IATEFL Belfast 2022 – Day Four

This was the final day of the conference so was a little shorter. There was an opening and a closing plenary, and I attended a couple of sessions, all of which I have summarised below. If you were one of the speakers please feel free to correct anything I may have got wrong or misinterpreted.

Plenary: Education, English and the question of future in conflict areas – Asmaa AbuMezied and Hasna AbuMezied

Asmaa’s first questions:

  • Do you know of any conflicts around the world? (Everybody)
  • Do you know how many conflicts are currently happening? (Almost nobody put their hand up)

There are many different reasons for this: interstate, local, criminal violence and militias, social injustice protests, territorial disputes.

Gaza is one of the areas which is involved in a territorial dispute.

Over the past few years, fewer people are dying in conflict, but more conflicts are happening. The more we are losing our natural resources, the more likely these conflicts are to happen. Where does that leave us?

Survival as a state

As we meet today, one quarter of humanity lives in conflict-affected areas. Two billion people.

Antonio Gutierrez, UN Secretary General, March 2022

Conflict isn’t just the state of active bombardment and strikes. It never leaves you, even when it ends. That’s what we’re talking about when we think about education and future generations. People find themselves in a state of survival, rather than living. Everybody is constantly looking around them to check, how can we support our families, our people to live another day.

The UN called Gaza unliveable by 2020. Asmaa and Hasna are here today. They are alive, but are they living.

Gaza

It is 365km2, with 2 million people in this tiny place. It has been occupied for decades. There has been a blockade for 15 years. It is considered an open air prison. Asmaa and Hasna had a major journey to be here at IATEFL today.

If you know somebody from a conflict area: what did it take for you to get here? What are the restrictions that have stopped your colleagues from being able to come? We (I) are privileged to be here.

What kind of future are we building for our future? We are in a state of constant fear. That’s not a future we want to give to our children.

65% of the population is living on humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.

About 50% of the population is unemployed. You put a huge amount of effort into education, but can’t do anything with it.

53% of people live in poverty.

64% of the population is food insecure, according to the World Food Programme, and most of them are eating food which is unhealthy, affecting their mental and physical health.

96% of the water is undrinkable, and this is likely to increase.

There is an air strike somewhere in the Gaza Strip almost every month.

There is no feeling of safety or security.

To help with this, education is an area that people focus on. Without education, they will not be heard. It is a way of surviving, a way of living.

What shapes the journey of a Palestinian English Language teacher in Gaza?

Teachers face many different challenges.

Educational challenges

  • Limited numbers of schools per capita and overcrowded classes (45-50 students)
  • Schools operate on double or triple shifts to cope with numbers. This leads to fewer hours for students too.
  • Limited resources including technology. Teachers often need to buy their own chalk for example.

Teachers try to use interactive methods, but this can be very challenging due to numbers and available resources.

They have 6-12 hours of electricity per day. There is an electricity schedule, telling them when they will get electricity.

They don’t just have to coordinate with other teachers, but with the electricity schedule.

This restricts students’ learning and study time.

Political instability

  • Limited opportunities to use English in real life. Limited contact with foreigners. Loss of hope and motivation.
  • Disruption of education for teachers and students.

I will never be able to travel outside Gaza, so why should I learn English?

Typical student question

In the 14 years Hasna has been teaching, there has been a disruption in education every year. This puts great pressure on teachers: delivering 4 months content in 3 months. Teachers will take extra classes to meet the demands of the curriculum, and some classes may be cut (like PE or art). They know those are important classes for students, but they have to make these challenging decisions.

Trauma and mental health

In 2008, Hasna was waiting for an exam to start, when suddenly the school started shaking. She looked out of the right-hand windows and saw flames and smoke. She told them to go to the left side, and then they saw thick black smoke outside. Another teacher and her tried to keep the students in the school, but it was complete chaos. They had no idea what was happening. That was one of the saddest and bloodiest days in Gaza’s history.

For many people, schools are considered to be safe places. They are used as shelters during conflicts. 1047 students and teachers were killed during the 2014 conflict, and 46 public schools were damaged in May 2021.

There are daily triggers. Will the same thing again? Will I be able to help my students? What about my children? What if their teacher leaves them beyond? Should I go to them first? This is a constant – you are thinking about this all the time.

You might hear air strikes in the middle of a lesson, and students will get scared. They will hear drones and close their books. One student will start crying whenever she hears shooting, and the rest of the students start crying too, so now Hasna asks her to go and wash her faces. Every time Hasna has to encourage her students to continue. This is their daily life, and they have to adapt to it.

Every night, the teachers are soothing their children all night, and every day they have to go back to school and be able to support their students.

One colleague has a panic attack whenever she hears the word ‘invade’ in Arabic.

There is so much pressure for teachers to be positive all the time. They have become adept at hiding their feelings for the sake of their families, students, and colleagues. They cannot say they are tired.

We have all the reasons to collapse, but we don’t have the luxury to do it.

A teacher from Gaza

Economic challenges: poverty and marginalisation

  • Underpaid salaries – they only receive 40-60% of their salaries, in the past every 50-60 days though now it is better – now they get it every 30 days.
  • Poverty among teachers – teachers supplement their income with extra lessons or other jobs beyond education. Teachers walk long distances to get to school if they can’t pay for transport (which many can’t). 92% of employees in Gaza suffer from depression and deep sadness because they can’t give their children an allowance.
  • Drop out of school – particularly female students in 9th and 10th grades, some of whom are already engaged in 9th grade. There is seasonal dropping out due to agricultural requirements.
  • Inequality – being in a marginalised area, with buildings all built by donations from other countries, but very few people have access to smartphones or any kind of online provision so they can’t take advantage of technology for example.

Mum, you look so tired. You look like a crushed snail.

Hasna’s son, Suleiman

Future of education

The talk today leaves us with a lot of questions.

The pandemic has shifted a lot of education to the household. Educational labour in the household can leave families, and particularly women, feeling inadequate. Teaching is a feminised issue, and therefore can be undervalued and not appreciated. We need to bring this to the forefront.

Our students all experience education differently. It is our responsibility to listen to and consider what they need.

How do we make technology accessible and safe to our students?

What does it mean to be a teacher? We all have so many hats. As a psychologist, as a supporter, as a parent, as a human.

How can we ensure that we have a decolonised education system that values our indigenous knowledge? How we care for our environment? To what extent is the content of our education extractive to our cultures and to our environment?

We need to have a future to our education that encompasses us all.

Thank you to IATEFL for bringing such wonderful speakers to us today. They got a well deserved standing ovation, for an emotional and important talk.

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