AFT trains early childhood teachers in Palestine

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"We will not be marginalized," says Reema Alhaj to a roomful of early childhood educators gathered at the local union headquarters in the West Bank city of Jenin in mid-March. Alhaj is a teacher and an executive board member of a new union of ECE teachers affiliated with the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) (www.pgftu.org). In just 18 months, 400 teachers have formed labor organizations in the villages surrounding the cities of Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah in the West Bank.

Frustration with low wages has drawn many teachers to organize. A lack of training in early childhood education, called "kindergarten" in the West Bank, is another problem. Thus, the offer of professional development by the union came as an unexpected but welcome bonus of union membership. Noting that training vacuum, Abla Masroujeh, director of local programs of the Palestinian office of the Solidarity Center, reached out for help. The Solidarity Center (www.solidaritycenter.org) is a nonprofit international support organization launched in 1997 by the AFL-CIO that has partnered with the AFT to implement development programs for education unions worldwide.

The program began in January when AFT trainers Deanna Woods and Esmie Grubbs traveled to Ramallah to lead 26 teachers through a three-day session of AFT's rigorous Strategies for Success program. The objective was that this cadre of teachers, through translations both linguistic and cultural, would absorb the curriculum in training-the-trainer sessions and pass it on to peers across the West Bank.

With guidance from the Solidarity Center and PGFTU, the new trainers quickly formed village-based teams and developed training sessions for a local rollout in March. That's why Woods, a gentle but rigorous trainer, was back on the West Bank—to observe, correct and cheer.

Public education there starts in first grade. Early childhood education (for children from age 3 1/2 to age 5 1/2) is offered in privately run, fee-based "kindergartens." Employers range from local government councils to charities to female home-based providers and, more frequently, businesspeople in search of profit. As in the United States, early childhood teachers are woefully underpaid and often have no training.

Unlike the United States, strong labor laws in the West Bank allow workers one week a year for educational development and union work. Still, enforcement can be lax. It was risky for some of the teachers to take off time from their centers and travel to the training sessions in January and March. That's why the presence of Palestinian Ministry of Education officials at the Jenin training was so significant. A ministry official welcomed the women, and then said, "We have no oil and no gas in Palestine. We just have ourselves. Our biggest investment must be our children, and we need everyone—teachers, unions—to help."

Bayer Sa'id Bayer, PGFTU president in Jenin, emphasized the union's commitment to Palestinian women. "These teachers are a repressed sector," he said. "They are an educated class of people who are suffering. We must help them become involved in all the activities of our union, and to be an effective part of decision-making."

Most Palestinian kindergarten teachers make between $100 and $400 a month, far less than public school teachers. Yet university graduates without teacher training or even an interest in young children are clamoring to enter the growing kindergarten sector of the West Bank's stalled economy. Many are inexperienced; some perceive the job as just a fallback until the economy improves. Thus, educational quality and morale among kindergarten teachers can suffer.

An ice-breaking skit developed by the Nablus teacher team told this story: A young college graduate with a degree in accounting lands a job in a kindergarten. During her interview, she asks only one question: "What are my wages?" On her first day in the classroom, when the children offer her their drawings, she rips them up, shouting, "This looks terrible! Are you stupid or what?"

The humorous exaggerations in the skit led the teachers directly into the AFT training, which featured research from the training modules "Head and Heart" and "Do Your Words Nurture?" The research-based material focuses on brain development as well as the use of active learning and feedback to direct and encourage children in both social and academic learning skills.

The training is skillfully structured to build bonds among teachers who are new to the union and to one another. Each session opened with personal introductions and circle activities that included tossing a ball, hula hoop or ball of yarn between teachers who would then speak of their own positive and negative attributes. "Love of children" was the most common positive quality. "Nervousness" was frequently mentioned as a negative.

AFT PhotoEarly childhood teachers from Jenin study AFT's Worthy Wage Day quilt.

A union-building component was integrated into the follow-up training in March. Led by AFT field writer Connie McKenna, it addressed "the organizing conversation," Worthy Wage Day for early educators, and the power of professional development to attract new members. Using puppets and a manual created by Head Start arts trainer and AFT member Ingrid Crepeau, teachers learned how to make simple puppets and use them both to publicize the union as a source of professional development and to build children's communication and small motor skills.

Communication skills are particularly important to Palestinian children, says Nesreen Salih Jarrar, a former kindergarten teacher, now an Education Ministry official from Jenin. "Our children are not like children around the world," she notes. "We need activities to help them talk about their sadness and pain."

Conversations among the teachers about building union power inevitably bumped into the realities of life in the Palestinian territories, where budgets can be held hostage not only by relations with Israel but also by shifting international politics with donor nations that contribute to the Palestinian national authorities.

"So, how do you build power," the American trainer asked, "when you can't change your outside circumstances?"

"We must change ourselves," replied a teacher and new union member, glancing at the Palestinian sunbird puppet in her hand.

With ongoing help from the Solidarity Center, teachers in the West Bank's three major cities will now spread out to share their new nurturing, puppet-making and communications skills with other members of their growing union. [Connie McKenna/AFT Photo]

March 27, 2013