8 Things We’ve Learnt From Volunteering In Timor-Leste For A Year

8 Things We’ve Learnt From Volunteering In Timor-Leste For A Year

Peter and Margaret Cassidy have been volunteering as teachers in Bedois, Timor-Leste since January 2017. As they come to the end of their year-long placement, they’ve shared some of their reflections on saying goodbye to their new home and preparing to return to their old one. Here are just some of the things they’ve learnt in the last year.

1. Humans are built for learning

All people, children and adults, learn in a broader variety of ways than we were previously aware. As Timor-Leste rolls out their new government curriculum, more local teachers are beginning to realise this. Based on the state of some of the schools we encountered, people are capable of learning in what we consider very challenging circumstances. Motivated students come from a variety of backgrounds, not privileged ones.

2. Teaching English in a new culture is challenging

In Timor-Leste, learning to speak and write English well is seen by many as essential to having a successful career. We are made aware of this almost daily from students and the population at large.

But despite the enthusiasm, teaching English in a new culture has its challenges. There’s no one-size-fits all approach; our preconceptions of the teaching process had to be continually adjusted to suit local requirements and the curriculum. It takes time to assess the best way of contributing and developing relationships. Patience is key.

For example, things like the cancellations of schedules or surprise holidays were constantly popping up, which made it hard to do our job at times. But we soon realised that reacting overtly to things like this, although very frustrating, can be counter-productive. In fact, this frustration has more to do with our obsession with efficiency, punctuality and reliable planning than the needs and priorities of the local community. Keep an open mind and you will overcome.

3. The power of community

In our time in Timor-Leste, we’ve found that inclusiveness is a strong community value. Whether it’s young children playing safely in the street, to senior members organising events in every school and parish activity, we’ve encountered the strength of community engagement on a daily. This sense of community reminds us, nostalgically (because we are old) of the freedom and trust of country life in Australia in the 1950s.

4. You will see the world through a new lens

In our professional roles here, we have been required to adapt to challenging situations which require a conscious effort to be tolerant, patient and compassionate. This has taught us to become more patient and more accepting of different approaches to school and classroom management (except for corporal punishment, which is still used in some schools).

By living with limited domestic resources, we have also come to appreciate the idea of living simply. You really don’t need as many material possessions as you might think to get by.

5. The benefits of volunteering as a couple

Spending most of our time in each other’s company and facing new challenges and experiences together has enhanced our relationship. Our time in Timor-Leste has also taught us to share our domestic space more cooperatively, which will help us as we return home to our country property in Australia.

6. You will find freedom

The sense of freedom and independence we have experienced with the acquisition of a motorbike has been a major highlight (much to the amusement of many locals and the broader community). This was particularly evident in the early stages of learning to negotiate local terrain and lack of traffic rules.

7. You will make friends for life

The opportunity and need to establish effective working and personal relationships with people inside and outside the local community has been particularly rewarding. We have made some much-loved friends who we will continue to keep in touch with.

8. You will find a new sense of home

In ten months we have progressed from feeling confused and daunted in what seemed like a chaotic, alien city to feeling a sense of familiarity and even belonging.

Visiting Balibo, Baucau and Atauro has given us a broader perspective of not only the geography of Timor-Leste but also of the variety and beauty of this fascinating and diverse country.

Want to experience it for yourself? Apply now to volunteer with us in 2018.