Riffat Ahmed is an educationist to the core. She is Chairperson of Siddiqui’s International School and treasurer of Bangladesh English Medium Schools’ Assistance Foundation (BEMSAF). To make history popular among the young generation, she has also written numerous articles about history and has worked to launch an educational website

Interviewer:  What worked as the inspiration for you to become who you are today?

Riffat Ahmed: What we see from an early age is what we learn growing up and that’s a fact. I’ve been brought up in an environment where I’ve learned the power of teaching. I used to hear my father, Dr. Ashraf Siddiqui, talking about his time back in Shanti Niketan and how he and his friends used to study sitting under a tree. I would be envious as I never had the opportunity to experience something like that. I grew up watching my father always working tirelessly finding new ways to help his students reach their true potential.

My mother, Syeda Siddiqui, went to Dr. Khastagir Government Girls’ High School, around the 1930s, during a period of time when the thought of a woman going to school was a taboo. She was one of the founding members of Azimpur Govt. Girls School & College and had worked there for 30 long years. One thing that is still embedded in my memory is how my mother used to affectionately talk about her principal.

She was always talking about the times they had spent or how “Meenidee” praised her for her work. The relationship between my mother and her principal was something to preserve and cherish. There was a great lesson to be learned from the dynamics of their relationship: a teacher needs to be a student’s best friend to bring the most out of the child. A child should never hesitate to communicate freely with their teacher.

It is a freedom that needs to be a child’s birthright. Having studied in the field of psychology, I have learned that it is more important to teach a child how to be passionate about doing something rather than telling them to love something they usually would not, for example, reading a book. My educational background urges me to use positive motivation and reinforcement to help a child grow up to be a good human and develop important life skills through play. Growing up under the shadows of my parents, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher from an early age.

Thus I started my life as a teacher when I joined Dhanmondi Tutorial in 1993, using that time to implement every life lesson I had learned, for the next 10 years. However, I soon realized that there are certain limitations while working under someone else.

Soon after, I had left Dhanmondi Tutorial as I had a dream of doing something on my own, no matter how small or how difficult; it was something I could call my own. I knew the road ahead wouldn’t have been easy and would be full of hurdles. Big decisions had to be taken, a challenge that would push me to set my bars higher than it ever was before. That marked the beginning of my ambitious project: Siddiqui’s International School.

Interviewer: What is so unique about Siddiqui’s?

Riffat Ahmed: I can’t help but quote Dr. Justin Coulson here “Force creates resistance but great relationships build autonomy.” When you learn in a happy and creative environment, the lesson becomes easier. We, at Siddiqui’s, are trying to revolutionize the traditional teaching methods by introducing a more interactive way of learning. Instead of using textbooks as the only source, we are showing animated videos on different topics to teach them about history.

Instead of just memorizing significant historical dates and events, we recreate a similar scenario at school so that they can grasp the idea quicker and learn better. “Pirates Only” was one such event held at our school where the children not only learned about different pirates but had fun taking part in interactive games and related quests.

The results of these events are visible and fruitful. We have also created an interactive platform called “Stay Curious SIS” where we try to spread knowledge about our history through snippets and mini videos. We have a website and also a Facebook page that helps children to know about their heritage and important facts about our country. This platform is not just for the students Siddiqui’s; it is a public platform that everyone can look into. I believe it is our duty to know about our culture and Stay Curious has become an easy way to bring my vision to life. Children are enjoying and gathering knowledge at the same time.

I take pride in saying that I personally know each and every one of my children’s qualities, their passions. Communication is a vital element that is almost always neglected. At Siddiqui’s we make sure that the teachers are familiar with their students’ weaknesses and interact with them accordingly. You need to be connected with your students to maintain a healthy relationship. Children at Siddiqui’s are not stressed to study, rather they are encouraged to explore their hobbies and are learning their lesson while playing. And I believe that is how our school stands out from the rest.

Interviewer: The world today is a rat race, how do you help students deal with the pressure of the competitive environment?

Riffat Ahmed: One has to be qualified, that’s a no brainer. However, losing your mental balance over it should never be an option. Challenges will never get easier and a child has to toughen up to tackle the competition. There are specific subjects that have been standardized in our society as ‘acceptable’ by parents. First and foremost this practice needs to change as soon as possible.

Parents insist that their children must study in the field of these selective professions but they fail to understand that by doing so they are possibly suppressing an artist, a potential musician or a writer. As a result, children are traumatized when they are stopped from expressing their feelings, wanting to do what they love thus living someone else’s dream. This may, in turn, leave a scar in life where they’ll always be scared to express themselves later in their adult life.

At Siddiqui’s, we try to break this stigma. We have built our whole curriculum based on an interactive system where we learn anything by living it. It is scientifically proven that a student cannot be let to stay passive in class. We make short animated videos based on their lesson which they can refer to for information about their subject. The whole idea of a rat race just dissolves when you know you’re the best at what you do because then you’re confident enough aspire to be at the front of the race leaving everyone behind you.

Interviewer: If you had a chance to change one thing about this system, what would it be?

Riffat Ahmed: Firstly I would start with an important note that the education sector in Bangladesh has advanced greatly over the past decade. Students produced by our schools today are going to big places and conquering the world. But something that’s greatly worrying is the building up of a social class.

English medium students constantly have to hear that they cannot speak in Bangla and likewise Bangla medium students are always taunted because of their weak grasp of English. This may have a negative mental effect in the mindset of individuals as it has a high chance of hindering their confidence. I would like to change this social stigma of this gap in class as it does more bad than good for our society.

I would promote the use of technology to its fullest as the world is growing at a rapid pace and if we do not implement the innovations, we will be left trailing behind. Many countries have completely shifted their curriculum to an interactive technology-based system where textbooks are almost nonexistent, as the education system in countries like Sweden and Finland and its working miracles for them.

Unlike the urban areas, many schools in rural Bangladesh are still left using traditional outdated teaching methods and thus children do not get quality education. Using the internet we can reach out to them from here and extend our services. Another crucial area of interest, in my opinion, is the decreasing emphasis given to a child’s lack of physical activities.

Playing leads to physical development, which in turn leads to speech and social development, finally aiding to proper mental development. These four crucial areas of development are closely related directly linked to playing and sadly the children cannot play. First is the lack of play space and second is the pressure of studies, in my opinion, a healthy balance should be brought between these two.

The writer is a freelancer