Timor teaching

At least once a year I travel to Dili to train teachers there. I’ve been doing this now for about four years. I originally went with a whole other bunch of Sydney-based musicians, as part of an overly-ambitious project that didn’t really work. Then I was asked back to see if I could create a classroom music curriculum, with four different parts to it.

I needed to create an early childhood programme, an infants music programme, a primary music programme, and a set of lesson that could be taught by any teacher (musical or not), for young children that required no musical instruments – just music lessons with body percussion and singing. All of this needed to be in Tetun – the Timorese mother tongue. Te lessons, the children’s songs, the lot. (As an aside – I don’t speak this language. Well, now I can get by in it – I can order food, and direct taxi drivers – but when I started it was completely unknown.) I had a team of young teachers to train. When I say teachers, they had no teaching qualifications. They were eager to learn, though.

There have been many times walking this road where I thought I couldn’t do it. Where things were too different. Too hard. One visit, when I realised that nothing I had taught for two years was being used, I was ready to throw in the towel. I remember sitting in a tiny little room with every part of me sweating and the horrible realisation that I was going about things completely the wrong way. I didn’t know what to do. Cry? Shout? Give up?

People who know me know that I am pretty determined. I will have my way – either by hard work, careful manipulation or persuasive arguing (well, I like to think of it as persuasive. Some uncharitable people might call it bullying – but I don’t think so.). I was also aware that I had been paid to do a job – and I hadn’t done it.

My mother was a teacher. She was a superb teacher. I never sat in one of her classes, as a girl, but I heard things from friends of mine who were taught by her. And a few times I spied on her teaching classes. For the next two days, I kept thinking ‘What would my mother have done?’

So I set about doing my job differently. It was a huge learning curve for me, the next 48 hours. I wrote lesson structures, I created rules, I tried to second-guess how these young teachers would best learn. I tried to understand the Timorese way of thinking, and adapt my teaching to it – rather than just presuming that they would come round to my way of thinking. I have never been so focused in my imparting of knowledge. Never been so specific in what to do. I felt like some kind of educational dictator. But these kids (I say kids, but they are all in their 20’s. Not really kids. But a fair bit younger than me.) would have to be on their own once I left, with a bit of support, but not a great deal. Not only did they have to know their material, but they had to know how to put it together to create a lesson. They had to exude confidence. They had to teach huge class groups, in really tough situations.

After I came back to Sydney, it took me about 3 weeks to recover. To piece myself back together. I felt like a wet rag.

And then the lesson plans started coming in to me (one of the reporting structures I’d set up – I was trying to keep an eye on them from a distance). They were doing what I’d asked! It was possibly working.

I’ve been back a number of time since then, to see what is going on (and give them more material) – and they are doing it. These kids are delivering well-crafted lessons, with age-relevant material. The kids (up to 50 in a class) are engaged. They are learning stuff. My teachers are becoming more confident. They have good classroom management skills. They are smiling as they teach. And other visitors report back to me, with the same sort of news.

The reason I am writing this today is I got a package of stuff from them yesterday, containing news from them, and lesson plans. They are teaching kids from K-4. They have groups of 40-50. They are training other teachers. And it’s all working!

I couldn’t be more proud of them. I give them all gold stars.