MATATA, TIMOR-LESTE, 31 JULY 2018 – Lurdes Gonçalves stands before her quiet fifth-grade class with a knowing smile on her face. “We’ve been sitting too long,” she announces, as she surveys the sleepy faces before her. “It’s time for a game.”
The children obligingly stand to follow Lurdes through a rapid-fire round of a sing-song game involving complicated arm movements and repeated rhyming phrases, leaving them breathless and giggling after just a few short minutes. Then, the class continues, with her newly attentive listeners poring earnestly over their reading books.
The simple game is just one of a host of new tools Lurdes now has at her disposal for engaging, motivating and disciplining her class after receiving UNICEF-supported teacher training from the Government of Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Education.
In her early days of teaching nearly 20 years ago, Lurdes says she merely copied the old-fashioned ways in which she’d been taught as a child – scolding, singling out and even hitting misbehaving children.
But now, things are different.
New ways for student-led learning
Lurdes is one of the 1,434 basic education teachers who received child-centred teaching training as part of the child-friendly schools approach known in Timor-Leste as Eskola Foun program, an innovative program including teacher training that focuses on students’ active learning, democratic participation and inclusion in classrooms across the country.
Supported by UNICEF, the school-based teacher training was introduced in 2010 to 2014 and integrated by the Ministry of Education into the national teacher training since 2015. In 2017, specific activities to manage large class sizes and positive discipline approaches were integrated into the national in-service teacher training with the support of UNICEF.
“In the past, we didn’t know an alternative,” Lurdes explains. “The teachers just wrote, and students copied, and we didn’t ask if they understood or not. That was traditional.”
She breaks into a grin as she explains her feelings about teaching now.
“It’s much better,” she says enthusiastically. “The students are free, it’s democratic, they can share ideas, and if I’m wrong they’re not scared to correct me. Compared to the past they were just quiet, just listening, but now it’s not like that,” Lurdes adds sharing how she continues to apply what she learned from the Eskola Foun teacher training and how it has transformed her class.
|Lurdes Gonçalves leading the change in her school. UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/amin|
Lurdes has been teaching at the basic school in Matata, a small hilltop village in the rural municipality of Ermera, since 2000, and now describes herself as an organiser in the classroom, facilitating children’s learning. “If there’s a problem, they are the ones who solve it,” she says. “I’m here to strengthen them, I’m a facilitator.”
At her desk in the brightly-lit fifth-grade classroom she sits with pages of colourful, hand-lettered classroom rules, news and learning materials pinned behind her. The rules are decided and enforced by the class, and punishments for breaking them including reading stories to the class and preparing nutrient-rich soil for the school’s leafy garden beds.
Not too long ago, punishments handed out to misbehaving children were not the calm, productive discussions and adherence to group-decided rules you see in Lurdes’ classroom. Instead, teachers would hit students with bamboo sticks, following decades-long traditions of corporal punishment, which continues in many other schools in the country.
A 2015 survey showed 7 in 10 children in Timor-Leste reported experiencing physical violence at the hands of their teachers in the last year, and as many as 8 in 10 teachers report believing it’s acceptable to beat a child under certain circumstances.
Newly peaceful learning environments
Nearly 50 eleven-year-olds make up Lurdes’ class, but you wouldn’t guess it walking past the classroom. Except for the occasional outbursts of song, the class is quiet, diligent; with students listening carefully as their friends present the results of small group work and practise handwriting on the blackboard.
“She’s a great teacher,” 11-year-old student Christian de Jesus says with a grin. “We are happy, we all love her. When she reads, we listen peacefully. She’s never angry with us.”
|With opportunities to take the lead in their learning, students at Matata school are confident, intelligent, hard-working and bright. UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/amin|
Corporal punishment in schools is still common in traditional Timor-Leste. Matata school coordinator Manuel Salsinha says he regularly calls parents for meetings to maintain open communication within the school community, and says some parents come to the school to tell teachers to use traditional violence when disciplining their children.
“They don’t yet know the ways we use but they support us to find quality ways of educating,” he explains. The school’s style of teaching is new to parents, he says, but no one has come to him to complain that teachers have stopped using violence to discipline children, as he could have feared with such a switch. “We always work with parents,” Manuel emphasises, “because without their support we can’t take action.”
Manuel praises Lurdes’ openness with her students, highlighting her ability to engage students in things that affect them. “She always involves children and opens their participation in learning activities,” he says. “She opens discussions for children, they see opportunities to be involved in discussions.”
Giving guidance for future success
12-year-old fifth-grade student Jenevia Presia Francisca Soares Martins says her favourite school subject is maths and answers some rapid-fire mental maths questions before the class to prove it. “I like counting, I like the games; I like it all,” she says, grinning shyly.
Jenevia has just one year of school left at the school in Matata until she goes to the third cycle of the Timor-Leste school system, which still uses more traditional ways of teaching. But Manel says Eskola Foun is so successful he hopes it will soon be adopted for the third cycle of basic education which covers Grades 7-9. “Our students are used to this way now so it’s not new for them,” he says.
“There is no problem to adapt. I believe the method we’re now teaching with can be taught in all schools.”
Lurdes has high hopes for her students as they progress, but they’re not the good grades and city scholarships you’d suspect of a teacher in a small rural town.
“We teach so they become clever but that alone isn’t enough,” she says, earnestly. “We need to manage children’s attitudes to change their behaviour. Change them to become good people for the future. We [teachers] fight for three things: their cleverness, their character and their health. I hope they take these things to carry our country into the future.”
Together with hundreds of other schools across the rural country, Matata school and its newly trained teachers are doing everything they can to transform learning for children for the future.