Maryam Hallak got married at the age of seventeen, then, with her husband’s encouragement and her mother’s assistance with childcare, went on to continue her education at the teacher’s college.
Maryam taught in Damascus schools for four years before moving from the Bab Touma neighborhood to the city of Harasta in Rif Dimashq Province. She taught in a school there for about three years then took over as headmistress in 1985.
“There was an atmosphere of increasing religious conservatism in Harasta,” recalls Maryam, “and there were widespread problems, especially in the tenements.”
Students at the school came from all socio-economic backgrounds. There were students from very poor and very rich families, as well as students from well educated and uneducated families. The school was located next to a tenement area, and so some students had parents who used marijuana, or the sorts of parents whom Maryam described as ignorant. The school administration paid special attention to these students, attempting to help them with personal hygiene issues as well working with their families to stop low attendance rates.
Maryam attempted to solve all the issues she faced—whether with parents or teaching staff—with calm and understanding. Quite often she found herself helping to solve students’ social difficulties, stemming from their parents’ separation, and was more than once able to resolve differences between warring mothers and fathers.
“I worked hard, around the clock, and still I received neither praise nor thanks from the Department of Education,” says Maryam. “Meanwhile, a single mistake committed by one teacher was enough to bring rebukes and reprimands down on the entire administration and teaching staff.”
The Ministry of Education issued a decree forbidding any sort of corporal punishment within schools. The problems within the administration and among the teachers increased, and there was absolutely no support of any kind to help enforce the rule. The problems were further exacerbated due to overcrowded classrooms, the fact that certain students didn't respond to dialogue, the rampant spread of disruptive behavior and immoral acts among the students, the inefficiency of some of the newer teachers and the influence of nepotism when it came to who the school could hire. Rather than helping limit problems, the effect of the decree was to increase them.
“The military character of the ruling regime dominated the educational institutions,” says Maryam. “The students were forced to memorize quotations by President Hafez el-Assad as part of their school curriculums, and the Baath Party had a huge influence and widespread control, helping decide which teachers were hired, determining administrative guidelines, supervising youth military camps and encouraging students to join the Party by reinforcing the idea that they wouldn’t be able to find a job in the future unless they joined its ranks. In addition, security forces continually interfered and paid visits to schools, either on official business or on their own personal initiatives, coming to make sure there were photos of the President in the classrooms, forcing teachers and students to participate in demonstrations, ensuring that the salute to the flag was carried out and forbidding prayers or the appearance of any religious celebrations.”
The 1980s saw a demographic change in the city outskirts. More and more city dwellers were moving to the countryside. Some sects, such as the Alawites started to prioritize the education of their children. Subsequently, Maryam noticed an improvement in the educational landscape. A new generation of educators and university graduates emerged, many women in the area entered the workforce and the majority of teachers were female.
Maryam remembers that the modern educational curricula that were taught during the last decade were quite strong and rich in substance, though the overall atmosphere in schools, in terms of overcrowded classrooms and teacher neglect, lessened their impact on the students. This meant that education continued to rely on techniques such as memorization and rote learning, with the information immediately forgotten after the students finished their exams. Accompanying the official state curriculum were generic activities such as weekly reading periods or health education sessions, which were supposed to be interactive and exploratory, integrating technology and using computers to engage students further. The lack of classroom time and teachers’ neglect to follow up on these activities, however, made them no more than mere formalities enacted for the benefit of the educational supervisors, who were often quite conservative and fought every opportunity for innovation or creativity.