Training Iraqi Teachers

Feb 3, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

After 30 years of repression and isolation, Iraqi teachers are now free to step into the modern world of education.

Christina AsquithThis Saturday, 20,000 Iraq high school teachers will begin U.S.-supervised teacher training. Our Middle East correspondent Christina Asquith asks top teacher trainer, Dr. Hind Rassam Culhane, what lessons she’ll be passing on from American schools.

Dr. Hind Rassam Culhane is the Education Senior advisor RISE project in Iraq and head of teacher training. Dr. Rassam grew up in Iraq schools, and left in 1964 to study abroad in the U.S. After the war, she returned to Baghdad , on leave from her position as chair of the social sciences division at Mercy College in New York .

She took some time off during the Muslim holiday Eid to talk to EducationNews about training Iraqi teachers.

What’s been the biggest challenge in helping Iraqi schools?

We didn’t expect Iraqi schools to look as bad as they did. They’re beaten down-the physical infrastructure and the people. My old high school, for example, hasn’t been touched since I left in the 1960s. The bathrooms are holes dug in the ground. They have so much wealth and they haven’t built any new schools in 30 years. Also, what’s been shocking is the corruption. Because of the low salary, teachers concentrated their efforts on private for-pay tutoring after school and that’s become a big industry. The system has gotten so bad that everything has become abused. Iraqi teachers don’t do lesson plans anymore. We’ve seen teachers eating and smoking in class, and slapping the kids. It didn’t used to be like this, but everything has let go.

What are the three biggest differences between Iraqi teachers and US teachers?

First, the curriculum is really dense and the teachers are bound to teaching it because students’ success is weighted entirely on one final exam score to get into high school and another to get into university. Being inventive is really tough here. Teachers were not allowed to be creative with or do anything independent of the curriculum. For the last 30 years, being inventive and thinking for yourself is something that could cause you to meet with death.

Second, Iraqi teachers are very accustomed to rank and hierarchy. When we have meetings, the principals and inspectors don’t even want to sit with the teachers. The students in Iraqi schools don’t have rights like they do in America . The teacher has all the power, and that is unquestioned.

Third, the teachers don’t have any resources, but the textbooks. There’s no library for teachers, no internet or freedom to do research. Iraqi teachers have been imprisoned. They knew things were happening in the rest of the world, but they didn’t know what.

What about similarities?

At the moment teachers are on holiday, and we are asking them to come in for teacher training. No teacher any where in the world wants to spend their holidays in inservice! But they’re doing it.

Parents used to be expected to give money to their child’s teacher. Does that go on anymore?

Parents aren’t allowed to donate anymore, but it’s still going on. Some principals are still leaning on the family. Parents say, ‘oh, I have $30 set aside’ for the teachers needs.’ That led to a lot of corruption, where in order for a child to pass the parent’s had to give the teacher $50. This didn’t exist when I was a student here. It’s only been because of the state of decline in the schools. Before the war, teachers were the lowest paid of government employees. That created very low morale. Now, teachers’ salaries have gone way up from about $5 a month to $200 or $300 a month, on average. We hope that’s been a moral boost. Bechtel and Creative Associates are also refurbishing many of the schools so they have new desks, chalk, light fixtures, paint and supplies. We hope the corruption will go away.

This February 7 th , you’ll begin a new round of teacher training in which the 830 Master teachers you’ve trained will begin training other another 20,000 new high school teachers. What do you hope teachers will learn?

We want students to be active participants in learning. Currently, most teaching is rote learning. Teachers just lecture and students swallow what they say. There is no interaction in class. We want teachers to get students involved.

We teach teachers that students learn best through different methods, such as peer tutoring and working in groups. We are teaching them that facts have to be examined, not just accepted, and that there are two sides to most stories.

And we teach that parents should get involved. Until now, there is a Parent-School Council, but it was not very active. We are teaching them to have a parents’ night, and for principals to go into the community and get to know the parents.

Discipline is such a major issue in US schools. Do Iraqi teachers also struggle with this?

Not really. We have a workshop on classroom management but the family is still very strong in Iraq . The family wields so much power in this society, children don’t rebel much. The teacher’s power is unquestioned. That brings in good and bad. The students don’t have rights here. As you open up a society, you’re going to risk letting in the good and the bad. Iraqis are protesting now, and very proudly saying, “I have the right to protest!” That’s good. But if it goes overboard, you’ll see a rebellion among the students too like what we had in the US in the 1960s.

What’s going to replace Saddam’s infamous “National Education” class in which students were trained to be Baath Party members?

We don’t get into the ‘what’ of teaching. That’s up to the Iraqis. We only get involved in the how. But I’ve heard people saying they want a class called “Al Ahlakiya” which is character development and Islamic studies. This will be debated when the curriculum committees begin meeting, maybe in a year or so.

Before the war there were reports that Iraqi schools served as terrorist training camps and taught religious fanaticism. Have you seen any evidence of that?

(Laughter.) No way! This wasn’t Afghanistan . There was a religion class, and anyone in the school who was not Muslim was allowed to sit out. Iraqi kids didn’t learn to read and write through the Koran. It wasn’t like that.

What do Iraqi teachers think about American teachers and schools? (any misconceptions and or things they admire?)

There are curious and ask: “Do all the schools have computers and small classrooms and calculators?” I say not all. It’s mainly the schools in the suburbs, where people pay higher taxes. (Taxes don’t exist here; most industry was state-controlled. However that may change under the US occupation.) They want to know how much our teachers earn. They have misconceptions that our kids are running around and rebellious and not obedient.

They ask a lot about American schools and I tell them they are not all perfect and the teachers there need to be trained too. I tell them in New York City we have some classes with 50 students and the teachers are overwhelmed. But we do have teacher training and teacher incentives; and there are a variety of opportunities for teachers to branch out and become principals and administrators. There’s not much opportunity like that in Iraq -you become a principal after a set number of years.

They want whatever is the best America has. They say ‘give us the best you have, train us, rebuild us and make the environment better for us. There’s no lack of asking. They want to learn and be in the forefront. They want to catch up.

Dr. Hind Rassam Culhane can be contacted at

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