Teaching in Tough Environments

by Karin Harvey

“A decade working in mental health/support needs/autism and challenging behaviour was never as challenging as this 8 weeks teaching in occupied East Jerusalem!!!! My master’s thesis is definitely chosen – psychological effects of occupation on children and their education. And this doesn’t even skim the surface of the effects on parental behaviour!!!!”

Mhairi Claxnie, British Council Teacher August 3 2016 · East Jerusalem, Israel

The focus of this article is the mental well-being of TEFL teachers working with learners exhibiting behavioural issues in a conflict zone. However, working with refugee children or those living under threat, who have normalised institutionalised violence as an everyday hazard is becoming prevalent internationally. Small confused children discussing death or screaming uncontrollably are disturbing, but how does the management of teens exuding anger impact on teachers untrained to deal with these situations.

Additionally, the article briefly documents extreme behaviours witnessed at the BC Teaching Centre in Jerusalem. It is worth noting that the British Council has teaching centres in Ramallah and Jerusalem; while both are in Palestine, there are essential differences in the governance of the areas. Ramallah is in area ‘A’ controlled by the Palestinian authority while Jerusalem is controlled by Israel and policed by the military. The pernicious nature of the highly publicised on-going armed ‘conflict’ between Palestinians and Israelis has impacted negative on the lives and the development of Jerusalemite children (many have ADHD and a high percentage show symptoms of PTSD (Dimitry: 2011)). It’s produced an instability which permeates a Jerusalemite child’s life. Routinely, they are subject to rights violations on a daily basis, including killing (UN Office of the Special Representative), maiming, torture, the threat of arbitrary arrest and detention, home demolitions, discrimination, harassment and restrictions of movement (Save the Children, 2012).

Conversely, within Palestinian communities, children are consistently witness to violent protest and fed rhetoric about injustice and the need to resist. Older siblings express anger verbally and younger siblings watch them throw stones at the Israeli authorities and run while being shot at or gassed. A link has been noted between daily threat/aggression and the disturbances seen in Jerusalemite British Council classes. British Council YL classes in Ramallah show none of these extreme behavioural aspects.

Bray (1997) says ‘a child’s current behaviour often reflects an essentially sane response to an untenable set of life circumstances’. Teachers at the BC in Jerusalem experienced confrontation daily from children conditioned to fight back against perceived authority from a young age. Students saw kindness as weakness, they were unused to a friendly, interactive classroom approach; learners had different experiences of people in authority. At the end of a teaching day, staff were mentally stressed having had to manage a variety of challenging situations far outside their comfort zones.

Summer school 2016, Jerusalem, Palestine

I am the Training and Development Coordinator for the BC in Palestine. For summer school, I taught in Ramallah, and my YLs were mischievous but fun. I was called for support with YL behaviour in Jerusalem. I suggested the usual methodologies, it worked – briefly. Then it was reported students returned to their previous behaviours. I went to observe and was shocked. Clearly there was a problem from primary to teens.

Primary students had uncontrollable screaming tantrums and talked of death, hid under tables, were disobedient and spiteful with peers. Very experienced teachers were unable to conduct normal lessons. With two Young Learner Assistants (YLAs) to help, staff pulled defiant six year olds off the top of bookcases, stopped them jumping out of windows or rugby tackled them to save them from the wheels of a car. Students also bit the teacher. These children had no idea how to behave in a classroom or how to control impulses and parents had no idea how to instil discipline into their tiny off-spring. The problems had started early.

With teens it was about aggression, being seen to be tough and proving it by trying to wrest control of the classroom from teachers. One-on-one, teens were polite and friendly. However, collectively the posturing and violent referencing began. They rejected help. They were constantly vigilant to threat, boundaries were tested, the need to run with the pack was strong and they disregarded instructions choosing to control or challenge.

These behaviours sheltered them from the realities of East Jerusalem life but, instead of Israeli soldiers taking the abuse, our teachers were experiencing the defiance, hostility and confusion. Staff worked in pairs for moral support. After class, staff broke down in tears, visibly disturbed, depressed and reluctant to enter the classroom again. The situation clearly could not be allowed to continue without an intervention.

The way forward

Reading and enquiry led me to the work of Marie Delaney. Being both a teacher-trainer and an educational psychotherapist her advice was practical and easily utilised in the classroom. Her insight into teachers protecting themselves mentally around ‘problem’ learners was a revelation. The feelings and emotions teachers identified were there with an explanation as to how the students were making them feel that way. With her help, we supported teachers and stopped them doubting their confidence. We learned to reframe views of student behaviour and equipped teachers to better understand the forces at play.

So what did we do?

The main thing was stopping teachers doubting their competence. All students are individuals, however, we raised awareness of several unconscious psychological defence mechanisms that disturbed students utilise against the ‘hazards and uncertainty’ of learning:

Projection: a common theme in Jerusalemite teens. Unable to process strongly negative feelings they project them out. Basically, teens in Jerusalem are living under continual threat and that is the feeling they project outwards onto teachers. Teachers then try to control their feelings (of feeling threatened) by projecting the threat back on the YLs – a downward spiral of negativity. Learning about projection was a relief to teachers; they realised an ‘emotion’ was not emanating from them. By understanding they were able to change their negative reaction and alter the classroom dynamic by varying the activity.

