My Classroom and Global Emergencies

We hear often that teachers don’t have enough time to accomplish what they want their students go learn. Why burden those who, one would surmise, simply cannot take on anything more?

That’s a reasonable assumption to make, and one which has underscored the flurry of attempts to supply teachers with more efficient, and seemingly more effective, teaching tools.

But courage, brains, and hearts — like love for children — tends to embrace the meaningful and the true. I have just witnessed as much, having just completed teaching a course on education and global development, through Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, for teachers from 23 countries. For many, the Continuing Education Units didn’t matter and the course fee ($220) was a stretch. Teaching it was exhausting, yet I can’t wait to teach it again in a few weeks, especially because four of those students are joining me, without a stipend. They made, and are making, the time for important things.

We hear often, too, that teachers are tyrannized by the urgent: the upcoming test, the crush of parent demands or administrivia, the myriad of issues right in front of them, as they attempt to teach, parent, and counsel. Yet, in a way that confounds reason (but makes complete sense to me), they respond to global issues with nothing less than a passionate commitment, as teachers, to deal urgently with tyranny, regardless of whether it affects them directly. They simply believe in the capacity of education to address national and natural disasters. The best teachers think locally and globally.

That’s why I have developed another course, and this one should be even more exhausting and exhilarating. It shall focus on education in emergencies. And I know that the teachers will come. Moments after meeting each other online, they will explore politically complex and emotionally devastating issues they may never experience, with colleagues they most likely will never meet, about regions of the world they may never visit. But they’ll show up and work far more than the qualification for professional development credits requires. They will speak from the heart and share their work with alacrity and grace, though no one may be looking, because the very act of sharing knowledge is its own reward.

So, against the odds, here’s a description of a course about being of service for or at the wrong place, at the right time:


Pick up any newspaper, go online, or look at the alerts on your phone and you’ll witness an up-to-the-minute news report an emergency, somewhere: Refugees pouring into Jordan; genocide in Darfur; an earthquake in Haiti; the incomprehensible horror of genocide; the disastrous consequences of a failed state, bombs in Boston, a mile-long tornado in Oklahoma, flattening home and crushing schools. At a newsstand, one might stop for a moment to leaf through Time Magazine, struck by the cover — the face of a Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot for daring to go to school.

UNICEF and Human Rights Watch could not be clearer with no-holds barred stories of “Education Under Attack” or “Schools as Battlegrounds.” From Tel Abyad, Syria, Thomas Friedman writes: “I just spent a day in this northeast Syrian town. It was terrifying — much more than I anticipated — not because we were threatened in any way… It was the local school that shook me up.” He continues: “It was empty — of students. But war refugees had occupied the classroom. Classes had not been held in two years. And this is what terrified me. Men with guns I’m used to. But kids without books, teachers, or classes for a long time — that’s trouble. Big trouble.”[1]

The world is beginning to pay attention to issues of education in emergencies even though it is also counter intuitive to think about education in the middle of a crisis. After all, one would rationally think, in a natural or national disaster, basic human necessities must be addressed first, triage style: make a global appeal for aid; stop the bleeding; protect, feed, clothe, and house the people; seek more global aid. Rinse and repeat. Education in emergencies has traditionally been seen as a secondary endeavor, part of the reconstruction process, to commence once “basic services” have been restored.

Only recently have global agencies seen how education is not only essential to prevent or prepare for to disasters, but in the midst of one. In an emergency, children are the most vulnerable to the ravages of illness, human trafficking, and recruitment into paramilitary gangs. Education must be as basic as food and water.

Thanks to the efforts of the Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE), networks of development and aid workers, academics and NGOs are working together for prevention and planning in order to mitigate against disasters, establishing policy, gathering global support, conducting assessments, and coordinating response, recovery, and reconstruction efforts. (INEE) gathers global stakeholders to build and maintain Standards for Education in Emergencies. Again, thanks to INEE, educators are now part of first-responder teams.

We will explore the complex world of education in emergencies: how and when schools can be safe havens for children and what to do if the school is targeted for attack; the relationship between international relief and government responsibility; as well as curriculum, culture, context, and community. We’ll even explore the blurry line between “natural” disasters (such as floods or earthquakes) and “national” disasters (deforestation, climate change, or poorly constructed buildings atop shallow earthquake zones in densely populated areas

This course introduces these issues and then some: education and fragility, disaster risk reduction, education financing, peace education, teaching and learning in emergencies, gender, child psycho-social safety, HIV-AIDS, inclusivity, conflict-sensitive education, safer school construction, learners with disabilities, and advocacy.

Students will connect with colleagues from around the world — those registered for this course, as well as with colleagues working in the field. In short, this will be about learning from and with each other. No doubt, you will most likely have more questions than answers:

  • What types of interventions are included in “education in emergencies”?
  • Why has education been left out of standard humanitarian response for so long?
  • When did education interventions first start to appear in humanitarian responses?
  • What are the international legal foundations that underpin education in emergencies?
  • How might the growing awareness surrounding the needs of children in emergencies (establishing “normalcy,” “child protection,” and “psychosocial well-being”) affect the strategy of humanitarian response?
  • What role might culture, religion, and class play in emergency education?
  • Who and what are the key players, structures and institutions for education in emergencies and how do they work together?
  • What are the reliable methods for evaluating the impact of education in emergencies?

You may have decided to take this course because you have an interest in entering the field of education in emergencies and disaster risk management, whether for your community or globally. You may be a staffer in a non-governmental organization seeking professional development. You may be a donor seeking insight into those issues and organizations you feel a moral obligation to support. You may have a passion for a region, a disaster, or an issue and seek a way to explore how to be of service. You may be looking for a way to introduce the subject to your students or connect to colleagues in the field. You may be an academic, a practitioner, or simply a curious person. You will have an opportunity to describe what drove you to take this course. In the meantime, please know that you are welcome and I’m glad you’re here.

I must warn you, however, that the study of education in emergencies is not for the faint of heart. This course will inspire, challenge, exasperate, anger, and motivate you. It will break your heart, but I expect that it will not break your resolve.

Finally, here’s one last point in an already windy course description. This is an introduction to the field of education in emergencies — not a comprehensive training program. All emergencies do not look, feel, or act alike. Prevention, response, recovery, reconstruction (the before, during, and after) involve a complex interplay of culture, history, power, money, resources, language, local assets, global resources, obstacles, and opportunities. Education in emergencies requires in-depth training, mentorship, constant evaluation, and professional development — impossible to achieve in the short time we have together.

But let’s try anyway, precisely because the stakes are so high. Because that’s what teachers do.

[1] Friedman, T. May 19, 2013. “Without Water, Revolution.” New York Times, “Sunday Review” pg. 1, 6

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