After several days of sitting and observing teachers and students here in East Timor, I can certainly say I’m impressed by what I see. For the most part, the teachers I’ve seen are highly professional and manage their classrooms extremely well.
What is most interesting is that it was often after a class that I would ask whether the teacher was trained, and usually my guesses were wrong. The teachers without formal teaching qualifications often applied classroom management techniques that I recognised, while the trained teachers were less precise and less responsive to students.
One of the most impressive teachers I’ve met is Senyõr Francisco, who teaches English. English is his fourth language, and he has had no formal instruction in the language. He learnt it from a Bahasa textbook. He is not difficult to communicate with, and was happy to tolerate my comparably pathetic Tetun (learnt, similarly, from a textbook!), and help me find the right words. Still, I wasn’t expecting the best English class ever when I sat in his classroom.
I was taken aback when he tackled conditional grammar with his year eight class. In Australia, conditional clauses, like most elements of grammar, are no longer taught explicitly; the proper use of conditional clauses are usually learnt faultlessly by native English speakers before the commencement of formal education, although few native speakers of English would know how to refer to them or define them, or to resolve problems with them when encountered. They are, nonetheless, important to understand when learning English as an additional language, and they function very differently in English from south-east Asian languages, so it was impressive to see this particular lesson taught so very well by someone who has had no formal training in the English language other than from a text book, and who has had few opportunities to practise English with native speakers.
Senyõr Francisco is one of the most impressive teachers I have encountered. His qualifications for teaching are merely foundational, but he was using some effective engagement techniques and had built a very strong rapport with his students. With additional resources and some mentoring, he has the potential to be a finer teacher than many of my colleagues back in Australia.
The biggest problem I see, with qualified and unqualified teachers alike, is that their teaching style does not create high engagement among young students. Their content is solid, and the high value students place on schooling means the style is basically functional, but the possibilities for transforming East Timor through education warrant more than merely functional education. These teachers should be inspiring their students, and that’s what I see as the most important focus for the project.