A Student’s Life: Reflections on Education in Turkey

By Mavis Brown, University of Richmond
and Hanife Tasdemir, Istanbul University

I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to be educated in a system culturally different from that of my own upbringing in the eastern part of the United States. When Hanife Tasdemir arrived in my college level Education in America class as a Fulbright scholar from Istanbul, Turkey, I had the opportunity to learn about her experiences in the Turkish education system. We enjoyed long conversations about her early years growing up in Turkey. Below, I share some of our question-and-answer sessions. 

Brown: Tell me about your early educational schooling.

Hanife: My education journey started in 1st grade at the age of 7 at a public school in Turkey. I had never heard anything bad or discouraging about the school before starting, and my elder sister attended the school and I saw that she was quite neat and happy in her school uniform all the time. I would use my elder sister’s notebook to learn to read and write before I started my formal education. My mom taught me. In fact, she was my first teacher. When registering me for the school, my dad took me to the principal’s office to show I was quite eager to start, although I was a few months younger than the normal age for that cohort. He asked me to write a few words, and then I was accepted to the primary school, where I thought every kid was having fun, as they were all talking about this “different” place.

Brown: Your family clearly played an important part instilling a desire to learn and the responsibility to work hard so that your potential could be realized. Can you describe a typical day in primary school?    

Hanife: I woke up at 7:30 a.m., put on my school uniform and put my backpack next to the front door of our home. My mom prepared breakfast almost every day and we all had breakfast together as a family of four members. I wore the school uniform that was the same across the country—a knee-length blue dress with a ribbon around the neck. The boys had the same color uniform with pants. Once I was ready to go, I would go out to the street and wait for the other kids so we could go to school together. Whoever made it to the street first would call out other kids’ names so there was no chance of missing school. I walked to school with a group of five other students. One important criterion for those daily walks was that a few older kids needed to be in the group to take care of the younger ones. Our school was not really far from home, since it was obligatory to send your kids to the nearest school. In our neighborhood, all of the kids were at state schools and so we walked together. It usually took us 10 minutes, but sometimes we would compete to be the fastest and could reach the school in five minutes. Those journeys to school were really fun for me; it was a time to chat with the other kids.

Brown: There seemed to be a strong community feel to your early years of schooling. I can tell there was sense of joy and eagerness to be with other children. Can you tell me more about your school and walk me through your daily schedule?

Hanife: Our school had almost 1,000 students, 22-27 in each class and 5-6 classes at each grade from 1st to 8th. We had three big buildings. One building was for nursery school, 1st grade, and 2nd grade. One building was for 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. The other building was for 3rd and 4th grades. At my primary school, I had classes five days (all weekdays) a week, with six classes per day. There were four classes in the morning, then two classes in the afternoon. Each class lasted 45 minutes; after each one, we had a 10- or 15-minute break. The classes started at 8:45 a.m. and ended at 3:15 p.m. During the one-hour lunch break, we would walk together back home for lunch. There were cafeterias, but if home was close and the mom was at home, then the kids would usually go to their homes for lunch. After lunch, we again met to walk back to school together. We would walk home from the school together at the end of the day as well.

Brown: That sounds like a busy school day. What were your classes like? What subjects comprised the curriculum?

Hanife: We had six hours of classes, including Turkish, math, physical education (PE), music, art, and hayat bilgisi (“life science,” which was basically natural sciences and social sciences combined together); this was the schedule through 3rd grade. In Turkish class, we learned how to read and write, and it was the most frequent class of our schedule. PE was two hours; music and arts were one hour a week. Starting in 4th grade, we had English class and social sciences and natural sciences instead of the life science class. We also had a “Knowledge of Religion and Ethics” class from this grade on for one hour a week. It was an easy class, mostly teaching about moral values and basic information about Islam (the prophet’s life, etc.) As 96-98% of the population are followers of Islam, we were generally all familiar with the content. In high school, we learned about different religions, faiths, beliefs. In 8th grade, we had an extra history class focusing on “The Republic of Turkey”; other classes beginning in 6th grade addressed “Citizenship Knowledge,” “Traffic Rules,” “House Economy,” “Agriculture,” “Technical (woodcarving, etc.).”

Brown: You took quite a wide variety of classes, which is fascinating. From citizenship and religious values, to math, art, and science, it seems as though your early education was truly comprehensive. Earlier you mentioned that after each class students were allowed a 10- to 15-minute break. How did you and your classmates spend time in between classes?

Hanife: During the breaks, all of the students played in the same big garden. We used to play ball games, hopscotch, and jump rope, and also sang and danced (whatever a kid could think of) together. There was a big football field, and two basketball hoops, a long line of fountains, two locker rooms for PE classes, one canteen, and one office supply store. This small store was a type of bookstore; two students worked there every day during the break times. I worked there, too; it was a good experience because we were selling things and using math knowledge.

