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Postcard from Mike The past eighteen months have been the most peaceful in Timor Leste’s long and bloody history. From a position of near total destruction in 1999, schooling in Timor Leste has made a remarkable recovery. This recovery illustrates the high value that the Timorese Leste place on education. My involvement with Timor Leste (East Timor) began in May 2008. I went there to research the effect of the international aid mission on education. During a second trip in March this year, I was fortunate enough to interview, and spend time discussing education with the President of Timor Leste, Dr Jose Ramos Horta. Following these discussions the Timbertop campus of Geelong Grammar School, where I work, hosted a visit by President Horta in July this year. The purpose of the visit was to set in motion a scheme to bring Timorese student teachers to work in Australian schools as general teaching assistants. During these fixed terms of employment, it is anticipated that the young Timorese Leste student teachers will improve their English language skills and gain valuable teaching experiences in a broader worldview context outside Timor Leste. The President believes that this isolation has been a major limitation of Timorese teachers. Timor Leste in Context Timor Leste is one of the newest nations on earth having only gained its independence in 1999 and nationhood in 2002. It is a stirring and exhilarating place to visit. In Dili there is an exciting clatter of noise and activity all around, similar to other developing Asian cities. There are numbers of street markets and boys selling fruit and cheap hats. Dogs, goats, chickens and the odd pig snort around the place and you can easily get lost in the surface industry of it all. However, some of the harsher facts of life in Timor Leste were brought home to me on one hot night in May 2008 - during my first visit in Dili. The power was out for most of the night so that the noise of the airconditioners was no longer drowning out the noise from the street line. I could hear chip, chip, chip, all night long! It was more than a little distracting when I was trying to sleep, so the next morning I decided to go and investigate to see if I could find the source of 18

this curious lunar-carpentry. After a short scout around the streets behind my hotel I found the source of the noise: a coffin factory! My discovery was conveniently located directly across the road from an IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp. The irony of this was that despite the high need for coffins in the camps, these coffins were crafted from rainforest hardwood and the people from the camp could not possibly afford one. Since then, another sign of the peace that has embraced Timor Leste, is that the occupants of the IDP camps have packed up and gone home. Timor Leste occupies the eastern part of the whole island known as Timor. West Timor remains part of Indonesia. This is at the end the Indonesian archipelago. In the early 16th century, the Portuguese colonised large parts of the whole island and later shared the western part with the Dutch. Its original inhabitants are the Dawun. They were later joined by the Tetun in the 14th century. Both have a rich blend of Melanesian and Micronesian influences. The eastern part of the island (modern day Timor Leste) remained in Portuguese control for 466 years. The Portuguese brought to Timor two major influences that have shaped the Timorese people and its economy: Catholicism and coffee. Ninety-eight per cent of Timorese Leste are devoted Roman Catholics and next to oil, coffee is by far Timor Leste’s biggest and perhaps most well-known export. The attempted assassination of President Ramos Horta in February 2008 seemed to mark the end of the tumultuous beginnings of Timor Leste’s nationhood. Up until this point, the nation has been beset by domestic conflict and turmoil. These events were most likely, emotional legacies of the twenty year Indonesian occupation, the Japanese incursion during the Second World War and of the Portuguese colonial era. However, when it seemed all but certain that Timor Leste would again descend into chaos and violence, sparked by the shooting of their iconic President, an extraordinary thing happened … nothing … peace. In a unified rejection of violence and anarchy, the previous volatility, remained calm. To some observers that day’s rejection of violence and a choice for peace signifies the The Australian Educational Leader Volume 31 Number 4 2009

Gregory - Timor Leste end of the old Timor and the beginning of a new era of development and growing prosperity. Education in Timor Leste – From Humble Re-Beginnings From late May through to October 1999 the Indonesian military, and the militia they supported, tore westwards out of Timor Leste. They burnt, murdered and raped as they went. Particular focuses of their destruction were schools. Nothing strikes fear into the heart of people more than a violent gesture against their children. It is estimated that 95 per cent of school buildings were destroyed. Moreover, at that time 80 per cent of Primary School teachers and nearly all Secondary School teachers and the civil servants that worked to support the education system were Indonesian. After the vote for independence all of these teachers and support staff departed Timor Leste and returned to Indonesia virtually overnight. With few teachers, few intact school buildings and no education department, education in Timor Leste collapsed entirely. The Timorese are highly supportive of formal education with 70 per cent of Timorese citing it as the highest national priority. As a result there have been many significant achievements in the area of schooling in the ten years since independence. Whilst universal public education begun during the Indonesian era it was poorly resourced and poorly taught. After independence, it was only a matter of months before the reconstruction of schools began. Since that time, almost all schools have been repaired to some extent and many new ones have been built. Continued Improvements Further improvements to the nation’s school infrastructure are being achieved continuously. When I returned in March, I noticed significant improvements from just the year before. For example, more schools had adequate roofing. This might not sound like a major improvement but when the schools were being quickly rebuilt after the firestorms of 1999 they were covered with thin tin rooves. As a result, when the monsoon rains came each summer, the noise Official Journal of The Australian Council for Educational Leaders

