Tuesday, September 02, 2014

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Gulen Inspired Schools: Lessons that Matter

"A good lesson is one that does more than provide pupils with useful information or skills; it should elevate them into the presence of the unknown"

M. Fethullah Gulen, Sizinti - March 1981

Up until this point, my life has been pressed within a world that struggles to unite people around universal values. This is one of the reasons why I want to share my learning experience at a Gulen Inspired School and to express some brief, humble thoughts on how, I imagine, we might try make a world that will become a better place to live in and pass on to future generations.

From very early stages of my life I vividly remember growing up in an era of turbulent developmenttus, and with them, the rise and fall of great ideas. For example, witnessing my parents’ kitchen debates over the nature of the socialist system and Gorbachev’s liberal reforms of late 1980s caused thought to stir in me. And then my own independent thoughts, and probably the views of my generational cohorts, developed later on as I, like many, followed closely some of those crucial developments that would shape the world we are living in today. During the last two decades, opinions ranging from the optimistic “end of history” talk, symbolizing a conclusive victory of democracy over other political systems, to gloomy “clash of civilizations” speak, warning about potential threats to stability in the world, have influenced popular thinking about the role of our younger generations in this rapidly changing political and social climate.

Although history has taught us often that nothing can be as uncertain as guessing about the next stage of our future, it still seems to me that thinking about those moments of life yet to come is the strongest resource that motivates us to work for the good. I do not intend to convince readers of my beliefs. At best, I will count it as a success if the story of my experience at a Gulen Inspired School in a post-Soviet country province might awake a small spark of hope and enthusiasm about the future of our common world, especially at a time when the world is still in a search for new ideas that lead to greater peace, prosperity, mutual respect, and cooperation. And so with that, I welcome you to the journey of lessons that I learned at My School—lessons that were not taught formally in classrooms, but were hidden amid walls and hallways of the school buildings and in the hearts of those who took part in that unique experience.

A lesson of passion and openness

Living amid some of the seismic shifts in understanding of just what peace means has challenged me, particularly as a young boy, to think more seriously about the values that may unite people around the world. However, it was not until I witnessed the committed passion of my teachers at the Gulen Inspired School that I eventually came to believe that some kind of world peace was not a total utopia.

Before I came to that school, global peace for me was tied to a discussion of potential threats in countries and regions where people were divided into separate groups faced with ethnic, cultural, racial, language, religious, or caste differences. The passion of my Turkish school teachers to learn my native language and culture broke the ice and awakened my respect for those newcomers as people who valued a foreign culture. In the environment of a country where many minorities themselves neglected learning their own languages and traditions because of time constraints, low ‘return rates,’ and higher opportunity costs, my teachers from Turkey spent hours trying to learn the grammar and literature of my own culture. I remember them expressing their excitement when discovering some parallels with Turkish language and traditions. These were probably among the first examples I recall of how people from thousands of miles away were sincerely willing to understand the culture and social dynamics of another nation. As we later found out that we could laugh about the same jokes and enjoy playing the same games, I began to think that people around the world probably had much more in common than they had distinct. Folk stories about Nasrettin Hodja and discussions about the variety of sports, such as wrestling and horse riding, or about traditional dishes such as plov or kebab, sometimes grew into larger debates about the origins of those growing up Turkish, Kazakh, Turkmen, Tatar, or Uzbek.

The more time we spent together, the more similarities we found between our cultures. Openness to new ideas and the passion to explore them helped us all to learn new things and even helped us learn our own cultures better as well. Some critics, however, might say that those were only talks about the cultural similarities of separate Turkic states, which extended the argument to ideological concepts, such as Panturkism and Turanism. The best answer to that would probably be that in my class of 20 students, there were representatives of 5 nationalities, almost a half of them being ethnic Russians, all competing for the attention of teachers in and outside the classroom. To be honest, non-Turkic students were even more successful in attracting teachers’ interest as presumably they had more to offer to each other in terms of diversity. Our teachers’ passion for their jobs was able to bring out the best in every student so that untrained eyes might be able to see each and every student's individual shine.

