With this round of trainings, SESIM has risen to meet a new challenge: giving two simultaneous trainings in different districts. In the past we had teachers from two or more districts come together in a central location, and taught multiple sections on a staggered schedule. This allowed us to maintain our ‘specialists’; certain trainers could always teach certain topics. We followed this model all through the first phase of our national teacher training project for junior-high teachers of mathematics and science in 5 municipalities.
Before this second phase began we realized that the logic was stacking up heavily in favor of splitting these trainings. Transport costs would be significantly decreased, as well as teachers’ transport time and inconvenience (though ours tends to increase). In addition, some research has shown that the closer teachers are to home when they receive a training, the more they’ll end up applying. We also want to get to know teachers on their own ground.
What’s more, Timor-Leste’s government is pushing a general program of decentralization in order to promote development of all regions and avoid the common calamity of a small nation’s capital city overrun with its population. This seems to be moving along well, our trainings being but a tiny part of the flow.
So we spread ourselves out, 5 to a team. SESIM trainers number around 15, but only 6 have got temporary transfer from the Ministry of Education to be fulltime employees of the Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO. The others are fulltime teachers and must get special permission to leave their students and carry out trainings with SESIM.
Getting this permission for all our trainers is the tip of the iceberg in terms of our logistical headaches. We also have to get a special letter from the Ministry’s Director General of Basic Education each time we carry out a training during school time, and each training requires invitations through the national teacher training institute, INFORDEPE. These invitations rarely reach all the teachers, so we’ve learned to follow up personally with a call to each school. If the teachers are on good terms with each other, and the director is on top of things, that does the trick. Unfortunately, many teachers never get the news and the opening of every training includes letting teachers know exactly who is ‘on the list’, and looking for creative ways to contact the ones who didn’t make it. Cousins, bus drivers and neighbors are all called to action.
And then there are the internal logistics. This work we do through the Ministry of Education is funded by KOICA, which has been an excellent development partner, and the grant is administered by UNESCO Jakarta, separate from, but linked to, our National Commission. Someone once pointed out to me that, by definition, the UN and all its agencies comprise the biggest bureaucracy in the world. Perhaps it’s also the biggest paradox in the world. The transition that the UN assisted here 1999 through 2002 was nothing short of monumental, and no other entity would have been appropriate. I have also seen monumental waste in the UN system. The reality for us is that we are working in UNESCO’s name, toward its admirable mission, and have been able to accomplish some extraordinary work, despite the bureaucracy.
We will be giving a one week training to each municipality’s teachers three times, each time presenting content relevant to the coming trimester’s curriculum. There are only two weeks’ break between the three trimesters in the Ministry’s academic calendar. December is somewhat more free, but for the two down weeks in April and August, we do our best to train as many teachers as possible. As we’re focused on 8 different municipalities now, we split them up into 2 each during those 2 weeks, and then 4 others during school time.
It’s a grand plan, but due to a cascade of small errors on all sides, the money didn’t come through in time to carry out the first week of trainings in August. It was a bitter moment when we realized that our reserves were not enough to make this happen, that even though the funding was secure, we couldn’t move forward because it was not yet in our coffers.
So, after a moment of grieving, we realized that the goal would be to train as many teachers as possible during this second week of vacation. We did some quick figuring, and decided we would attempt to do three trainings in three municipalities simultaneously. These trainings focus on biology, and our third bio trainer has just returned from maternity leave. Another SESIM trainer is on leave from her university in New Zealand, so we grabbed her up as well.
We moved heaven and earth the week leading up to these trainings, organizing letters, trainers, and materials, contacting municipality and school directors, running back and forth to INFORDEPE and the Ministry, and arranging transport for ourselves. It happened that two of the three vehicles of the National Commission were booked, but we rented cars and chartered buses and by Sunday noon 15 of us were on our way up into the beautiful mountains of Timor.
The weak point this time turned out to be in the mathematics team, with two trainers unable to work these trainings. I fill in wherever needed, so I’ll be spending the week team-teaching mathematics with Mestra Angela in Baucau. SESIM works in part because we are all flexible like this. Since the start of our simultaneous trainings, we have focused on cross-training ourselves, so that each of us can lead any activity, regardless of our background. After all, teachers are expected to do this regularly, especially in junior high science, where the previous sharp divisions between the sub-disciplines have been blurred and a single teacher is required to teach integrated science. Teachers struggle with this, because none are truly prepared for it: until recently, there were no institutions of higher learning preparing teachers to teach integrated science, only physics, chemistry, or biology.
The first day of training blossoms with potential logistical headaches. In whatever venue we are offered, we need two sizable rooms with decent tables (not those silly tilted micro-tables attached to each chair, suitable only for taking multiple choice tests), a place to serve the food, a secure place to store our stuff, a water supply, and at least occasional electricity. All this is not easy to communicate over the phone when we call ahead, but if it is not available on the day we arrive, the headaches begin.
The food aspect alone can be dizzyingly complex. In most districts, there are not sufficient restaurant facilities for teachers to access during lunch time, and most teachers would never squander their per diem eating at restaurants anyhow, so we provide food. The current rate is $6/day for two coffee and finger food snacks and a full lunch with rice and 3 or 4 dishes. It is not lost on the teachers that we are squandering their lunch money, and there are usually some complaints, especially if the caterers miscalculate and/or the first teachers in line take too much and the food runs out.
Other arms of the Ministry do not cater their trainings and the teachers go home with more money in their pocket. We at SESIM have noticed the median brain activity at those trainings drops into the single digits during the long afternoons, as most of the teachers have missed lunch. So we stand firm on this, and it is gratifying to see them all eat their fill, three times a day.
The caterers came three times a day in their minibus with plate after plate of good food.
The rich cargo of our trainings sails in on the breeze of logistics. To our great joy, the logistical wind was strong and smooth at our backs when we arrived in Baucau. Municipal officials met us at the door of our host school late Sunday afternoon with everything in order, and we even got the use of their microphone and amplifier for the opening on Monday. May favorable winds also assist our colleagues in the two other municipalities, Ermera and Lautem. CG