Transference: feelings and attitudes from the threatening ‘relationship’ with the Israelis were transferred and played out in the classroom, a safe environment. We asked teachers to reflect on what was happening and realise that the negativity they received wasn’t meant for them, and not to take it personally. Awareness enabled reflection and the reframing of the behaviour in the mind and subsequently teachers broke the learners’ pattern by their reaction – averting a negative outcome and feelings. In Palestine, classroom assistants took the protagonist into another room until they were calm. If we left the YL in the class the behaviour began to permeate the group; similar to what went on at checkpoints when the rock throwing started.

Displacement: When a feeling can’t be safely addressed at the person we are angry with (Israelis in the case of YLs here) the ‘safe’ person (who they know won’t kill them) receives the fall out. In this case attacking Israeli soldiers is a sure way to the morgue. Male teens especially here have expectations of being a protector, but in Palestine they are powerless in the face of a soldier/settler with a gun. The helplessness leads to frustration, hence the malevolence and disobedience is aimed at the ‘safe’ authority figure, in our case teachers. Again, teachers were made aware that much of the anger wasn’t about them and acted accordingly they kept their tone neutral, didn’t react in a bad way and broke the pattern.

Omnipotence: Stems from feeling powerless, fearful, unsafe or having other people control your life. Something our YLs felt on a daily basis. Hence the need to control the classroom because learning underlined their vulnerability; this resulted in resistance against the teacher, because to admit that teachers knew more gave the teacher power and emphasised their powerlessness. This is where a class becomes a battle of wills. One method which worked for us was to give the boys tasks so they had input into the running of the class and we built options into classwork to allow them autonomy.

Once made aware of the coping strategies the YLs were employing, teachers felt less overwhelmed. They let go of the emotive and unrealistic notion that they “must be in control of students at all times”, a common teacher trait, and stopped blaming themselves for being ‘bad teachers’. Now they looked at the behaviour of the boys objectively, while acknowledging their own feelings of anxiety and frustration and allowing them to subside.

Being able to reflect together with a better understanding of the forces at play gave them a structure in which to think and changed their negative attitude to a more positive one, feeling supported by the whole teaching centre and not feeling guilt meant stress levels were lowered.


With help of Marie, who generously gave her time and insight, we as teachers learned to notice things in a different way and reframed our attitudes. With the children we tried to break their expected pattern of response, we used language and tone differently, planned for various behaviours and in addition planned to take the lead from the mood of the students.

Teachers learned to self-protect, letting go of ‘expectations’ or ‘self-blame’ and reflecting on the good in the class no matter what had occurred that day. Knowledge and a better understanding of what was happening in our classrooms made things a little easier.

Author’s Bio: Karin Harvey is currently the Training and Development Co-ordinator for the British Council in The Occupied Palestinian Territories. Previously she worked on the Defence Co-operation Programme in Timor Leste with military personal and prior to that Burma for nine years, then under the control of the Military Junta. She has an interest in teaching in areas of conflict and has considered at its effects from a practical teaching viewpoint. She also taught in Cambodia, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia.

1. UN: Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. https://childrenandarmedconflict.un.org/countries/occupied-palestinian-territory-and-israel/

In 2015, 30 Palestinian children (25 boys and 5 girls) were killed and at least 1,735 injured (1,687 boys and 48 girls), in Palestine. A total of 27 Palestinian children (23 boys and 4 girls) were killed in the West Bank, double the number killed in 2014. Most killings took place in the fourth quarter of 2015. Twenty-five deaths were attributed to Israeli forces, one to Israeli settlers and one to both Israeli forces and settlers. The number of Palestinian children injured also increased as a result of clashes with Israeli forces and military-led operations. In the fourth quarter of 2015, 121 stabbing attacks against Israelis were carried out by Palestinians, including minors. From October to December, 14 Palestinian children involved in or suspected of stabbing attacks were shot dead by Israeli forces…. Investigations into numerous incidents, including the killing of four children on a beach in Gaza City on 16 July 2014, were closed without criminal or disciplinary proceedings.

2. The impact of Child Detention: Occupied Palestinian Territory; Save the Children, Sweden, 2012, p.16: http://resourcecentre.savethechildren.se/library/impact-child-detention-occupied-palestinian-territory

3. Dimitry. L., A systematic review on the mental health of children and adolescents in areas of armed conflict in the Middle East; Child Care Health Dev. 2012 Mar;38 (2): 153-61. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2214.2011.01246.x. Epub 2011 May 27.

Lydia Dimitry of Imperial College London states the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder in adolescents is estimated to be 5-8% in Israel, 23-70% in Palestine. To compare, the National Institute of Health estimated 20% of American veterans returning from Iraq suffered from PTSD (4).

4. PTSD: A Growing Epidemic: NIH MedlinePlus Magazine: Winter 2009 Issue: Volume 4 Number 1 Pages 10 – 14 https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/magazine/issues/winter09/articles/winter09pg10-14.html

To compare, the National Institute of Health estimated 20% of American veterans returning from Iraq suffered from PTSD (4).

5. Delany. M, Teaching the Unteachable: Practical ideas to give teachers hope and help when behaviour management strategies fail, 2008, Publisher: Worth Publishing, ISBN:978-1903269121

6. Delany. M, What Can I Do About The Kid Who..?: A Teachers’ Quick Guide to Dealing with Disruptive Pupils (and their parents), 2010, Publisher: Worth Publishing, ISBN 9781903269145