Champion Teacher For Refugee Children Education

Bad weather can bring classes at Furaha Primary School to a halt. - Photo © UNHCR Georgina Goodwin. Bad weather can bring classes at Furaha Primary School to a halt. - Photo © UNHCR Georgina Goodwin.

Photo : UNHCR

Children all over the world need great teachers, but refugees need them all the more. Behind the students featured in this report are teachers - academic tutors but also mentors, motivators, protectors and champions, often working in exceptionally difficult circumstances with poor facilities, inadequate supplies of educational materials and overcrowded classrooms.

Without their dedication and perseverance, there would be no schools to go to. Investment in a teacher of refugees is therefore an investment in the futures of hundreds, if not thousands, of children.

The UNHCR's report, "Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis" released on September 12 last year underline the importance of quality teaching, and of the support networks needed to keep teachers trained, motivated and able to make a positive impact in the world's toughest classrooms.

Teachers must be properly supported and motivated

Teachers involved in the education of refugees need adequate and regular pay. But other measures to help them feel like respected professionals like participation in decision making, improvements in working conditions, support for substantial professional development and certification, also contribute to the motivation, quality and attitude of teachers with some of the world's most challenging jobs. Without this, the chronic teacher shortages that hamper the education of refugees and their host communities will persist.

The case study of Yangani Primary School, in the Bidibidi refugee settlement, northern Uganda, reveals a student-to-teacher ratio of 130:1 - a situation that would be deemed unacceptable most countries.

"The sort of ratio inevitably leads to dozens of children sharing desks, textbooks and other materials. Investment in building new schools and expanding the capacity of existing ones is sorely needed, as is the provision of adequate supplies of learning materials and equipment."

In the world's toughest classrooms, the teachers must be qualified

Like all other children, refugees deserve qualified teachers who are knowledgeable in how they teach and what they teach. These teachers, require access to continual training opportunities to help them develop, add new skills and find solutions to problems they encounter in the classroom.

Some organizations have shown great flair and imagination when it comes to the provision of ongoing training and support. In Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, a training and mentoring programme is giving the teachers there support and engagement from both international and local coaches to overcome the many challenges they face. The more such efforts are replicated, the more refugee children will have well qualified teachers standing before them.

Digital innovation can enhance classroom learning but cannot replace it

The computer teacher takes learners through an ICT lesson at the school in Dabaab Refugee Kem, Kenya - Photo @ UNHCR B.Rono.

UNHCR strives to offer refugees connected learning programmes with accredited courses through partnerships with academic institutions, using a mix of onsite and online interactions with instructors, tutors and their peers. Connected learning has been particularly successful in remotes places where resources are low, and is invaluable where it is hard for refugees to physically attend university.

Yet teachers remain central to the success of such programmes. Massive open online courses are sometimes perceived as an acceptable substitute for refugees, yet they have extremely high dropout rates. Learners find the material short on relevance or are put off by the impersonal nature of sitting in front of a computer and watching a video lecture. Only one per cent of refugee youth are in tertiary education; this statistic will not be improved by asking refugees to learn exclusively online.

Teachers and students need access to quality materials

Children learn best with a variety of tools and experiences which are appropriate to their age and are culturally, linguistically and socially relevant. However, all too often, refugee teachers and the children in their classrooms do not have access to adequate materials. To get some idea of the scale of the problem, in Ethiopia, 15 refugee learners have to share the same book.

What do teachers say?

Unsurprisingly, the response of teachers depends on the circumstances they face and the level of support they receive. Some speak of being "overwhelmed"; others say students can spot teachers who are supported and motivated, and that makes them "more determined to succeed".

In Yemen, where children from both refugee and host communities are going to school in the middle of a war, teachers speak of having to counsel children who have witnessed appalling violence and who may have lost close relatives, including one or both parents. Yet they keep turning up to work despite the omnipresent danger, delayed or unpaid salaries and the bomb-damaged classrooms.