A lesson of devotion

One weekend, I, along with my friend, decided to play some tennis and use the school’s other sports facilities while nobody was there so that we could enjoy the game without waiting for half an hour in line to play as it was during weekday crowds. We were surprised to find teachers at school cleaning the floors and tables, even though as kids we did not pay attention to how tidy every classroom and hallway looked every morning. Later on, we learned that teachers and tutors used to do this every day after we left the school. Their devotion to their jobs could be seen in every corner of the school, and in every student. I personally owe to my teachers my understanding that success is often hidden in the small details.

As a matter of fact, after a whole year spent away from home and relatives, my teachers did not rush back home, but they spent most of the summer renovating the school and preparing it for the next academic year. Even when the work was complete and they only had time for a short visit with their friends and families, they would not travel alone, but would invite several students with them. This was something that my mind could not quite process at that time, but I couldn’t miss that opportunity and had my first trip to Turkey as an 8th grader. If there were any turning points in my life, the trip to Istanbul and Ankara at that time was probably one of them. The fact that after that trip, we spent most of our holidays together is probably an indication that it was likely that we were our teachers’ dearests and nearests, at least it gave us that feeling.

There were definitely days when we openly tested their patience by not abiding by the rules and regulations of school or the dormitory where we stayed in the evenings. We used to escape from the dorm window to go to the cinema or just to hang around. Once our absence was noticed, no matter what time it was, our teachers went to look for us on streets, sometimes at the expense of being accosted in the dark by local bandits. Those who are familiar with the situation in the 1990s would confirm that streets in many post-Soviet regions were indeed not a safe place at the time.

A lesson of respect for elders

Our friendship probably would not have been as strong as it was without the direct involvement of our parents in the education process. Our teachers’ attitudes toward our parents was the crucial point in many respects. Sending greeting cards for holidays, visiting our families at home, inviting student parents over to their places, and organizing family picnics laid a firm foundation, far beyond the practices that other schools could ever imagine. By trying to build a bigger family of school affiliates, they once again underlined their commitment to embracing local values and fully integrating themselves into our society. It was their presence, not only at times of joy, but also in days of sorrow, that helped them to win the hearts of our parents.

One particular day, one of my classmate’s parents fell sick and needed surgery that the family could not afford. During one of the regular visits to their family, our teachers learned this and shared their concern with their colleagues at school. Despite the uncertain financial situation everybody at the moment was in, the teaching staff almost immediately raised the needed amount and passed it on to the family in need. We would not even know about this had my friend not told us the story. After that, my friend’s parents would take the teachers’ side even in cases where my friend would argue about something that he did not like in school.

The lesson is that passion and love, openness and respect for others’ thoughts, tolerance and generosity were the most valuable ideals learned from my teachers at Gulen Inspired Schools, the lesson which I later saw being taught at all Gulen Inspired Schools. I am more and more convinced that the comparatively strong education in math, science, and the superb training in foreign languages that every student received at the school, although this undoubtedly opened numerous opportunities to hundreds of the graduates, in fact, were only the bonuses to the main message taught about the importance of greater dialogue among people around the world.

The puzzle, in my opinion, is not to find a way of convincing others of your own views, but to teach them to appreciate one another's values and ideals. High quality education and a knowledge of languages might be necessary tools for carrying out your messages and ideals, but what remains more important is to realize that it is best to understand not just those who speak the same language, but those who share and respect the same values. It took me some time to understand that the school I graduated from actually taught me to appreciate this kind of diversity. Meeting like-minded young people from nearly a dozen countries around the world, who attended similar Gulen Inspired Schools at approximately the same time, is enough evidence for me to see this.

It is therefore not really our fault that many of us today were born into this world of ethnic and cultural strife, which flows beyond state boundaries, but it is still our responsibility to deliver a better world for future generations—a world that provides solid platforms for discussing ideas and for appreciating cultural diversity. And our thanks should go to those who, following Fethullah Gulen’s teachings, have shown us that this is possible. In my case, they truly instilled in me the live hope for a better world, from which I, in turn, have been given hope that my generation will remain committed to building a braver new world.



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