Saleha Parveen is not a tall woman. In fact, she blends in with some of the fifth-graders she teaches in Samastipur, India. When she first began teaching in her village in 2010, she felt just as small and shy as a child.

That is because rural women from this part of India are not encouraged to work outside the home. They are not supposed to speak up around elders or take jobs that could jeopardize their marriage prospects or reflect poorly on their families.

“I came from a society where still people believe it is bad for girls or women to go out of the home,” Saleha says.

Timid, daydreaming Saleha wanted to have a career, though she did not plan on becoming a role model who bucked the trend. But today, she is a teacher who inspires the children in her class to make a commitment to their education and a woman whose very presence in her village is a symbol of possibility for girls.

Photo by Ashish Sharma
Photo by Ashish Sharma

Making a difference

Dreaming of her future while growing up, Saleha flitted from one idea to another. But when her outstanding grades qualified her to apply for a teaching position, she realized she had the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children, particularly ones who held professional aspirations, as she did.

Saleha found that as a teacher, she is proving that girls do not have to feel limited in what they can do, no matter what people say about them.

It’s a lesson she’s learned personally, beginning when villagers started talking about her the day she left the house and started teaching at the village school. They said she would stop respecting her elders, pick up bad behaviors or turn “high-headed,” she recalls.

Her parents encouraged her to ignore these naysayers and keep pushing herself. “People in the village will talk like this and, keeping all these things aside, you should move ahead,” they said.

And move ahead she did, growing in experience and confidence until she no longer hesitated to ask older teachers for help or admit that she didn’t understand a certain lesson. Yet she kept her respectful ways and her humble mindset.

“Although I became a teacher, in my home, for my parents, I’m still the same daughter who used to be studious and for my neighbors, I’m the same Saleha as before,” she says.

Saleha Parveen’s commitment to her students does not stop after school hours. In sessions with parents, she tells them that they can play a powerful role in supporting their children’s education, in many cases despite their own illiteracy and lack of education. Photo by Ashish Sharma.

Working to keep kids in school

As a teacher of children whose backgrounds she can relate to, she found she had the ear of parents who were considering pulling their kids out of school or who were not convinced that education matters.

In Samastipur district in Bihar state, more than a quarter of fifth-grade students drop out by year’s end, pushed out by an unsupportive and unrewarding academic environment and, especially, pulled by the need to contribute to their families’ incomes.

When the USAID launched the School Dropout Prevention Pilot Program in her school in 2012, Saleha learned how to identify vulnerable students who were at risk of dropping out and how to approach their parents to make the case for supporting their children’s learning. The program, which was testing promising interventions for keeping vulnerable children from dropping out of school in four countries including India, trained Saleha how to recognize signs that a child may be at risk of dropping out (such as poor attendance, troubled behavior and weak coursework performance). It showed her ways to intervene when children seemed poised to fall through the cracks. She felt even more equipped to share the message that staying in school is worth it.

“What I want is that those people who are illiterate, they too understand the value of education and send their children to school,” Saleha says.

Saleha discovered she could explain to parents that, despite their illiteracy and lack of education, they still could play a powerful role in setting their children on a different path.

“We are saying that you don’t have to teach [your child] but if you sit with him during his study hours, then he will get the courage and interest in his studies because you were sitting with him,” she says.

Providing quiet encouragement just from being present and involved is a skill Saleha has mastered. Today, unlike the teacher who first stepped in front of a classroom six years ago, she speaks freely with her students so they can see she’s there for them.

And with techniques she picked up from the program, Saleha has made her classroom more engaging and even fun. She started incorporating songs, games and energizing activities that keep children interested, motivated and confident.

In these little ways, she changed not only her teaching style but also the image she projected for boys and girls in her community. She showed that women who work outside the home are uplifting their families and their villages, not shaking their foundations or detracting from their traditions.

“There are some women who spy on me, like how I walk, work, behave and dress,” she says. “Then I heard them saying that one day [they’ll] make their daughters like me.”

Serving as a role model

People who once wagged their fingers at a girl leaving the house are now telling Saleha’s father he must be proud of his daughter. “The same ladies who used to say bad words against me…now praise me for my achievements,” Saleha says.

The villagers’ reactions are motivating her to continue to serve as a role model close to home.

Today, as she mingles nearly eye level with her students, she feels like she’s not just their teacher but their friend as well.

She tells her students that someday they will be doctors, teachers or engineers. She tells them they won’t remember her. They disagree. They tell her they will always remember her because of how she treats them.

That’s exactly what Saleha would like to be remembered for.

“All I want is people should know my work,” she says, “not my name.”

By Jennifer Brookland