RAMALLAH, West Bank — The winner of the $1 million award for the 2016 Global Teacher Prize is a Palestinian teacher who was raised in a refugee camp.
To much of the world, Hanan al-Hroub is inspirational.
To Israelis, she is slightly suspect. That is because Israel blames incitement of Palestinian youth, at schools, on kiddie TV shows and social media, for the current wave of Palestinian knife and gun attacks.
Hroub says she has dedicated her life to reducing violence. On Monday, she returned to her classroom of boys and girls at a gritty public school in a working-class neighborhood in the West Bank where the children often act out the violence they experience at home and in the streets.
“They come from stressed-out environments,” she said. They’ve lived through riots and raids, shootings and funerals. They’ve seen death.
It was none other than Pope Francis who announced this month that Hroub had won the coveted prize given by the Varkey Foundation and sponsored by the ruler of Dubai, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. At the award ceremony, Britain’s Prince William called her work “a great inspiration.” Vice President Biden congratulated her. Film stars Matthew McConaughey and Salma Hayek were on hand in Dubai.
Thousands of teachers from around the world entered the contest. The final 10 included instructors from the United States, Finland, Kenya, Japan, Pakistan, Australia and India. Israelis are not barred from entering, according to the rules, but attending the awards ceremony might have been problematic; the United Arab Emirates does not recognize the state of Israel.
Hroub teaches students between the ages of 6 and 10, from first through fourth grades. They are regular kids. “But I see children with violent behaviors. They are disruptive. There is violence between them. A second-grader even hit me. They find it hard to concentrate. They can be manipulative, controlling, selfish.”
And so she works to calm them down — and she does so by playing games with them. She puts on a clown’s wig and employs hand puppets, and she draws the children into teams so they can learn to help each other. “I create a safe, peaceful, loving environment,” she said. “The classroom is like my home, the students are like my family.”
Hroub plans to use the $1 million to establish a fund for scholarships for high school students who will study education at universities and for teachers who will adopt her “We Play and Learn” techniques and curriculum.
She does not imagine her life will change too much. A condition of entering the contest is a promise to continue teaching for at least five years.
Hroub earns about $670 a month. She buys her own supplies — the little extras. Palestinian teachers had been on strike for the past month, demanding that the government make good on promises for better pay. The strike ended while she was in Dubai.
Hroub grew up in the Dheisheh refugee camp outside Bethlehem. “I lived a very hard childhood,” she said. “Even now, I cannot forget it.”
Today she lives with her husband, a lawyer, and their five children in a Ramallah apartment. Her children are studying architecture, law and accounting. One son wants to be a chef.
She decided to go into teaching the day her husband was shot at by Israeli forces while driving their children home from school in October 2000, the beginning of the second intifada, which was marked by Palestinian suicide bomb attacks.
She worked as a substitute teacher for two years before she got a full-time job in 2009.
When the news was announced that a Palestinian had won the Global Teacher Prize, some Israelis were skeptical.
“Even if this teacher has been giving positive messages to her students, which is very welcome, when this honor is interpreted by the Palestinian Authority that its education system is accepted by the international community, this will cost many more people their lives,” said Itamar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch.
Marcus said he recently commissioned a report looking into the practices of the Palestinian Education Ministry.
“We found that some 25 Palestinian schools were named after terrorists,” Marcus said, citing Palestinians such as Dalal Mughrabi, who led a bus-jacking in 1978 that killed 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children.
Mughrabi is viewed as a terrorist in Israel; in the West Bank, she is a national hero who died fighting for the liberation of Palestine.
“Children in that school talk about how they want to be like her; the teachers say they are proud that the school is named after her,” Marcus said.
Hroub said she warned her children that if she won she might begin to cry. But she did not. “I felt a power, like I was a queen, and I could speak to the whole world.”
“The violence Palestinian children practice” — throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers, for example — “is a reaction to the violence practiced against them,” she said.
Israelis say Palestinian parents should keep their kids away from violent demonstrations and tell them not to throw rocks.
“I cannot influence society. But I can influence the child,” Hroub said. “I cannot change the world. I can just change the environment in my classroom.”
Sufian Taha in Ramallah and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.