Living Life Upside Down with Gail Goolsby
“You, LORD, are my lamp;
the LORD turns my darkness into light.”
2 Samuel 22:29
Afghanistan is a land with a long history of tribal warfare and bloodshed. Brought into the spotlight of public affairs by the tragedies of 9/11, a largely unstudied nation has now skyrocketed its way into the history books. A country continually seeking independence through hundreds of years of violence, Afghanistan is a nation at war with itself. A place of harsh beauty and uncompromising climate, it's a fitting canvas for a people identified by their fractured religious beliefs. Predominately Muslim, Afghanistan holds little hope for peace between the different Islamic sects. Yet, within the boundaries of Kabul, light is being shed in the darkness. Populated by 3.9 million people, the capital and largest city in Afghanistan, is home to the International School of Kabul. That's where School of Education alumna Gail Goolsby, currently is serving as principal. The following is an in-depth look at the mission field of Afghanistan through the eyes of one graduate with a calling to change the world.
EM: What is the educational culture in Afghanistan and how does it differ from the United States?
GG: The educational system in Afghanistan is in a pretty desperate state following years of war and Taliban rule. The Ministry of Education has made huge strides to open government schools to any and all school children throughout the country, but there are not enough teachers, books, classrooms, desks, etc. Within Afghanistan, Kabul has the most educational options, with private schools popping up all over the city. They have more to offer than public schools but still fall short according to American standards. The International School of Kabul (ISK) is a unique, exceptional opportunity for a few hundred families who can afford to pay some level of tuition. Through USAID and other sources, many Afghan and expatriate children are given this opportunity to go to school. In remote villages there is still opposition for girls to attend school. But in the major cities, they attend freely.
In regard to the Afghan educational system, it needs a major overhaul. The current methods that are used rely primarily on rote learning and memorization, not critical thinking or engaged practices with students. Boys and girls attend separately, sometimes sharing a school. But they are not in class together, and they are only in school for three or so hours a day, six days a week. During these hours, it's common for teachers to be absent from the classroom, as there are not enough to staff all the different student groups. The best students are typically placed in front and the lowest performers in the back. That's quite the opposite from our way, which puts the neediest children in close proximity to the teacher. There are usually too many students stuffed in a classroom and teachers often don’t know all their names. Sometimes there is a piece of blackboard, maybe some desks and chairs. But there aren't as many books, only photocopies which are bought in the local bazaar. The United States and other countries have invested a great deal in teacher education but there is still a huge lack of training and resources. Islamic studies, Dari Persian and Pashto (both are national languages) are required by all schools in the country according to the Afghan Educational Constitution. We also offer these classes at ISK, though we only require Dari for all students. With a reported illiteracy rate of more than 70 percent, there is much to accomplish.
EM: How would you describe living and working in Kabul?
GG: Difficult! In order to assist teachers with security and everyday living needs, we have the majority of our staff living on campus. Couples and families have the benefit of an apartment on our neighborhood street, but singles live in multi-family dwellings; sharing kitchens, living rooms, laundry facilities, etc. We often are restricted in movement around the city, so there can be a “shut-in” feeling. What makes it work is the Christian maturity and sense of “calling” that brings each staff person here. As the female leader of an American school in a male-dominated society, there are extra challenges that come with my work. Although generally, principals are highly respected. It takes much strength of personality and a commitment to policy and standards in order not to wear out from the cultural “bartering” that goes on for admission, fee reduction, grade exception and absences from school - this is generally accepted as part of the Afghan culture and the school “way” - the families who stay at ISK for long soon realize it is not “our way.”
Personally, I feel like I have “two lives,” one in Kabul and another one back in the U.S. when I return at Christmas and summer to our home in Missouri. Unlike the US, there is no driving, shopping or even much of a life outside of school. It is very different! Living in a high altitude makes the air dry and brings about a great deal of dust and air pollution. Also, unpaved roads, sidewalks and open sewers with garbage everywhere is hard on the body. We actually eat well due to our staff cook, who provides fresh fruit and vegetables daily, along with Afghan and non-Afghan food mixed into our menus. Still, the spiritual darkness of Afghanistan is likely the biggest “problem” we incur.
There are amazing long-term “workers” in Afghanistan, so our fellowship at the one international church is inspiring and delightful. You really get the Revelation picture of the gathering of the whole Body in heaven.
EM: Is there any advice that you would give recent SOE graduates as they begin their career in education, especially if they feel the call to work overseas?
GG: I would strongly recommend teachers and administrators consider international education. With the economic situations for jobs in the U.S., I think they could meet their financial, professional and even Christian calling in overseas work as educators. Regent graduates have much to offer other countries with our character-based view of education and our high standards. It is a powerful way to impact the Kingdom. In my six years at ISK, I have met some of the best teachers I have ever known. They want to give their best efforts to the future global leaders in their classrooms. Also, they often find a higher caliber of student versus U.S. public schools, as Afghan families have a high regard and expectation for their children's education and future ambitions. These students love their school as the one place they are understood, no matter their passport country, by teachers who serve them and help them find a place to thrive. There is a different respect and appreciation for educators overseas.
Please join with the Regent community in praying for Gail's work, her safety and the safety of her staff and students. For more information about the ISK, please visit the school's website at http://iskafghan.org.