THE BLOG

'Instead of Sending Soldiers, Send Teachers'

10/08/2013 12:10 pm ET | Updated Dec 08, 2013
  • Maysa Jalbout Non-resident Fellow, Center for Universal Education, Brookings Institution
  • Sarah Dryden-Peterson Assistant Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education

In war, dedicated teachers are on the front lines of the battle for hope and equality. Facing harrowing conditions, teachers are often unsupported in responding to the pleas of children and parents for access to meaningful education. The international community must also support these teachers and their students' right to learn.

Attacks on schools are on the rise in places like Nigeria, Thailand, and Syria, transforming schools from sanctuaries of learning to scenes of horror. "The same places we used to go to teach or to learn, the armed men take us there to torture us," said an academic from Damascus University. Yet, many teachers persist. In the Central African Republic, teachers take refuge with their students in bush schools in forests. There are no books or blackboards. Rather, enthusiasm and will bring learning to life. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, female teachers defy daily threats and violence from extremists by educating the girls about whom they care so much.

Even as they risk their lives for their students by working under treacherous conditions, teachers in conflict countries are mostly underpaid or, worse, not paid at all. In Lebanon, where there are 300,000 children in public schools, there are now more than 500,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children. Many teachers have gone from classes of 40 to classes of 90. Despite the challenges, teachers teach, children learn and healing begins. A young Somali refugee living in Nairobi said of his teachers: they "never miss a lesson in school, the teacher is there always on time, ready to teach us. The school has prepared me for the future."

"Education cannot wait", affirmed leaders last week during the UN General Assembly. Over 28 million children in 32 countries affected by conflict, however, are waiting for education. A refugee teacher from The Democratic Republic of Congo described arriving in Kampala, Uganda and finding no education available for refugee children. He remembered the words of his teacher, who told him "If you arrive in the middle of a forest where there is no education, it is up to you to struggle to teach those children so that they will have something in their heads." And so he started a school. "Even though there is no salary, even though there is no assistance, I still have, in my heart, this vocation."

Children in conflict settings are not waiting on teachers. They are waiting on the international community. Despite the resolve and innovation shown by children, parents and teachers in conflict zones, education remains severely underfunded in humanitarian aid responses, slipping from 2 percent in 2009 to 1.4 percent in 2012, and consistently well under the 4% called for by the international community.

Motivated by her first hand experience of being shot for pursuing her right to education, 16-year-old Malala's powerful message at the United Nations last week summed up the resolve of millions of children and youth like her, who are demanding change. She said, "Instead of sending guns, send pens. Instead of sending tanks, send books. Instead of sending soldiers, send teachers."

Research is clear that at least three measures would improve conditions for teachers and students in conflict countries:

First, schools must be safe places. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack has begun to create reporting systems for attacks against schools and to strengthen protection provisions for students and teachers. There remains work to do.

Second, teachers must be paid. Their role is too vital and their sacrifice too big not to be recognized formally. When a government is unable to pay teachers, funding for salaries should be integrated in humanitarian responses along with other vital aid workers. In Syria, small organizations provide incentive salaries for teachers, which allow them to continue teaching while supporting their own families.

Third, teachers need training. Whether they are experienced and working under severe conditions or new teachers recruited to fill in for teachers who had to flee, they require training that enables them to focus on essential learning and provide some level of psychosocial counseling to their students. The Inter-Agency Network on Education in Emergencies (a network of more than 9,500 practitioners around the world) has developed easily accessible guides to inform the design of teacher support systems.

Teachers are a central pillar of every peaceful society and even more so for societies weakened by war. A 20-year-old teacher in Aleppo teaches drawing classes to young children whose school has been destroyed. He said, "One of my students drew a vase with roses that are bleeding. I asked her: 'What does it mean?' She replied: 'Syria represents these roses and it is bleeding and no one takes care of it.' I have one wish in my life, it is for my country to be better than now with new hope for our children [so that] they draw the sun shining again in the sky."

If supported, teachers can protect children from further harm -- psychological and physical. A former headmaster in Aleppo, Syria, says, "We use all our efforts to make the children not think that life is different." He and his colleagues have started schools in mosques, which are a safe place because the public schools are targeted. "We collected the benches, old study books, and whiteboards from the destroyed schools," he said. "It is a great result to see the pupils come back to [their] desks with fantastic smiles."

Let the courage of these teachers and the determination of the millions of children caught in conflicts and emergencies inspire the global community to act.

To paraphrase Malala, instead of sending excuses, send investments. Instead of sending anguish, send action. Instead of sending despair, send hope.

In honor of World Teacher Day, HuffPost Impact in partnership with The Varkey GEMS Foundation will devote one month to stories highlighting the need for global change -- including staggering statistics, student anecdotes that put a face on these numbers, and teachers making a difference.