TTU professor visits rural East Timor to help with rebuilding of school system

A banner hanging in the Dili airport greeting incoming visitors to East Timor reads, "Welcome to the world's most recent nation."

And that's where Tennessee Tech University professor of Curriculum and Instruction Maggie Phelps spent two weeks recently, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 15,in the world's newest nation, having gained its independence just last August.

She was there with TTU graduate David Flynn, now principal at Westside Elementary School in rural Macon County, on a mission to help reestablish the ravished country's rural school system. The system is just one of the many infrastructure casualties suffered during the tiny half-island's quest for independence from Indonesia.

"I got a phone call in June from the Institute of International Education on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education. Our purpose is to establish a training program for rural school administrators in East Timor," Phelps explained.

A former high school chemistry teacher, Phelps is now director of TTU's Rural Education Research and Service Consortium. Established in 1984 to link the resources of the university with the schools and communities of the TTU service region, the Consortium works with educators, governmental officials, and other community leaders in identifying problems and solution strategies for rural schools.

Little did Phelps know that the "TTU service region" would one day include East Timor, a tiny mountainous island across the Pacific Ocean, thousands and thousands of miles away from Cookeville and approximately 300 miles north of Australia.

"Tennessee Tech received the invitation to go to East Timor because, as one of only five rural education centers in the nation endorsed by the National Rural Education Association, we are geographically and culturally the best match" to the East Timor region, she said.

The rural villages of East Timor are mountainous and rugged, like many of the areas of very rural Middle Tennessee. Poverty is rampant among the people living in East Timor with agriculture, especially coffee, providing much of their income.

Those who live in the isolated communities in the war torn countrysides appear to have it the worst, but the thrill of being free from Indonesian control lifts their spirits, Phelps observed.

"There is no communication, no water. The people have inadequate shelter, food, clean water. It is so very primitive. But they are so happy to be free," Phelps said. "Their existence is marginal, but that is the price they are willing to pay."

Background of East Timor

East Timor's history is a dramatic and complex one. Last year, in a U.N.-sponsored referendum, the people of East Timor voted for independence, freeing them from a nearly 25-year rule by an Indonesian dictatorship they never fully accepted. This historical election marks the first time the country has ever had the opportunity to govern itself.

After the vote, however, in which 99 percent of the approximate 430,000 registered East Timorese voters stood in long lines and faced hostile and violent attacks, pro-Indonesian militias thought to be affiliated with the Indonesian military rampaged through the territory, burning and destroying much of it and sending tens of thousands of residents fleeing their homes. At the same time, hundreds of innocent East Timor residents were killed by the militias in this ensuing "scorched earth campaign."

International troops eventually put a stop to the violence and currently East Timor is being administered by the United Nations. Reports just last week estimate East Timor will achieve complete independence and be ready to administer itself by late 2001 or early 2002.

Prior to 1976, when Indonesia invaded and annexed it, East Timor was a Portuguese colony. After the annexation in 1976, guerrilla forces continued to resist Indonesian troops in the island's mountainous terrain, a battle that continued nearly uninterrupted until last year's historical vote.

The plight of the people of East Timor became even bigger news and an issue for the Clinton administration in 1996 when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two Timorese activists, the exiled resistance leader, Jose Ramos Horta and Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo.

Indonesia, the world's fourth largest country, is a U.S. ally, home of the popular vacation spot Bali as well as a source of cheap labor. With almost 200 million people scattered across more than 13,000 islands, Indonesia is also a strategic crossroads with vast oil reserves and also a top trading partner for the United States.

How to learn in East Timor

While the violence that she learned about that ensued after East Timor seceded from Indonesia disturbed Phelps, she was there to do one thing Ð help the people reestablish an education system so the young people will be able to grow up educated and ready to administer their own free government.

"Under the dictatorship, the language taught in school was Indonesian and there was a mix of Catholic and government schools with a teacher/pupil ration of probably one to 40. But most school administrators were government appointees, so when the Indonesian government was voted out, the schools lost a lot of their leadership," she explained.

During the "scorched earth campaign" when many of the people's homes were burned down, the military forces and militias purposefully destroyed East Timorese school buildings, tearing off many of their metal roofs and also piling up books and desks to burn them in huge bonfires, she added.

"Right now, UNICEF is working with Timor Aid with the goal of having a roof over every teacher's head before the rainy season starts, which is starting now," said Phelps.

With few teachers, school buildings in shambles and many with no roofs in addition to no books or desks, teaching and learning in East Timor, a country wracked by illiteracy, is no easy task.

"Currently, each school has a 'coordinator' who is in charge and the teacher/pupil ratio is about one to 80. Right now, teachers nor students have any books unless they managed to save some," she said.

Another obstacle teachers face: what language to teach? Most people of East Timor speak Indonesian. However, now that they are no longer Indonesian, and with Portugal renewing its interests in East Timor, students are learning three different languages in school: Tetum (the local East Timor language), Portuguese and Malaysian.

"There's this whole business of language. The teachers are trying to teach these three languages to those in the first through sixth grade, and then they are adding English for those in the seventh through 12th grade. And they are doing this without any books!" Phelps said incredulously. "They are really doing it."

"In most classrooms you have a teacher in a room with 50 to 100 kids sitting on the floor, and some of the teachers have nothing Ð they are teaching from what's inside their head. I didn't think it was possible to teach trilingual curriculum with nothing, no books or anything, but they're doing it! And I find that amazing."

What next

Not much training of future administrators was accomplished on Phelps's first trip to East Timor; however, she does expect to go back. In the meantime, a proposal is being written and in the next year, several East Timorese teachers will probably travel to Tennessee Tech and be trained on campus here while also visiting many of the rural elementary and secondary schools the university serves.

"We also want to do principal training and are working on a three-year proposal for that program (with funding to come from the Institute of International Education). And with the College of Education's new Exceptional Learning Ph.D. program (which focuses on teaching children in at-risk environments, such as poverty), I expect to see some dissertations that deal with the education system in East Timor," she said.

"Of course we will be working with our undergraduates in this area as part of our multicultural emphasis in the college," said Phelps. "I imagine we will have just as much to learn from East Timor as the people there will have to learn from us."