How a Palestinian teacher from Bethlehem just won $1 million

Named as the world's best teacher, Hanan Al Hroub was honored Sunday for her unique teaching strategies dealing with violence. 

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Palestinian teacher Hanan al-Hroub, who is shortlisted to win the Global Teacher Prize, is hugged by a student in the West Bank city of Ramallah February 17, 2016.

Hanan al-Hroub, from Bethlehem in the West Bank, was awarded the $1 million Global Teacher Prize Sunday in Dubai.

Ms. Hroub was recognized for using games and playful activities to help local children learn in their violent environments – a program she calls "No to Violence." Hroub was chosen as the winner Sunday from a group of 10 finalists, which included teachers across all disciplines from Australia, Africa, the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom.   

“For an Arab, Palestinian teacher to talk to the world today and to reach the highest peak in teaching could be an example for teachers around the world,” Hroub tells The Associated Press. “The Palestinian teacher can talk to the world now. Hand in hand, we can affect change and provide a safe education to provide peace.” 

The Global Teacher Prize was established in 2015 by the Varkey Foundation, a not-for-profit organization aimed at improving education standards around the world.  

After comparing the status of teachers around the world, Sunny Varkey, a Dubai-based education entrepreneur and the Foundation’s Chairman, was shocked to find how low the global status of the profession had dropped. Varkey responded by founding the prize, “with the aim of raising the profession’s profile.”

Growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp, Hroub was regularly exposed to violence. Without any teaching experience, Hroub simply says she was inspired to earn her teaching degree after witnessing the affects similar violence had on her children. 

After Hroub’s husband and children were shot at on their way to school, her children went through a difficult time emotionally. Hroub says her children began to struggle academically, and without the support of local teachers, she felt alone in getting her children through the trauma. 

“We started inventing games at home and invite the neighbor’s children,” she explains in her ‘Top 10 Finalist’ video. “Gradually all the negative behaviors began to change, their grades were improving and so was their self-confidence.” 

Hroub says she then changed her major to Elementary Education, so she could share the powerful message of play with as many children as possible.

“A child will mature quickly here, because the situation we live in here is different than the situation of any child around the world,” Hroub explains. “I must deal with their personalities that were created because of their environments, and were forced into becoming. The violence does not have to be physical it can take many forms. Violence acts as a barrier to us teachers which blocks us from performing our roles.” 

The Global Teacher Prize has already witnessed worldwide acclaim in its two-year history. The top 10 finalists were congratulated Sunday in video messages by British physicist Stephen Hawking, US vice president Joe Biden, His Royal Highness Prince William, former US president Bill Clinton, and Pope Francis. Celebrities such as Salma Hayek, Matthew McConaughey, and Parineeti Chopra were present at the event to announce the winners.

Last year’s inaugural prize was awarded to Nancie Atwell, an English teacher from Maine. Ms. Atwell donated her $1 million award to the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine, a school she founded to support underprivileged students. 

“I tell all the teachers,” says Hroub in her acceptance speech, “whether they are Palestinian or around the world: ‘Our job is humane, its goals are noble. We must teach our children that our only weapon is knowledge and education.” 

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