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13 Dec 2023
Syed Munir Ahmad, Christopher Henderson and Najma Begum

Why Teachers Must Be at the Heart of Global Refugee Education: A Case Study from Pakistan

On the occasion of the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva and a new NORRAG Policy Insights publication on refugee teachers, Syed Munir Ahmad, Christopher Henderson and Najma Begum make four key recommendations for governments, donors, and policymakers to recognize and act upon.

On the occasion of the second Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, NORRAG is launching a new Policy Insights publication titled Refugee Teachers: The Heart of the Global Refugee Response. As multiple papers in this publication argue, while refugee education has garnered increased attention via the Global Compact on Refugees and efforts to include refugee learners in national education systems, refugee teachers are the “unseen heart” of progress in refugee education (Kurian and Kurian, 2023).

Although citizens of Afghanistan make up a large proportion of the global population of forcibly displaced persons, there is a dearth of literature on Afghan refugees’ education, Afghan refugee teacher education, and the opportunities that Afghan teachers and learners in Pakistan benefit from when teacher professional development is prioritised and improved. Thus, in this blog, to bring the work of Afghan refugee teachers into focus and to make the case for improved funding and support for refugee teachers’ globally, we situate our analysis of refugee teachers’ realities on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

A history of navigating multiple curricula changes in Afghan refugee schooling

As far back as the former Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, millions of Afghans have been forcibly displaced to neighbouring countries like Pakistan. Different governments and later donor agencies, like USAID, and international organisations like UNICEF and UNESCO thus became involved in funding and structuring education and teacher training in Afghanistan, each with their own ideologically driven objectives and strategies.

Between the former Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 and after the toppling of the Taliban in 2001, school curricula has included the ideology of jihad and resistance to communism, education for peace and nation building, and the de-radicalisation of Afghan youth through vocational skills development. As refugee education on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border also integrated Afghanistan’s curriculum of the day, refugee teachers were expected to pivot in their knowledge and pedagogical approaches to meet a given curriculum’s corresponding demands.

The challenge of curriculum aligned teacher professional development 

When the curriculum’s requirement was training for jihad, teachers and schools focused on producing the skills and knowledge needed for mujahideen and the fight against Soviet occupation. Similarly, when the Taliban departed and the agenda for teaching shifted towards more Western-oriented notions of child-centred teaching and peace education, methods including role plays, cooperative and child-led learning, self- and peer-assessment, and classroom debates were promoted. Teachers thus required intensive pre-service and continuous professional development support in order to implement changes.

Given that most Afghan student teachers had limited academic backgrounds in Pakistan, it was additionally difficult for them to understand and transfer complex pedagogical expectations derived from and based on western knowledge and literature – that they had never experienced in their own schooling – from pre-service training into classrooms. Due to a lack of prioritisation of refugee teachers’ needs in global and national policies and inadequate funding, the duration of in-service teacher professional development was often short and opportunities for professional learning were sporadic.

Language barriers also existed. Many teacher training centres used Pashto textbooks and instruction, which was especially challenging for Pakistani student-teachers who were being trained to work with Afghan refugee learners, and whose own education had been in Urdu. At the confluence of these complexities for teachers, the chances of Afghan children and adolescents receiving a quality basic education in Pakistan are slim

The challenge of community involvement in teaching and learning

Recognizing the negative impact that this toing and froing between curricula brings, local initiatives such as Basic Education for Afghan Refugees (BEFARe), which ran from 1996 to 2016 and trained more than 10,000 teachers, implemented a core set of teaching approaches and tools. Teaching approaches that were introduced to and employed by pre-service teachers were theoretical, practical, and consistent. In-service teachers were also provided with standardised teaching tools such as literacy and numeracy charts, blackboards, and flashcards.

Despite their desire for quality education, however, the role of families and the community in helping to support and improve teaching practices was often constrained due to the uncertainties of displacement, the complexities of poverty, and a lack of meaningful incentives for families’ ongoing engagement in school development. School Management Committees (SMCs) were therefore trained to better facilitate community involvement, but they also had limited success due to the aforementioned challenges.

Factors impacting teachers’ classroom practices

Beyond their preservice education, classroom teaching was a significant challenge for Afghan refugee student-teachers. Teachers faced many social and personal anxieties, which resulted from their low wages, irregular payments, and a lack of teaching materials. Adding to these complexities, high student enrolment numbers and over-crowded classrooms with multi-age and multi-grade learners and their corresponding pedagogical needs were common and a cause for concern among teachers.

Many Afghan students and teachers alike also experienced severe trauma from war- and displacement-related difficulties, which affected the overall quality of teaching and the psychosocial safety of learning environments. A lack of psychosocial support for teachers, improper monitoring and evaluation processes, and the absence of certification to recognize teaching qualifications and learning achievement also demotivated teachers’ long-term engagement in the profession, leading to high attrition rates and overall teacher shortages.

How the Global Refugee Forum can address refugee teachers’ work and well-being

The situation outlined above reflects realities experienced by a vast majority of refugee teachers and teachers of refugees globally. Reflecting the situation on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in particular, we make four key recommendations for governments, donors, and policymakers at the Global Refugee Forum to recognize and act upon:

  • Address teacher well-being by providing psychosocial support services, improving teachers’ own psychosocial literacy, and facilitating communities of practice within which teachers find opportunities for collaboration and peer coaching.
  • Reduce existing teacher shortages and workloads by utilising national schools for apprenticeship styled pre-service training for student refugee teachers, with a focus on mother language instruction and multi-grade teaching.
  • Resist the blind adoption of donor country agendas and ensure that refugee teacher education is tailored to the knowledge, skills, and relationships that refugee children, adolescents, and schools need and deserve.
  • Provide multi-year funding for professional development support in coaching, mentoring, and advocacy so that local NGO actors can mentor refugee teachers and champion their social dialogue with international organisations and government agencies.



Kurian, M., and Kurian, N (2023) The ‘unseen heart’ of refugee education: The narratives of Sri Lankan refugee teachers in India. In Henderson, C.J., (Ed) Refugee Teachers: The Heart of the Global Refugee Response. NORRAG.


About the Authors

Dr. Syed Munir Ahmad is an Associate Professor of Education at the Institute of Education and Research, University of Peshawar, Pakistan. He has been a school and university teacher for the last more than twenty nine years. Dr. Ahmad earned his PhD from the University of Nottingham, UK.

Christopher Henderson is an Education in Emergencies Specialist for NORRAG at the Geneva Graduate Institute. He is the editor of Refugee Teachers: The Heart of the Global Refugee Response and a Doctoral Fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York.

Dr. Najma Begum is an Assistant Professor at the Government Frontier College For Women Peshawar, Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. She has been a school and College teacher for the last twenty-one years. Dr. Najma earned her PhD in 2022 from the University of Peshawar, Pakistan.

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