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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Teaching Education in Emergencies with an Eye on the Horizon

By Rachel McKinney, Save the Children

This summer, Michael Gibbons and I taught a course on Education in Emergencies (EiE) at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.  The foundation of the course has remained constant over the past years in an attempt to ground students in the evolution of humanitarian disasters and response structures as well as providing general EiE history and principles.  Each year we mull over new materials, new or more nuanced thinking, and current crises, trying to find the perfect combination that introduces just enough information to encourage critical exploration of needs and progress made while avoiding stuffing the syllabus so full that it becomes a superficial and ineffectual smattering of topics.  So what is most important?  If this is the core course dedicated to establishing the foundations of EiE at the university, what makes it into the syllabus and what gets pushed to the side?  In a city teeming with professionals of every ilk, who is best placed to articulate or reinforce key messages?  How do we challenge students to draw on our experiences, learn from our mistakes, recognize the value of their own experiences and create their own voice as they decide whether and how to jump into the field of EiE?  

I could drive myself crazy with the questions, with the second guessing, with the scramble to find balance between theory and the real programming or issues.  The process makes me think back on my own graduate experience and my decision to pursue my EdM and begin my PhD.   In both graduate courses, I had a hard time focusing on materials if I didn’t see the relevancy and couldn’t relate it to something that I understood…one of my greatest concerns is that the students in our class wouldn’t find the connections for themselves.  How does one create a class that speaks to the needs and interests of students who have hopes to become humanitarian aid workers, development workers, donors, student exchange coordinators, or researchers and professors?  In our thinking, it has been to articulate our common vision, regardless of who we are and who we aspire to be, which is of a world improved by education, of children empowered by education, of communities made whole and stable by education.  That vision remains constant regardless of whether we are in stable, developed countries or in fragile states or in countries in crisis…whether they are affected by conflict and/or natural hazards. 

To me, this is a reminder that the work we do in emergencies should lay the foundation, or begins to repair the foundation, for recovery and continued development.  We don’t have the luxury to wait until the crisis is over to begin working toward the larger educational goals.  Other than reminding students at every opportunity of the common vision and explore ways of reaching that vision in crisis contexts, how do we, as educators, orient students of EiE to address the immediate needs of children while keeping their eyes on the horizon?  How do we, within just a few months, tap into the creativity and passion that drive innovation in emergencies while drawing on the solid skills and foundations of education theory and best practice?  And what does this really mean when the global community is not yet in agreement on priorities, best practices, and the skillsets required to become “productive members of society”? 

I “stumbled” into humanitarian response 16 years ago with no clue about, or even a real interest in, education.  My real EiE training began when I took my first sip from… what would become thousands of... tiny cups of coffee while I talked to displaced Bosnians about their villages, homes, family, and children.  One of the things that seemed most obvious to my new friends and colleagues was the role education had played in the conflict and the role it needed to play in the recovery of a broken nation.  That was the experience I brought with me to my EdM program.  Another eight years were spent back in the field where I enjoyed (and sometimes hated) conversations over tea, precious coca colas, murky water, more coffee, shared meals on the road, regular trips bumping around backroads to schools, and meetings with education authorities in occasionally ostentatious offices.  Those were the accrued memories I brought to my PhD program.  And, although the experiences I had were in no way unique from those of my colleagues in the field, they were unique amongst my peers and provided a base from which I would continue growing.  It is sometimes easy, in an effort to get through topics and resources we carefully selected for our courses, to forget that every student comes with their own foundation of experiences. Their experiences, from both development and crisis contexts, create distinct opportunities to think through the emergency-development divide (or the emergency-development conundrum) as each is able to articulate the value of education regardless of the context. 

To the educators reading this, I would be interested to know how you’ve helped facilitate that exploration and helped students draw on their experiences, challenge their assumptions and draw on the experiences of others.  How do we better prepare young professionals to support the immediate needs of education systems in crisis while beginning to support the establishment of programs and policies that will help communities and countries meet larger educational goals?  How do we better prepare and support young professionals to do this when the established systems and funding streams exacerbate or create the divide?  How do we map the development lens over the chaos of emergencies? 

Rachel McKinney is the Director for Education in Emergencies with Save the Children US.  She has more than 16 years (14 years in the field) experience leading education programs in conflict, post-conflict, and natural disaster settings.  She recently worked with INEE as the Lead Consultant for the INEE Guidance Notes on Teaching and Learning.  She has worked with a number of NGOs and the UN coordinating and leading EiE interventions, from psychosocial support and community-based programs to national-level coordination in the Balkans, East Timor, Guinea, Afghanistan, Indonesia, the North Caucasus, Southern Sudan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Gaza, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. She holds an Ed.M. from Boston University in International Education Development and is currently working towards her PhD dissertation at the University of Maryland.  She has co-facilitated Peace Education classes at the summer institute in American University and currently co-facilitates an EiE class through George Washington University.


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