For Amar al-Uqaili, an Arabic teacher in Dhi Qar province, making sure that his students keep up with schoolwork has been almost as important as attending the anti-government protests in the centre of Nasiriyah city. He believes his duties as a teacher are as important as his duties as citizen; the teachers’ union has also called on its members to strike. For that reason he, and a number of other teachers, have set up a small classroom in one corner of Habboubi Square, which is being used as a base by local demonstrators.
Plastic chairs were donated and a tent was set up on a side road, a little further away from the main action, so that lessons were not interrupted.
Some locals have started to call the set-up “School of the October Revolution” and al-Uqaili says that this reflects the reality of the protests.
The teachers are putting a lot of effort into the lessons because they want to give us the information as quickly and simply as possible.
Lessons begin at 8am and continue until noon, in a similar way to how public schools normally operate. Each lesson takes an hour, which is 15 minutes longer than normal school classes – the extra time is supposed to compensate for the disruption caused by the demonstrations.
The teachers’ union here is striking because of the conditions in which they are forced to work. Classrooms are overcrowded and pupils often have to learn in shifts. There’s also a shortage of schools and of school equipment. Buildings are dilapidated, the curricula are not properly set and remain ambiguous, and teachers say the local government has a bad attitude toward the education system.
“Changes are continuously being introduced to our curriculum and that causes problems for the students,” explains Mona Abdul-Fawazi, another local Arabic teacher. “And so much time is lost due to closure for the holidays and other occasions. Often we are forced to teach modules that are predetermined but that don’t suit the grades and the abilities of our students.”
Further out in the square, some of the school students who have been protesting are trying to encourage each other to attend lessons at the temporary classroom. “The importance of attending classes relates to the importance of these protests,” explains Mohammed Ibrahim, a teenager. “We refuse to be part of the chaos and it is our responsibility to continue our education. Nobody should have a reason for abandoning their studies and their future,” he argued.
Jafar Nasser said that when he saw his classmates studying in the tent, he felt more enthused than he usually did in school. He said he appreciated the efforts of the teachers here in the square and was pleased that it was possible to protest and learn at the same time. “All this will ultimately help us build our country and make it a beautiful one,” he told NIQASH.
Once the makeshift classroom was set up, other teachers who specialize in different subjects – maths, chemistry and English – also volunteered their time.
On Facebook, Iraqi parents have been questioning the protests because they believe their children won’t finish their studies, says Osama Rahim, an Arabic teacher. “This is part of why we decided to do this. We’ve brought our study plans with us,” he added.
Another pupil at the school, Zulfiqar Ali, says he isn’t actually here to protest: his family wouldn’t allow him to. But his house is very near and when he saw the school he decided to come and join in the lessons. He had been missing out on classes because of the teachers’ strike anyway, he explains. “In the end, I was able to convince my family to let me be here,” he says.
In fact, he notes, the lessons here may be even more useful than at his real school. The teachers are putting a lot of effort into the lessons because they want to give us the information as quickly and simply as possible, he says. “They also interact with us a lot more. At my real school, a lot of the teachers wouldn’t really even talk to us that much because they needed to finish the lessons as quickly as possible and move onto the next class!”