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21 December 2016

Different class: how a Palestinian teacher won $1m

Hanan al-Hroub was a poorly paid teacher on the West Bank. Then she won the $1m Global Teacher Prize.

By Xan Rice

On a cold Monday morning in central London in late November, a 44-year-old Palestinian woman reflected on the dramatic recent changes to her life. At the start of the year the only foreign country that Hanan al-Hroub had visited was Jordan. She spoke very little English. Though she stood out among the teachers in the West Bank – often wearing a clown’s wig over her headscarf and a red nose while in class – she was just as poorly paid as the rest.

Now, Hroub is a celebrity at home and a globetrotter. In Vatican City she has had an audience with Pope Francis. In New York she spoke in the UN General Assembly hall at the invitation of Ban Ki-moon. She was in England to ring the bell to open trading at the London Stock Exchange. Though she speaks through an interpreter, she can now converse in English. And she is a millionaire.

“It’s been a year like a dream,” said Hroub with a smile when we met at the Varkey Foundation’s offices, near Piccadilly Circus. In March the foundation awarded her its annual $1m Global Teacher Prize, ahead of 8,000 other nominees. At the awards ceremony in Dubai, the judges praised Hroub’s “play and learn” method, which she employs at the Samiha Khalil School outside Ramallah. Many of the children there have been exposed to trauma during the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Besides her clown outfit, Hroub’s props include Lego, balloons, hula-hoops, toy cars and puppets. Her aim is to make the classroom a calm and fun place where children can forget about the struggles of daily life and open their minds.

“We play first, and when we play we learn,” she said. “The kids don’t even realise they are learning.”

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Hroub explained that her approach to education was formed long before she ever became a teacher. One of 11 siblings, she was born at the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. There was only one female doctor in the city and Hroub dreamed of becoming the second. But her plans were ruined in the 1990s when Palestinian universities were closed during the first intifada – the uprising against Israel.

Instead, she got married and concentrated on raising her five children. In October 2000, at the start of the second intifada, Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint shot at her husband’s car as he drove with their twin daughters, then aged nine. Though he was only slightly wounded, and the girls escaped harm, they were deeply disturbed by the incident, becoming withdrawn and prone to bursts of aggression. “They did not want to go to class, or to mingle with people. At night they would wake up
in fear,” Hroub said.

The girls’ teachers had no training to help children affected by violence, so Hroub decided to keep her daughters at home for a while. During breaks in the curfew, she would rush to the shops to buy scissors, cardboard, pens and other items that she could use to make games. “A corner of my home became their new class, full of cards and colours.”

Being able to play and learn in a “safe space” made the girls happy, reduced their tension and helped them overcome the trauma. Hroub realised then that she could make a difference in society and decided to study to become
a teacher. In 2007, she started as an assistant teacher, and two years later was appointed to a full-time post at the government primary school. She used the same techniques as she had done with her daughters, using play to “make the curriculum happy”.

Over time, she has refined her teaching method, adapting educational games that she has found online to the Palestinian experience. In addition to the toys and balloons, which she pays for with her own money, she uses videos and even PowerPoint in the classroom. For the first month of a new school year, her eight-year-old pupils may not even see an exercise book.

Among her peers, Hroub’s approach was not always popular. “There were two types of reactions. Some teachers were encouraging, and others were not, because my method required more effort and took them out of their comfort zone.”

Parents, too, are often taken aback initially by the focus on play. That soon changes, Hroub says, when they realise that her methods improve behaviour – especially in troubled kids – and academic results. She also sees it as her duty to build their character. “No to violence” is a constant refrain in her classes.

“My main concern is to cultivate something inside the children. Ethics and values are very important: to learn to treat everyone equally,” she said. In the case of her own children, the approach has clearly worked. Her twin daughters both studied law and are now trainee human rights lawyers.

The $1m prize, funded by the Dubai-based education billionaire and philanthropist Sunny Varkey, will be paid out in $100,000 instalments over ten years. Hroub plans to establish her own foundation and use some of her winnings to train other teachers in her method. For now, though, she just wants to get back to her classroom. “I miss my pupils and my games!” she said. 

This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016