Syrian children refugee, Jamal, 12, writes in English on a blackboard beside his teacher, Miss Abir Sbai at a school in Lebanon-Photo @ UNHCR S. Baldwin.

Teachers with access to the experience and advice of their colleagues around the world, are getting the professional support they need to succeed in their extremely challenging working environments. Leaving teachers without support networks and opportunities to develop would be unthinkable in any well-developed educational system. There is no justification to do so with those entrusted with the futures of refugee children.

Class Act

With more than 3,400 students, Unity Primary School would be a big job for head teacher, Yel Luka. Unity is one of the largest schools in Kakuma refugee camp, and the scale of the task facing its teachers is difficult to comprehend. Classes of 90 or 100 are common. Classes of 200 are not unusual. In such circumstances, engaging and inspiring the students is a daunting challenge. Staying motivated as a teacher can be just as hard.

Yel Luka, South Sudanese refugee teacher, Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya - Photo © UNHCR Anthony Karumba.

In Kakuma, help has arrived from long distance. More than 70 per cent of the teachers there have participated in a project called "Teachers for Teachers", a training, coaching and mentoring system devised by Columbia University in the United States.

Innovative support from teachers across the globe

Training begins face to face. Groups of teachers, many of whom have little or no experience, learn techniques and methods appropriate to challenging environments such as those in Kakuma's classrooms from international and local instructors. The programme then continues with more coaching, plus support from "global mentors" from around the world, who provide regular, real-time support via mobile apps such as WhatsApp.

Participants follow two "tracks" concurrently, a shorter programme and an extended, more in-depth course. Those who complete these programmes can choose to become coaches themselves.

For Luka, this was the most interesting part of the whole system. As a peer coach, he has become a reliable source of support for 50 of his colleagues.

"Coaching has really helped me become a better leader," he says.

"The training has changed how things work around here.

"Our students are more determined to succeed because they can see that their teachers are so motivated to support them achieve their goals," he says."

On the ground: Bursting at the seams

In Yangani Primary School, in the Bidibidi refugee settlement, a group off dedicated teachers take on the Herculean task of overseeing the education of 5,000 eager students. Despite the massive student numbers, the school has a staff of only 38.

At the crack of dawn, Patrick Abale walks out of his tent, nestled amongst several others on the edge of the school.

"When I joined here there were more than 6,000 pupils in this school," he says. A few months after the school opened, there are still around 5,000 pupils which, as Patrick notes drily, "is a very big number."

Yangani Primary School has 5,000 students and only 38 teachers - Photo @ UNHCR Isaac Kasamani.

Patrick, a Ugandan, is a deputy principal in charge of academic studies and administration at Yangani, a Ugandan state school. Although the children are mostly refugees there are some locals too.

Patrick's ten years of teaching have seen him work in some difficult environments, but Yangani is on a different scale.

"Things are really tough here because there just isn't enough space for all the students," he says, gesturing into one of the classrooms.

"Sometimes because of the congestion, they stand next to the teacher at the front of the class," Patrick says.

Yangani school opened in February 2016 to cater the rapidly growing numbers of South Sudanese refugees. Now as a host to over a million people who have fled South Sudan, 60 per cent of them children, Uganda are struggling to keep up.

According to the Ministry of Education, the standard teacher-to-student ratio should be 1 to 45, three children to a desk, and 14 to every lavatory. Yangani breaches these rules, and some others.

As an administrator, Patrick tries to see to it that learning materials are shared equally across the classes.

"We now have 279 textbooks for all students, so you can imagine how tough it is to share," he says. That's one textbook to every 18 children.

"Imagine only 38 teachers for all these students. You can get overwhelmed," he remarks as he sets off.

UNHCR, the Ugandan education ministry and various partner organizations are looking for ways to increase capacity, setting up more schools and working to identify existing ones that can expand. In this way, they hope to get more refugee children into the national education system at the same time as raising standards for both refugees and local communities. But Uganda cannot do this on its own.

"The government is already doing its level best so we are calling for more donor support to fill the gaps," says Julius Okello, a UNHCR field officer in Bidibidi.