Teacher Stories: Rokkaya - Bethlehem, Palestine
This story was collected as part of Teachers in Crisis Contexts (TiCC) Event Series to ensure that the voices and experiences of teachers working in crisis and displacement permeate all aspects of the event. For more stories, click here.
What does it mean to be a teacher in Palestine?
School: Wad Rahhal Secondary Mixed School
Location: Bethlehem, Palestine
I am Rokkaya, from Al Khader Town - Bethlehem District - Palestine. I have a MA in English teaching methodology. I have been an English teacher in Wad Rahhal Secondary Mixed School for 15 years. The school is located in one of the most vulnerable communities in Area C, South East of Bethlehem. Similar to many schools in Palestine, the students are exposed to flying checkpoints, the presence of armed settlers and military forces on the way to and from school affecting their wellbeing and their ability to learn. On the way home, most of the teachers and the students pass through the security gate of the Israeli settlement which is never a pleasant experience.
I started my work as a teacher because I knew that I have the ability to support my students. I believe that being a teacher is not just a job! It is more an ethical role and a sacred message specifically in emergency situations. I also knew that I am a passionate, creative and innovative person who enjoys taking initiative. I use teaching strategies and ideas in my classroom that break the traditional classroom routine and make it an interesting and effective class. I believe that being a teacher is demanding and requires a lot of effort in order to achieve educational goals but being a teacher is never about teaching subjects, it is rather about building the ethics, morals, principles and core values of our students.
After the outbreak of COVID-19, I faced many challenges, including external and internal stressors related to regular school activities, the new online teaching modality that was adopted in Palestine in addition to the impact of COVID-19 on myself and the students! The new situation required me to work more and more at home and affected my household chores as a wife and a mother. My social relationships had shrunk to the extreme and made me stressed, anxious and mentally and physically tired most of the time. Another challenge is that teachers in Palestine receive very low income which is not enough to secure their families’ needs. Moreover, we face salary cuts due to political issues or the pressure from the occupation or lack of funds from donors. This of course adds to the burdens of teachers who sometimes are forced to work in the afternoon after school, to secure their families’ needs.
In spite of all these challenges, I have had many successes. The most important is gaining the trust of my students as a role model of perseverance and hope. I am able to participate in distinct educational activities that positively affect my student’s achievement. I am able to compete in and win educational initiatives. I also have good experience in designing online lessons and actively participate in online platforms in collaboration with the Ministry of Education.
In 2018, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) selected our school to implement the Education in Emergency programme aiming to increase protection of vulnerable children affected by conflict and other situations of violence. The school principal selected me to participate in the Better Learning Programme (BLP- NRC’s PSS- SEL Flagship programme) through providing students, parents, teaching and non-teaching staff with psycho-educational support. I attended the training of teachers on how to manage a classroom with children who have gone through stressful and traumatic events. I attended a two-day training with NRC on BLP which focuses on applying trauma sensitive methodologies. At the beginning, I felt this will be a new burden! Moreover, I was thinking this is a loss of time and effort and it would add nothing to us nor to our students. Following the training, I started implementation with the students. When I implemented the first activity, I could not imagine the immediate effect on the students. For the first time, I had the opportunity to speak with the students in a structured well-designed set of sessions. Usually we chat but we do not discuss psychosocial issues and needs. The sessions provided a new method of dealing with students when they feel bored, stressed, anxious or afraid. The intervention helped consolidate my relationship and communication with my students , I began communicating with love, trust, cooperation and encouraged participation. I started to understand and have my own interpretation of their behaviour and issues. The students who participated in the programme had increased motivation and positivity towards education.
The BLP program supported the students to build self-regulation skills and to have control of their fears and stress through practicing the relaxation techniques including talking to their minds, practicing breathing, balancing, relaxation and safe place exercises. The programme helped them to understand that it is normal to have stress in their life and that these techniques help them to improve by connecting with their minds, bodies and feelings. The students were able to connect with their teachers and build a sense of love, respect and trust as well as to improve academically. This was proved by the final results in Tawjihi/ Diploma final exam for the students who have participated in Better Learning Programme 2 (BLP2). I remember a student who was stressed because he wanted to succeed but felt it impossible. The student participated in the BLP 2 sessions and received awareness on dealing with his stress and on ways to understand his feelings. The BLP sessions were provided to him with support from his teachers and peers, and this helped him to develop self confidence and trust and a belief that nothing is impossible. The dream came true and he passed high school with a score of 70%.
In September 2020, and due to COVID-19, the Palestinian Authorities imposed restrictions on access to schools. The students, the parents and the teachers were stressed and needed support to go back to face to face education. To solve the problem of a lack of support, the NRC Master Trainer together with my school principal invited me to participate in a peer-to-peer coaching initiative. The aim was to support my peers who are implementing BLP. I was so enthusiastic because I have a good experience working in the BLP programme and I know that I would love to expand and build my own skills. I attended the full capacity building programme conducted via zoom. Although the online sessions were conducted weekly for a period of 7-8 weeks after the working hours and during a very stressful period, participating in the programme helped my colleagues and I to continue providing essential PSS-SEL support to our stressed students through implementing the BLP. The training I received provided me with the skills needed to support my colleagues and helped to create a harmonized cooperative atmosphere and reinforced trust and respect as well as positive communication. We managed to work as one BLP cell to ensure the students were supported in this critical situation. We have conducted structured Teachers Learning Circles (TLC) as well as classroom observations/ visits to sharing experiences, challenges and successes. These activities had a positive impact on the implementation of activities, which were high quality, accurate and well organized BLP activities.
Personally, the initiative improved my leadership and management skills. It helped me in providing structured positive feedback to my colleagues and creating a supportive school environment for the teachers and the students. It also enhanced my intrinsic ability to overcome obstacles and solve problems and also increased my sense of personal competence and self-satisfaction.
One thing I liked most about the program was that some teachers, from outside the target group I work with, asked to know about the program and wanted to be involved in the programme.
I was the first teacher in Palestine that suggested and recommended implementation of the BLP 2 with the Third Secondary Class (Tawjihi Diploma) and after piloting it, the result was amazing!
A year later, I am still doing my best to support my colleagues to increase the student’s access to PSS support in the school and will continue to to do so as long as there is a need.
The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.