The choice between excelling and growing up

Published: September 29, 2011

Students in Pakistan are fiercely motivated to get an A grade, and in this process, they forget about actually learning.

I taught A’ Level law for a good 8 years, and then I quit. I was dejected because I think I always ended up seeing my students as my children and I was appalled at what the system was making me do to them; focusing on just getting the much desired ‘A’.

Lately, some students (not all) would start rolling their eyes or looking at their watches the moment I would talk to them about anything that might entice them into becoming better people. No, I did not preach in class but I did expect them to think about their subject beyond the book. Things have changed so much in a matter of just 10 years.

Sadly, my student who got the world distinction in A’ Level law several years ago did not measure up to even half in dignity, determination, values, and purpose compared to those who managed B’s before that.

After having taught for over 10 years, both at college and university level, I have taught students from every nook and cranny of the world. I must confess that after having seen some of them blossom into men and women of substance and dignity, I do recall that those who got the B’s (not A*) were the ones who excelled in life.

There is a logical reason behind it too; experience, exposure, trial and the essential error are your best teachers. Anyone can teach from a book and make you pass. However, only a good teacher will teach you things beyond the book and give you valuable lessons about life.

I have never forgotten my Economics teacher from college Mrs Sajjad who used to tell us the odd stories from Africa while she taught us the concepts of marginal utility; or my Scottish teacher from school, Mrs Baxter, who told us about her travels to Russia and how she felt when she entered the tomb of Stalin.

These women had some traits in common; they both had grace, were motherly yet worldly, had a great sense of humour, and they never pushed me to get A’s. They made me develop an imagination instead.

It just so happened then that I did exceptionally well throughout in both the subjects that these fine teachers taught, not because I wanted to excel ,come what may, but because I genuinely fell in love with their subjects due to the way they were taught to me. I wanted to read for the sake of learning and not for the sake of getting the grade.

When I came to Pakistan, my teachers told me that I had the potential to get distinctions in my subjects, but that I was never too pushed. I did as I pleased; I wrote poetry, I took part in debates, I wrote, and I dreamed. I did manage to get a few distinctions but I would attribute that to mere flukes than aspiration.

What I was learning to do then, as I realize now, was to be able to think outside the box. Twenty years later, this very habit has made me cherish certain values, create opportunities for myself and others out of the most adverse conditions, and what’s more, it has helped me to keep my mind alive.

Foreign universities in the USA and UK lay more emphasis on a candidate’s ability to demonstrate a sense of community rather than produce A grades in order to get a college placement. Unfortunately, when Pakistani students compete with these same students they are seen as international students who must show the A grades and community service records in order to get in.

This, of course, puts a lot of pressure on the Pakistani student who then inevitably, focuses all his energies on achieving an A grade. The more ambitious amongst these students manage a few months here and there of community work with local NGOs. Whereas the whole purpose of expecting a young student to do community work is to make him/her socially responsible individuals in the long run, something that is the need of the hour with over 65% of the total population of Pakistan under the age of 25 years, the education system in Pakistan does not allow the time for this.

What young students in Pakistan need to realize is that grades are important but equally important is the inculcation of a sense of social responsibility. Without either of the two, a person is incomplete and will probably not be able to avail of the best opportunities of life.


Ammara Farooq Malik

A High Court Lawyer with an LL.M from the University of London and a Masters in Political Science, Ammara is a socio-legal analyst, writer, and Founder of the SEPLAA Foundation. She blogs at

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Adil

    I wish all parents could read this. They’re the ones pushing their children to get straight As. They’re the ones forcing their young ones to become robots instead of being creative.

    Real change can only come from parents, and somewhat from teachers – like the author of the article above….Recommend

  • Adil Mulki

    I don’t want to take away anything from the A-graders, but I really respect the author’s views and agree with her. “Values” got lost somewhere in the rat race. Recommend

  • Prometheus

    It is the ability to think that we are losing. To think for ourselves, to dream and imagine the infinitude of things that could have been and could be. The love of learning needs a change in a person’s thinking habits; one that doesn’t come around usually when you are not trying. Recommend

  • abdullah

    An excellent article. Like many other men and women, i am a living example. I never studied during my o or a levels and infact i dint even care bout my exams in university and so i dint finish it. Im not very proud of that though. I got beaten by my dad soo many times, i even forgot the count. So basically its to tell u i was never a good student and my dad dint support me when i started what i started because i dint study much, but today im a succesful entrepreneur running my own small company.
    Maybe we should have programs on tv and call succesful people, im sure there are many. I mean men or women who werent really good students but have gone or succeeded in life so parents can watch them and maybe learn a lesson. Im sure they will be much better, informative and interesting instead of all those stupid cooking shows or politicians praising their parties all the time.Recommend

  • Farhan

    Very good points to ponder on. As professional journalist and a university teacher, i second almost all points that the writer mentioned here.

    Still, there are some teachers who teach extraordinarily -that is doing brain storming along with bookish material. Such teachers should not loose hope and continue their good work because there are still bright students who know how to see both sides of the picture.

    It is true that most students look for A’s only but good teachers can still convince many of them to see around their limited world. I can say this because i have seen many stubborn students changing their minds in few semesters just when teacher showed them the good paths to excel in life.

