“Like Blood is to the Body”: The Role of Teachers in Building Liberia’s Peace – Jules Sisk

Jules Sisk, PhD
McGill University, Montréal, QC, Canada
PhD was awarded: May 29th, 2015

A decade after emerging from a fourteen-year civil war, Liberia’s peace and its school system remain fragile. This work focuses on the role, both real and potential, of Liberian teachers acting as key players in their country’s peacebuilding process, and attempt to comprehend the professional practice of teachers in Liberia as it relates to building a sustainable culture of peace through quality education. More specifically, it explores both how teachers view themselves within this process, and the policy options for supporting their success.

The thesis is structured in two parts to address these issues. The first is committed to clearly establishing the theoretical and contextual frameworks of the study. The research emerges from a critical examination of contemporary peacebuilding initiatives. Bringing together numerous bodies of literature which have been hitherto unconnected, the author builds new multi- and inter-disciplinary theoretical frameworks, creating space and policy options for teachers as agents in the creation of sustainable cultures of peace. The frameworks blend educational and gender theories with the realm of international politics, and alternative interpretations are presented for the relative failings of peacebuilding programmes in years past. Lack of attention to the fostering of peaceful, resilient gendered practices – particularly of peaceful masculinities – is highlighted as a fundamental flaw, whilst new, innovative approaches and actors are proposed, teachers being first and foremost amongst these. The frameworks are then analysed using the socio-historical context of Liberia, and the evolution of conflict and education in that country.

The second part of the thesis transforms the theoretical framework into field research. Methodologically, the study was built around a series of Appreciative Inquiry professional development workshops (possibly the first time this has been done in a post-war education context), conducted in Monrovia with over seventy teachers, the aim of which was to understand how these teachers see themselves as peacebuilding actors, and as role-models for young Liberians. In particular, the participatory methods used enabled those teachers to explore how their own interactions with students help shape competing forms of masculinity and femininity. Workshops were buttressed by interviews, questionnaires, and field observations. The findings of this study show that the teacher-participants almost universally saw themselves as key agents in forging peace for the future, the definition of this role varying. Notably a large gap exists in the willingness to play such a role and the ability to enact it exists. However, levels of education and training do seem to play a large part in bridging that gap.

The use of emerging methodological approaches, such as Appreciative Inquiry, seeks to complement existing research on education in war-affected societies by presenting existing teacher-initiated practices. While the research of the role of teachers in peacebuilding is only now gaining traction, this study offers one of, if not the first foray into comprehending how teachers themselves understand their role in the process, particularly as role-models. By identifying and addressing key gaps in the post-war education discourse with an eye on teachers, and by identifying new avenues for future enquiry, this study presents much needed new scholarship for the benefit of both academic discussion, and policy advancement. Perhaps the farthest-reaching implication of this research for comparative and international education revolves around the field of gender and education:  Given the emergence of gender from feminist theory, much of the enacting into policy of this theory has been in increasing the access girls have to school, and making schools safer for girls. What this study has demonstrated is that we are now at an understanding of gender where we can push the relationship between gender and education further. Policy that looks at ‘gender and education’, therefore, must interpret this much more broadly than simply being education for girls. Gender-based education policy that looks at allowing girls to become educated and independent must also focus on creating masculinities that are compatible with the new ideal of femininity. Failure to do so will invariably cause a social tension, the manifestation of which is difficult to predict. There are wonderful models of masculinity within each society that allow both girls and boys to grow up and be educated, proud, and happy. The goal should therefore be to help teachers bring these symbiotic ideals out in their students.