A good teacher can change the life of a refugee child

This year's Global Teacher Prize honours education for those deprived of a stable childhood

Refugee children have some of the lowest school enrolment rates of any group. Heidi Levine for The National
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Every day in classrooms across the world, young minds are formed. Every day, a good teacher somewhere frees imaginations and moulds lives. Few responsibilities are so great. And too often – in a world riven by unequal access to education, let alone inequality in the quality of learning – the achievements of teachers go unacknowledged.

This week, however, many around the world learnt of Keishia Thorpe, an English teacher in Maryland, US, who helped make university education accessible to low-income, immigrant and refugee pupils. For this honourable work, she has won the 2021 Global Teacher Prize for $1 million.

Education a basic, universal human right, as enshrined in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the 1951 Refugee Convention. And yet the children taught by Ms Thorpe are among the lucky ones; too few pupils worldwide – particularly those who are refugees – are enrolled in school.

There are 20.7 million refugees just under the care of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. Of these, 7.9 million are of school age. But their access to education is limited. Nearly half are unable to attend school.

US teacher Keisha Thorpe won the Global Teacher Prize for 2021. AFP
Nearly half of refugee children are unable to attend school

Then there is the blow dealt by the pandemic. Across 40 countries, the gross secondary level enrolment rate for refugees during the 2019-2020 school year stood at only 34 per cent. Covid-19 has been disruptive for all children, but UNHCR emphasises that it could end chances for young refugees of getting an education at all.

Considering these numbers, it is especially important to highlight the commitment of people such as Ms Thorpe. She is an example of how right things can be, and how fortuitous it is to learn from a good teacher, especially at the right time, when one is still young, receptive to guidance and able to get the most out of schooling.

Education and opportunity have no substitutes. When pupils are given a chance and taught well, the effect on the wider community can be empowering. The refugee contingent at the Olympics showed us that despite adversity and desperate loss, human will can achieve greatness.

Under Ms Thorpe's teaching, her classes showed a 40 per cent increase in reading abilities. She has guided her charges into a dozen universities, bagging precious scholarships. The effect of such dedication goes beyond helping one pupil or one family; it can lift an entire community and make of young people citizens who wish to give back, to reinforce a cycle of opportunity for others like them.

The importance of education is undeniable for all. But for immigrants and refugee pupils, for whom at some point it may have seemed unlikely, learning can be an affirmation. A good teacher shows how much potential there is in people if they're nurtured well. With formidable guides, the world is better equipped, not just to dignify the lives of refugees, but to also give countless pupils all over the world a better chance at life.

Published: November 12, 2021, 2:00 AM