Crisis? Send in the Teachers

When in Doubt, Send in the Teachers

The New York Times ran this article: “First Prize for a Child in Somalia: An AK-47[i],” about a radio station controlled by a powerful Islamist militant group, Shabab, known for “blocking starving people from fleeing the country[ii]” in 2010 and 2011, and detonating a truck bomb at a government building, killing – among many others – students waiting for the posting of their exam results.

Aired live, the show honored 10-17 year olds who responded correctly to questions about Al Shabab. The top two winners got “AK-47s, some money, and Islamic books.” Third-place was graced with a couple of hand grenades. I pity the children who didn’t score well at all.

By now, it is clear that education can build communities and nations, keep it safe, grow the future.

In the wrong hands, education can build the kind of intent and capacity that can rupture the foundation of a society, tear asunder the ability for children to learn, smash any semblence of social contract, and sweep away any gains that have been made.

Disregard for education is almost always the catalyst for catastrophe. So is an education that foments it.

Articles and stories of this sort are devastating to read. Imagine when they come in the form of a phone call.

After a forgettable day of meetings, I had four messages from Raphael. Unfortunately, the connection prevented me from understanding him—something about Jos and children. His tone was flat, sepulchral.

I kept trying to reach him through phone and email, but couldn’t get through. Late at night, I finally reached him. He was in shock.

Raphael had been traveling first to Benue State to visit a mentor of his, Joseph Hungwa, and then to Jos, in Plateau State, to observe Teachers Without Borders projects.

Joseph Hungwa was a mentor and advocate for Teachers Without Borders, and had organized hundreds of teacher seminars about the right to literacy and the ability of any community member, regardless of background or financial capacity, to read. Joseph was ill, and I expected to hear the news of his passing.

This was not the purpose of Raphael’s call, though Joseph Hungwa died only weeks afterwards (Raphael is convinced it was from a broken heart.). He had to talk to someone about something entirely different—about what he had just witnessed.

Raphael had arrived in Jos in time for a massacre and had, only hours before, stood over a ditch containing bodies. Others could be seen in the streets. Villagers fled.

On the phone, I could tell he was shaking.   And over several such phone calls, we made a decision—to use his “Voice of Teachers” program, now reaching 1.8 million listeners in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, as a forum for bringing this subject right out into the open. “We can’t wait,” he said. “Education can’t wait for another day. It’s time to commit—now.”

Up to this point, the radio show had focused on request-based issues in teaching. He convened panels or read portions of the Certificate of Teaching Mastery program on the air, followed always by time to take call-in questions and comments. Ashoka, a prestigious organization known for support social-entrepreneurs, had honored him with a “Champion of African Education Award.”

Despite a decade of work together, Raphael was always deferential, even shy. Now he was asking TWB to focus directly on issues of peace and human rights.   This was a direct challenge. We had to enter into this territory—teachers were demanding it, Joseph Hungwa would have wanted it.

Unaware of Raphael’s calls, Deya Castilleja was expressing deep concern about the escalating violence in Mexico.

Solmaz called as well. According to Education International, an Iranian teacher unionist, Farzad Kamangar, was facing the imminent danger of being executed. His trial, for reasons still unknown, lasted only 7 minutes. Trade unions around the world appealed to His Excellency Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By May, his death was confirmed. His family had not been informed.

A Peace Corps volunteer in Niger and graduate of the University for Peace headed up the project. The Joseph Hungwa Peace Education program was born. Led by teachers to meet their needs: creating a classroom climate of problem solving, educating about bullying, ensuring human rights.

In South Africa, Nyasha Mutasa completed the Joseph Hungwa Peace Education program and went to work engaging her colleague Patrys Wolmarans – Director of the South Africa National Peace Project. Soon, they were conducting workshops in primary schools.

The Peace Education program has followed the pattern, once again: an inspired teacher gathers a global team, creates something her colleagues can use, enlists partners, passes it on and it crosses borders, to Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, United States, Canada—online and offline, as a course, at a local center, on the radio, in a classroom.

Virtually hundreds of organizations are working for peace education. We’ve only begun, but this is a daunting task at best. We all have a long way to go:

  • Between 40-50% of children currently not enrolled in school live in conflict-affected countries.[iii][iv]
  • During Sierra Leone’s civil war, rebel soldiers burned books and school desks for fuel.
  • In Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” hundreds of school buildings in Gaza were damaged or destroyed.
  • A quarter of a million children have been conscripted into armed military gangs, and fear of such gangs has kept many from going to school

Schools have been occupied, bombed, burned, ransacked, and turned into fronts for fake polling places. Teachers and schoolchildren have been attacked, abducted, assassinated, threatened, eviscerated, and sexually terrorized—all for reasons that offend even the most basic sense of human decency. Why? To store weapons or launch an attack; to prevent girls from getting educated[v]; to silence an opposition[vi]; to assert an ideological dogma; and to undermine the very idea of education itself—much of it done with impunity or even state sponsorship.

There’s clear progress in the attempt to address attacks on education: global funds to improve education in emergencies and in post-crisis transition[vii]; crisis mapping that exposes corruption, misappropriations, and government-sponsored abuses of human rights; enforcement of the rule of law for attacks on education as war crimes.

In Knowledge on Fire[viii], CARE identifies teachers—and the communities that support them—as key instrumental agents of change, in many cases far more effective than some expensive attempts by international agencies, charitable foundations, fabulously wealthy individuals, or corporations or to rebuild schools. (I am not suggesting that international aid or global initiatives for capacity building should decrease—far from it; the amount of support for education globally to ensure common decency, environmental stewardship, peace, and stability is a fraction of what it should be.)

The study, and so many like them, shows how teachers – and the communities that support them – have managed to keep education alive, day after day after day. In war zones, they’ve employed a range of clever negotiations to buy time or protect children. They’ve taught about peace when the very idea of peace seemed remote at best. They’ve created development councils to organize their communities to protect children, created a sense of normalcy by constructing child-friendly spaces in the midst of disaster, monitored and reported abuses even when their own personal safety was clearly at stake.

Teachers don’t have a PR firm to make their voices known, nor a publicity campaign other than an occasional awards ceremony. They don’t have a truly representative voice at Davos or influence at the G-8 summit. They should, though.

In the meantime, they have children to teach—and protect.

[i] New York Times. “First Prize for a Child in Somalia: An AK-47,” Jeffrey Gettleman, September 20, 2011:

[ii] New York Times. “Al Shabab,” October 17, 2011:

[iii] Education Under Attack: UNESCO, 2010:

[iv] The Hidden Crisis: Armed conflict and Education. UNESCO EFA Global Monitoring Report 2011:

[v] Gains in girls’ education in Afghanistan are at risk: Real lives. OXFAM:

[vi] Education doesn’t save lives, so why should we care? Feb 9, 2011, Education for All

[vii] UNICEF: “Unique education in emergencies fund reaches out to the most vulnerable, Babrielle Galanek, September 2010:

[viii] CARE: Knowledge on Fire: