Ellie Virgona: Ellie Virgona’s CommUNITY Newsletter no. 1

Ellie, with teachers in the STEP program
I have been here in Timor Leste for just over 9 weeks as a Palms Volunteer. I type this email in a room that is filling quickly with many bugs, of which there seems to be so many to keep me company. It is pretty quiet outside here in Gleno. Gleno is about 1 ½ hours drive from Dili up the mountain so it is actually much cooler in the evenings and mornings. A welcome blessing if you’ve experienced the heat in Dili.

Looking back, I think one of the things I am most grateful for is that when I first arrived, Palms made sure I was met by another Palms volunteer at the airport. It was a life-saver. I can remember feeling so completely overwhelmed as soon as I started to drive through the streets of Dili, and saw the condition of the houses, the streets and hearing the sounds and tones of a language I had no idea about. I was excited to be here in Timor Leste, but suddenly being here made me feel emotions that you can’t really account for until you land in a foreign country, knowing you’ve committed to two years.

Now though, I find myself driving backwards and forwards from Gleno to Dili, and around the mad roads of Dili City herself. It took a while to learn the road rules here. The fact that there are none apart from every man and woman for herself. That’s not really true, it just feels like that sometimes.

We hope that we never lose sight of the fact that our teachers (Timorese) are the experts in teaching in Timor

One of the teachers presents his teaching methods
Part of my assignment involves working with an NGO called Friends of Ermera. I’m working initially on a 6 month Pilot Program called S.T.E.P. (Supporting Teachers of English Program). The program currently has 13 Timorese teachers who teach English in the Pre-Secondary (years 7 – 9) and Secondary (years 10-11) schools in the Ermera District. We have teachers from Gleno, Hatolia B, Atsabe, Ermera Villa, Railaco and Letefoho. Many speak English quite well, and we do run the workshops in English, because, well, at the moment I know very little Tetun and because the Professional Development Workshops are about their opportunity to build their oral and written English language skills, as well as teach them Teaching Methodologies and Resource and Activity planning.

I think one of the challenges for me is to truly appreciate what it means to have 50 – 60 students per class and to teach a language that for our teachers is their third or fourth foreign language. They know and use Bahasa, Portuguese and Tetun in their English class and are sometimes forced to work with a curriculum that is completely frustrating and not culturally sensitive or relative. For myself and the other volunteers working on this program we hope that we never lose sight of the fact that our teachers are the experts in teaching in Timor, that how we teach in Melbourne is not necessarily going to work, but that some of our ideas may be added to their own repertoire of teaching methods.

In our first meeting with the teachers we asked them what it was they wanted from us, and what they would expect to see in their workshops. We made a list of those things on butcher’s paper and hung it up in our Language Resource Centre where the teachers come every Saturday for their workshop. They are incredibly intelligent and I think that I am the one who feels privileged here.

…it isn’t me up there teaching, it is a Timorese Teacher sharing his resource, his ideas, his evaluation on how it worked for him.

With our teachers, we talked about how using a chart can focus students’ attention and help them connect with the information the teacher is teaching. We also discussed those ‘naughty’ children in classrooms, they seem to be all over the world whatever country you come from, and sometimes using a visual aid draws those students into learning. (Note that word, sometimes ). It could also be a class activity, or even an assessment activity at some point to assess students’ understanding of a theme or topic taught. But, what I love most about this photo (pictured right), isn’t that it shows how well our teachers were listening to us and how creative they are. What I see, is that it isn’t me up there teaching, it is a Timorese teacher sharing his resource, his ideas, his evaluation on how it worked for him. When I ask myself what I understand about Capacity Building in Timor and about making a difference, it would be to see the teachers of Timor Leste training each other with confidence and assured ability.

It will take a lot of time and persistence and sharing our understanding and communicating what happens when something just doesn’t work, or when the materials run out, or when the curriculum changes, or when the classes and pressures of the education system overwhelm teachers. We are only in our beginning stages in this program, and among our 13 teachers we have varying abilities and needs that make the things we do in our workshops a challenge. The STEP team negotiated Saturdays, as long as it was voluntary, and as long as the teachers were not scheduled to teach on that day they could come to the Professional Development workshops. It took some serious politically correct battling by the FOE Project Manager though. It didn’t come easily.

For me as a new Palms Volunteer in this Placement at this point, no doubt it has been emotionally and physically tough, but I am really glad that I’m here in Timor Leste. I not only believe in what I’m doing, I believe in the Spirit of God that drives me to be here. I once read a quote that said: What point is there having a man walk on water, if there is no-one to follow in His footsteps.

So I sincerely thank in this CommUNITY Newsletter, Palms Australia for their support and phone calls and for those who are supporting Palms and who suggested having friends, colleagues, family and strong people in my network of supporters who read these updates and who write to me, who ring me and email me regularly to keep me connected and strong during those tough moments. I hope this little snippet helps you see that you are in some way a part of this global mission too.

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Volunteers don't get paid, not because they're worthless, but because they're priceless. - Sherry Anderson