Baghdad — Security has improved across Iraq, and along with it attention to an education system battered by decades of deprivation, and, since U.S. forces took over in 2003, attacks by Islamist militants intent on disrupting daily life.
Higher salaries are designed to keep the best teachers in the country, or entice return from exile. Budgets have increased, and the U.S. embassy is providing teacher-training programs and other aid for which educators here say they are grateful.
But teachers say vast uncertainties remain in a system once renowned for producing top professionals, from doctors to engineers. Iraqi statistics count 31,598 violent attacks against educational institutions in the first five years of U.S. occupation. During the peak of sectarian killing from 2005 to 2007, some 340 university professors and 446 students were killed by insurgents and militiamen.
The result has been a degradation of Iraq's fragile social texture, which teachers say is reflected in a drop in some students' willingness to learn, and in increased criminality. "Again we feel it is a bit peaceful (now), but underneath, no, there is something fundamental" that has changed, says one English professor who asked not to be named, and who has received death threats.
Years of exposure to violence and fear have taken a toll. "For Iraqi boys, what's the point of (getting a degree) when your life is threatened?" asks the teacher. "This is so much more of an influence. So we really can't talk about ideals because this is the fabric - this is the raw material that is to be used for education."
Another English teacher - one of a dozen who met this month with Jill Biden, the wife of the U.S. vice president and also an educator - explained why she did not want her name in print. "Because things are not stable here still, you know," said the teacher, adjusting her headscarf. "They could kill or kidnap me."
'YOU CAN'T EXPECT MIRACLES'
After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the spirit of teachers was tested as ministries and schools were looted and bloodshed increased. In 2007, the English teacher who recently met with Biden survived a mortar shell that landed nearby and watched as sectarian violence took its toll on her mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood.
"Believe me, there was a time when you were walking in the street, and you could feel people pointing and saying, 'You are from the other side,' " recalls the teacher. "So imagine, in this situation, how creative can you be in your job when you are teaching? You can't expect miracles."
She left but returned in 2008, convinced that she had to help rebuild her country - pushing back against the sectarian impulses and years of violence.
"When I left Iraq (in 2007) there were no liquor stores. A boy was not allowed to wear shorts," recalls the teacher. "By the time I came back, in (my neighborhood) alone, there were four liquor stores next to each other - it's out in the open now."
NORMAL EDUCATION STILL FAR OFF
Also awaiting her return were some improvements in the education system. Salaries for professors were raised to about $2,000 per month - compared with the average Iraqi income of $185 per month.
Figures from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for 2003 to 2007 state that the United States had "rehabilitated in full or in part" 2,962 schools, provided 8.7 million math and science textbooks, and facilitated workshops and training for 1,500 Iraqi faculty. In late June, the U.S. embassy and Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education announced a multiyear project: to fund close links between five U.S. and five Iraqi universities.
But one parent of a dentistry graduate says her daughter had to share some textbooks with nine other students. "They make it sound so good," the parent said of the USAID statistics. "I wish every single word of it were true - but it isn't."
During the meeting with Dr. Biden, the English teacher said the U.S. efforts "have made some difference.... You have brought so many things to our doorstep." But Biden also heard about "outdated methods" and old textbooks.
These teachers know that the problems are longstanding. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, stringent United Nations sanctions kept out everything from scientific journals to, at times, pencils. In its annual report on Iraq in 2002, the UN Children's Fund found "severe shortages of basic school supplies."
Today, many aspects of normal education remain a dream in Iraq. "This is the problem with a generation," says the first teacher. She cites her son who doesn't want to take or pass his exams. "I think we have to change the quality of life they are living, before we can talk about the kind of education we give them. How can you give them security? How can you give them hope?"