Pilgrims walk to shrine
Conversation: Teaching teachers in a land of optimism - Frances O'Keeffe, teacher
By Marilyn Kerjean
New arrivals teacher Frances O’Keeffe (pictured) had been thinking about making “some sort of a change” when she saw a flyer last year inviting teachers to apply for a one term secondment to a teaching mission in East Timor.
“It was one of those things where everything fell into place,” she says.
So the 56-year-old grandmother spent the first teaching term of this year working in East Timor’s fledgling Catholic Teachers’ College.
Her contribution was part of the college’s English language program; one of a series of ongoing courses it provides for local teachers.
Melbourne province Marist Brothers have been working in East Timor since September 2000.
They are establishing the college at Baucau, a major town on the northern coast of East Timor.
Its English program helps primary and high school teachers develop their English language skills in the hope of improving their ability to access further study in education, either at university in Dili or through the teachers’ college.
Most teachers in East Timor have had some training before. Some have worked for many years in schools with hardly any training at all.
But they have plenty of enthusiasm for learning and improving the quality of education in their newly-restored country.
Frances says East Timor has a 49 per cent illiteracy rate; schools are being slowly rebuilt, but there is a paucity of materials for the task.
Students are accustomed to having no more than a blackboard, chalk and tables and chairs (often donated) in their classrooms.
“The teachers are just wanting and absorbing so much,” Frances says.
“They are so dedicated.”
One example of this dedication is the effort many local teachers made to attend a conference held by the college.
“They came from everywhere,” Frances says.
“For teachers to get there, it’s not like they could jump in a car; so many of them would have walked for a couple of hours.”
The college in Baucau is also an outreach.
Some of its teachers travel along the coast to Laga twice a week and others stay overnight in the mountain town of Venilale to teach classes there each Thursday and Friday.
Frances’s students would work in the morning and attend their English classes in the afternoon.
Other subjects being introduced by the college included curriculum development, methodology and religious curriculum.
Frances was seconded by the Catholic Education Office, Sydney.
The Independent Education Union paid for her airfare and accommodation.
She is the first teacher from the Sydney archdiocese’s Catholic Education Office to work at the teachers’ college.
“I want to go back,” she says. “Three months was too short a time.
“Anybody who had been there for a longer period, say 12 months or two years, looked at me as though I was mad.”
Frances had never lived in a developing country before this year.
In Baucau she shared a simple house, large by East Timor standards, with three other teachers.
Electricity was available – on alternate nights – and there was plenty of cold water, thanks to the luxury of a water tank outside.
“The electricity went on and off and in the end it just petered out altogether and those kind of experiences just expanded my whole life,” says Frances.
“One night when the electricity was off we turned our torches off and spent the night talking and watching fireflies.
“The stars, because there was no electricity, were just magnificent.
“Just basic things like that gave us so much pleasure. Things like watching the geckos catch their dinner sound so mundane, but just to sit and to be was something wonderful.”
Frances was struck by the hospitality of the East Timorese and their strong Catholic faith, as well as the lack of self-pity she saw in people who had suffered in the struggle for independence.
Frances briefly met a young man named Manakus who helped with the running of the teachers’ college and who acted as a tour guide to the terror of the East Timorese in 1999 and the years preceding.
“He was just telling me very matter of factly, this happened there and that was just razed,” says Frances.
“There are people there dealing with having been traumatised.
“When I asked him what his feelings were he said, yes he was angry, but he’s got to get on with his life.
“And that is what everyone is doing.”
Frances felt the spirit of excitement and optimism buzzing throughout East Timor while she was there in the lead-up to the official independence day in May – the occasion when the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, formally handed over the authority of East Timor’s government.
Frances has been a new arrivals teacher for the Sydney archdiocese since 1988.
She goes into Catholic schools twice a week during school hours to support children with their English and to help them settle them into the Australian culture.
Before that she taught English as a Second Language in schools.
She sums up her brief missionary experience thus: “While I was in East Timor a friend emailed me (Frances took her laptop and a battery with her) and asked me: ‘What is your joy?’
“As soon as I saw that I knew that my joy was being there and I cannot describe the sense that I had any better than that.”