Baku's Old City)

Today, in my opinion, these negative drawbacks far outweigh any positive attributes.

Although each of these issues is worthy of attention and consideration, the purpose of my letter is to discuss a completely different problem of education: I would argue that education in Azerbaijan suppresses students' personalities and fails to create open-minded citizens. These two issues are directly interrelated.

I'll never forget my first semester studying in a U.S. university. One day we were expecting a guest speaker-the author of the course textbook-to visit our class. As we still had about 30 minutes before his arrival, our professor asked class members to introduce the independent projects that we were working on. As the last student started to discuss his project, the guest speaker walked in. It was a pleasant surprise for me to observe that our professor did not interrupt the student but greeted the guest with a smile and continued listening to the student.

Only after the student had finished his explanation did we turn to recognize our guest. I was so surprised at the respect that was shown to the student. Society is quite hierarchical in Azerbaijan. It is not generally acceptable to greet or to be the first to extend your hand to a person of higher rank. That means that there is a very strict line between managers and employees as well. Some people argue that this can be traced to our national traditions and mentality. Perhaps so, but I'm convinced that education also influences such behavior.

In educational circles, school rectors and other administrative members are at the top of the hierarchical ladder. Classroom teachers follow; students are on the bottom rungs. That is, since students are the ones who need to be corrected, they are the last ones able to express their opinions. Though corporal punishment is rare these years, it's still quite common to embarrass and sharply criticize students in the presence of their peers and teachers. It's not by accident that whenever an adult person is criticized publicly, he often says: "I was treated as a school kid." Isn't it time we ask ourselves: "Is this the way our children should be treated?"
This kind of attitude creates an inferiority complex in students. Adults, in turn, use these very same techniques on the young people that come under their supervision. Thus, it becomes a vicious cycle.

Another problem relates to the nature of instruction. In American schools, students are often involved in serious projects. Once I observed a class of eighth graders (13-14 year olds) who were discussing the U.S. constitution. Afterwards, they were given an assignment to write a constitution for eighth graders. For 80 minutes, students set about to write a constitution as a group project. When it was finished, the work was not set aside, but students had to comply by the rules thereafter. I think such activities give students a sense of accomplishment and maturity. When students are taken seriously, they are capable of doing important things, which can be applied to real life situations.

In Azerbaijan, students are rarely encouraged or allowed to do independent work. Rather, they are taught to comply and agree with their teachers. It is not by accident that many of us who came from former Soviet countries to study in the United States, experienced significant problems, especially in participating in open discussions and presentations. We were afraid that our ideas might not be viewed as "correct".
Of course, change takes time. But unless school administrators and teachers receive appropriate training, I'm convinced that educational reform will fail. If teachers hear terms like "interactive instruction", "student-centered" or "child-friendly instruction" without being trained how to apply such concepts, nothing will change.

I grew up hearing stories from members of the older generations about how they respected their teachers. They told me: "We thought teachers were sacred, that they did not eat or sleep. That they weren't like us." But I'm convinced such an approach is totally outdated. It cannot raise up responsible, open-minded citizens. Instead, students must grow up with the feeling that people are equal-that includes principals, teachers and students. All should be mutually respected. For a student to greet the principal with a smile as an equal should not be perceived as a violation of any hierarchy, but simply as normal behavior in a free and democratic society.

Afet Dadashova, who studied under a Muskie grant in the United States from 2002-2003, graduated from Rutgers University (New Jersey) with Master's degree in Education. She has also worked on the Education Reform Project of the Ministry of Education and taught for two years at the Azerbaijan University of Languages.

Afet Dadashova

From Azerbaijan International (12.3) Autumn 2004.
© Azerbaijan International 2004. All rights reserved.

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