Parent, technician, farmer, merchant: What more can a teacher be?

Human Rights

On World Refugee Day, marked annually on 20 June, meet some of the multi-talented teachers and principals of migrant learning centres in Thailand along the border with Myanmar, who, with UN support, are doing all they can to keep up with the influx of children seeking sanctuary.

Overcoming challenges beyond the classroom is a daily reality for educators in 63 learning centres in Tak province who currently serve around 14,400 students, up from 11,450 in 2020, according to the Thai Ministry of Education’s office that supports basic education in five border districts – Mae Sot, Phop Phra, Mae Ramat, Tha Song Yang and Umphang.

Yet, teachers and principals are finding solutions by taking on roles of parents, farmers, merchants and, sometimes, as one-person non-governmental organizations (NGOs), using limited resources to serve a constant influx of children and meet myriad needs, from housing to homework.

Two girls return to class at a migrant learning centre.

The day starts at sunrise

The principal at a migrant learning centre in Phop Phra district, around 450km northwest of Bangkok, cares for around 110 children in kindergarten to sixth grade, including 20 students living in its dormitories.

Her day starts at sunrise and ends well after sunset. She teaches, manages the centre’s finances, collects firewood, prepares food and cooks. She also cares for and comforts scores of children in lieu of their parents, who are working elsewhere in Thailand or in their home country.

Her hard work is unpaid. Of the centre’s six teaching staff, all in their 30s, only three receive a small monthly stipend of 3,000 Thai baht (USD$80), a sum less than half of the average labourer’s salary of around $200.

Taking on extra jobs

The situation is the same across Tak province. Like many other teachers at learning centres in the area, the unpaid 48-year-old principal of one in Phop Phra district has been earning extra income for her centre.

She makes mote si kyaw, a popular Myanmar fried pastry made from rice flour, to sell for a modest profit and also keeps a few goats to sell when the centre is in special need of extra cash.

“I’m doing everything I can,” she said. “This centre is my life.”

The homemade water filtration system maintained by teachers for clean water use.

The homemade water filtration system maintained by teachers for clean water use.

Ensuring food security and more

Over in Mae Ramat district, located less than a kilometre from the Myanmar border, a remote migrant learning centre is accessible only via a bumpy path eight kilometres from the main road. It relies on five units of solar panels for limited use for dormitory lighting and pumping groundwater, according to its 29-year-old principal.

He said his staff of five other teachers work hard to serve the needs of its 50 residents, growing their own rice and maintaining pipe and filtration systems for a clean water supply.

“Although the children are safe here, they are worried about their parents on the Myanmar side,” he said.

A teacher gives a mathematics class.

A teacher gives a mathematics class.

‘We can still hear gunshots’

Before the conflicts in Myanmar, many children followed their parents, who were looking for jobs in Thailand. However, with ongoing conflicts on the immediate horizon, returning “home” is hardly an option.

For them, remaining in school means being protected, said the 38-year-old deputy principal of a centre for about 200 children in Mae Sot district, around 10km from Myanmar’s border.

“We can still hear gunshots when there is fighting, but children feel safe here,” he said. “We are trying our best to make sure that we can keep the centre open for the children.”

Clothes dry in the playground of a migrant learning centre.

Clothes dry in the playground of a migrant learning centre.

Supporting education and more

However, many educators voiced concerns, worrying about meeting expenses to run their centres and whether they can accommodate the expected influx of more newscomers and ensure the children’s well-deserved safety.

To support efforts under way, Pilat Udomwong, the director of the dedicated Thai Ministry of Education’s office for Tak province, said its mission is to monitor operating conditions, register migrant teachers and students and support the centres through partnerships.

Some projects have already seen results, including one supported by the Japanese Government and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) regional office in Bangkok that, since last August, includes upgrading facilities, installing IT equipment for flexible learning programmes and delivering food items to support the 20 centres with basic lodging.

This has meant more than 7,000 migrant learners now have three nutritious meals daily.

Children return home after classes at a migrant learning centre.

Children return home after classes at a migrant learning centre.

Growing up to have a better life

During a recent site visit, UNESCO Bangkok’s education programme specialist Rika Yorozu underscored that the right to education is part of the agency’s mandate.

“We want to ensure that children are given continued support to continue their learning regardless of nationality,” she said. “Teachers [in the migrant learning centres] are doing tremendous work. They are dedicated and need this support.”

While assistance is being rolled out, the hard-working teachers are still assuming multiple roles in keeping their centres running. The principal at a centre in Phop Phra summed up a common feeling that echoes across many districts.

“I will continue to do these things for the children,” she said. “My happiness is to see the children smiling, being safe, well-fed and growing up to have a better life.”

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