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At a glance: Liberia

Real lives

Teacher orientation in Liberia: Learning how to heal student’s hearts and minds

KAKATA, LIBERIA, 7 November 2003 -- It’s day two of teacher orientation classes at the Kakata Rural Teacher Training Institute, Margibi County, Liberia. The ‘Back-to School’ initiative for Liberia was launched just three days ago, and these classes are an important component to help experienced teachers reintegrate into a classroom enviornment with children traumatized and uprooted in war-torn. After fourteen years of civil unrest, many teachers, as well as students, have the opportunity to get back into the classroom.This training is to help prepare teachers for various situations, both psycho and social, which may arise with their students.

Today 400 teachers from Margibi, Grand Bassa and Montserrado counties are participating in the two-day orientation at Kakata, bringing the total number to 1,600 teachers who’ve received orientation so far. Another 1,600 teachers will be trained next week with plans to reach more than 10,000 teachers by early December. “One answer at a time, one answer at a time!”seems to be the most repeated comment by the orientation facilitators to their classrooms full of enthusiastic teachers. “Now let’s all stand up and do some exercises together, so we can refresh. Hands up to the sky … hands to your shoulders … hands to your hips!”

Many of the participants crossed rebel lines to participate in the programme.“I live on the other side of Buchanan,” says Ellen.“To get here, we had to pass nine rebel checkpoints and, at each one, we had to pay a fee to pass.But this training is worth it.I explained to some of the child soldiers manning the checkpoints that I’m a teacher and I hoped to see them in school soon.Most said they would liketo be in school, but one told me,‘Teacher, I already graduated in AK-47! I don’t need no school!’

“Liberia is still facing big challenges with some of these children and that’s why‘Back-to-School’ is so important.It is helping us to give them a safe, healthy, productive alternative to the gun and to war.School is normal for children – war is not.”

“Each of the  teachers attends three classes per day, during the two-day orientation,”
explains Sarah Gudyanga, UNICEF Liberia, Chief of Education. “By the end, they’ve
covered six important themes, some of which are tailored for the special circumstances
of children who have grown up in war-torn Liberia.The themes include: literacy; numeracy; psycho-social counselling and peace building; scheme of work plans [used for designing course curriculum] physical education; and music and drama.”

The facilitators relate each subject to the situation in Liberia to show how deeply insecurity and instability have permeated all aspects of Liberian society over the past 14 years of fighting.For the teachers, addressing their real-life situation head-on is an important first step on Liberia’s road to recovery.

Helping to heal warscars

“Many of our children have been stressed for years because of the war, the fighting, the hunger, the uncertainty,”Jallah tells the teachers in the physical education class he is facilitating.“We need our children to have healthy bodies and healthy minds so they can not only survive, but so they can thrive.And not only in a war situation, but in other situations also.”

Among the teachers, the psycho-social classes are one of the most popular.“Virtually every Liberian has been affected to some extent by the past 14 years of war,” says Tom Shafer, UNICEF Liberia, Project Officer for Education.“This is particularly true of the children, many of whom have only known war in their lives.Teachers must be aware of signs of psycho-social stress and be sensitive in how they deal with such children. Schools are for learning, but in addition, with properly trained teachers, they also become places of safety, security and peace for children.”

And it is not just the children who have been affected by war.

“My favourite class was psycho-social counselling,” says Mary, a teacher from Grand Bassa County.“I now understand the signs of stress and the stages of grief we go through when someone close to us is killed.I realize it’s very important for me to help de-traumatize myself first.Then I will be more able to help the children in my class who are also affected by war. School is about hope.We need to help our children who have lost their hope.”

A second chance for older children

UNICEF’s Back to School programme provides 750,000 Liberian girls and boys, 20,000 teachers and 3,700 schools with the basic education supplies they need to learn and teach effectively.And for thousands of Liberian children, it is a very special opportunity: this is the first chance they have had to go to school, due to 14 years of fighting in Liberia.

Many of these children have spent some of their childhood out of the classroom, so incorporating over-age children into classes with students much younger than themselves is an important issue.

“You know that many children will be getting back to school now, but for some, it will be their first time in school, because they’ve displaced by war or on the run for years,” says Joe, the psycho-social orientation facilitator.“Teachers need to make the over-aged child feel comfortable in the class and need to ensure that the younger children accept the older child without making fun of them. If [older children] feel bad [they] won’t come back.

“You can also give the example of a fellow Liberian, Mrs. Angie E. Brooks-Randolph. She started school very late in her life, sitting amongst children many years younger than herself,”he adds.“But she persevered and eventually finished college and do you know what? Mrs. Randall was the [twenty-fourth] President of the United Nations General Assembly. Role models like her can help the children understand that everyone can learn at any age.”



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