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Future teachers

Almost every Israeli teacher will have served in the military, many on checkpoints. Every Palestinian teacher will have passed through those checkpoints. Two people, both teachers, on opposite sides of that encounter, then bring those experiences into the classroom. It cannot help but influence their teaching.

So describes Dr. Muhannad Beidas, the Chief of the Field Education Programme in the West Bank for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. He works in a compound of temporary trailers and cement buildings in northern Jerusalem – quite a contrast to the new and beautifully designed Israeli monument and museum to the Ammunition Hill battle just across the street. Faded posters of villagers in traditional Palestinian dress adorn the walls along with graphs and tables of student progress.

We are discussing the challenges of teaching in the context of the conflict. As we considered teaching for human rights, dignity and tolerance, Dr. Beidas noted the enormous attention absorbed by textbooks, which I have written about before. He argued that while UNRWA has made great progress on the content of the books, ultimately it is teacher quality that makes by far the larger difference. “You can give the most thoughtfully designed textbook to a bad teacher, and they will not use it effectively. A great teacher can teach an article from a tabloid newspaper and the students will really benefit.”

Dr. Beidas reports that since 1999 UNRWA schools have been seeking to explicitly teach a human rights curriculum. The human rights curriculum has several parts – staff, training, student initiatives, and materials, which include books and worksheets. Funding is an issue, as always. When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ebbs somewhat, funding increases. Counterproductively, just when education for conflict resolution is needed most, at times of greater tension, international funders pull back. He is also very clear about the limits of such a curriculum. “We have a school in the Jalazone camp, next to a settlement. We have been seeking for 20 years to repair and expand the school, and just now it seems we might be getting some greater permission. Consider that these students are going to school in these cracked conditions, and they know why. Their teachers are frustrated. Imagine then how hard it is to teach tolerance.” He noted that the challenges are different in different areas. The Shuafat Refugee Camp, for example, is surrounded on three sides by the separation barrier. Cut off from the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority cannot patrol it. Israeli police do not enter. As a result, hard drug use, traditionally extremely rare in Palestinian society, is on the rise.

Still, there is some good news from Dr. Beidas’ perspective. The curriculum can make a difference, influencing not only the students themselves but the siblings and family. When they have more money, UNRWA actually gives some of the books to the students to keep, so they will be in the home. They are emphasizing interactive teaching, with students rewriting stories, creating their own narratives. Every school now has a parliament, so they can experience democratic engagement and the empowerment that accompanies it. Teachers trained in conflict resolution have influences beyond the classroom to the wider society.