RAMALLAH // A row of miniature potted plants sits on a small ledge, framing the doorway of what has become the most talked about classroom in the West Bank.
The walls of Palestinian teacher Hanan Al Hroub’s classroom are painted pale yellow, but come alive with drawings of animals, posters showing the Arabic alphabet, three-dimensional sculptures, maps of Palestine and photographs depicting Palestinian dancers and musicians.
Ms Al Hroub, 43, returned to her classroom in the government-run Samiha Khalil High School earlier this week after winning what has been likened to a Nobel Prize for teaching. She was awarded the 2016 Global Teacher Prize at a ceremony in Dubai on March 13 after being shortlisted from 8,000 candidates around the world.
The second-grade teacher has been quietly taking her newfound fame in her stride, but signs of exhaustion are beginning to show on Ms Al Hroub’s face as she fields a constant stream of phone calls and media interviews.
"It's a major mix of feelings: on one hand there's total happiness and it's celebrated by everyone and I've been supported internationally, but on the other hand there's this huge sense of responsibility," she told The National on Tuesday.
The left-hand corner at the front of Ms Al Hroub’s classroom is filled with painted recycled car tires, colourful plastic crates with bright cushions on top of them, and two giant soft toy caterpillars lying on the floor.
At the entrance point to this corner turned wonderland sits a chair painted gold. Students are rewarded for good behaviour with a turn in the seat followed by time in the corner’s play space.
Like the students who win a chance to sit in the chair, Ms Al Hroub has won a golden ticket – but it comes with a price.
“The whole world is looking to see what comes next,” she said. “People are watching to see what I am going to do with US$1 million (Dh3.7m) that I will receive over ten years while there are so many millionaires out there and no one looks at them.”
The attention Ms Al Hroub has received since winning this year’s Global Teacher Prize earlier this month has been enormous, and each day of her first week back in the classroom has been filled with festivities.
Three separate celebrations alone were held with teachers and pupils on the morning that The National visited Ms Al Hroub at the school in Al Bireh, just outside Ramallah. One included a giant cake with a candle that spat out sparks and drew singing and cheers from a group of students.
Later on Tuesday Ms Al Hroub was scheduled to meet with the Palestinian prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, and other Palestinian Authority ministers.
The prize, which is now in its second year, was established by global education charity the Varkey Foundation to recognise one exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession.
As Pope Francis and former US president Bill Clinton paid tribute to Ms Al Hroub via video link, her supporters back home watched the televised ceremony on a big screen in central Ramallah, cheering and waving Palestinian flags.
Samiha Khalil principal Anam Zidan said she had a feeling Ms Al Hroub would win.
“She is one of those rare people who is a natural teacher – she belongs to her career and is close to her students,” Ms Zidan said. “I was 90 per cent sure she would win, but I was still shocked and excited and cried when it was announced.”
“Every day I thank my teacher for what she does for us,” said Shadi, 7, one of Ms Al Hroub’s students. “I’m also very proud of her and I congratulate her all the time,” added Hala, another student.
Ms Al Hroub, who grew up in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, said the best thing about her award is that it helps to raise awareness of the “parts of Palestine that people either didn’t know about, or didn’t want to see”.
The mother of five’s recent success comes as a wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians is showing no signs of letting up. Since the start of last October, more than 200 Palestinians and nearly 30 Israelis have been killed, according to the Palestinian Maan news agency.
Ms Al Hroub and her family are themselves no strangers to violence at the hands of the Israeli occupation. Two of her daughters, who are now freshly qualified lawyers, and her husband Omar, also a lawyer, were shot at by Israeli forces while on their way home from school, Ms Al Hroub said.
The incident drove her decision to become a teacher.
Meanwhile, Ms Al Hroub’s class of 28 students, mostly aged seven, are exposed to violence on a daily basis, she said.
As a result they often come to school and behave aggressively, cannot concentrate, or are violent towards each other and themselves.
To counter this, Ms Al Hroub uses tools to encourage her children to work cooperatively in teams, building their trust in others and rewarding good, collaborative behaviour. Her teaching technique centres around teaching through play – which she's written about in a book called We Play, We Learn. One game involves running under a rainbow while solving maths problems.
Ms Al Hroub's award also comes as teachers in the West Bank are on strike, demanding more pay. Ms Al Hroub, who is not striking, earns just 2,500 Shekels a month (Dh2,378) – a salary that hasn't increased in almost ten years. When The National visited the Samiha Khalil school on Tuesday the students had to leave at 11am as a result of the strike.
Leaving Ms Al Hroub’s classroom and the welcoming row of potted plants, the reality of Israeli occupation is inescapable – through a long window on the first floor of the school can be seen the Jewish settlement of Psagot, perched on the hilltop. And just over a five-minute drive away is a Palestinian refugee camp.
But despite all this, Ms Al Hroub’s prize has injected Palestinian society with a much-needed sense of positivity.
“We plant the seeds, we change the direction of the generation ahead ... To live in peace, to teach in peace and to be safe in our classrooms,” Ms Al Hroub said.