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A Double Win: Educating Syrians to be Teachers

Akkar, Lebanon- The ceaseless chugging of a generator mixes with the sound of Syrian children clamoring for the attention of their teacher at this informal school serving Syrian refugees in a northern Lebanese town.

The school is a series of makeshift wooden structures with tarps for roofs and a small fenced-in playground. There aren’t enough chairs, so in an Arabic-language class for 12- and 13-year-olds on a Monday afternoon, some students have to stand. And, even in September, the classroom is so hot that a visiting photographer excuses himself to sit out in the courtyard.

But the teacher, Mohamad Talal Mehbani, who is himself a Syrian refugee, is upbeat and eager to apply teaching techniques he learned during a nine-month training course he recently completed.

The unusual program tackles two issues at once: It gives Syrian university graduates in Lebanon teaching skills. And it brings more-effective instruction to Syrian refugees in the schools.

The training program prepares teachers to work with children who have suffered trauma, and that trauma can come in many forms for children uprooted from war. The program also emphasizes putting students at the center of learning, and moving away from the tradition of rote lecturing.

“We’re trying to prepare the next generation of teachers, whether they go back to Syria or whether they stay in Lebanon,” says Zeina Awaydate, a program manager for the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research, known as LASeR, which runs the effort with Lebanese International University and other academic partners.

As two small electric fans struggle to cool the classroom here, Mehbani asks the students to write a sentence in Arabic describing how they are feeling. The teacher goes first with this exercise for the class in remedial Arabic, writing that he’s optimistic because there’s a journalist visiting to write about the issue of education. A girl in jeans and a teal t-shirt writes that she is feeling tired, and several others also eagerly share their answers.

“The traditional way I taught before was teacher-centered, where the teacher lectures all the time and the students are passive listeners,” says Mehbani, in an interview after class through a translator. Now, he adds, “students are providing examples and coming up with ideas.”

He says he is also better prepared now to handle the challenge of teaching kids who have had to flee their homes. “The students come from different backgrounds,” he adds. “Some of them are from rural areas. Some of them are from cities. Some of them are from camps. And so they are all used to different social contexts. Bringing them all together into one classroom makes it hard to manage.”

Motivating students to stay in school is the biggest challenge, Mehbani says. “Some students say, “Okay I’m coming here and I’m earning my degree, but what is after that?” he says. “I tell them, we have to do with what we have been given today, and we don’t know what God has in store for us in the future.”

Only about half of the 500,000 Syrian children registered as refugees in Lebanon are in school, according to a 2016 report by Human Rights Watch. To provide enough space for the influx of refugees, many schools in Lebanon run a second shift of classes for Syrian students that begins after Lebanese students leave. But the Syrians face enormous prejudice and often second-rate instruction.

Improving classroom instruction should be a big part of educational efforts for refugee children in Lebanon, says Joel Bubbers, Syria Director for the British Council. “Quality is of huge importance,” he say, “because that’s what will determine whether the students will stay in school and whether they will learn anything.”

“What’s really missing in so many of the educational interventions is the focus on quality,” he added.

Mehbani, the teacher, also faces a personal challenge: Finding enough work to support his wife and 10-month old child. The Lebanese government bars Syrians from teaching jobs in public schools, so the only options for Syrian teachers are informal schools. Mehbani works part-time at multiple schools, which presents transportation difficulties. When Syrian teachers are able to get work, they are often paid less—and have less training—than Lebanese teachers, according to officials at LASeR.

Baraa Serajaldin also completed LASeR’s training program this year, which awards a certificate called a Teaching Diploma. “We were taught how to make benefit of very local materials—even to use trash in teaching,” he says. “If you have a chemistry session, and you don’t have those test tubes, for example, you can use a baby-feeding bottle, and for counting we can use any stones.” Mr. Serajaldin now has a job with LASeR teaching an English-language class for Syrian students and helping to manage other projects.

Thirty-five students completed the program in its first year—15 of them in this northern district, and about 20 in the Beqaa region to the east, where some 300,000 Syrians live, many in informal refugee camps. LASeR worked with an educational agency in Beirut called Leadar to design the curriculum, and then helped train a group of Lebanese education professors to teach the techniques to Syrian teachers.

A second session of the training program began this fall, this time only in Beqaa and with fewer students because LASeR was unable to corral as much funding. And this year the program looked for different kinds of candidates. In the first year, it drew largely from students who had graduated from the LASeR scholarship program that helps Syrian refugees attend Lebanese universities. To avoid students who sign up for the teaching-diploma program just for the stipend they get, though, the organization is focusing in the second year on Syrians who are already teaching in informal schools and want to improve their skills.

Like many other Syrians, Serajaldin, the English-language teacher working with LASeR, has little hope that the crisis in his country will end anytime soon. He dreams of making enough money to be able to convince his parents to leave Aleppo and come to Lebanon. “When I can provide them a decent life,” he says, “I’ll bring them here.”


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