Commentary

Spotlight on teachers in refugee settings: why they must be included in plans to ‘build back better'

Helen West

Over the last 18 months, Covid-19 has affected education systems around the world, but in refugee settings, the effects of the pandemic on education have been particularly acute. Already in crowded classrooms and often without the necessary educational resources, children and teachers in such settings have generally not had the luxury of turning to online learning. In the calls for teachers to be at the centre of education recovery, it is essential that teachers in refugee settings are not forgotten in plans to ‘build back better’.

Our multi-country case studies, which are being produced in partnership with IIEP-UNESCO in Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya and Uganda, aim to further the limited – but much-needed – evidence base around teachers in refugee settings. To date we have found significant teacher management challenges affecting the quality of teaching and learning present before and independently of the pandemic. In camp settings in Ethiopia and Kenya, refugee teachers need not so much access to technology to enable online teaching, but training to become qualified teachers. In Ethiopia, we came across teachers who were teaching lower primary in the morning and attending upper primary classes themselves in the afternoon. In Kenya, whilst 99% of refugee teachers surveyed had completed secondary education, less than 40% of the teachers we surveyed held a recognised P1 teaching certificate.

Whilst teachers in refugee settings, particularly those who are refugees themselves, are motivated to become teachers to support their communities, many are disillusioned by the combination of low pay, challenging working conditions and heavy workloads. Class sizes can reach over 100 students per teacher; an intense pressure for unqualified teachers. Refugee teachers in Ethiopian and Kenyan camps are paid a set incentive; the same amount whether they are teachers or work in other sectors. With the additional planning and marking outside of teaching time meaning that many teachers work longer hours than other sector workers, it is perhaps no surprise that attrition rates are high. In Jordan, while all teachers working with Syrian refugees are Jordanian nationals, due to funding constraints, most are employed on a daily paid basis and are not entitled to leave or benefits, meaning they have very little job security.

Placing teachers at the heart of education recovery also means addressing the gender gap. At the point of data collection in 2019, over 90% of teachers in Ethiopian refugee camps were male, and our 2021 survey in Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya found that under 20% of refugee teachers were female. Those females who do teach tend to be less qualified and teach lower grades. One former refugee teacher recalled a lack of female role models at school, which she said discouraged girls from taking up teaching. Jordan faces the opposite problem: with teaching considered a more suitable profession for women than for men, the country faces a shortage of male teachers, and the status of the profession continues to wane.

In the face of challenging working conditions, low pay and a shortage of professional training, teachers in refugee settings are doing a remarkable job. Committed to providing some of the most vulnerable children in the world with a quality education, they deserve to be recognised as professionals and supported to develop the skills which will enable them to deliver on their commitment and help the children they work with to thrive. Targeted support for these teachers and their students will be critical if governments around the world are truly to deliver on their aspirations to ‘build back better’.

 

To find out more about the lives and work of teachers in refugee settings, you can read the full case study from Ethiopia here and Jordan here, or click here to view a short film on the lives of refugee teachers in Ethiopia, ‘We Teach Here’.