On the occasion of World Teacher’s Day, Stephanie Bengtsson argues for an asset-based approach to the inclusion of refugee teacher voices in policymaking and practice.
Until recently, in refugee settings, teachers have typically been treated as passive system inputs, with an emphasis on deploying them where there are shortages and improving them through training, and with little consideration of the key role they play in the lives of refugee learners and communities. While there is increasing recognition that it is important to include teachers’ voices in policymaking and practice, in this article, I invite readers to consider what inclusion of teachers’ voices might look like to demonstrate why refugee teachers’ voices should matter and to contribute to burgeoning work on how to include them.
The main barrier preventing the inclusion of refugee teacher voices in policymaking and practice is limited political will and a lack of comprehensive financing (Jalbout & Bullard, 2022). To elaborate, the refugee education response to date has been driven by a focus on recruiting sufficient numbers of teachers to address shortages, without considering that teachers are themselves members of affected communities with a right to lifelong learning and decent work and that they can be potentially powerful agents of change, if they have adequate support and resources and access to improved living and working conditions (Bengtsson et al., 2021).
Addressing this barrier involves moving from designing and implementing programming and policies for refugees as beneficiaries, to co-constructing programming and policies with refugees as active leaders and participants, which requires moving from a deficit-based to an asset-based perspective to working with refugee communities and the issues that affect them (Jalbout & Bullard, 2022).
Below, I outline the three mind-shifts necessary for an asset-based approach to the inclusion of teacher voices in policymaking and practice.
- Teachers are professionals, with a professional voice:
In the global discourse, teachers are often viewed as system inputs, with an emphasis on improvement of these inputs through training, rather than seeing them as professionals in their own right. Even policies making reference to teacher professionalism and empowerment often involve ‘false promises’ or, worse, have “exploited teachers’ labour” (Datnow, 2020, p. 432). In refugee settings, where many schools often face staff shortages, it can be particularly tempting to take such a view, especially given that refugee teachers are often unqualified, undercompensated, and lack job security and opportunities for career advancement (Billy et al., 2023). Recognising that refugee teachers – regardless of training and qualifications – belong to a profession and mobilising ministries of education, teacher unions, and other relevant organisations to actively engage with these teachers to co-construct and implement professional standards and protections can help to ensure a more collaborative, sustainable workforce. Providing refugee teachers with a sense of belonging to a profession that offers job security, decent working conditions, and opportunities for career advancement can help curb high attrition rates and improve teacher retention, a growing concern for the international education community as a whole, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (UNESCO & TTF, 2022).
- Teachers are educators, with a pedagogical voice:
Typically, refugee teachers have been treated as passive policy objects to be trained and deployed to refugee classrooms. However, regardless of levels of qualifications or experiences with training, it is important to remember that teachers are educators, and that they have something to teach not only their students, but each other, and the wider community. In fact, in some contexts, host community teachers mention they have difficulties relating to and/or communicating with refugee learners, and highlight the crucial role played by refugee teachers in bridging this divide and improving the quality of education provided as a result (Billy et al., 2023). To elaborate further on this idea, while definitions of what exactly constitutes quality teaching differs across contexts, recent research involving high-achieving countries finds that, to teach well, teachers need to (1) develop an understanding of content, pedagogy, and learners, (2) aim to meet not just their students’ academic needs, but their social and emotional needs as well, and (3) engage in ongoing inquiry and research to inform their own professional practice (Darling-Hammond, 2021). If we think about these findings in relation to refugee teachers, we can see that the understanding that refugee teachers bring to the classroom of refugee learners and their diverse needs, as well as of pedagogical traditions and practices from their home countries, is a potentially valuable asset in terms of improving education quality.
- Teachers are lifelong learners, with an evolving voice:
As the work of teachers in part involves supporting their students to become lifelong learners, it is important that teachers are given the opportunity to be lifelong learners themselves and to enjoy “the freedom to take risks, learn from mistakes, and be supported in engaging in experimentation and exploration” (Datnow, 2020, p. 437). As noted in the point above, to teach well, teachers need to be active learners, and to ensure that they continue to build their understanding of content, pedagogy, and learners (Darling-Hammond, 2021). However, another consequence of thinking purely in terms of numbers of teachers needed at a particular point in time is that we lose this dimension of time that is inherent in the concept of lifelong learning, and, importantly, we fail to understand how teachers’ careers evolve and how they can best be supported throughout the course of those careers. In fact, when it comes to financing, to date, teacher training programmes are typically treated as one-off or limited-term costs and refugee teacher salaries or incentives typically do not change over time (i.e., there is no career progression in terms of training or salary). By adding a temporal dimension and working to include the voices of refugee students who dream of becoming teachers, participants in pre-service teacher education, beginning teachers, experienced teachers, senior teachers, and headteachers, we can better support the professional development of the workforce as a whole, through the co-construction and implementation of costing and planning models that consider teachers as lifelong learners.
Key policy-level takeaways
Refugee teachers should not be seen merely as education system inputs. They are:
- Professionals, with a professional voice, who can contribute to a more collaborative, sustainable workforce, supporting refugees and host communities alike.
- Educators, with a pedagogical voice, who have something to teach not only their students, but also each other, and the wider community.
- Lifelong learners, with an evolving voice, who should be supported and should support each other throughout their careers.
As such, teachers’ voices should not just be included, they should be leading the discussion.
About the author:
Stephanie Bengtsson is a founding partner of benedex, a boutique consultancy located in Vienna, offering research, learning, and consulting services in international development and education. Over the past 15 years, Stephanie’s research, consulting, and teacher education work has centred on the notion of education as a life-saving and life-sustaining right, for learners and teachers alike. She holds a doctorate in International Educational Development from Teachers College, Columbia University, and an MPhil in Inclusive Education from the University of Cambridge.