Happy 25th Spelt, and good luck with the conference


Suhaee and Babar perform at Spelt’s 25th birthday celebrations. Photo: K.B. Abro

DIWALI GREETINGS TO ALL. Here are some observations on the silver jubilee of Pakistan’s first volunteer-based, professional English language teaching organisation, based on my comments at the 25th birthday celebrations of the Society of Pakistan English Language Teachers (Spelt) on July 31 this year. Spelt’s annual international conference begins today in Karachi – an event they have been holding every year since they started and which involves a ‘travelling conference’ at which key plenary speakers address similar conferences in other cities. I think this must be some kind of record.

Spelters raise candles to celebrate 25 years - and counting. Photo: K.B. Abro

Spelters raise candles to celebrate 25 years – and counting. Photo: K.B. Abro

July 31, 2009

‘I never knew I could teach without hitting the students’

Beena Sarwar

The Society of Pakistan English Language Teachers celebrated its 25th birthday in July this year. This is a milestone, noted the respected linguist Dr Tariq Rahman at the event held to mark the event, not just for this particular organisation but in the history of Pakistan’s voluntary organisations. Whenever he tells his colleagues in Islamabad about Spelt, he said, they are confounded by all that it has achieved, and the number of dedicated professionals it draws in and involves.

The expectation is that an organisation run almost entirely on a voluntary basis with just a skeleton office staff is simply not sustainable. Spelt has proved otherwise, which makes those uneasy who talk about the need similar professional voluntary organisations in other fields but keep waiting for funds and resources, he concluded.

One of Spelt’s major achievements is its annual international conference, kicking off with a major plenary session and workshops in Karachi before breaking up and moving out into other cities. Groups of keynote and plenary speakers go off to other cities where the exercise is repeated, providing teachers in other areas the opportunity to participate. They have had to cut back on venues like Peshawar and Quetta over the past years because of security threats.

However, when things settle down — as one day they must and will if the political process is allowed to continue – these venues will be added back. There are also monthly academic sessions that have continued without a break since the organisation’s inception, besides summer schools and other trainings that take place throughout the year for primary and secondary school and college teachers, government and primary. It is inspiring to learn that they have started an Urdu language strand, and also that another educational institution has started a Math organisation along these lines.

Zakia Sarwar at the Spelt office, May 2004. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Zakia Sarwar at the Spelt office, May 2004. Photo: Beena Sarwar

My own association with Spelt goes back almost to its inception although I am not an educationist or teacher, or even a member. However, I have seen it grow and develop since my mother Zakia Sarwar started it along with a group of other dedicated teachers in 1984. Spelt was housed in the lobby of our house for over ten years, until they got their own office premises and moved out, thanks to a grant from the Trust for Voluntary Organisations (TVO) in Islamabad.

Everyone in the house was drawn into participating in Spelt’s activities – sticking glue onto labels to be stuck onto envelopes to be posted, folding or stapling papers and handouts. There was only one person exempted from these activities – Dr Sarwar. But he played a role far more important than stapling papers or labeling envelopes: he gave my mother the time and the space to engage in this activity. Without his active support and open-hearted encouragement, Spelt may not be where it is today. I feel he is with us still, as thrilled and proud about this landmark as all of us. Some of his thoughts about Spelt are reflected in the observations below.

Volunteerism and commitment: Spelt is remarkable in how much it relies on the spirit of volunteerism and commitment. In this aspect, it has a wealth that cannot be measured in material terms, and which is crucial in this non-funded work. These volunteers, all professional teachers, work incredibly hard. Many of them put in full working days at regular jobs, giving time to Spelt after-hours and on the weekends to plan ahead, or work out issues.

Community spirit – the Spelt ‘family’: The bond shared by Spelters, as they call themselves, is linked to this spirit of volunteerism and is also remarkable. They see themselves as part of the ‘Spelt family’. The children and grandchildren of Spelters born during these twenty-five years do their bit, helping with pre-conference activities, filling conference bags and sorting out papers, or helping with hall management, logistics or catering. Spelters also have fun – they enjoy what they do. There is a lot of banter and laughter at Spelt meetings. And food. They all bring things to eat or drink and then pitch in to help clear up.

Professionalism: Despite being primarily a volunteer-based organisation, Spelt is also a unique professional forum. In fact, it is amazing for a volunteer-run organisation to function on a sustained basis for a quarter of a century without fizzling out or losing quality. On the contrary, Spelt has grown and developed as an organisation even as its core members have grown and developed professionally. “I never knew I could make children learn without hitting them,” one government primary school teacher said after a series of training sessions.

Empowerment: Professionalism is empowering. Teachers who have proper training and are top professionals will naturally be more confident of their skills. Whether they are inexperienced, mostly female teachers in Mansehra, NWFP or Khairpur, Sindh, or established men and women in an urban centre like Karachi, Spelt trainings impart a sense of fulfilment, confidence and liberation to participants. This sometimes rocks personal spaces. But members of the Spelt community are also then present to support their colleagues during tough personal times.

Respect and gender equality: This is obviously a gender-neutral organisation. Although female-dominated, perhaps because more women tend to go into the teaching profession than men, the men and women working together in this organisation do so in democratically, respecting each other as human beings above all else.

Political statement: In its pursuit of professional excellence, Spelt has played an important, if unintended, political role. By continuing to hold their activities come hell or high water – or in the context of Pakistan, military coups or ethnic riots – Spelters demonstrate courage and commitment. This sends out an important message about focus and getting the job done in all circumstances. If everyone followed this example and did what they were supposed to do, honestly and efficiently, many of Pakistan’s problems would be over.

Pakistan’s ‘image’: Spelt’s annual conference draws top international English language teaching (ELT) participants. And they invariably return to their home countries favourably impressed, often with a completely different view of Pakistan than they had before visiting here. In addition, Spelters themselves often participate in international events where they hold their own amongst world leaders in the field.

These observations, formed over the past quarter of a century, reflect an organisation that holds up the best human values – volunteerism, community spirit, professional excellence, openness, democracy and tolerance. In a country where there are few institutions of note, this is no small achievement.


One Response

  1. This is absolutely fantastic and so inspiring. The fact that a volunteer organization has achieved so much – that too in a sustained fashion- is huge. Hats off to them.


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