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Champagnat at work in East Timor

 

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22/08/2011: East Timor

 

When the new century dawned in East Timor a desperate situation was revealed. Horrendous destruction had followed the vote in favour of the country becoming an independent nation. The occupiers, the Indonesians, had destroyed the entire social and capital infrastructure, basically leaving the whole country destitute of structures, services and professional personnel. One of the foremost areas of disadvantage was education. Facilities were deficient, but worse there was a dramatic shortage of qualified teachers. In particular, Bishop Basilio do Nascimento was seeking assistance in pursuing a diocesan initiative to set up and provide the initial management for a new teacher training facility in his Diocese of Baucau. In the Marist Brothers of the Province of Melbourne he found an answer to his dilemma. The Brothers were actively searching for a suitable project to celebrate the 1999 canonisation of their founder, Marcellin Champagnat, a project that would powerfully reflect the motto so characteristic of the new Saint: ‘A heart that knows no bounds’. In 2000 the Brothers accepted the invitation of the Bishop to engage wholeheartedly in the diocesan initiative. The first group of Brothers was temporarily housed in the parish residence with the local diocesan priests. They comprised Australians Stephen Bugg (sector superior), Mark Paul (Inaugural Director of Catholic Teachers’ College), Canute Sheehan, Michael Herry and Portuguese Br. Manuel da Silva. What confronted them was daunting. East Timor has one of the highest birth rates in the world, nearly 50 percent of the population are under the age of 15, and the average family includes seven children. The majority of teachers had been Indonesian and returned to Indonesia in 1999, so most of the people teaching in the classroom were totally unqualified. It was estimated that the country needed a minimum of 200 new teachers each year for the foreseeable future, and there was no teacher training facility within the country.

 

Magnitude of the Problem

The task seemed overwhelming. How does one accompany the people of East Timor as they address the problem of rebuilding their own country from the ashes that were the everyday reality of their traumatised lives? How does one address an emergency situation of a paucity of teachers, schools no more than burned out shells, an education system that lacked all semblance of organisation, and an increasing cohort of students wandering around with nowhere to go? The difficulties to be overcome in working towards the building of a new education system seemed insurmountable.

The Brothers and volunteers from Australia, Portugal, Brazil and East Timor established a steering committee and functioned out of a small office. Their first priority was to address the situation of the many unqualified individuals across the country who were employed as teachers but understandably lacked confidence and pedagogical expertise. Various in-service programs were offered: in classroom management, physics, biology,, educational leadership for principals, conflict resolution and reconciliation programs, and encouraging the creation of teaching aids using local materials. Such in-service programs enabled the brothers and volunteers to cross the boundaries of former community divisions by focusing on a common goal, the education of children and young people from all families within a school environment that would become safe and secure for everyone. It was also an environment within which school principals, teachers, students and parents would have the opportunity to seek paths to reconciliation and thus begin the important journey of building bridges and emerging from the rubble and ashes with a vision of hope and mutual respect.

At the same time it was necessary to explore the possibility of establishing a Catholic Teachers’ College in a situation where there was no provision for undergraduate tertiary studies. In effect, a way had to be found for students at the proposed Teachers’ College to have access to a Bachelor of Teaching degree. Moreover it could be no second-rate substitute. It would have to be of a quality that could be independently evaluated and internationally recognised. Professor Gabrielle McMullen, Pro Vice- Chancellor (Academic Affairs) of Australian Catholic University (ACU), was instrumental in the initiation of meetings that culminated in ACU supporting the establishment of a degree program in the new Catholic Teachers’ College. Professor Jude Butcher C.F.C., A.M., Head of the School of Education (NSW) and Professor Tony D’Arbon F.M.S. of the School of Educational Leadership, both from ACU’s Strathfield Campus, were instrumental in facilitating the necessary processes to ensure that Instituto Católico para Formação de Professores, ICFP, as the College is formally known, could become a reality. In July 2002 Ms Margie Beck, seconded from ACU, was given the brief of conducting further research and to assist in the overall course development for the proposed Institute. Ms Beck, currently the ICFP Deputy Director, returned to East Timor in February 2003 to commence preparation and planning for the Bachelor of Teaching program with a view to a first intake of students in September of the same year. The formal opening of the Institute took place in November 2003.

The physical facilities of the Institute were a mixture of diocesan property and a number of rented houses. Looking back, it is amazing what was able to be achieved despite limited resources. The major assets were a wonderful group of generous volunteers and a number of dedicated aspiring teachers who were able to envision an educational future in which they could become professional and fully qualified educational leaders within the Institute and the nation as a whole. There was a mixture of full-time, part-time and sessional staff. Initially many were international appointments because there were very few East Timorese qualified to take on lecturing positions. Those who were qualified were being snapped up by the United Nations and other foreign Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) at wages that neither the Institute, nor the country at large, could afford. It created a two-tier economy (the U.N. economy and the real economy of East Timor). The complexities of dismantling such a two-tier structure will have to be faced when the U.N. withdraws from East Timor.

