Teaching in the time of conflict

Palestinian teacher Hanan al-Hroub, winner of this year’s Global Teacher Prize, on her experiences

April 25, 2016 04:27 pm | Updated 04:27 pm IST

Hanan al-Hroub. Photo: Special Arrangement

Hanan al-Hroub. Photo: Special Arrangement

Hanan al-Hroub has seen the effect of political violence on children. It was the reason she took up teaching as a profession. Now, the primary school educator from Samiha Khalil High School, Al-Bireh, Palestine, has seen the positive impact of her innovative pedagogy being lauded on the world stage.

“Teachers are the real power of the world. Together, they can unite it through education and change the future for the better,” says Hanan.

After being declared the winner of this year’s Global Teacher Prize (instituted by the Varkey Foundation under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai), Hanan has been in the spotlight.

International leaders have paid tribute to her teaching methods that helped stabilise the lives of young children who grow up in the backdrop of conflict.

The prize, also widely referred to as the ‘Nobel Prize for teaching’, carries a cash award of $ 1 million, and is now in its second year. Hanan was among the top 10 teachers (including Robin Chaurasiya from India) shortlisted from 8,000 applications from 148 countries.

The winner was announced at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on March 16.

Hanan al-Hroub shared her experiences as a student and teacher with MetroPlus in an email interview. Excerpts.

Your earliest memories as a student.

I grew up in the Dheisheh Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem, surrounded by deprivation. My parents, with six sons and four daughters, lived in harsh economic conditions. My father, who is 80, studied only until Class VI, but he encouraged (and still encourages) our family to pursue education. My mother, who was a homemaker, did not have any formal education.

During my schooldays, education was open to all, and the enrolment of girls in schools was high. But fewer girls went for higher education, because of the prevailing political and economic situation.

It was also hard for girls to attend university, because most of them were married off early, particularly in remote villages. Things have improved nowadays, and the proportion of female students in Palestinian universities is around 58 per cent of all students.

Is it a challenge to keep the violence of the world out of the classroom? As a teacher, what strategies do you use to reassure children in a violent situation?

From my first day as a teacher, I embraced the ‘no to violence’ concept, by adopting the ‘We Play and Learn’ methodology. It had a positive impact and helped eliminate aggression in the classroom, and promote dialogue and co-operation. ‘We Play and Learn’ helps weed out negative behavioural patterns in children and motivates them to do well in their studies. It has decreased students’ egotism and selfishness, instead cultivating a spirit of collaboration and leadership.

As a slogan, ‘We Play and Learn’ has cemented the concept of democracy. Among other things, it helps foster a spirit of acceptance of others’ opinions.

Other teachers ask me how such changes can happen in a relatively short space of time. The answer is always to believe in the students’ potential and abilities, and find a way to explore and direct these.

Is the average child of today more exposed to violence, either on TV, at home or in real life?

In Palestine, back in 2000, my own children were severely traumatised when the car they were in was shot at by Israeli soldiers near a checkpoint, and my husband was injured in the shoulder. What happened to my own children was the real turning point for me.

I also saw that many other children are, directly or indirectly, exposed to violence in Palestine, and do need special care, patience and informed support early on in their school education.

Because of this, I decided to become a primary school teacher who could help children experiencing this kind of trauma. I teach students between the ages of six and 10. Because of the environment around them, they often have behavioural problems. They can be disruptive in class and find it hard to concentrate.

If traumatised children are not given the assistance and support they need, they will be lost. To reach them effectively, you have to give conventional teaching a helping hand with additional methods, like mine.

How has the experience of winning the Global Teacher Prize been?

I was very proud to be a Palestinian teacher on the stage in Dubai, and announced the winner of the Global Teacher Prize with the eyes of the world upon me.

It shows that the world recognises, believes in and respects my approach to education. It also demonstrates that Palestinian teachers can be creative, face challenges and compete with the best in the world, despite the circumstances we live in.

The Global Teacher Prize, and the Varkey Foundation which endows it, are doing an important job of shining a light on great teachers all round the world and the vital work they do. Too often, teaching is not as valued as other professions.

What’s the most satisfying aspect of being a teacher?

I have taught extremely traumatised children who have been acting out in violent ways, or are completely withdrawn from social interaction.

But, with patience and over time, I have taught students discipline and self-control through personalised attention, teamwork, parent-teacher conferences and just listening to what the child had to say. There are many wonderful things about being a teacher, but this is perhaps the most satisfying for me.

Can technology-driven gadgets and methodologies replace the teacher?

Techniques and technology are factors and tools in teaching; they have a role and goals to achieve. But they will never replace human nature and a teacher’s humanity.

Your message to teachers working with marginalised groups of society all over the world?

I would like to take this opportunity to ask – with teachers around the world – that all nations work together to make this a year of no violence.

I would also like to make this ‘the year of the Palestinian teacher’, as we need the world’s support to keep the flame of hope alive. We, just like other teachers, sow hope in our students and teach them that there is a better tomorrow. To quote the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: ‘We have on this earth what makes life worth living.’

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