Zahra Saleha Ahmad – When Passion & Determination Collide
In a country where the need to revisit the definition of education is long overdue, Zahra Saleha Ahmad is a beacon of hope.
Zahra Saleha Ahmad is the middle child of three children born to practicing doctors. Growing up in a close knit extended family, she describes her childhood as ‘absolutely lovely’, with a strong focus on education.
“Education was ruled supreme in our house. My parents worked really hard to provide us the best education available and my father had one condition; to prove ourselves by merit. He would tell us that he wasn’t going to pull in favors to get us into the institution of our choice so we had better get good grades”.
Rules in her house were mostly based on two things; what would Allah say and whether something was good for their education. If they could prove that they had studied hard, irrespective of the results, they were allowed to do whatever they wanted and got anything they asked for.
She mentions her mother and her sister as her early influences.
“My sister is a really smart, ambitious person and I did a lot of things in my life simply because she did them.”
Initially, she joined Pre-Medical at Kinnaird College, assuming that since both her parents were doctors, at least one of their children should join the medical field. Luckily, her mother intervened, advising her to choose something that would make her ‘want to wake up every morning’. And teaching was the only thing that truly inspired her. Zahra shifted to the Humanities program, graduating with a Master’s degree in English Literature six years later.
“I knew I wanted to be a teacher in grade eighth. My English teacher would make us think about morality, culture, philosophy, politics and the world without us even realizing it. Interspersed between the essay writing and literature lessons, we learned critical thinking and became curious individuals. When I became a debate coach myself, I realized how other students needed the same. Literature and the arts allow you to explore facets of the human experience that you cannot explore otherwise. You can reach your students and connect with them beyond their coursework”.
After completing her education, she joined Beaconhouse Defense Campus, Lahore, starting their A-levels English Literature program and coaching the under-19 debate team. She describes these 3 years as the best in her career. “Working with young adults was the most inspirational experience. I truly feel that they taught me more than I taught them. Young adults need people who believe in them, who listen to them and allow them to be who they are. They’re struggling with grades pressure, added to trying to discover who they are and what they want in life. All they want is someone who listens to them, and gives them a safe environment to explore their identity. Not someone who is judgmental and an authoritarian”.
These three years sowed the seeds of pursuing a career in teacher education. “I realized that as a teacher I was influencing 20 kids a year, but as a teacher educator I could influence a larger group”.
“It was also frustrating to see how badly people treated teachers in our country. The teaching cadre gets very little respect. Culturally we say the ‘ustaad’ (teacher) is like a parent. Yet, in actuality, we treat our educators badly. How ironic that on one hand you don’t respect educators and yet on the other hand, you complain how your children aren’t being taught well. How can your child be taught well if you don’t respect the person teaching him/her, don’t pay them well or treat them as professionals?”
It was during this time that Zahra got married and moved out of Pakistan. Unfortunately, her marriage was a difficult one and she ended it a few years later. It was a difficult period as she was trying to figure out where her life was going and then her mother was diagnosed with cancer but that’s when she realized that this field was not just her passion but a support system for her.
While her family was supportive as always, the most pleasant surprise was the support she found in her ex-students who would send her messages, visit her and even offer to research for suitable degrees and scholarships for her. “I would get calls from my ex-students who were in their last year of undergrad at LUMS saying ‘Ma’am Zahra, we’re filling out our applications and we’ve already picked schools for you and filled your forms. All you need to do is write your personal statement’. The fact that they not only cared for me, but also believed that I could achieve more was a great confidence boost”.
In 2011, Zahra decided to apply for the Fulbright scholarship and keep on applying until they finally got sick of her and gave her one! When listing her school options, she listed Harvard as a joke, without much confidence of actually getting in. Long story short, on the day of her mother’s surgery while sitting in the waiting room, Zahra got her acceptance email from Harvard, with a partial scholarship!
The year at Harvard as a Fulbright scholar was pivotal. She was able to learn from inspirational teachers and interact with passionate educators from across the globe. Her belief that art, literature and now technology are the key to holistic education was strengthened in Boston through the courses she took and when she came back she was looking for projects that would involve these.
Upon completing her Ed.M., she rejoined Beaconhouse, but this time as an English Language and Literature curriculum developer and teacher trainer. For more than two years, her student body comprised of teachers who too wanted to connect with their students and shared her passion for teaching. As for her connection with classroom teaching and love for language, Zahra fulfills that by volunteering with educational start-ups like Rabtt and Ravvish. “Eventually, I do want to teach again. The classroom makes me come alive and I don’t think I can leave it for too long.”
Another project that was very close to her heart was the cartoon series Quaid Sai Baatain (QSB), where the protagonist, a girl named Zainab, idealizes Quaid-e-Azam, and seeks to solve society’s problems keeping Quaid’s principles in mind. The cartoon series covered topics like gender and ethnic equality and tried to inculcate critical thinking, empathy and tolerance.
“When the creator of QSB shared his vision, I was hooked. I was lucky enough to be part of the team for a year and co-wrote some of the scripts as well as educational material based on the episodes. The show was very popular and is a classic example of imparting important educational concepts in an informal and entertaining format”.
When asked about her professional setbacks, Zahra reiterates the need to change attitudes towards the educational profession. “In the beginning, some people would say ‘you’re so smart and you’re going to waste it by becoming a teacher?’ She believes that we need to re-evaluate the attitudes society has towards the education sector, make teacher training compulsory for all teachers and at the same time, provide teachers with the professional respect and compensation of other professions to truly improve the educational landscape in our country. While she does not deny that the Pakistani education sector faces significant problems, she also believes that criticism alone will never help.
“We need to take ownership and make a positive contribution. If we can’t help physically by volunteering at an organization, then we can teach our domestic staff, or their children. Or donate. But do something.”
When asked to name her greatest achievement, she replies “my students” without missing a beat.
“Many of them are working for social change while studying. Just imagine what they’ll accomplish when they join the work force as adults”.
We touched the topic of breaking stereotypes about single women, but she doesn’t believe she is doing any such thing. “When my marriage ended, I realized that my social class and family made me very fortunate. I didn’t have to worry about many of the things other Pakistani women in a similar situation had to worry about. I was very lucky and so I decided not to waste my second chance. That’s it”.
“I think it’s a really great idea. Nowadays, perfection is idealized. Especially with social media, where everyone shares these so-called perfect snapshots of their lives, we tend to obsess over perfection. Most of the people whom I’ve admired in life have gone through their own individual journeys, and faced their own share of problems. Feeling weak is the most human thing possible and should not be considered an abnormality. In fact, not feeling weak at times would be abnormal. At the end of the day courage, growth and evolution comes from being afraid, feeling you are not good enough, making mistakes and yet pushing through. MVU shows stories of people who fell down and got up. I think we all need to see that.”
Zahra Saleha Ahmad is an inspiration and we hope that she continues to be one for her students and fellow colleagues, contributing to an inclusive and open education system in Pakistan.
Interview by Hammad Anwar | Written by Fatima Arif