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Children in refugee camps are ‘starving for education’ says teacher. This is how education can continue despite displacement

Even before governments across the world closed schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing education was a major challenge for refugee or internally displaced children. During 2020’s lockdowns, children in refugee camps have been at especially high risk of missing out on remote education due to lack of access to the necessary technology.

As schools reopen around the world, more attention is needed to the particular challenges faced by teachers in refugee camps.

Ja Aung is a middle-school teacher in Hpung Lung Yang [GSA1] camp for internally displaced persons in Kachin State, Myanmar. The camp’s plywood and sheet-metal structures house around two thousand people forced from their homes by fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar. Before the pandemic, she reflected on the difficulties of her role:

“The biggest challenge that I face as a teacher is communication”, says Ja Aung. “As the schools where I teach are in the border areas between China and Myanmar, students speak different Kachin dialects and accents, not just the common Kachin language, Jinghpaw.

Ja Aung is not alone – communication is one of the four main challenges pinpointed in Save the Children’s report Hear It From The Teachers: Getting Refugee Children Back To Learning. In a survey, 61% of refugee teachers employed by the charity reported issues with some children not speaking the language of instruction in the classroom.

As the report explains, studies suggest that the most effective way to integrate pupils who do not speak the majority language is to incorporate some lessons in their mother tongue, rather than immerse them in the new language. But that can be challenging when children in a class speak multiple languages.


How to teach in a crisis

Training is another challenge the report highlights: “A lack of effective teacher professional development is a key issue for teachers of refugees around the globe”.

Ja Aung concurs: “I am lucky that I received 9-month teacher training,” she says, referring to a unique pre-service teaching program, called the New Generation Teacher Training College which is a partnership between the local Diocesan Commission of Education and Jesuit Refugee Service.

Aung spent seven months studying an intensive teacher preparation curriculum and had an additional two month placement at a local school.

 “I found that the teachers who did not receive any teacher training or trained for short term such as one week faced many challenges, as they did not get a chance to learn skills for teaching such as elements of pedagogy like school and classroom management.

“It would be good if there will be ongoing teacher training program for all teachers, Ja Aung adds.

Recognising the need for teacher training, the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies developed an open-source package: Training for Primary School Teachers in Crisis Contexts comprises four modules, with a participant handbook and facilitator’s guide available online.

This package underpins initiatives such as the New Generation Teacher Training College, as well as Teachers for Teachers, run by Columbia University with various partners, which offers services including peer coaching and mobile mentoring via WhatsApp and a private Facebook group.

The modules cover subjects including classroom management, child development, lesson planning, using local resources in the classroom, positive discipline, identifying signs of distress in children, and how teachers can look after their own well-being.

When asked what she would especially like to learn more about, “child psychology” is the first topic Ja Aung mentions. She already uses techniques such as building a child’s self-confidence by hanging their drawings on the wall, and scheduling “singing and dancing at the last period on every Friday… I believe this boosts their well-being.”

Ja Aung’s interest is shared by the teachers surveyed for Save The Children’s report: three-quarters of respondents drew attention to students’ psychosocial wellbeing as a priority, with some children being quiet and distant while others are hostile or hyperactive.

“Teachers regularly reported that they needed to provide refugee students with targeted support to better understand what was behind their behaviors, the report notes.


Keeping children in class

The final challenge identified by Save The Children is that many refugee children drop out of school to look after siblings or earn an income. UNHCR figures suggest that while 77% of primary-aged refugee children were in school in 2019, this dropped to just 31% at secondary level.

Refugee girls are especially at risk of dropping out because of early marriage, pregnancy, or parental concerns about mixing with boys. One estimate, based on UNHCR statistics, is that half the refugee girls who were in secondary school before COVID-19 are unlikely to return when schools reopen.

While getting vulnerable children back to school is currently a challenge across the world, these figures point to the need for more research into the particular difficulties in refugee contexts.

Photo credit: INEE