Teaching the teacher in Timor-Leste
A lot can be achieved with a big smile, positive body language and a cheerful voice, especially when there’s a language barrier to contend with. That was one of the lessons learned by a small-but-resourceful group of exercise science students who recently visited Timor-Leste on a three-week international study experience.
Led by ACU academics Dr Paul Taylor and Louisa Camilleri, the students delivered the Future in Youth (FIY) program, providing on-the-ground training and mentorship to physical education teachers in the developing nation.
“We quickly learned that due to the language barrier, we needed to practice in a way that was inviting and open,” says Jacob Malone, one of four Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Science students who travelled to Timor-Leste for the tour, which was jointly funded by ACU, Emerge Foundation and the Commonwealth Government’s New Colombo Plan (NCP).
The students also learned of the importance of adaptability and flexibility during the coaching sessions, which posed unique challenges.
“We encountered varying resource levels among the schools we visited, including access to shade, water, hats, and teaching staff,” says Jacinta Harris, a third-year student at ACU’s Melbourne Campus.
“The language differences forced us to rely on interpretive demonstrations, which added another layer to the way we delivered the programs. Nonetheless, it was gratifying to impart the fundamental principles of physical activity to the teachers, and demonstrate its benefits to the students.”
Sport for engagement
The Future in Youth program was established in 2010, when a team of ACU academics hatched a plan to use sport to teach boys and girls the values of fun, fairness and respect.
Responding to the high rates of youth unemployment in the city of Baucau, the university designed the program for young Timorese soccer coaches, who would go on to use their newfound skills and knowledge to train local youth.
“At that stage, Timor-Leste was less than 10 years old as a nation, and there was a lot of youth disaffection and gang-related problems,” says Dr Taylor, who has been a lecturer and researcher with ACU’s School of Behavioural and Health Sciences since 2014.
“There weren’t many opportunities for young people to engage in something positive after school, and so two former ACU academics named Dr Ross Smith and Dr Paul Callery came along and said, ‘This is a football-mad country, so let’s develop something that can provide an opportunity for positive interaction and engagement.’”
In 2015, the hugely successful program was expanded into schools, with scores of teachers, coaches and students taking part.
“We moved from a football-based program into other sports, with game-based physical education programs geared towards soccer but also volleyball and basketball,” says Dr Taylor, who first visited Timor-Leste alongside Professor Anthony Whitty in 2018, and went on to lead the FIY program in 2019.
“The idea was that if there was better sport and physical activity programs in schools, then student attendance could increase, and student engagement would increase, and of course there are many other benefits to physical activity relating to things like learning, concentration and alertness.”
Regrettably, as a result of the pandemic, the FIY tour of 2020 was cancelled, putting the program on indefinite hold.
The cohort of 2023 was the first ACU team to deliver the program in four years, running sessions for 20 teachers and 540 students across 12 schools.
“It’s always wonderful to get back to Baucau to reconnect with all of our community partners, and the town has really come a long way,” says Dr Taylor, who confirmed that trips to Baucau were being planned for 2024 and beyond, with an application for additional NCP funds in progress.
It is hoped that in future years, the teacher training program can be expanded to other parts of the country, playing an integral part in the primary school sports curriculum.
“There are good signs that the consistent capacity-building that ACU has been engaged in now for over a decade has had some tangible benefits, and what comes with that is a level of trust. ACU is well-known and respected within the town, because our partners over there know that we’ve delivered what we said we would.”
Since the beginning, the Future in Youth program has been built on the basis of mutuality and reciprocity.
“The whole idea was that the program had to be mutually beneficial, and that means developing capacity on both sides,” says Dr Taylor, pointing to research showing the considerable benefits of community development projects like FIY.
“For our community partners in Baucau, we help them to develop the capacity for their coaches, teachers and administrators to run effective physical education programs, which in turn can bring a range of benefits related to health and social cohesion.
“Then on our side, our students develop from the interaction and engagement. They learn about cultural competence, they develop teamwork and communication skills as they learn to break down language barriers, and they get to practice the professional skills linked with their degree.”
As for the students themselves, they agree that the Future in Youth program is a win-win.
“The firsthand experience of witnessing the positive impact we had on the individuals we interacted with, along with their evident joy in our company, has been deeply influential,” says Jacinta Harris, who is now open to the potential of pursuing work overseas after her degree.
“I returned home with a profound sense of gratitude for the travel opportunity, humbled by the locals’ generosity, and enriched with a new outlook on life.”
Jacob Malone also says the trip had a profound effect on him, providing him with direction on career goals, and a sharper focus in his day-to-day life.
“It had a big impact on me and how I see things, as well as giving me greater clarity in regards to my future pathway,” he says.
“I gained new friendships and bonds that will stay with me. Seeing kids who don’t have many resources being the happiest people you’ll ever meet hits a place in your heart that you may not know existed.”
Keen to have a positive impact through a career in exercise science? Explore the options.
Find out more about Emerge Foundation and the New Colombo Plan.