Participation is vital for students’ thriving at school. But in Timor-Leste, traditional teaching theories have seen rote learning, corporal punishment and lecturing the norm, leaving children disengaged and excluded. Learn more how UNICEF Timor-Leste is supporting teachers guide a new generation of leaders with positive, inclusive and much-needed support.
MATATA, TIMOR-LESTE – 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-along game involving arm movements and repeating rhyming phrases, leaving them breathless and giggly after just a few short minutes. Then, the class continues, with her newly attentive listeners poring earnestly over their reading books.
Students work in pairs and small groups in this class, which was previously unheard of under a traditional system of rote learning, where teachers merely lectured to students. Things are changing now, teachers like Lurdes Gonçalves are leading the young learners. UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/amin
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 1,434 basic education teachers who received child-centred teacher training as part of the child-friendly schools approach known in Timor-Leste as the Eskola Foun programme, an innovative programme including teacher training that focuses on students’ active learning and participation 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 curriculum 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, 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 has been teaching at the basic school in Matata, a small hilltop village in the rural municipality of Ermera, western Timor-Leste, since 2000. She 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-written classroom rules, news and learning materials pinned behind her. The rules are decided and enforced by the class, and punishments for breaking them include 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, 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 11-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.”
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 encourages participation in learning activities,” he says. “She opens discussions for children and they see opportunities to interact. ”
Giving guidance for future success
Twelve-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 rural Timor-Leste , Matata school and its newly trained teachers are doing everything they can to transform learning for children for the future.