Transforming our understanding of refugee teachers and teaching in contexts of forced displacement


To read the jointly published memo discussing outcomes and recommendations from this meeting, click here.


In refugee-hosting contexts, teachers contribute more to children’s learning and well-being than any other school-level factor. Refugee teachers also have strong local knowledge and the desire to contribute to better crisis response and recovery outcomes. However, despite their crucial role and the challenging context in which they ensure learning continuity, refugee teachers often do not receive the support they need.
They are visible to the humanitarian education sector, but remain largely neglected in the national education system sector reviews that drive multi-year education planning and in the budgets that address teachers’ needs. Thus, it is time to pay closer attention to the difficulties they face and to include them in the plans to achieve SDG 4.

Challenging teaching conditions

Teachers in refugee settings are faced with particularly challenging working conditions. In the regions where refugees are allowed to settle, functional classroom spaces, teaching and learning materials, and other basic resources are often missing. Their classrooms are more likely to be overcrowded, multi-aged, multi-ability, and multilingual, especially in the early years when essential literacy and numeracy skills are taught. They must often teach in shifts, covering less material in less time with lower expectations for learning achievement. They may also have to teach content in a second or third language, or they may need to use hybrid instructional approaches. 

Refugee teachers also work with children and youth who have experienced or witnessed the acute and chronic suffering of their families and friends. These children and youth are more likely to present with learning or behavioural deficits related not only to the interruption of their education, but to the hardships they contend with on a daily basis. 

Lack of training opportunities

Where pre-service and in-service professional development opportunities exist for refugee teachers, they are episodic with varying levels of quality. The diverse range of non-state actors providing teacher management and development support in settings of forced displacement also constrain predictable and sustained responses in meeting teachers’ professional, personal, and family needs.

An uncertain career path

Most refugee teachers live where their right to international protection is recognized. At its most basic, this means they have the right not to be forcibly returned to their home country. However, refugee protection does not automatically grant the recognition of qualifications for employment, neither does it grant access to continuous professional development opportunities when teachers are uncertified or underqualified.

Time to recognise the role of refugee teachers

M'Bera refugee camp, Mauritania. Photo: EU/ECHO/José Cendón
M'Bera refugee camp, Mauritania. Photo: EU/ECHO/José Cendón

So often we champion teachers and celebrate teachers’ work. However, as humanitarian sector policymakers and practitioners, we need to align our words with our actions and uphold our commitment to the profession by reimagining and transforming our understanding of teachers and the value of teachers’ work in refugee-hosting settings. Without sufficient support for and recognition of refugee teachers, education access and learning attainment for children affected by forced displacement will remain precarious and SDG Goal 4 will not be achieved. 

It is therefore time to deliver for refugee teachers the status and conditions they deserve and desperately need; it is time to make refugee teachers visible. A shift towards the inclusion of refugees in national education systems following the adoption of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) in 2018 provides an opportunity for action. This includes the provision of predictable and sustainable support for refugee teachers, continuous professional development, and access to fair and decent work conditions.

Towards a shared understanding of teachers in refugee-hosting settings

With the aim of including the above issues on the Transforming Education Summit Action Track 3 Agenda on “Teachers, Teaching, and the Teaching Profession”, and to work towards a harmonized understanding of teachers and teaching in refugee-hosting settings, UNHCR, INEE, and Education International (EI) are co-convening a meeting at the upcoming Transforming Education Pre-Summit in Paris. 

We will bring together government, United Nations, international non-governmental organization, and civil society organization representatives alongside refugee teachers and youth from Chad, Kenya, and Venezuela to discuss and debate the following provocations: 

  1. Who do we consider to be “teachers” in refugee hosting settings? Might new definitions and pre-conditions for entry into the profession be one part of the solution to the global teacher shortage?  
  2. How, if at all, do we recognize and regularize community and refugee teachers as part of the professional teacher workforce in refugee hosting settings? 
  3. What are the limitations or barriers of current legal frameworks and financing mechanisms, and what innovative approaches exist to overcome financing challenges?  

This session will also be an opportunity to give refugee teachers and youth a platform to share their experiences and inform the agenda for transforming the provision of education in crisis settings globally.   
A key outcome of this meeting will be a memo of recommendations, produced by INEE, UNHCR and EI meeting moderators, and submitted to the UNESCO International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 for consideration and inclusion in subsequent Transforming Education Summit statements relating to Action Track 3.  
We invite you to participate in person or via webcast in this important meeting from 1.00pm to 3.00pm CET on Thursday June 30th. We need your voice to help forefront and elevate refugee teachers at the Transforming Education Summit in New York in September. 


About the Author

Chris Henderson is the co-chair of INEE’s Teachers in Crisis Contexts (TiCC) Collaborative and a Doctoral Fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he is researching links between teacher professional development, mental health, and well-being in refugee hosting contexts.



The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.