I was born in Beirut, at a time when the echoes of war were still being felt. My parents faced a challenge in raising me and my five siblings in that environment, making sure that we were healthy and getting a good education. And yet they managed to do it. I grew up dreaming big.
When I first started working at Mohammad Shamel Public School as a contractual teacher for English, it was not what I expected from my years of studying teaching theory. I was educated in a private school as a child, which kept me wrapped in a protective bubble and hid me from the realities of life for the majority of people in our society.
Mohammad Shamel School is a primary school located in the middle of the city, near to an area that houses a lot of poor families – and so most of the students come from poor backgrounds.
My first year of teaching taught me how unbalanced Lebanon is, economically and socially. I had students who attended school with no food in their bags and others who wore their boots or shoes with no socks simply because their parents couldn’t afford it or didn’t really care. Others craved attention and love because they were neglected or had witnessed violence. I also met illiterate parents who were unable to help their children with their studies yet believed in the importance of education and wanted the best for their kids. These are stories that I am sure teachers all around the world can relate to.
'Refugees poured in'
It was when the wars in Iraq and Syria began that the real challenges started, though. Refugees poured into Lebanon. Many were settled close to my school and so the children began attending. I soon learned that bad economic and social situations were nothing compared to the psychological issues caused by war.
Our school ended up with between 800 and 900 students of varying ages between 4 and 13. Half of them were not Lebanese. Every day I was reminded how blessed I was. I thought that growing up in the shadow of war myself would have prepared me to support these children. But it is a totally different thing to leave your country and to lose family members. More than ever, I wanted to help my students. They really needed someone to talk to and to listen to their troubles. And they needed someone to show them that there is still good in the world. So I immediately seized the opportunity of having a twin school as part of the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms programme. We were twinned with the Frances Olive Anderson School in Lincolnshire, England.
Since then, the students from the two schools have worked together on many projects. By interacting and sharing stories they have come to see how small the world is and how alike they all are.
A normal school day for us starts at 8am after the morning assembly. Students have three lessons of 40 to 45 minutes each before a 15-minute break. At 11am, classes resume and we have three more lessons before the day ends at 1:50pm.
Teaching in Lebanon’s public schools can be a challenge. We have had so many issues to solve and live with, including contractual teachers who are being neglected by the government when it comes to their rights and medical care. Sometimes I find myself wondering: do they know the importance of what we are doing? Or am I now dreaming too big?
Myassar Itani is a primary teacher at Mohammad Shamel Public school in Beirut