John Watkins: Aussie Catholics are helping Timor-Leste’s teachers, kids

A teacher takes students through a lesson in Timor Leste. Photo: Mary Mackillop Today
A teacher takes students through a lesson in Timor Leste. Photo: Mary Mackillop Today

Everywhere we went in Timor-Leste, new roads were being constructed and buildings erected.

The work in progress was a visible testament to the conviction of our closest neighbour to rebuild after decades of violence and occupation – rebuild after a period in which a quarter of the country lost their lives and almost all of the infrastructure was destroyed.

The physical rebuilding only tells part of the story, though. I wanted to hear the stories of the teachers and students of Timor-Leste because like Mary MacKillop, I believe that education is more than learning to read and write.

Education is an investment in the future – the most important investment a family, a community and indeed a country can make. As Pope Francis said, education “opens us to the fullness of life”.

In Timor-Leste approximately 71 per cent of primary school teachers have only a secondary-school level education, and a quarter of all teachers are unpaid and unqualified volunteer teachers.

When I met some of these volunteer teachers in the village of Railaco Leten in one of the poorest districts in Timor-Leste I found them to be enthusiastic, talented and yearning to improve their skills so they could help the lives of the children they taught and their wider families.

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As they gathered in the staffroom, a tiny cement floored, corrugated iron walled room with windows open to the sky, I thought of the thousands of teachers I had met as Minister for Education in NSW.

Here in these cement brick schools on muddy mountain tracks, almost unpassable in the wet, high on the razor sharp ridges of Timor, here, these volunteer teachers showed the same love of life, enthusiasm for the future and compassion for their students that characterised teachers in every school I knew in Australia.”

When I met with teachers, parents and children across Timor-Leste, I saw that education, provided through organisations like Mary MacKillop Today is a light of solidarity in a world which is in great need of hope.

Training teachers, mentoring parents and placing books on shelves in classrooms allows the community to grow stronger, to realise their dignity and to make choices for their own future.

But even more importantly what I witnessed in Timor-Leste was a direct result of the generosity of Australian Catholics who through Mary MacKillop Today choose to give a voice to the cry of the poor and for that I am inspired and so very thankful.