How can we best ensure quality education for refugees and better equip teachers to cater to their educational needs? This was one of the key issues debated at the 1st  Global Refugee Forum, held from 17-18 December in Geneva, Switzerland.

During this event, where she moderated a panel on “Teachers shoulder the burden: Improving support in crisis contexts”, we had the opportunity to interview Mary Mendenhall, Associate Professor of Practice in the International and Transcultural Studies Department at Teachers College, Columbia University, USA. 

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Teachers, key element to ensure education in crisis situations.

EI: The refugee situation is a challenge for the refugees themselves, but also for the host countries, local teachers and local communities. What role do you see for education communities, especially teachers, educators and their unions, in building inclusive societies?

MM: We cannot talk about quality education anymore without talking about the vital role of teachers. Teachers are not only the ones who teach the curriculum, they are the ones that respond to their learners' needs in terms of psychosocial support and counselling services. Whether teachers are able to do that or they are able to find resources within the community to help those young people get the help that they need is extremely important. And teachers are the ones who are incredibly innovative in stark situations where there are very few teaching and learning resources. They show up and they find ways to teach, no matter what.
On inclusive societies, inclusive communities, again, teachers can build social cohesion or harm it. They need support to be able to play that role as factors of social cohesion as effectively as possible. They are the ones that these young people are interacting with, the ones that the parents and families are interacting with. And the way that teachers handle those situations, those conversations, the values that they impart in those transactions, the way they teach their classes, the way they promote what is happening at school, can actually be a critical link in thinking about social cohesion.

Teachers need to learn how to check their own biases, how to help students with different backgrounds in their classrooms have constructive and meaningful conversations about difference and also similarity, especially because after school, those children take all that back to their families and their larger communities.
I also think the teachers' unions, as the voice of the teachers, play an integral piece in advocating for the needs of teachers with the national governments, making sure they get the resources that they need. They have a crucial role to perform, in particular in the way they support teachers be agents for social cohesion and the advocacy they are engaging in around teacher professional development.

No proper implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees without qualified teachers 

EI: How can about the Global Compact on Refugees – much mentioned at the forum –  be best used to ensure quality education for all, including refugees?

MM: I think it is a great moment to figure out how to operationalise the Global Compact. It represents an important document, but what do we do with it? Words on a document are inspiring, but if we do not put it into action, then we continue to kind of shatter the dreams of refugees who are displaced in different contexts, displaced because of armed conflict or natural disasters.

For me, the most important tool for actually operationalising the Global Compact is teachers. So how can we better support teachers to do an already, under the best of circumstances, incredibly difficult job? And then thinking about teachers who are refugees themselves, who are internally displaced, or also teachers with refugees and other displaced learners in their classrooms. What are the additional resources, not only financial – that is critical – but technical resources that they need to do their jobs better?

The only way we can implement the Global Compact and pretend to even give lip service to the notion of quality education is through better support to the teachers who are working in the most dire circumstances.

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About the interviewee:

Mary Mendenhall is Associate Professor of Practice in the International and Transcultural Studies Department at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the Programme Director and teaches courses in the International and Comparative Education Programme. Mendenhall earned her doctorate in International Educational Development with a specialisation in International Humanitarian Issues in 2008.

Her research interests include education in emergencies, refugee education and urban refugees. She is also interested in the quality, relevance and sustainability of educational support provided by international organizations for displaced children and youth in conflict-affected and post-conflict countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.