 

Professional Development

The overall professional development of staff (teaching and non-teaching) became a major focus and in March 2004 Professor Peter Sheehan A.O., ACU Vice-Chancellor, generously set up a fund for Institute teaching staff to be subsidized 50 per cent for course costs incurred at ACU for the period 2005 and 2006. Accordingly teaching staff could be paid on a full-time basis while lecturing or tutoring half-time, studying for a Master of Education degree, and remaining with their families instead of having to study overseas. The East Timorese National Agency for Academic Assessment and Accreditation commented in December 2010 on this situation: ‘It is noted that the lecturers/tutors are able to complete their Master’s degrees whilst remaining in Timor Leste through an arrangement with a foreign university. The team considers this to be an extremely effective way of managing the upgrading of lecturer’s qualifications.’

In 2010 the professional development team was able to support ten members of the teaching staff in studying for their Master of Education qualification. The team comprises Sr Diaan Stuart (IBVM), coordinator of the Professional Development Team, Marist Brothers John Horgan and Tony Clark, and Mrs Monica Morrison, a volunteer from Palms, an organisation established to address social inequality and assist people in need. The teaching staff study for their Master’s degree in most likely their fourth or fifth language (English), and so they need to be carefully supported in their studies. These students are enrolled as online students with ACU and the professional development team presents the material, conducts the tutorials and assists them with their English. Five members of the teaching staff will graduate with their Master of Education in 2011 and another five in 2012. The team is also working with the non-teaching staff in areas of professional development directly related to their areas of responsibility.

The teaching staff at the commencement of the Institute was largely made up of volunteers from Australia, New Zealand (Br Michael Potter and Br Chris Poppelwell) and Brazil, assisted by East Timorese tutors. As the teaching language of the Institute was Tetum the volunteers initially taught with a translator. Over the years there has been a process of East Timorisation within the Institute and whenever an East Timorese has the skills and qualifications to fill a position, the East Timorese replaces the ‘volunteer’. Today all of the teaching staff are East Timorese and the teaching languages of the Institute are Tetum and Portuguese (the official national languages of East Timor). All positions of responsibility, with the exception of the Director and Deputy Director, are now taken up by East Timorese, and steps are presently being taken to enable an East Timorese to take up the position of Deputy Director from 2013.

Without financial assistance it would not be possible to undertake programs that were designed to foster educational skills and capacity. The Institute has been able to attract significant funding from the European Union, Caritas Sweden, Caritas Australia, UNESCO, Manos Unidas (Spain), Children in Crisis (a British NGO), the Australian and New Zealand governments, the National Catholic Education Commission (Australia), the O’Neill Foundation (Sydney), the eMerge Foundation (Sydney), Misereor (Germany), and Catholic and Independent Schools. It is only in partnership with such generous donors that the Institute has been able to engage in reconstruction and providing new buildings to increase the provision of tertiary education for the 13 districts of East Timor. Today ICFP’s two major donors are Misereor and the Italian Bishops’ Conference which have given a funding commitment for the period 2011-2013. In addition AusAID is financing the Institute’s professional development program, including the payment of tuition fees for the Master of Education program.

Many of the Institute’s students come from extremely low socio-economic communities (villages) and so do not have the financial resources to pursue tertiary studies. They come largely from subsistence farming communities – what they can grow is what they can eat to survive. ICFP has been blessed with the generosity of many donors in Australia who help support these students through the provision of a scholarship (A$1,200). Such scholarships provide students with financial assistance to pay their monthly rent in Baucau, their overall living expenses, dental and health care, return travel costs from their isolated village to the Institute, tuition fees and sundry other expenses related to their studies. The scholarships empower them, giving access to paid work in a country that has a rate of unemployment in excess of 60 per cent, and thereby providing them with the opportunity to make a difference within their own country.

 

Hope and Opportunity

The donors are generators of hope and opportunity within an emerging democracy. The repercussions of their generosity will reverberate from generation to generation. The beneficiaries are young people who are given the opportunity to master an appropriate and creative hands-on learning and teaching methodology designed to support learning within a non-violent environment. Too often children in East Timorese classrooms had cause to be fearful because of harsh corporal punishment and other intimidating behaviour on the part of teachers. Whenever such school situations are able to be transformed into non-violent environments where the individual student is valued and cared for, where the staff is professionally qualified, where effective learning is supported by teachers, parents and students, and where team work becomes integral to the educational community, the foundations for the restructuring of the education system advance more strongly in the ‘right’ direction.

