Worlds of Education

School at Kiryandongo refugee settlement, Uganda. GPE/Henry Bongyereirwe
School at Kiryandongo refugee settlement, Uganda. GPE/Henry Bongyereirwe

Overwhelmed, undervalued, and underpaid: Governments must act to support teachers in contexts of displacement

published 15 February 2023 updated 20 March 2024
written by:

Working as a teacher in an emergency situation is challenging but it can also be very rewarding. The opportunity to be a positive influence on my students, watching a student learn, grow and become a good person, knowing that I can be part of this process gives me a wonderful feeling and fills me with motivation to continue my work. But there are also many challenges that require a lot of resilience to overcome.

I am a refugee teacher working in the Palabek Refugee Settlement in the Lamwo district of Uganda. Originally from South Sudan, I came to Uganda as a refugee in 1994 and trained as a teacher in primary education.

As is the case for many other teachers in emergency situations, the salary I receive does not match my workload and is not enough to cover basic costs. The monthly salary of USD 120 cannot cover the needs of a family and worse still, it’s often not paid on time.

Underfunding education is also evident in our classrooms. Many of our schools have an untenable pupil-teacher ratio, as high as one teacher for 200 pupils, and teaching materials are hard to come by. In these circumstances, catering to each student, achieving learning targets, and ensuring quality education for all is impossible, no matter how hard we try every day.

As the only refugee teacher in my school, my workload is often overwhelming. I am expected to handle every issue - bad behaviour, language gap, cultural differences – and offer guidance and counselling. I am the first contact for many of our students and, as much as I enjoy doing this work, it leaves very little time for teaching and it leaves me feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.

“Despite the terrible conditions, we continue to support our students because we know our work is critical for millions of the most vulnerable children around the world. But we cannot do it alone.”

I also often feel unsafe in the school environment. Tribal tensions run high and affect our school community. Parents who are not from the same tribe as I am accuse me of discriminating against their children. For example, one of our students caused some damage to school property and during the disciplinary hearing, I recommended that the child pay for repairs. The child’s parent then attacked me and accused me of discrimination because we were from different tribes. The refugee community expects me to defend refugee students, even when they are in the wrong.

Addressing tribal conflicts as part of my teaching is also dangerous. Once when I was discussing the causes of tribal conflicts with my class, students gave examples of tribal conflicts in Uganda and I mentioned similar conflicts in South Sudan. I mentioned a tribe who kidnapped children in South Sudan and despite this being a well-known fact, students who were part of this tribe confronted me after the lesson demanding that I not speak about their tribe because I’m not a member.

The situation is further complicated by poor school facilities with too few classrooms, a lack of shade, and insufficient sanitary facilities. Because our classrooms are so packed, teachers can’t move around the classroom and attend to all students. These conditions expose the school community to risk factors such as disease, infection, sexual abuse and harassment.

In addition to all these challenges that make life as a refugee teacher hard enough, refugee teachers also feel unappreciated in the education system and worry about job security. Everyone assumes that refugee teachers with South Sudan certificates are underprepared. Refugee teachers also cannot access opportunities that Ugandan colleagues have, including further studies. If they cannot further their education, they risk losing their jobs.

Despite the terrible conditions, we continue to support our students because we know our work is critical for millions of the most vulnerable children around the world. But we cannot do it alone. Governments must step up and invest in education and in teachers through domestic and development funding so that we can continue to give our students the hope and the tools they need to achieve a better future for themselves and their communities.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.