For this Palestinian educator, the Global Teacher Prize was just the start

Hanan al-Hroub, who grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp, has leveraged her award to improve education at home and abroad.

Christa Case Bryant
Hanan al-Hroub, the 2016 winner of the Global Teacher Prize, sits in her second-grade classroom at Samiha Khalil school in the West Bank city of al-Bireh, near Ramallah. The Global Teacher Prize is sponsored by the Varkey Foundation.

When a Palestinian teacher won the prestigious Global Teacher Prize last year, she won more than the $1 million prize. The international recognition gave Hanan al-Hroub a platform for her to not only inspire teachers at her own school but throughout the Arab world, education experts say.

She has taken that opportunity – creating a nongovernmental organization called "Miracle teaching" – and launching a world tour that's taken her to the United Nations, the Vatican, and into meetings with numerous presidents and ministers of education.

Back home, hundreds of Palestinian teachers have taken her cue. Whereas last year she was one of 60 teachers applying for the global award, this year some 800 applied. More than that, even those who don't win say they're committed to improving their own professional development.

A school, encouraged by Ms. Hroub, won $1 million in a reading contest. And teachers have gained a much greater say in curriculum: The Palestinian Authority’s curriculum development team, which once relied heavily on other professionals, now has four teachers for every non-educator, says Refat Sabbah, head of the Teacher Creativity Center and a member of the Palestinian committee that evaluates prize applicants.

“This is a good indicator that the ministry, the decisionmakers, realized the potential that teachers have,” says Mr. Sabbah, who adds that Hroub’s achievement has boosted teachers’ morale and sense of value. “This prize is giving their soul back again.”

The transformation of a violent student

In an education system dominated by rote learning, in which students can be found repeating almost mindlessly after their teacher in a sing-song voice, the humanity Hroub brings to the classroom – and to educator workshops – has opened fellow teachers’ minds to a new approach.

“Our object in concentrating on character … of the student is to try to get out of him any talents that we can develop,” says Imraat, who teaches at the Samieha Khalil School with Hroub.

On a recent sunny morning, Hroub reflected on her unlikely journey from the alleys of Dheisha refugee camp outside Bethlehem, where she was born, to the global corridors of power. The school where she teaches today is perched on a high ridge of al-Bireh, from which can be seen both the skyscrapers of Ramallah, the de facto headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, and the nearby Israeli settlement of Psagot.

Despite a lifetime spent at the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict, Hroub seems unmarred by hatred and violence. She disagrees with the dominant Israeli view that the Palestinian curriculum, from word problems in math to maps that do not acknowledge Israel’s existence, incites young children to extremism. She has seen nothing in the curriculum that promotes violence, she says. On the contrary, she rejects violence and strives to provide an atmosphere for her students that is sheltered from the difficult circumstances in which they live.

“The most important thing is that once we close that door, we forget everything that goes on outside the door,” she says, as sun pours into her large classroom, which she has furnished with bright rugs and a corner library. “Any hostile behavior is rejected in the classroom. Any attitude of violence or hostility is also rejected.”

That guideline was put to the test when Hroub acquired a 7-year-old student who hit her repeatedly, and would bloody his fellow classmates if she left him alone for even a few minutes.

He had been beaten and bullied, and shuffled from one school to the next. She set out to earn his trust with small agreements, such as: If you commit for five minutes to this game, I’ll let you play a second game. Five minutes became 10, then 15.

The number of daily incidents dropped from six to five after several weeks. Each improvement thereafter came more quickly, until one day he had only one incident – and promised it would never happen again.

Around that time, according to a story his mother related to Hroub, he was at a wedding with his family and someone grabbed his drink from him.

He controlled his anger, counting from 1 to 10. “Had you asked me for it, I would have given it to you,” he told the other wedding attendee. “And I don’t want to hit you.”

Then he said, “Mom, I did exactly what Miss Hanan told me to!”

The father thanked her, and told of how his young son would come home and chastise him for not following the rules. “I feel that you’re also conducting behavior coaching with me as well,” the father said, according to Hroub's account.

‘You have to be more than me’

Hroub is also changing the way fellow educators think about their role. Hala, a fellow teacher, offers the analogy of teaching Quran recitation skills – skills, she says, that “are very well developed in books; however, you can only [acquire] these skills if you have someone listening to you.” And that, she says, is exactly what Hroub has done for her students.

But Hala also adds that it’s important to stop personalizing the trend of progress, and to recognize that Hroub has brought an improved concept that can have an impact far beyond her classroom.

For Sabbah, he hopes that will help transform government policy, including raising the salaries of teachers from the current average of 2,500 shekels, or $670, which is difficult to live on even with the relatively low cost of living in the West Bank. Last year, teachers launched an unprecedented month-long strike, which began with a protest over low pay.

“We want Hanan to push the ministry to work on methodology, to work on training of teachers,” he says. “We also want Hanan to stand beside her colleagues who are asking for higher salaries.”

Meanwhile, Hroub is inspiring the next generation of ministers of education. Last month, she held a mock election in her classroom for a new minister of education. One boy said if he were elected, he would get rid of backpacks. Another little girl said she would like to be a teacher like Hroub – and asked if she succeeded whether her teacher would give her her classroom one day.

Hroub told her, “Yes – but you have to be more than me.”

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