Dispatches of a Teacher on the Front Line

Front line

Dispatches of a Teacher on the Front Line

I was doing a talk with some ELT teachers at a school in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon in 2015, in a charming town called Zahle, only a few miles from the Syrian border. It’s unusual for people to walk out of my talks before they finish – politeness usually overrides boredom – and people manage to stay on until the bitter end. On this occasion three or four teachers left the talk rapidly, part of the way through. I must have looked rather offended as the organiser came to speak to me at the end. She explained that the women who had left had heard that their village, near the border, was being shelled by ISIS and they had, of course, needed to go. I was shocked, not because I felt unsafe but because of the fact that anyone at risk of that terrible situation would even consider coming to a teacher development talk. My respect for these teachers grew dramatically.

At the IATEFL conference in 2016 in Birmingham, there was a debate around the motion ‘Teacher training is a waste of time’. As a teacher educator, my initial reaction was how ridiculous that idea was. With some reflection however, I have to say I did think that sometimes this might have been the case. Perhaps the word ‘development’ rather than ‘training’ would have made it easier to disagree with the statement. This piece is not designed to unpick that discussion, more to highlight the fact that there are so many members of our teaching community for whom life is unbelievably tough and full of physical danger, yet the level of their commitment to their own development and thus to their students is truly remarkable.

Teacher development is never a waste of time.

In recent years I have been working with teachers from what my insurance company calls ‘fragile environments’, essentially areas with recent or current civil wars or a significant terrorism problem. I find myself with teachers who have sometimes experienced the most appalling traumas. I believe it would be inappropriate to write in detail in the public domain of the stories that I have heard from and about these teachers. It’s perhaps sufficient to say that some of the things I’ve heard have sent me back to my hotel room very angry or about to cry, and others have just made me (unfairly) furious with teachers in other locations who I hear complaining about things such as a lack of board markers. However, there is one story that will stick in my mind for a long time.

About 18 months ago, I met a teacher in Iraq as part of a project I’m involved in. He was a young guy and a very active participant in the course I was leading and it was at the end of day talking about adapting course book materials when he approached me. “I’m from Anbar province”, he said, “look at my course book”. It was, well, a course book and I skimmed through it a bit. “No, really look”, he said. I did and closer inspection revealed that all the colour pages were missing, having been torn out. “We have ISIS”, he explained, “no colour allowed and no girls in school allowed”. His eyes were full of tears; I can see him now as I write. So there it was, happening in front of me and yet there he was, keen to develop himself as a teacher.

Teacher development is never a waste of time.

Most of the studies around trauma and education are of course, rightly, focussed on the students but there are parallels for traumatised teachers. “Neuroscience tells us that the brains of kids regularly facing significant trauma or toxic stress are wired for survival and likely to erupt at the smallest provocation”. James Redford and Karen Pritzker in ‘The Atlantic’ (2016). This seems to be true for traumatised teachers too and on occasions I have seen this and have had to deal with inappropriate behaviour in and around the training context as best I can.

“In contrast to the fight-or-flight response triggered by perceived threats, seemingly minor acts of kindness, such as a few caring words from a teacher or a quick hug, can activate a cascade of oxytocin, sometimes called the ‘love hormone.’ In highly traumatised kids, such simple acts can have an outsized impact.” The Atlantic (Ibid). Again, this applies to teachers from these environments. While I have never hugged a teacher, I find that the need for reassurance and support is much greater than with teachers from more stable settings. Teachers from fragile environments can often seem more demanding and responsive in equal measure.

I have often seen the typical signs of trauma amongst teachers; anxiety, short attention spans, aggression, regular minor health issues such as headaches etc. and very low self-confidence.Yet most of all I see waves of enthusiasm for new ideas, approaches and methodologies.

Teacher development is never a waste of time.

It seems to me that teacher development in fragile environments helps in three ways. The first and the most obvious one is that it can support (often small) changes of some kind in the way teachers approach their classes; whether it’s reducing teacher talking time, creating a more empathetic approach to students or new ways of motivating teenagers. If any of the work that I have done on my programmes gives teachers the self-belief to try out even fairly small new ideas in their often very straightened circumstances, then I can feel I have done my job.

However, with teachers from these troubled regions, there are two other aspects of teacher development that seem really significant. The first is the fact that through the workshops, they can come to understand that they are part of a global teaching community and that while they have non-classroom issues to contend with, many of the challenges in their classes are the same as those faced by teachers around the world. Exposing them to blogs, forums, clubs and the range of webinars and online resources available has shown itself to be a great way to develop self-confidence and the awareness that we are all a part of this great ELT community.

The third thing that I have observed is that professional development courses – often held in slightly safer places – can provide some sort of respite for teachers from the difficult circumstances that they face in their professional and private lives. The fact of being physically away from some of the stresses and anxieties may be the most beneficial aspect of training in fragile locations. It’s not a holiday, far from it, but some sort of retreat perhaps and that’s good enough for me.

I hope one day, that I will visit Iraq or the Syrian border areas and see that the teachers I have met and their loved ones are free from threats. At the moment pessimism reigns but I hope that our community will keep colleagues in the warzones around the world in their hearts and minds.

People better qualified than me can write about the psychology of trauma and how to manage it in classes. The people I’ve met have changed me as a man and as a trainer and taught me to appreciate how magical it is to be to walk around my own city without the threat of likely impending violence in the back of my mind.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
John Donne

Reference. James Redford and Karen Pritzker, ‘Teaching Traumatized Kids’, The Atlantic 7 July 2016.

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