Bringing new life into the classroom in Timor-Leste

More than 1,400 teachers learn a child-friendly approach to education.

A teacher in Timor-Leste
UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/Amin

02 November 2018

MATATA, Timor-Leste, 2 November 2018 – Lurdes Gonçalves stands before her quiet fifth-grade class with a knowing smile on her face. “We’ve been sitting too long,” she announces, surveying the sleepy faces gazing back at her. “It’s time for a game.”

The children stand up and follow their teacher through a rapid-fire sing-song game, vigorously moving their arms in complicated patterns and loudly reciting a series of rhymes. A few short minutes later, they’re giggling while catching their breath.

Refreshed and replenished with energy, class continues and the now attentive children return with earnest to their reading.

“We teachers fight for three things: their [students'] cleverness, their character and their health.” Lurdes Gonçalves 

A teacher and students in Timor Leste
UNICEF Timor-Leste/2018/Amin
Teachers like Lurdes Gonçalves have introduced more engaging learning methods, like allowing students to work in pairs and small groups.

A more hospitable environment for children

The simple game is just one of a host of new tools Lurdes learned during a UNICEF-supported teacher training from the Government of Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Education, which aimed to foster more child-centred environments in the classroom.

Lurdes joins more than 1,400 basic education teachers across the country who have participated in the training, part of the child-friendly schools approach known in Timor-Leste as the Eskola Foun programme. The innovative initiative, which was introduced in 2010 and formally integrated into the national teacher training in 2015, promotes active learning, democratic participation and inclusion. Last year, specific activities to manage large class sizes and incorporate positive discipline approaches were incorporated into the programme, with UNICEF guidance.

New lessons to learn

Lurdes has been teaching at an elementary school in Matata, a small hilltop village in the rural municipality of Ermera, since 2000. In the beginning, the 34-year-old says, she mimicked the ways she’d been taught as a child: scolding, singling out and even hitting children who misbehaved. Corporal punishment has been a long-standing tradition in Timor-Leste; a 2015 survey showed 7 in 10 Timorese children reported experiencing physical violence at the hands of their teachers in the last year, and as many as 8 in 10 teachers reported it was acceptable to beat a child under certain circumstances.

7 in 10 Timorese children reported [in a 2015 survey] experiencing physical violence at the hands of their teachers in the last year. 

But the child-friendly programmes have shown teachers – and students – that things can be different.

“In the past, we didn’t know there was an alternative,” Lurdes explains. “We wrote things down on the board, students copied, and we didn’t ask if they understood or not.”

She breaks into a grin as she explains her feelings about teaching now. “It’s much better,” she says. “The students are free, they can share ideas, and if I’m wrong they’re not scared to correct me. Before, they just listened quietly.”

“If there’s a problem, they are the ones who solve it,” she says. “I’m here to strengthen them, I’m a facilitator.”

Her brightly-lit fifth-grade classroom is filled with colourful, hand-lettered classroom rules, news and learning materials. The rules are decided on and enforced by the class. ‘Punishment’ for breaking them includes reading stories to the class and caring for the school’s garden beds.

Peaceful learning environments

Lurdes’ class, like many in the country, is packed with students – the class size is nearly 50. Surprisingly, except for the occasional outbursts of song, the class is quiet, diligent and actively demonstrates respect, quietly listening to other students when they speak.

“She’s a great teacher,” 11-year-old Christian de Jesus says with a smile. “We all love her. When she reads, we listen peacefully. She’s never angry with us.”

Classmate Jenevia Presia Francisca Soares Martins reports her favourite subject is maths, proving her passion by solving a series of quick problems in front of the class.  “I like counting, I like the games; I like it all,” she says.

A new norm

Matata school coordinator Manuel Salsinha regularly calls parents for meetings to ensure open communication in the community. “The parents don’t yet know the ways we use, but they support us to find quality ways of educating,” he explains. No one has come to complain that teachers have stopped using violence to discipline children, he says. “We always work with parents,” Manuel emphasizes, “because without their support we can’t take action.”

Matata currently ends in the sixth grade, when students go on to the third cycle of the Timor-Leste school system, which still uses more traditional ways of teaching. But Manuel says Eskola Foun is so successful he hopes it will be adopted for Grades 7-9. “Our students are used to this way now,” he says. “I believe the method we’re using can be taught in all schools.”

Change at the core

Lurdes has high hopes for her students, but it’s not their grades she’s most concerned with.

“We teachers fight for three things: their cleverness, their character and their health,” she says, earnestly. “We need to manage children’s attitudes to change their behaviour. Change them to become good people for the future. I hope they take these things to carry our country into the future.”

Learn more

Find out more about UNICEF's work in Timor-Leste

Follow UNICEF Timor-Leste on Twitter

Discover UNICEF's #ENDviolence in schools campaign

Do you know what percentage of school-age children live in countries where they can be physically punished by a teacher? Take the quiz