Training Syrian Refugee Teachers in Lebanon

Training Syrian Refugee Teachers in Lebanon: Teaching and Learning Against the Odds

By: Ruben Elsinga

Based on the belief that being active in it makes one understand the Middle East more and better, this summer the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) sponsored the language teacher training program organized by the NGO Syria What Will Be (SWWB; for Syrian refugee teachers in the Beqaa valley in Lebanon.

Scholar and Program Manager of CMES’ new program Abraham’s Pilgrims, Ruben Elsinga, and language teacher first at Damascus University and now at CMES, Rafah Barhoum, teamed up with a third trainer connected to the University of Virginia specialized in the Anthropology of Education, Cameron Middleton, to deliver two times two days of intensive teacher training for Syrian refugee teachers.

The interactive training program focused on curriculum and teaching diversification for the educational NGO Jusoor’s 30-35 teachers. Starting with a general presentation on different learning and teaching styles, the teachers were later divided into groups of English language and Arabic language teachers. 

Through group and individual activities, such as an assessment of the teacher’s personal learning styles and interactive mock classroom presentations, they were trained to think differently about their teaching. In the second training week there was a focus on inclusive education and the teachers introduced themselves to new and different teaching methods and tools, to provide an integral differentiated learning experience.

Not only was the education program well received by the local teachers, and as such contributing with the expertise available at CMES in a meaningful way to the development and education of Syrians ‘in the region’, this kind of program is also seen as a valuable source of knowledge and understanding into the challenges in educational development for Syrians in the current Syria Crisis for CMES. This mutually beneficial model of interaction between CMES and the Middle East, was therefore a double success.

Rafah Barhoum, describes her experience as follows:

“With the Arabic teachers, I shared the expertise I have through research on using the body and senses in different ways for teachers and students, and how to integrate the methods and practices we introduced them to, in the teaching practice. By reflecting on the teachers own experience as students (in Syria), we collaboratively developed practical and theoretical understanding of how to improve their practice as teachers.

Although I found most teachers were very motivated and engaged, and there is large potential for improvement, I did find that the teachers were in need for a systematic curriculum (like the interactive language curriculum Pelikino provided to them by SWWB) to give some structure and solidity to their teaching practice. During the training, we did try to give the teachers access to some new ideas to further develop their lessons, as we did find teachers often fell back on repetition of the same teaching methods; A retraction I recognized as a Syrian based on the general repetitive teaching practices common in Syria before the Uprising.”

Ruben Elsinga reflects in his forthcoming paper Educational Development for Syrians in the Syria Crisis in Lebanon, 2014-2015; Sliding from civil empowerment to dependency?” on among others his experiences in educational development for Syrians in Lebanon, with SWWB since the Spring of 2014. He notes on the experience of the last CMES sponsored summer teacher training workshops:

“We tend to forget that the Syria Crisis started as the Syrian Revolution. Having lived in Damascus 2009-2010 and worked in the field of education there, I am well aware of the challenges that would be and were presented once the lit was lifted from the Syrian education system, and the amount of work needed for Syrian education to go through a much needed educational ‘revolution’. The challenges, both internal and external, that present themselves now often seem unsurmountable. For one the teachers themselves for example were surprised of the level of illiteracy that was ignored and kept silent in the Syrian countryside under Assad.

Nonetheless it has been a delight to witness the way Syrians in often deplorable circumstances cling onto education as a means towards a better future. Both among Syrian parents and children, and among the teachers that we train, learning English for example is the manifestation of the connection they seek to make with the world, to create a better future for themselves and their country. Similarly in the embrace of the interactive language teaching methods integral to the Pelikino language curriculum that SWWB rolled out in Jusoor’s schools in Lebanon, one can see that many Syrians are in the process of disposing of the authoritarian methods of the past.

It is on the one hand a challenge working with Syrian language teachers from different walks of life, often without formal language teacher training, who were engineers or administrators before the Uprising. On the other hand it adds an incredible amount of diversity, richness and resourcefulness to the teaching practice that has often been squeezed out of it in more formal educational settings in for example Europe. Especially in our training program this summer on diversity in teaching and learning styles, we found that the different mindsets and styles of teachers, connect well with the diversity in children’s learning styles.

As such we have seen that although challenges are great both external to the classroom as in the classroom, in working with this overall very inspiring group of Syrian refugee teachers, the hope for Syria is still present in its people – its teachers and its students.”