South Bronx Teacher Tells Students Mission is Worthwhile

December 14, 2009

This summer, the American Federation of Teachers deployed veteran teacher Nick Norman to Afghanistan to support the Obama Administration’s USAID-funded education reform initiatives. Norman, an Iowan with a steady warm voice, left his home state over a decade ago to teach high school in New York City’s South Bronx.

Norman speaks with pride about empowering the Afghan government to educate children in the midst of conflict. “A lot of my kids have disproportionately gone into the military and are sent to Afghanistan and Iraq – and, after this summer, I can look at them and say your risk and sacrifice was not for naught,” said Norman. “At least, I feel I can tell former students — you’re creating a safe space while trying to do something we think worthwhile for the Afghan people.”

USAID’s Basic Education Support Systems for Teachers (BESST) project is implemented by Creative Associates. The Afghan Ministry of Education is using the project to develop improved teacher training curricula and training materials that will work in Afghanistan’s circumstances. Creative joined forces with the American Federation of Teachers, bringing teachers with substantial experience to bear on the effort. Norman was one of three AFT teachers serving on the mission.
The BESST team has been working since 2006 to improve training and establish standard qualifications for teachers in 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. So far, the project has trained and developed curricula for more than 50,000 teachers in modern pedagogy, including several thousand principals and school administrators in teacher observation and management techniques. An estimated 2.5 million primary and secondary-level students are expected to benefit from these teachers’ increased knowledge and teaching methodology.

Though Afghanistan is a long way from the South Bronx, certain life choices thrust upon Norman’s students resonated for him there. Still, he says, “Afghanistan was quite a stretch culturally.” Ministry of Education staff, the American Federation of Teachers and the BESST team were keenly sensitive to cultural differences in tailoring academic subjects to the country’s various regions. In an effort that calls for great diplomacy, Norman highlighted the project’s Afghan staff as “pivotal, a crucial piece to our success.”

Working through Kabul’s summer heat, Norman and the BESST team helped the Education Ministry’s subject specialists produce the Rapid Production Model curricula for both Pashto and Dari-speaking communities. “We had to be especially aware of designing the modules so that the process could survive through the cascade process,” said Norman referring to the fact that ministry staff would undertake to train the bulk of Afghan teachers under difficult local conditions.
Back in New York, on a blue-skied day in early September, Norman took a long walk in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. His thoughts naturally turned to Afghanistan. “It was surreal to wander among crowds of people unconcerned about being blown up, shot or kidnapped. And watching children fly their kites on green grass instead of rubble strewn grounds crisscrossed by open sewers.” Yet, despite these reflections, Norman says, “It was a privilege to go where one can be useful.”

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