Back to school, but back to what?

‘Back to School’ Day is an exciting time for children across the country as they return to their classrooms eager to share vacation stories, to see who has a new haircut or school bag, and to look forward to a semester of new experiences with their peers.

During my 12 years as a school teacher, I found that keeping a quiet classroom was always a challenge during that first post-holiday month, as my students bubbled-over with the passion and vivacity that one only encounters amongst youth! I also witnessed the sad reality that returning to school is not a celebration for every child, which is unsurprising given what some are returning to.

Most parents desire a quality education for their children, with the knowledge that it is the key to opening up greater options for the future lives. Rural families flock to cities in search of this, pushing our urban population growth rate up to 2.8%[1] per year - a rate that our current educational infrastructure and manpower cannot handle. This has led to out-of-control overcrowding in city schools.

Boring, outmoded styles of teaching sap the enthusiasm of young people.


Children with learning difficulties and other disabilities quickly fall behind in packed classrooms, despite the best efforts of school teachers who are forced to teach in up to four shifts in some areas. This is an issue that desperately needs to be addressed. Boring, outmoded styles of teaching sap the enthusiasm of young people, whilst some children do not return to school at all as they lose the battle with unsupportive environments at home and in the classroom.

In order to support vulnerable school dropouts, we must first identify them. A recent survey in Ulaanbaatar’s Songino Khairkhan District showed that district level statistics on education issues such as these do not meet the reality. Whilst official statistics listed only five school dropouts in the district, World Vision’s survey of the same area identified 46 dropouts in 16 sub-districts alone. We cannot possibly hope to address the issues faced by these children if they remain under the radar and outside our focus.

The capacity of our teachers must be increased if our teaching styles are to remain relevant to today’s youth. We are addressing a social-media-savvy generation who are constantly sharing bite-sized information over sites such as facebook, at a pace that just a few years ago was unimaginable. How can we possibly hope to reach them with boring, archaic teaching methodologies that lecture and preach, rather than enable two-way discussion? In the words of the poet W.B.Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail [bucket], but the lighting of a fire.” Young people have an enormous capacity for enthusiasm in learning, let us ignite these passions.

A key step toward a more advanced academic system is for teachers to learn to listen to the children.

Teachers are not at fault here; more often than not they are overworked, trained little and paid less. In order to truly progress, we need practical and creative capacity building for our teachers that will support the ground-level implementation of the government’s existing education policies, such as the Master Plan on Education. It may sound deceptively simple, but a key step toward a more advanced academic system is for teachers to learn to listen to the children in their care. Children need and want two-way communication, to participate actively in their own learning.

Whether at home or in school, one of the greatest gifts we can give to our children and young people is mentoring. Children are ‘sponges’, their minds more open than at any other time in their lives to absorb information and patterns from the world around them. They are constantly soaking-up life lessons from the words and actions of family members and teachers, learning life-skills including personal care, organisation, respect for self and others, social skills and communication - these stretch beyond academic tutelage and should be considered equally important.

Buya [name changed] is a 14 year old girl from Khovd Province who fell through the gaps in Mongolia’s education system. Government staff first alerted us of Buya’s case in 2010 when it was clear that her alcoholic mother was no longer able to care for her, and she came to World Vision’s interim Light House Care Centre for Children in Ulaanbaatar.

At only 11 years old, Buya had lost hope. She was attending school irregularly and was at risk of dropping out. Buya and her mother had almost no possessions and had lived in the house of her drunken stepfather who abused them both; as a result she spent most of her time wandering the streets with other young school dropouts, engaging in petty theft. When she first came to the centre, Buya would try to escape from centre staff, lying and behaving aggressively.

Buya found a second family amongst the children at the Light House home, most of whom have also faced immense challenges in their tender years. Our social workers partner closely with Buya’s class teachers to keep track of her progress, listening to her to identify her strengths and weaknesses in order to provide her with a supportive environment. She now has a true ‘home’ where she is able to concentrate on and complete her homework, as well as take part in activities such as choir, judo class and music club.

Buya is a different child to the girl I met three years ago: open, growing in confidence and better able to manage her emotions. She tells me with her pretty, bright smile her aspiration for the future, “I want to be a policewoman to protect children from crime and violence. For this dream I will study hard and try my best!” Her relationship with her mother continues to improve and she flourishes in the knowledge that her teachers and carers are very much ‘for’ her.  

Buya’s story has taught me never to underestimate the transformative power of a listening ear and a supportive environment. 

We can only hope to see an improvement in our children’s education if our government, teachers, parents and caregivers all shun indifference and accept responsibility for the better education of our young people. Let us mobilise together to give our children – the future of our nation - bright and promising prospects:

·         Ministry of Education: Increase educational infrastructure and manpower in our cities to address the problem of overcrowding. Provide practical training to school teachers to equip them to engage their students through active teaching methodologies.

·         Multidisciplinary Team: Let children and communities know that you are the ground-level child protection body, and that protection issues can be reported to and facilitated by your team.

·         District Statistical Offices: Ensure your local-level statistics are accurate in order to address the issues faced by the most vulnerable children.

·         Teachers’ professional institutions: Listen to your students. Take part in active learning methodology trainings run by the government and INGOs such as World Vision. Learn about participatory approaches to enhance your teaching skills.

·         Parents and families: Your good values are your real wealth, regardless of your economic status. Give your children a good example at home in the way that you value and respect each other and share your experiences. A positive family atmosphere will encourage your children’s academic, personal and social education.

·         Community citizens: Your interaction with service providers is needed. Reach out to your local government to express your views on education. Your government represents you, and expressing your priorities can motivate them to act.


Amarjargal Zina is an education expert at World Vision, where her goal is to ensure that every child in Mongolia has access to a quality education and a promising future. Amarjargal’s passion for education has grown during her two decades of work in the field, 12 of those years spent as a teacher. For more information please contact Amarjargal at or 91615431.

[1] UN Data, <>, visited 27 August 2013.