Never Judge A Book…Period.
Nduta Refugee Camp, Tanzania — “Never judge a book by its cover…” is a saying I remember my Nana telling me when I was a little girl. For years I took it literally and made it my mission to physically study every book’s cover before I cracked it open. When I finally understood the metaphorical meaning behind the phrase it became part of my code of behavior, along with the golden rule and striving to make the world a better place (for all you Lupin Lady fans out there). However, this week I was reminded of how easy it is to jump to false conclusions.
In every teacher training I have delivered over the years, there are always a few teachers that I peg at the very beginning that might be challenging participants. They have often been teaching for years, are most likely older, and they usually don’t smile much. Often, these few teachers sit in the training looking skeptically at me – an enthusiastic, smiley, young whipper-snapper waxing lyrical about the importance of creating a fun and engaging classroom and how we must respect our students as much as they respect us. These individuals will usually roll their eyes at me, having been trained in the ways of corporal punishment and wrote learning. While I do my best to chip away at the entrenched teaching habits they are so used to and their belief that fear equals respect, they often leave feedback on my training evaluations telling me that my warm and fuzzy techniques will not work in their learning-spaces and that I couldn’t possibly understand the challenges they are dealing with.
It’s true that the challenges refugee teachers face can sometimes be unbearable. Limited classroom space, huge class sizes, few or no teaching resources or reference materials, students suffering from trauma, parents who don’t value or prioritize education, and unimaginably low or no compensation what-so-ever; not to mention the challenges they face in their own personal lives of trying to get from day to day with limited access to poor health care, shelter, food, and social services. All of the above is what life is like for teachers in the Nduta refugee camp in Tanzania where there are over 112,000 Burundian refugee school-age children in need of education support.
On the first day of the refresher Little Ripples teacher training in the Nduta camp this week, there were two such teachers that I spotted. They sat in the training circle with scowls on their faces, arms crossed, and shoulders slumped; the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” popped into my mind as I sighed internally to myself. For the first half of the day, they watched me silently through squinted eyes, participating at a minimum level. Although a little intimidated, at lunch time I tried to make polite chit chat with them to see if I could break the ice a little; they were polite, but still no smiles.
When we started the afternoon session on play-based learning, I thought for sure that they were going to have some objections. However, I was surprised to see one of them fully leaning into the outdoor games as if she were a relay-race master! The other teacher in question insisted that we continue a game of Duck Duck Goose until she had a run around the circle, giggling as she safely made it back into spot of her chosen Goose. As we wrapped up that first day, I thought that there may be some hope yet to get these two teachers on board with what Little Ripples is all about.
On the second day of training, we talked about positive behavior management. During this session, both of these teachers surprised me immensely. When I asked the group if corporal punishment (i.e. physical, emotional, verbal, or other means to negatively impact a student for the purposes of control) was ever acceptable, one of the two teachers raised her hand high. I called on her, suspecting that she would present a tirade of how the only way to get a student to learn was to use these kinds of punishments, as I’ve heard many times before; but her answer astounded me. She said, “This is absolutely unacceptable. You must treat a child as if they are your own. Would you ever want anyone, especially a teacher, to harm your own child?” she asked the rest of the group. All of the other teachers nodded in agreement. I was both shocked and incredibly grateful for her answer.
Later on, in the same session we were discussing the difference between punishment and discipline. When I asked the group what they thought the difference was, the other teacher in question raised her hand up high. She said, “Punishment is a negative consequence you can deliver to a student to stop their behavior in the moment. Discipline is the act of teaching and helping a child to change their behavior to be more positive in the long term.” This was almost verbatim what I had written in my own notes.
I couldn’t believe it. These two women who I had initially thought to be my harshest critics were actually two of my most valuable allies. For the rest of the training, they participated fully and even led welcome songs and energizer activities, becoming natural leaders of the group. Who knows, perhaps that first day of training they were tired, or maybe they had experienced past trainers who were awful and were simply waiting to see what kind of a trainer I would be. Regardless, I had not even considered these possibilities before making my own assumptions.
Refugees often become refugees as the result of extreme prejudice and false assumptions. Much of the global fear-mongering and negative rhetoric about refugee and migrant communities is based on judgement, fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding. Dire photos from refugee camps mask the resilience and hope that can be found there and top-down humanitarian structures frequently operate under the assumption that refugee communities do not possess the skills or knowledge to manage the services and programs available to them. Through its work, iACT aims to disrupt this status quo and change the way refugee and displaced communities are viewed and treated. This week was a good reminder that I need to challenge myself and be stronger at walking this walk and not just talking this talk.
Upon realizing how amazing these two teachers were, I chided myself for having judged them so quickly based on their body language and facial expressions. Here were two teachers who valued positive behavior management, subscribed to the practice of loving all your students as if they are your own children, and schooled the rest of the teachers in how outdoor play can be the best thing ever. I was incredibly heartened to know they were responsible for the care, development, and education of refugee children in the Nduta camp. I feel so lucky to have learned from them this week and will strive to never judge a book, or teacher rather, by their cover ever again.
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