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Palestine, education and emancipation

BBC Radio 4 has a programme which features discussion about listeners’ comments and complaints about BBC output. A big issue when I last caught this show was ‘news fatigue’. Some had written in to say they had given up listening to the news because of the relentless coverage of the Israeli / Palestine war. Some said that they just couldn’t cope with the distress of being told about killing and trauma on such a grand scale. It is certainly harrowing but I think we need to know. As the horror has unfolded, I have tried to keep abreast of the news, but I really don’t feel qualified to make any definitive statement about this hideous conflict.

Something positive

Although I don't want to comment on the war, I thought it might be timely to say something positive about the work of one of my colleagues. Many years ago, Hanan Ramahi founded a school in Ramallah in the West Bank. She and her partners wanted to create better opportunities for Palestinians. Subsequently, she took time out to come to Cambridge to do her doctoral study and naturally gravitated towards the matter of non-positional teacher leadership. I was privileged to become her supervisor and was delighted to see her graduate in 2018. The title of Hanan’s dissertation was Teachers leading school improvement and education reconstruction in Palestine. She had courageously opted for an action-based study which involved launching and facilitating a programme to support teachers as agents of change in her school. She was mindful of the resources required to fund studying at Cambridge so was determined ensure that it would have impact on educational reconstruction efforts in Palestine.

Doing research can be a bit like news reportage; just watching and taking notes while the world goes to hell in a handcart. Of course, observing what’s happening and trying to tell the world about it is important, but some researchers have chosen to try to change the situation. The validity of action research is contested of course (McTaggart, 1998) and it is a particularly challenging way to approach doctoral study, but Hanan was driven to do something constructive. As a practitioner in the West Bank, she was keenly aware of the particular nature of the context and alive to the transformative potential of education.

Education has the capacity to transform: to enable people to become well-adjusted,

productive and influential individuals. As a Palestinian, I feel this to be an urgent matter

for the longsuffering, dispossessed people of Palestine. (Ramahi, 2017)

Hanan’s project established a programme of support for non-positional teacher leadership in her school in Ramallah. She called it ‘Teachers Leading the Way’. Over the course of two years, the programme had significant impact by enabling teachers to initiate change arising from reflection on their own values and concerns. Through dialogue with a range of colleagues in the school, each teacher was able to ensure that their project made a welcome contribution to the development of practice in the school. Foci for teachers’ projects were similar to those we have seen in the UK or Kazakhstan or Bosnia & Herzegovina. Project titles such as: ‘enhancing student relations in year four’ or ‘improving IT learning in years five to 12’ are typical.

Agency and emancipation

What is more striking perhaps is the evidence in Hanan’s dissertation which demonstrated the transformative impact on the teachers who participated in her programme. Hanan characterised the process as emancipatory in its effect. A sample of the comments made by the participating teachers illustrates this sense of emancipation.

Our society doesn’t allow us to think on our own or express our individual thoughts.

(now) I’m going to solve my own problems. I’m the owner of the idea and the solution…

(Munir, secondary-level teacher)

In Munir’s comment we see some indication of the social context. In her writing, Hanan gives an account of the history of Palestine as being many years of colonialism, oppression and disenfranchisement which has undermined the agency of professionals.

I learned that the key is in your hands regardless of the problem and not to wait for

anyone to find the solution. Start yourself and you’ll find the solution and become an

innovator. (Naim, primary-level teacher)

In the above comment, Naim celebrates her new-found sense of self-reliance and agency.

Enabling Palestinian teachers to find their voice and exercise leadership could have far reaching consequences. Hanan argues quite persuasively that enabling this to happen across the whole system would help Palestine to develop home-grown solutions to entrenched problems and thus strengthen its social institutions. Alongside her doctoral study, Hanan worked on a report commissioned by the Rosa Luxemburg foundation - Education in Palestine: Current Challenges and Emancipatory Alternatives. In the introduction to the report, the programme manager at Rosa Luxemburg said that the report is part of a programme to:

enable various organisations, academics and social and political activists in the country,

and beyond, to upgrade methods and tools of education as a contribution to a

systematic and fruitful struggle on both social and national fronts. (Salam Hamdan,

Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Palestine)

In the report Hanan described many examples of innovative projects including for example: ‘Self-expression among youth; the Colourful Neighbourhood’ which was operating in Ramallah and Gaza City. The image on the front of the report shows how young people had been empowered to transform their neighbourhoods.

Focusing on the future

What prompted me to write this blog post, was the heart-breaking news of the war. The situation looks bleak, but as educators, we have to look beyond the agony of the moment and focus on the power of education to transform and reconstruct. Teachers across the middle east need the support that will enable them to work towards a vision of the future based on hope, tolerance and love. What Hanan Ramahi has demonstrated is that teacher empowerment is possible.

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