Palestinian Global Teacher victor: ‘My students are the true prize winners’ – Harriet Sherwood/The Guardian
$1m prize winner Hanan al-Hroub on how her family getting shot at by Israeli soldiers galvanised her to teach in an environment where violence is endemic
When Hanan al-Hroub returns to her classroom after a week’s absence on Sunday, her arms full of puppets, socks, wooden clothes pegs, toy cars and a clown’s wig, she will be additionally weighed down with a trophy inscribed with her name as this year’s winner of the $1m Global Teacher prize.
“I will carry the trophy aloft to my children,” the 43-year-old said at her home in Ramallah. “My students are the true winners of this prize. My inspiration came from these children.”
Hroub, 43, was named last weekend as this year’s winner of an award described as the Nobel prize for teaching, out of a field of 8,000 candidates and a final shortlist of 10 from the US, the UK, Japan, Australia, Finland, Pakistan and India. “And Palestine,” she said with visible pride.
At a ceremony in Dubai, Pope Francis, the Duke of Cambridge and Bill Clinton were among those who paid tribute by video to the woman who grew up in a refugee camp in Bethlehem and was inspired to teach after her daughters were shot at by Israeli soldiers.
In the West Bank, supporters watched the televised ceremony on a big outdoor screen in the centre of Ramallah. When the pope read Hroub’s name, the crowd erupted in cheers and waved the Palestinian flag. Among them were Hroub’s adult children. “We were praying, and then we cried,” said one.
The judges chose Hroub after watching, and participating in, a sample lesson in which she used her tools of everyday items in her “play and learn” technique.
At the Samiha Khalil school in al-Bireh, just outside Ramallah, Hroub’s pupils – aged between six and 10 – live in an environment where violence is endemic, she told the Guardian. They are often disruptive, unstable and manipulative; some engage in violent acts themselves.
“The environment outside the classroom is violent. Inside I provide peace, harmony and security,” she said.
Often wearing a clown’s wig and red nose, Hroub uses games to get children to work cooperatively in teams, building trust and respect, and rewarding positive non-violent behaviour. She has written a book about her teaching philosophy, called We Play We Learn.
Hroub only began working as a teacher in 2007. After leaving school, she was forced to abandon her plans for further education when Palestinian universities closed during the first intifada, or uprising, between 1987 and 1993. Instead she got married and had five children.
In 2000, when her youngest was established at school, Hroub resumed her education part-time at Al-Quds University. Within months, her husband, Omar, and two of her daughters were shot at by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint near Bethlehem. Omar was injured in the shoulder and the girls were traumatised.
“This incident changed my life. We were in shock. My children were suffering, and the teachers were not trained to deal with trauma. At that point I decided to commit my life to teaching.”
Combining university with family duties, it took Hroub five years to graduate. She now earns 2,500 shekels (£450) a month; Palestinian teachers walked out on strike for higher pay while Hroub was in Dubai.
“My school is a government school, it’s a good school but we don’t have very much,” she said. “Everything I need, I provide myself. My monthly budget [for equipment] is nothing. But for me, my classroom is like my home. The children are my family along with my family at home.”
She vehemently rejects Israeli claims that Palestinian schools incite children against Israel. “My message to those who say that is that all children should be protected from violence. I had a very hard childhood, and I don’t want these children to experience the same. Once a cycle of violence is created, it’s very hard to break.
“Children are deeply affected by their environment. The violence that some Palestinian children practise is a reaction to the violence around them. I want to provide a safe environment for learning. I cannot influence the wider environment but I can influence the child. This is my philosophy.”
In her apartment in Ramallah, boxes of her teaching “tools” were stacked in a corner. One of her daughters fetched the heavy gilt Global Teacher trophy – a silhouette of a woman’s face, with stars streaming from her hair. Under Hroub’s name are the words: “In recognition of exceptional achievements within the classroom and beyond.”
Omar, Hroub’s lawyer husband, said he had never doubted that his wife would win. “I was totally confident, and I was right. I was very happy,” he said, flanked on a sofa by four of the couple’s five children. Their twin daughters are newly-qualified lawyers, another daughter is an accountant, one son is a chef, and the youngest, a boy, is training to be an architect.
In her acceptance speech in Dubai, Hroub – wearing a traditional embroidered Palestinian dress – said: “I am proud to be a Palestinian female teacher standing on this stage. I accept this as a win for all teachers in general and Palestinian teachers in particular. Each day, the role of the teacher is reinforced and its importance confirmed as the world questions what future we want for our children.”
She plans to use her $1m prize money, disbursed over 10 years, to support young people studying to become teachers as well as to train teachers in her methods. A condition of the award, run by the Varkey Foundation, is to remain working as a classroom teacher for five years, a requirement she is more than happy to fulfil.