Cover interview: Hanan Al HroubApril 20, 2016, 11:18 am GMT
Hanan Al Hroub didn't always plan to become a primary school teacher. Having grown up in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, Palestine, Al Hroub was studying English at university, hoping to become a translator. However, when her children witnessed their father being attacked in the street, she realised the teachers in the camps were not equipped to address the emotional and psychologic effects of the violence refugee children face every day.
"I wanted to help the community to advance their place in life from being lost and no one because of violence, to being appreciated. The children see violence daily, and this would affect their attitude with other people; they become violent too. It's an action and a reaction, and I wanted to stop that. In my point of view, I think the teacher is the foundation on which a society is built. We are the ones who raise the next generation, and how we raise them will be reflected in the society," Al Hroub tells Education Journal Middle East during an exclusive interview the morning after winning the US $1 million Global Teacher Prize, established by the Varkey Foundation to recognise outstanding teachers around the world.
Now in its second year, the initiative aims to shine the spotlight on the important role teachers play in society. Al Hroub was one of 10 finalists shortlisted from more than 8,000 applications.
At a star-studded ceremony, she was declared the winner by His Holiness Pope Francis via a video address, and was felicitated on stage by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai.
"I am a Palestinian teacher and an Arab, and despite everything we are going through, we won. I was with 10 of the best teachers, and I really felt how special they were. I am very grateful to the Varkey Foundation, and Sunny Varkey I'm here because of him. This initiative will help teachers all around the world because it puts the spotlight on the teachers so they can give more in their field," Al Hroub says.
What made Al Hroub's methods stand out is the curriculum she developed, which focuses on a "no violence" policy. She uses a specialist approach she developed herself, detailed in her book, 'We Play and Learn', which highlights the importance of developing trusting, honest, and respectful relationships between teachers and their students.
The 29 students in her Grade 2 classroom at Samiha Khalil Secondary School in Al Bireh, Palestine are encouraged to work together as a group, and achievements are rewarded with prizes such as gold stars and special reading corners.
Hroub explains: "The most enjoyable thing for children is playing so I use this method. Because of the violence the children witness, it's more difficult for teachers to change the children's behaviour. I tried to solve this problem by putting the children in focus groups. Every group plays a game competing against each other. This makes every individual child not just think about themselves but think about the whole group, because he wants his group to win. This is a very healthy way to make a child not think about himself only and think about others.
"I also have this terminology of "we". If we win, we will win as a team. If we lose, we lose as a team as well. Every individual will affect the whole group. I help them reach the solution step by step, by engaging with and accepting everyone in the team. The first thing I do is I try to engage with them in a way that will make them trust me, because trust is the most important thing between me and the students. I make the class fun, so it's more engaging; they can move around, it's not boring or restrictive. I want it to be interactive for them to learn more. I always give them a reward when they achieve something a star for example, and gradually I give them more things, like a reading corner. I have to always challenge the students and see how much they can grow."
The focus on a fun learning environment was obvious when Al Hroub presented a masterclass during the Global Education & Skills Forum. Donning a brightly coloured wig and red nose, she brought along a monkey-shaped hand puppet to demonstrate the importance of incorporating play when teaching young children.
The result has been a decline in violent behaviour in schools. Al Hroub now trains other teachers, who observe her lessons and try to implement a similar approach in their own classrooms.
"I want my curriculum to be used by teachers around the world, and for them to benefit from the methods despite the situations they face. We need to have new ways of dealing with these students," she says.
Commenting on the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, Al Hroub acknowledges that teachers in Lebanon and Jordan which have taken in the bulk of displaced Syrians have a huge task ahead of them.
"The Syrian refugees are living in a very difficult situation. This is a difficult time for the children psychologically; they are taken from their homes, not knowing where they're going. There should be collaboration between Syrian teachers and teachers in the country where the refugees are set in because the other teachers need to know the background of the child, the culture, and how they think, so they can help them.
"There should be a link between these two parties. The refugees also have to learn about the new country they are in, the culture, how they think, so they can cope with the new environment they are in," she urges.
Looking to the future
When asked how she plans to use the prize money, Al Hroub says she is keen to continue her education and earn more specialist degrees. She will also invest some of it in tools for her curriculum.
"For my curriculum to succeed, I need a good environment; I need tools for this curriculum, because we can't implement my curriculum without the right tools. I want to implement my ideas not only in Palestine but throughout the Arab world," she enthuses.
Al Hroub also wants to encourage more people to enter the teaching profession, especially Arab men.
"I want to encourage men to enter the profession of teaching because when they succeed at university, they don't usually choose to become teachers; they pick other fields. If I know someone who wants to become a teacher, I'm going to help him with his university studies. Mostly the educated men and women in our part of the world usually study to become doctors and engineers; they don't want to be teachers. So I want to encourage them to be teachers."
"I also need more than US $1 million if I want to implement this correctly based on my vision," Al Hroub adds, smiling. And with the connections she's made at the conference, and the opportunities her win provides, she is confident more people will see the effectiveness of the work she is doing.
Most importantly, Al Hroub says she wants to highlight the importance of teachers and the work they are doing in building future generations.
"In order to see the change in the students, the first thing we have to change is how we look at the teachers the place of the teacher and how we can raise the bar. Before you start with changing curriculums and teaching systems, you have to first focus on the teacher. The teacher is the product and the students are the outcome. I am the outcome of my teachers too, and that's why I'm here today," she points out.
The importance of education and hope has been a central message for Al Hroub, throughout her time as one of the finalists as well her career.
One of her most notable quotes has been: "I tell all teachers, whether they are Palestinian or around the world, our job is humane, its goals are noble. We must teach our children that our only weapon is knowledge and education."
"We can make change, if we decide from our hearts and our minds," Al Hroub concludes.
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