Brown: Break time sounds like a wonderful chance for students to play and socialize. And the store must have been a great opportunity for you and your classmates to apply knowledge learned in the classroom to real-world situations. During break and classes, were there school rules that students had to follow? Which of these rules stand out the most?

Hanife: There were teachers “on-duty” every day, and those teachers and the administration checked to see if we were wearing our school uniform and were dressed appropriately. Sometimes, they checked whether we had trimmed our nails and if we were carrying our handkerchiefs. There was even a rule that we couldn’t wear earrings, and we weren’t allowed to wear sneakers, only formal shoes. I hated that rule! Luckily, we were free to wear sneakers in high school. Girls had to tie back their hair, and the boys had to shave if they needed. They were not allowed into the school otherwise. We wore ties (all boys and girls), and they checked to see that they were close to our top shirt button. We couldn’t wear any accessories except watches.

Brown: What was the disciplinary system for enforcing these rules?

Hanife: I was always well mannered and did not encounter any discipline problems, but if someone acted out, we had a strict assistant principal who used to spank kids. Everyone was really afraid of him, including me. When he spoke to the whole school at Monday morning or Friday afternoon gatherings, we were all silent. (At these times, students gathered in the school garden, sang the national anthem, and listened to any administrative announcements). Two “family meetings” were held per semester, when they called parents to school and told them how their child was doing and if s/he had any discipline problems. The teacher or the administration could ask your family to come to the school at any time if a child’s behavior needed to be discussed. Generally, parents of naughty kids were called often. It is now illegal to spank students, and teachers could lose their job if they do so.

Brown: After classes ended each afternoon, how would you and your classmates spend your time? 

Hanife: I feel like school took a lot of time. When we came home, however, we did still have the energy to play in the street, which was quite calm then. When it got dark, we went home and had dinner with our families. In the evening, I watched television after finishing my homework. My mom would help us (me and my sister) with our homework. Many mothers couldn’t help their children with homework, because they could hardly read and write (it was the same for my dad).

As a custom, we had guests or we were guests at someone’s houses. I would study with the other kids when they visited us or when we visited them. Even though we went to someone’s house for a coffee and chat, I took my assignments or books with me. When we were all done with homework, we played games together. It was so much fun. After a busy and tiring day, I would go to bed before 9:30 or 10 p.m.

Brown: The combination of schoolwork, family, and community that seems so salient in your early education is remarkable. Is it still the same way today? How has education in Turkey changed since your primary school experience?

Hanife: We saw our teachers as people who knew everything, and we took them as idols. It was the same for our parents, too. They showed respect to the teachers even when they were younger than them. If a kid couldn’t do well, parents used to ask the kid to study more. Now, it is different. My friends from college now work in the public schools, and they say they do not receive the same respect that we used to show to our teachers.

Brown: It is interesting how attitudes and perceptions can change over time. Lack of respect is hard to combat, and I imagine that it is challenging for your educator friends. What was the most challenging part of your education experience in Turkey?

Hanife: I had a lower middle-class family—my dad is a barber and my mom is a housewife. I have two sisters, and both my elder sister and I are college graduates. My younger sister is in 8th grade now. We never had the luxury to spend very much. We have a home and money to pay the utilities and get by on a limited income. As there is no fee for school, it was easier to get a quality education. Thanks to that education, I am now in a better economic condition than my family. I am even able to help them financially. Yet I remember times when I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to finish college or work at a university, as my parents didn’t have enough financial support to provide for me through my education. The good thing is that they didn’t have to. I was successful in school and received scholarships for four years at college. I didn’t need to ask for very much money through my college education. In fact, the equation is quite simple; to get a quality education, you should either be rich or really promising. I was the latter.

Brown: Your story is a powerful illustration of not only the importance of access to quality education, but also how quality education can transform lives. How did your primary school experience in Turkey contribute to where you are today?

Hanife: In 8th grade, we took the High School Examination. I did well on the exam and studied at an “Anatolian High School.” The most prestigious high schools are science high schools (there are only a few of these schools that focus on math and science), “teacher vocational high schools,” and “Anatolian high schools.” I had one year of English education as a part of the school curriculum; we had 24 hours of English per week, four hours of German, two hours of PE, one hour of music, and one hour of arts. Then, I studied “Foreign Language Field” and took a general exam like the SAT, and an English exam in 12th grade. I scored the highest at our high school when we took the university entrance exam, and I studied English language teaching at college.

I would never have imagined that one day I would come to the United States and teach at a university as a Fulbright scholar. But it is actually like a chain. When you are really good at primary school, then you have the chance to enter a prestigious high school. The environment of the high school leads you to a prestigious college. I got scholarships for all four years of college and almost didn’t pay any tuition fees (it was made totally free when I was in my junior year; before that, I used to pay about $45, as I scored among the top 10% of the department). In 2012, I graduated from Istanbul University (which ranked among the top 500 universities around the world) with an honor’s degree.