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Champions of Education Amidst Threats: A Conversation with 1 Million Teachers

The education of millions of children worldwide is disrupted by attacks and conflict, and many of these children face the risk of never returning to an educational setting. On the occasion of this International Day to Protect Education from Attack, Girl Rising's Senior Communications Manager, Divya Joseph, had a conversation with Rizma Butt, Co-Founder of 1 Million Teachers. They discussed the collaborative efforts of 1 Million Teachers and Girl Rising in advancing education equity for students in conflict-affected areas.

Divya: Can you start by sharing 1 Million Teachers’ mission and describe the work you do?

Rizma: We founded 1 Million Teachers because we saw an urgent and gaping need. UNESCO’s research indicates that by 2030, there will be a shortage of 69 million teachers. And of course this huge gap is not felt uniformly around the world. For example, UNESCO predicts that The greatest teacher shortages are in sub-Saharan Africa, which needs a total of about 17 million teachers to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030. 1 Million Teachers was founded to tackle this challenge. We believe investing in teachers is the first step in building education equity.

So what do we do at 1 Million Teachers? We are training teachers with ongoing professional development and what we call a triple challenge. Through our triple challenge program, we attract new teachers to the profession. We train teachers who don't have access to professional training because of reasons such as location, financial and other barriers. And we equip them with the skills to help them reach students who typically may be left out of existing educational systems, especially girls.

Divya: Could you share what inspired you to co-found 1 Million Teachers?

Rizma: In addition to that huge teaching gap I just described there are many influences that led to me co-founding 1 Million Teachers along with Hakeem Subair. But I would give most credit to my mother. She was my biggest inspiration for who I am and why I have been so committed to this mission.

My mom once said, “I believe that every girl needs to be financially independent, so that you're not just someone's wife, or a daughter, or just a sister. Your identity will be defined by your ability to be independent in this world.” I think that drives me to actually work on 1 Million Teachers and advocate towards women empowerment and girls’ education, because I believe that investing in girls’ education transforms communities, countries and the entire world. Educating the girl child not only impacts her life, but the next generation and also the following generation as well. When women are able to work, families are healthier, communities are wealthier, and the entire country prospers.

I saw how my mom suffered when my dad was going through a hard time in his life. As a child, I walked up to my mom and said, why don't you go out and work? And she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I can't. Nobody's going to hire me. I'm educated, but not educated enough.” She had the support, but she didn't have the confidence in her abilities and the resources she needed. And hence, that's the reason why I am here to build more spaces for women, to educate people that girls need to be educated.

At 1 Million Teachers, we strongly believe that teachers are the shapers of our society to help shift gender norms and increase education access. Teachers uplift the entire community because they're working in a community school and they can be the biggest advocates.

Divya: Wow, that's really powerful. And that story about your mom, it's really touching. And obviously, as somebody who's of a Desi (South Asian expatriate) background, I have similar stories as well, and it really speaks to me. You mentioned earlier about the global teacher shortage, tell us a little bit more about 1 Million Teachers’ work to tackle that.

Rizma: When we started 1 Million Teachers, Hakeem and I discussed our personal experiences with the teacher shortage and the impact on our regions. I'm originally from Pakistan, and I talked about the education problems, shortage of teachers and teachers not having professional training. Hakeem and I realized how much we could relate to each other’s experience with teacher shortages and lack of resources even though he was from Nigeria. The situations are different but there are many shared solutions. For example, we know we can change teachers' and community members’ mindset, even if we can't always change governmental systems. So we decided to accelerate systemic change through teachers and instilling changed mindsets on students and create a ripple effect of change in the community. We decided to build an empire, an army of empowered teachers, prompted the government’s system to adapt and thereby changing the entire sector.

Divya: An army of teachers! I love that! At Girl Rising, we also work with teachers to remove barriers in the way of girls' education. Could you tell us a little bit about 1 Million Teachers' and Girl Rising’s collaborative work in tackling biases in classrooms and increasing education equity for girls?

Rizma: Gender bias is a big barrier in Nigeria and many parts of Africa and Asia, including where I am from in South Asia. The girl child’s education is not given equal importance as the boy child's education. People still live in a mindset that girls are made to be home and do the house chores and help their parents. If they have to give preference to one child’s education, it’s for the boy because they believe he's going to be the one to support them financially. Through our collaboration, 1 Million Teachers and Girl Rising is trying to change these biases.

We're working with Girl Rising on a course which focuses on empowering teachers to overcome obstacles like gender bias, limited resources, educational inequalities. This is one of the mandatory courses that teachers in our program have to take. Why? Because the course places a very strong emphasis on gender equality and awareness. We talk about empowering female students, gender-sensitive curriculum development, and its positive impacts on both male and female students. The course also encourages teachers to engage with the local community and spread awareness about the importance of girls’ education. We talk about advocacy and policy, encouraging teachers to become advocates for girls' education and drive positive change in the education system.

Divya: We're really proud to work with 1 Million Teachers and we're proud of the work that we're doing together. Could you give us a little bit more insight into the unique challenges that these teachers face in regions like Nigeria, where education is at risk due to violence and conflict?

Rizma: Teachers in regions like Nigeria, South Africa, Rwanda, and many other African countries face numerous challenges every day of their life due to external conflict. But they still come to school and they still are standing there and teaching their students because they believe that providing quality education can change lives.

The number one issue for teachers and students in these parts is security. And that creates an environment of fear that hampers the teaching and learning process. Teachers are not able to teach the way they want to because they're scared. Conflict and violence means their days are completely unpredictable. Students don't have the freedom many people take for granted. They're scared to go out by themselves, even to be in the play area.

And imagine dealing with situations like this without sufficient resources. Teachers don't have access to resources such as textbooks, teaching materials, or technology and therefore can’t teach in the way that they would like to. And even when they have technology and devices in at-risk areas, these laptops and smartphones increase their risk of being attacked and robbed.

Another challenge is lack of infrastructure. The classrooms, the school buildings, they are in a very bad shape. They don't have the money to even actually build them or actually make them a better or safer environment, install fans or even have electricity. Sometimes they don't even have toilets. And when girls have their periods, they skip school due to the lack of privacy.

Another thing that a lot of people don't talk about is trauma and mental health. Exposure to violence and conflict can result in trauma, both for teachers and students. Teachers and students in these conflict impacted regions need better support. We regularly see teachers manage these tremendous challenges every single day because they are so committed and are determined to provide quality education. These teachers, truly heroes, still show up to the classroom.

Divya: You hit on so many good points there about the challenges and how conflict can really exacerbate existing inequities and widen the gap on issues like menstrual inequity and the digital divide. On this International Day to Protect Education from Attack, it is important to talk about how community members and individuals of the world can make a difference.

Rizma: We should consider every single day of the year to protect education from attack. We need to emphasize the critical importance of safeguarding education as a fundamental human right.

If world organizations work together we can make a bigger impact. Organizations like 1 Million Teachers, Girl Rising, and HP, we are already working to protect education in areas of conflict. We all three are working towards empowering teachers. We're working towards promoting gender equality and fostering inclusive, resilient learning environments for teachers and for students. And I think if we work together as a team, as one, we can make much bigger impacts. We have 45,000 teachers on our platform. Our mission is to achieve one million. We'll get there, but we need to stand together. We need to understand that education is a right of every human being.

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