Building peace in the minds of men and women


Helping teachers to help refugees


In Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, the scale of the challenge for teachers is daunting. Classes of ninety or a 100 students are common, and classes with 200 children are not unusual.

Fifty million displaced children worldwide! This was the alarming figure released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on World Refugee Day, 20 June 2018. Faced with the trauma and interrupted education of these children who are victims, teachers find themselves ill-equipped to deal with these challenges – especially since many of them have little or no qualifications themselves. Now, several institutions in different countries are stepping up with initiatives to help teachers give their best.  

Jacqueline Strecker

Teachers in schools that host refugees often walk into the toughest classrooms in the world, day after day. A single classroom could contain many learners who have seen their homes destroyed and their relatives injured or killed. Some may have disabilities, either from birth or as a result of the violence in their home countries. They could be former child soldiers, survivors of sexual abuse, or children whose siblings were not lucky enough to escape to a safe place like they did. Their education may have been interrupted for weeks, months, or even years.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, estimates that on average, refugee learners miss out on at least three to four years of education because of forced displacement – making their re-entry into school a persistent challenge for education systems in general, and for teachers in particular.

In 2016, there were 6.4 million school-aged children and youth among the 17.2 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate. Almost 3.5 million of these remain out of school – the 2.9 million who are able to enrol, often end up in overcrowded and poorly-resourced classrooms. At least 20,000 additional teachers and 12,000 more classrooms are needed each year to address the gap for the world’s displaced students alone.

The experience of Chaltu Megesha Gedo is inspiring. When she arrived for her first day of teaching in the Kakuma Refugee camp in northern Kenya, she was assigned a first-grade primary class. “These were children aged between 5 and 10 years,” she recalls. “I entered the class and I was mesmerized – I did not know where to turn because there were 250 of them!”

But even environments that are not optimal still present the best opportunities for refugee children and youth to transform their lives. Teachers remain the most likely catalysts for that transformation, and require targeted support that takes local realities into account.

Teachers in these schools may themselves be refugees, and have often experienced the same types of trauma as their students. This is why training programmes must address the psychological needs of teachers to help them grow professionally.

Innovative initiatives

A series of joint initiatives and innovative pedagogical approaches to support the preparedness and well-being of teachers working with refugees have been implemented.

The Teachers in Crisis Contexts Training Pack (TICC) is an inter-agency initiative that synthesizes existing resources into a single comprehensive resource to encourage harmonized programming between partners in emergency settings. The resulting open-source teacher-training pack covers five areas – the teacher’s role and well-being; child protection, well-being and inclusion; pedagogy; curriculum and planning; and subject knowledge. Each domain focuses on building the skills required for unqualified or under-qualified teachers.

While the TICC was an important step towards establishing minimum skills and classroom content needed, its development also underlined the ineffectiveness of stand-alone training. This awareness led to the launching of innovative initiatives like the Teachers for Teachers and the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) programmes.

Global mentors

Teachers for Teachers is a joint initiative of  Teachers College, Columbia University (United States) and  Finn Church Aid, a Finnish non-governmental organization (NGO), in partnership with UNHCR and the Lutheran World Federation. It provides teachers with continuous  professional development, using an approach that integrates training classes, peer coaching and mobile mentoring.

The training is based on the TICC, with teachers following two concurrent tracks – a short-term session of four days, and long-term training spread over several months. In addition, teachers are placed into small groups and assigned a peer coach who facilitates the learning circles and conducts classroom visits to aid each teacher.

Mobile mentoring is perhaps the most innovative aspect of the programme, providing teachers with a “global mentor” available to them via WhatsApp and a private Facebook group. These exchanges help teachers feel they are part of a wider community of practitioners with whom they can share their experiences and obtain teaching advice.Intercultural exchanges

The BHER programme provides refugees and local teachers residing in and around the Dadaab Refugee Complex (in Kenya, near the border with Somalia), an opportunity to acquire recognized teaching diplomas and degrees from Kenyan and Canadian universities. This unique consortium programme brings together Canada’s University of British Columbia and York University with Kenya’s Kenyatta University and Moi University, through a blended learning approach – combining online learning with face-to-face instruction provided by  professors who visit Dadaab during school breaks and holidays.

A compelling aspect of the programme is that it enables intercultural exchanges. For example, some courses offer refugee students in Dadaab the opportunity to participate in virtual seminars together with students from Mae Sot, Thailand or Toronto, Canada. Through these cross-cultural dialogues, students and teachers alike are able to question local teaching norms and gain new perspectives and ideas from other contexts.

While further efforts are required to ensure that all teachers working with refugees can be trained, these programmes are important examples – demonstrating effective and innovative ways of supporting teachers, even in the world’s most remote corners.

With this article, the UNESCO Courier marks the celebration of International Migrants Day on December 18.

For more information

A lifeline to Learning Report (UNESCO)

No Stranger Place

A day in the life of a refugee (UNHCR)

See also: Providing education in crisis contexts

Jacqueline Strecker

Connected Education Officer at UNHCR’s Division of Resilience and Solutions, Jacqueline Strecker (Canada) has been with the refugee agency since 2012. She has extensive experience in the provision of education in refugee contexts.