I still remember, even though it was over 35 years ago, stepping into my first classroom – not as a prac student, with the safety net of the ‘real’ teacher – but my own classroom. I remember the nervousness, excitement and the fear.
“These kids have had far more experience of being at school than you, they are better versed in how things work,” one of my supervising teachers had warned. But, after three years at teacher’s college, I felt ready for the challenge. With palms sweating, a nervous knot in my stomach and my shiny new teaching aids and resources, I embarked on my career.
Imagine that same first day after a total of six weeks’ training in a village community hall just outside of Kokoda Station. No resources, sometimes, not even any furniture. The Elementary Prep (EP) class is equivalent to our Kindergarten.
The teacher responsible for the Elementary 1 and 2 classes in the other classroom is also from your graduating class. Anyway, room is probably too strong a term, shelter with a dirt floor would be more accurate. The closest teacher is in the next village, a couple of hours along the Kokoda Track. Now, that’s a challenge.
There is a chronic teacher shortage in Papua New Guinea. A volunteer group, the Kokoda Track Foundation (KTF), is training elementary teachers to work in the villages to give children along, and near, the track the opportunity to attend school. To date, training has been two six weeks periods, with two top-up courses of a fortnight. A grand total of 16 weeks.
There is no opportunity for students to practise the theory they are taught, they simply start in their schools at the end of the initial six weeks training. Subsequent training is held in holiday periods and has attracted nearly 100 per cent attendance.
As a long-time mentor of practicum students and beginning teachers, I thought this wasn’t fair on these young teachers. After discussions with the KTF CEO and our teacher trainer it was decided that we should provide some in-school support. My brief was to mentor 13 teachers across six villages along 60 kilometres of the track over an eight week period.
The journey started from Abuari, a small village on the eastern side of Eora Creek, the less-travelled section of the track. It ended in Gorari Station, on the northern part of the track where some of the earliest encounters between Japanese and Australian soldiers occurred.
It was simply the most extraordinary experience of my life.
During my time in PNG, living with teachers and their families in the villages, it was amazing to watch these young dedicated teachers in their classrooms. They have few, if any, resources. Teachers often have to make the books they use to teach their students, it is very difficult to get resources into the mountains. Each student learns English as their second language, which adds another dimension to the workload. And yet, their dedication is amazing.
While visiting the schools and working with teachers many hours were spent talking about planning, engaging students in the curriculum, classroom management and how to develop culturally relevant resources. There were lesson observations and reflections, demonstration lessons, feedback and debriefing, all the aspects of supervising a student but these were teachers in their own classrooms.
And, of course, there was playground duty, PNG style. One particularly hot day a young man came up to me on the playground and inquired if I was thirsty. He took his bush knife, deftly cut the top off a coconut and handed it to me. I gratefully accepted and when I had drunk the water he took it back and, with one stroke of his knife, sliced the coconut in half so we could share it.
There is no compulsory school starting age in PNG. There are students in elementary classes from five to 15 or 16 years old. The consequences for curriculum differentiation are staggering. It is a little disconcerting to have a year 2 student, taller than the teacher and carrying a 45 centimetre bush knife.
There were times when I felt a little uneasy, there are cultural differences difficult to come to terms with. But, on the whole, it was an amazing and rewarding experience. Passing through as a trekker is a very different experience to living and working in a village. The generosity of the people is overwhelming. I’m looking forward to going back and working with more of these remarkable young teachers.