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DAWN talks to Mrs. Deena M. Mistri, an educator in her own right.


Educator par excellence
      


Asif Noorani talks to Mrs. Deena M. Mistri, an educator in her own right.
      
Asif Noorani

S IXTY-two years ago a young girl, who had just crossed her teens, joined the BVS Parsi School on a part-time cum voluntary basis to train boys to give speeches in debate and elocution competition. Her father, who was the chairman of the school’s managing committee wasn’t too excited at his daughter’s assignment because girls in the family didn’t work outside their houses.

Five years later, in 1950 to be precise, the legendary Mr. Behram Rustomjee who had by that time become the school’s principal asked her to substitute for one Mr. Minwalla, who was the school’s English teacher. Much to Mr. Rustomjee’s relief Deena Pestonji Soparivala (had become Deena Mistri) agreed. Her husband Mr. Minoo Mistri, an architect of repute, was a firm believer in women pursuing careers of their choice. “I was the first female teacher in the high school, which was exclusively for boys,” recalls Mrs. Mistri, smiling from ear to ear.

She did her Matric in 1941 and in 1945 graduated in arts with honours in English literature from DJ College, which used to have both arts and science classes at that time. She got the degree from the prestigious Bombay University. In those days Sindh was a part of the Bombay Presidency. Much later in 1957, Mrs. Mistri did her BT (which was till then called B. Ed) from the Government Teachers Training College in Nazimabad.

In 1965, she became the Vice Principal of BVS Parsi School and seven years later took over as the Principal, a position she held until her retirement in 2004. This writer can’t think of anyone else who has headed an institution with distinction for 32 years.

Today her students, many of them holding important positions at home and abroad, remember her with affection and admiration. She recalls that one evening when she was staying with her son in the US, where she had gone for her chemotherapy sessions, she got a call from one of her students who had studied medicine in Pakistan and later specialized in oncology in the US. He had a hospital in Florida. He phoned her to say that she could have chemotherapy sessions in her hospital without paying anything and that if she agreed he would send her a return ticket. She was impressed with his concern for her even though she couldn’t accept the offer.

“I remember him clearly for he was a problem child in his school days. He would scale the wall and spend the entire morning in the nearby Jehangir Park. One day I went there and caught him by the ear. I couldn’t have imagined in those days that he would be such a big success in life,” she says, sporting a smile.

What, according to Mrs. Mistri, are the essential qualities of a good teacher? “I would rate affection and consideration as the first and foremost quality, closely followed by the ability to discipline one’s own self and the students. Also the teacher should know her subject well and should have effective communication skills,” says the veteran educationist who is too dedicated to her profession to join her two sons living in the US. Now, with her husband having passed away after 57 years that he spent with her, it’s amazing that she has decided to soldier on in her native city.

What does Mrs. Mistri have to say about the burning subject of the medium of instruction? “Class distinction in matters of education ought to be removed. I think English should be the medium of instruction for all students considering that one cannot function successfully in the present world without a sound knowledge of the language and without the ability to express one’s self in what has now become the lingua franca of the world,” says Mrs Mistri.

“I am afraid you are being idealistic? Where would you find the teachers who would be able to teach in English? Their command over the language, in most cases, leaves much to be desired. Even if you find such teachers how would you make children understand what the teachers say? The standard of education would fall further,” I argue.

“I agree the changeover is not going to be all that easy. There will be colossal difficulties but in the long run we’ll be better off. Had they taken this bitter pill after Partition today we would have been better off,” insists Mrs. Deena Mistri, who is currently serving as an advisor to two schools.

She feels that teachers’ training should be an ongoing process. “Things change and advancements take place at a much more rapid pace now than they did say a couple of decades ago. Teachers should keep abreast with the developments in the subjects that they teach.” A Fulbright scholar, she has taught her subject – English language and literature also in the US. She is convinced that as far as intelligence and the ability to learn are concerned Pakistani children are second to none, which explains why they do so well when they go abroad for higher studies.

“The new breed of teachers are not half as dedicated as the ones who are no more or are in their twilight years. The newer ones are more commercial-minded. But then let me be fair. The entire society has become money-minded,” adds Mrs. Mistri ruefully.

She is more critical of private schools, which in most cases are more interested in collecting fees than in imparting education. “Look, the students have to go for tuition because the teachers don’t put their heart and soul in teaching at schools and the school administration conveniently looks the other way.” In the school that she taught Mrs. Mistri would hold extra classes for weak students and one could see her taking classes after the normal school hours in the classrooms.

Long live Mrs Mistri. They don’t make educators like her any more. The writer is a senior journalist with DAWN - Asif Noorani. April 1, 2007.

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