inside the classrooms rendered them unusable. In addition to the reconstruction programme, the country now also boasts a teacher training institution in each of the major cities; Dili and Baucau. The Baucau Teacher Training College has an excellent course and is quickly winning a reputation as a regional leader in primary teacher training. Its teaching degree is validated by the Australian Catholic University and is supported by a number of Australian philanthropic organisations. This includes the Emerge Foundation, based in Sydney, whose sole purpose is to support the College. The University of Timor Leste, in Dili, is the other training institution. The Catholic Church is also a major provider of schooling in Timor Leste. The Conossian Nuns have made, and are continuing to make, a significant contribution. Adequate Resources Whilst the reconstruction of schools and the advent of teacher training have been major achievements, many serious challenges remain. The student-to-teacher ratio has improved significantly declining from an average class size in 2001 in the low 40s to the mid 30s in 2007. However, it still remains very high and schools struggle to obtain a steady supply of essential teaching resources. Language of Tuition There are also considerable issues around language. Tetum is the most widely spoken language and has many dialects across the country. As a written language it is only now being developed. Shortly after independence, Portuguese was selected as the language in which children would be taught. A significant percentage of Timorese, including most teachers, don’t actually speak Portuguese. Therefore the quality of teaching and learning is severely affected. Indonesian-Bahasa, a far easier language than Portuguese, remains the language most Timorese would prefer to be taught. The desire amongst students and teachers to learn English is also very strong. The distortion of expectations by the dual economy Another problem lies at a more fundamental level; the people’s 19

aspirations of what education will provide them and Timor Leste’s economic reality do not yet match up. A combination of historical factors has contributed to a high percentage of high school graduates leaving school with ambitions to find a career in professional areas eventually. The senior school curriculum, which is still a legacy of the Indonesian times, is heavily weighted toward highly academic subjects. However, the capacity for these subjects to be taught well is very low. Graduates leave school with the desire to continue their studies onto university and then into a professional career. What amplifies their ambitions is the dual economy created by the presence of the international aid community. Whilst this work is vital to the future prosperity of the nation, the aid workers’ footprint is wide. Along with their lifesaving work, aid workers have also brought their lifestyles, which has in turn lifted the Timorese Leste own lifestyle expectations. Timor Leste has the lowest GDP in the world and much of the population is stilling living a subsistence lifestyle. The result is that whilst their lifestyle expectations have increased the prospects of them ever being able to afford these expectations, remain very low. Conscious of my own footprints whilst in Timor Leste, I will use them as an example of this impact and compare them to that of my translator’s, Gaspar. When in Dili I stayed at the Hotel Turismo for around US$40 per night, which includes breakfast and dinner. Gaspar’s rent for a month is US$10. I often bought a coffee at a Portuguese style café around the corner for a US$1.50. Gaspar could only afford to spend around that amount on food each week. I caught a taxi to most of my meetings; it generally costs around US$1.00. Gaspar can only afford to walk to most places or he catches a small crowded bus. There is little wonder that many youth aspire to work in an office like the one the Malai when they see the remuneration and comfort that goes with it. One-fifth of Timorese exist on less than US$1 per day! It is common for a Malai to be employed by an international monetary aid organisation or a foreign government to work within a government ministry or department. They are paid very well by western standards. It is not uncommon for such a person to earn a triple figure salary. In the mean time, the Director General of the department or Minister would be paid a small fraction of this. The dual economy dramatically distorts the aspirations of graduates, and their families, towards an academic education in the hope or even expectation that it will deliver ‘Malai’ type prosperity. The following comments are from a man I came across in the back streets of Dili selling bottles of water, and supports this conclusion. Joaquin Martins is forty-two years old and he has five school age children. With Gaspar’s help I asked Joaquin why he sends his kids to school. The loose translation of his response was “so that they can help


develop the nation and have more money than me”. He wanted them to get a ‘technical job’ and this meant getting a ‘technical education’. Joaquin speaks no English and had “a little bit of schooling during the Portuguese times”. By the word ‘technical’ he meant professional or academic. This demand for an academic education may explain why there are between sixteen and eighteen private universities operating in Timor Leste. These are mostly operated as businesses, with business goals, by people without bachelor degrees and with questionable standards. The reality is however that very few opportunities like this actually exist for Timorese people, especially for those who graduate from the dubious private universities. Demand in the labour market for people with professional degrees is very low, whereas the demand for people with vocational skills is relatively high. Mestre do Studante iha Skema Australia – Student Teacher in Australia Scheme Whilst interviewing Dr Ramos Horta, the President commented on the factors which limit the professional development of Timorese Teachers, indicating that Timorese teachers need a perspective beyond Timor Leste. The President believes that in order for teachers to effectively teach and nurture young Timorese they need to be equipped with a perspective of the modern world for which they are preparing them. This discussion was the catalyst for the proposal to create educational placement opportunities for young Timorese student teachers in Australia’s leading schools. This is with the aim of providing those experiences which may broaden their perspective of the region and provide further practical experience of good teaching and learning practice. These formative experiences, when factored into their teaching and educational leadership, will further develop and enhance the educational standards of Timor Leste. The scheme has potential to have countless other benefits such as: a higher level of cultural understanding amongst Australians and Timorese; a closer network between Australian and Timorese teachers and educators; and more informed and connected relationships between Australians and Timorese. It is intended that Geelong Grammar School will develop this scheme in such a way that may be replicated and extended within other leading schools and educational institutions across Australia. Mike Gregory, Director of Learning – Timbertop Geelong Grammar School. If you would like to learn more about the Scheme and how to bring young Timorese student teachers out to Australia, please feel free to email me at

The Australian Educational Leader Volume 31 Number 4 2009

Postcard from timor leste by mike gregory in acel volume 31 no 4  
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