    My message, dont lose hope. For the sake of 60-65 per cent young Pakistanis who can change themselves through our little efforts. This will change our country, too. Good luck!Recommend

  • Parvez

    Hope you are still teaching because there are so few who think like you. The teacher is a role-model for the child and children are the future so what can be more important than a good teacher.Recommend

  • Miserable

    I hardly ever got A grades in school and the pressure to be a ‘good student’, as well as the effort to get to that status, killed whatever I cherished in myself as a person. People who knew me used to call me “brilliant”, but they just couldn’t figure out what was ‘wrong’ with me; I had genuine passions, I used to read avidly and write freely, I had greater knowledge and deeper understanding of things I’d taught myself–another language, the fundamental of political science and sociology, classical literature, sketching, all those “useless” things that don’t get you a prestigious job–but I sorely lacked what mattered most: an excellent report card.

    I’m in my very early 20s now, I’m studying for a ‘good degree’ and everyone says I have a ‘bright future’ ahead. I’m a success story: I ‘failed’ and I ‘pulled myself up’.
    But I hate my life, and I hate who I am now; the only way for me to NOT feel worthless is by getting the A grades my identity has developed to rely upon.
    One of these days, I’d really like to just die, but it feels as though in a way I already did.Recommend

  • Saleha Batool

    Excellent article and couldn’t agree more! Please keep writing! Recommend

  • Madiha

    Mrs Farooq, you were always the exceptional teacher who taught so well and did teach us some golden principles of life. Don’t think that all your students were not paying heed to your golden words and the examples you set for us. Some of us have (as you yourself have mentioned) become successful in life. I really hope you continue teaching. We really need teachers like you!Recommend

  • Ammara Farooq Malik

    @Miserable: Look at the people living amongst floods and the people who have no resources or little education to help them understand how to fight Dengue. It is only after we look at those less privileged than us that we can (hopefully) realize how fortunate we truly are. You sound like an educated person who is going through a bad patch. No success comes without it’s parallel stock of failures. But the trick is to not focus on the failures but to look ahead and stay focused on your goals.

    “Fortes fortuna adiuvat” : Fortune favors the bold.
    Best of luck!Recommend

  • Ahmad

    Excellent read and I totally agree with this:

    ‘Anyone can teach from a book and make you pass. However, only a good teacher will teach you things beyond the book and give you valuable lessons about life.’Recommend

  • Bilal

    I’m sorry Madam, but I beg to differ. I believe O/A level system stands foolproof to the phenomena of yours. I don’t know what school have you been teaching in but I study in LGS and my teachers teach me the subject rather than getting an A. Getting A is just the by-product. While the Matric/Fsc systems stands prone to the wrote based learning system, O/A level student show a distinctive sense of maturity.Recommend

  • Richkid

    I wish we could afford to be balanced. What can you expect in a country where people weep for a killer. A balanced education is our only solution.Recommend

  • Ammara Farooq Malik

    @Bilal: What I have written in this blog post are just my personal views. You have every right to disagree. However,what I was pointing towards was more of a surging over confidence in certain segments of our elite youth. I was not talking about the FA/ BA track students in any case. Ofcourse the ones pursuing A Levels are far more privileged and most have a much broader perspective than those pursuing the local stream.

    You seem to have wonderful teachers in LGS and again I think that you are one of the minute 1% of the student population who are lucky enough to be able to claim that. Unfortunately life is much bigger beyond the classroom and A’ levels. And that was the gist of this post. Incidently I have been associated with 3 main branches of LGS in Lahore since 2001: first as an A’ Level Law teacher,then as an educational consultant and lastly as a parent. The ‘rolling of the eyes’ incident did not happen in LGS and I think it would be inappropriate to write the name of that school.
    Best wishes.Recommend

  • Samina Zia

    I want to say to the author that you have written the words in my heart. If only everyone started thinking like this. Thank you.Recommend

  • Shehzad

    Very good points to think about and very well written!Recommend

  • Aneeqa

    Ammara, I completely agree with you. Even I have noticed that the education system in country has become too grade-centered. Students want the grade, not the knowledge! Change is required. Loved the article!Recommend

  • Farah T.

    I am also an A Level teacher and I know that the stress on the teachers is very great…and it comes from the school administrations. The parents are just pushing the kids too. The teachers are pushed to the wall. Personality building is not a subject taught at A Levels and that is the reason why we are producing young students who think they know everything and actually still have to learn a lot! Excellent article!Recommend

  • Abdullah B

    These rich A Level students think they are above everyone. They have no respect for elders or teahcers.Recommend

  • Madiha Ahmed

    ‘Whereas the whole purpose of expecting a young student to do community work is to make him/her socially responsible individuals in the long run’. Totally agree with the writerRecommend

  • Tido

    Great article ma’am. Please believe that there are students out there who do value teachers like you. It’s just that teachers like you are becoming rare like the well balanced students.Recommend

  • Tido

    @Abdullah B.: Everyone is not like that bro. Cut the A’ Level students some slack!Recommend

  • Mrs. Zulqarf

    Beautiful bringing back of memories from when I went to college. Life and parenting was so much simpler then. Now we are constantly wondering whether we are doing the right thing with our children. Completely agree with the author’s point of view.Recommend

  • amer nadeem

    well said ammara, its irony that our overall system is going downward, education, too.Recommend

  • Hajira Mirza

    Couldn’t agree more! I came to Pakistan few years back to complete my A levels and i was just amazed to see that students never bothered about being able to study and understand anything themselves, I’m talking about the majority here, they wouldn’t even care about what is being taught by school teachers in their classrooms and just for getting that “desired A grade” they would take bunch of tuition’s for each and every subject from “famous” teachers around town. Kinda a waste of lots of money too eh? :)Recommend