There were 20 children, sitting in a classroom, waiting for their teacher. They all smiled happily as their favourite teacher appeared. But the teacher did not appear in-person, instead it was on an electronic display.
This was not a usual school classroom, nor was the teacher from their school. This was a supplementary school activity for underprivileged children, arranged by Fera Foundation, a not for profit organisation working to ensure child rights through education.
The teacher herself was a university student, volunteering for a cause that she considered noble. This particular classroom was located in an orphanage in Gazipur, and there are others in different districts.
The lessons given in these classes do focus on national curricula but are not limited to it. The teacher at the orphanage, for instance, was sharing her knowledge on rural wildlife conservation and environmental protection - a subject that she studies at the university.
These extra-curricular lessons and the uniqueness of the method of instruction provided by a group of teachers who are driven by passion and love, instead of money, seem to be the glue that sticks these children to the classes beyond the regular school hours.
After all, giving these children a good time is very important to the founder of this initiative.
Rafa Sattar, the founder and president of Fera Foundation, shared her thoughts in detail with The Business Standard.
Fera Foundation does not only work with volunteers from Bangladesh, rather it has volunteers of Indian and Pakistani-descent as well, and of course Bangladeshi-Americans. So, it has the potential to grow into a global phenomenon.
"I always wanted to go into human rights activism. The state of child labour in our country always unsettled me. I was concerned about the number of children being subjected to child labour and child marriage instead of pursuing education. And I wanted to do something about it," said Rafa, who is an aspiring human rights lawyer.
Rafa also feels an obligation to serve the people of her home country. She believes that helping the children pass their board exams can sometimes protect them from child marriage and child labour. So she decided to teach underprivileged children. But how does one do that while living in the US?
"Without the pandemic, I would never have thought I would have the opportunity to do anything remotely. But now it is an absolute possibility - I do not even have to go to Bangladesh to teach children, even though I do want to," said the TEFL-certified instructor.
Then came the question of how to reach the students. The schools were all shut due to Covid-19. On the other hand, teaching students at their homes would have a very limited impact.
With this in mind, Rafa thought of contacting orphanages. But being a second-generation American who had been in Bangladesh only twice in her life, she did not have any contacts.
So she took to social media and started to contact orphanages online. After many attempts, a few responded.
Demand for the initiative to grow bigger
Rafa wanted to teach only English as a second language.
"I could not even imagine teaching every subject," she said, laughing.
"But the first orphanage that got in touch with me insisted that I teach every subject because there was a huge need for their children to get remote schooling due to the pandemic-induced school closure. They also wanted five days a week classes," Rafa added.
Rafa realised she could not fulfil the requirements of the orphanage on her own. So she took to the social media groups again, looking for volunteers who would take up the challenge.
This is when the Fera Foundation came into being. The foundation currently has around 70 volunteers who provide teaching services to five orphanages and schools. Volunteers say they enjoy their work at Fera.
Armin Ahmad, an A-Levels student from SFX Greenherald International School and College, has been volunteering as an English teacher with Dino's Orphanage - a partner of Fera Foundation. Armin says it is her first teaching experience and she is very happy to get this opportunity.
"What I love most about these children is that they are very curious and enthusiastic about learning. They are also very interactive, and I love teaching them. While I am gaining this teaching experience, I am also contributing to the country by helping underprivileged children," the young volunteer said.
Thanks to the satisfactory response from the volunteers, the schooling activity is expanding. It has recently entered into a collaboration with CLP USA - an organisation promoting the knowledge and usage of computer and information technology among the underprivileged youths in Bangladesh. CLP USA also boasts a large number of local partners.
Recently, the two organisations jointly organised an online primary school teachers training. The new partnership is expected to facilitate the expansion of the remote teaching activity as well as smart classrooms throughout the villages in Bangladesh.
But even without large displays and fine sound systems, children seem to enjoy the classes.
Anjana Akter, a student of class three from 'LEF for Life' - a not for profit organisation working with underprivileged children - says she loves the music and English classes the most.
"They teach us English differently, and with extra care," the girl said. Their method is better than her school, Anjana added, saying she waits for these classes.
Rafa thinks it is really important to change how we teach children; therefore, much emphasis is put on interaction and engagement.
Moumita Barua, manager and a teacher at LEF, echoed Anjana. She explained how the children are being benefited by the supplementary schooling activity.
"Our orphanage-cum-school at Gazipur is located in a remote area. Our children live in hostels. Many of them are orphans and others have very poor parents. Their scope to know the outside world is very limited.
Through Fera Foundation's remote schooling activity, they are able to acquire additional knowledge, which is wonderful," Moumita said.
The official stated that children are having these additional three-hour-long classes four days a week.
Along with support for their regular school lessons, children also get additional lessons and other counselling support from Fera volunteers.
"We offer a number of diverse programmes. Our educational services include classes in math, science, and English, and workshops on menstrual hygiene and neurodevelopmental disorders. We also provide medical services like tele-medicine, art therapy, and psychological counselling," said the Fera founder.
What is the secret behind successfully managing all these online?
"We maintain very close communication with all the parties, make sure that teachers are enjoying the classes and taking them regularly. I also tell orphanage staff to inform me if there is an issue, if a teacher is not appearing; I also tell the teachers to do the same," revealed Rafa.
The foundation is currently operating its remote classes without any external funding. But for the long term sustainability of the programmes, funding is critical, Rafa knows. So, she soon hopes to start fundraising to be able to retain the teachers that are working and to buy equipment for the orphanages and schools the foundation is working with.
"If we really want to expand all over Bangladesh, we are going to need funds," said Rafa Sattar.
Fera Foundation does not only work with volunteers from Bangladesh, rather it has volunteers of Indian and Pakistani-descent as well, and of course Bangladeshi-Americans. So, it has the potential to grow into a global phenomenon, according to the founder Rafa.
So, where is the Fera Foundation heading? What is their long term goal?
"We can provide a case study for how to effectively provide humanitarian services remotely. In rural areas, I think it is a great opportunity for the students to come in contact with high quality professionals who would teach them," the rights activist replied.
"Our mission is to foster an inspirational international network of volunteers to serve marginalised children and women. We also want to instil in people a sense of obligation to serve others.
Every child has the right to receive high quality education so they can make a difference in the society while succeeding professionally in the future," Rafa Sattar concluded.