At this time the Institute has commenced phase 1 of a major building program. The new three storey building will provide more appropriate facilities for both students and staff, and replace all of the teaching and learning facilities that ICFP has been renting. Again such a project would not be possible without the financial support of overseas donors: Misereor, Italian Bishops’ Conference, Misean Cara (Ireland), eMerge Foundation (Australia), an anonymous Dutch Foundation, and the Marist Solidarity Office (Brisbane). Br Allen Sherry F.M.S. (Australia), Br John Hyland F.M.S. (Ireland), Br Jude Peters F.M.S. and Angela Petenzi (Marist Brothers Generalate, Rome) were instrumental in assisting the Institute raise the A$1.4 million required for the project.

The Institute’s architect is presently working with staff in the design of phase 2 – another three storey construction that will be physically linked to the phase 1 building. Such a facility will enable the Institute to have another computer room, additional lecture areas, appropriate space for administration staff, and more appropriate student services facilities. Progress towards doubling the intake of students in the years ahead will also be made easier.

Although everyone is involved with different responsibilities the Institute has been very much focused on staff working ‘as equals’. In a cultural setting like East Timor the notion of ‘equality’ can become a difficult concept because traditional attitudes often stress the opposite. In significant measure success in the various ICFP projects is closely linked to promoting a sense that we are all members of one family committed to the same overall goals. Other factors have also been important. Foremost among them are the quality of the programs offered and the implementation of teaching methodologies that meet the needs of students, rather than the inflexible, one-dimensional approaches more characteristic of education in East Timor. Furthermore, ICFP makes it a priority to support the staff in embracing and further developing a realistic and appropriate work ethic that includes consistent attention to the welfare of the students. There is also a practical emphasis on gender equity for both students and staff.

 

Focus on Quality

The recent external review by the National Agency for Academic Assessment and Accreditation (December 2010) noted the following: ‘The Institute has well-organised administration processes which ensure responsible accounting procedures and good management of the physical plant. ... This is an extremely well managed institution with clear conception of the requirements of evaluation leading to quality improvement. It is supported by external funding and the appointment of experienced educational administrators. It focuses on a single degree which has a significant role in the training of primary school teachers for East Timor. It has clear policies and procedures which are systematically applied.’

The Institute also conducts a number of ancillary programs. One of them is a ‘model’ crèche so that mothers on staff and some of the students are able to have their children looked after whilst working and/or studying at the Institute. The provision of crèche facilities has become central in the ICFP response to the government’s Millennium Development Goals: ‘Achieve gender equity and empower women’. It is well known and acknowledged that ICFP has been a leader of affirmative action for women in East Timor. The staff of the crèche are all East Timorese and have been assisted in their professional development by Sr Diaan Stuart. The crèche is in very good hands under the direction of the co-ordinator, Cesaltina do Rego.

There is also a Parish Clinic (financially supported by the O’Neill Foundation and with professional assistance provided by Mrs Helen Peters, St Joseph’s College Hunters Hill). Br. John Horgan has the oversight of it as one of a number of responsibilities. The Institute offers immersion programs facilitated by Br. Tony Clark who also works on a number of other smaller educational and church-related projects in close association with Br. Allen Sherry of the Marist Asia Pacific Solidarity (MAPS) organisation.

The Institute currently employs 36 staff: 20 teaching staff, 13 support staff (including those in finance, maintenance, secretarial support, information technology support, and the crèche) as well as 3 security staff. The total number of students at present across the three years of the degree is 165. It is hoped to increase the number of students once the appropriate physical facilities are in place. At the present time ICFP receives approximately 250 applications each year. On the basis of documentary evidence 100 applicants are invited to attend a series of examinations and an interview as a means to select 55 students for enrolment. To increase annual student intake there is a need to ensure that the Institute has an appropriate number of fully qualified lecturing staff, and the physical facilities to accommodate an increase in students. The professional development program for staff and the construction of a new building will certainly assist in meeting the minimum requirements that will permit an increase in the annual intake of new students.

The story of Instituto Católico para Formação de Professores is an evolving history of committed East Timorese wishing to make a difference as they face the challenge to rise out of a situation of a violent Indonesian occupation that concluded with the deliberate destruction of both social and capital infrastructure. It is a story about East Timorese being empowered to take up the challenges of educational leadership within the Institute, and the wider society. A story of committed non-East Timorese citizens walking side by side with the East Timorese in their quest for a genuine freedom that is focused on the ‘common good’ for all. A story of how together in such a cross-cultural setting we are able to become a visible physical sign of the presence of our gracious God in the midst of the messiness of human living. It is a story that encapsulates the spirit of ‘a heart that knows no bounds’. A story of hope and resurrection.

________________
Fons van Rooij - Champagnat Winter 2011 - Pages 31-38

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