Saturday, 18 August 2012

I Believe the Children are the Future: Education in the Land of the Unexpected

The beach in front of one school, where the kids wash.

A student and her machete :)
 This was the last day of term and so students were given bush knives to do the gardening with!

Sometimes it still surprises me that I am, by trade, a teacher. Growing up, I never, ever thought that I would teach. To my knowledge, there are no teachers (before me) in my family. I fell into teaching quite by accident (I needed to earn an income in Japan and my ability to speak English was the only thing I was willing and able to sell). It is therefore a constant surprise to me how much I enjoy teaching - how fun, dynamic, and at times maddening, schools can be. And how much I enjoy the students (so many adults seem frightened and/or suspicious of our yoof – I think teenagers are highly entertaining much of the time).

Spending time in the education system of another country is a privilege for anyone who values or is interested in why a society functions the way it does. It’s true that schools differ within one culture, but a school can’t help but be a highly regulated microcosm of all we value in a society – and all we fear. Basically we round up our most impressionable members and we try to stop them doing all the stupid shit we as adults have made readily available and already done, and try to convince them that they should work really hard so that they can leave school and win the privilege to continue working really hard. If we teachers are any good at it, some of the time they have fun and most of the time they aren’t tempted to plot our destruction. That may sound cynical but it’s actually a process I enjoy being part of. I like schools. I like young people. And, as we all know (because she sang it before she was strung out on crack and became unintelligible) “the children are our future, let them lead the way’’. So how is PNG’s future looking? Let’s take a look at the schools.

First of all, here is the breakdown of the education system:

Age (approx.)
Language of Instruction
6 - 8
Prep, 1, 2
Tok Ples (local language)
9 - 14
Grade 3 - 8
15 – 16
Grade 9, 10
17 - 18
Grade 11, 12

Where I’ve written ‘age (approx.)’ that really is meant as a rough guide. Ages here for students are very very flexible. I found this out when I first walked into a Grade 11 English class and was faced with a mixture of fresh-faced young boys and muscular men with full beards! I was somewhat taken aback. One of the Japanese vols I’ve met here works at a primary school and he told me that sometimes ‘kids’ leave school because they’re pregnant/ have got someone pregnant – which seems pretty shocking (pregnant at 13?) until you find out they’re 20. Yep, 20 and in primary school – which is surprising in a whole different way.

What happens is that kids go to school one year, then there’s no money for their school fees the next year (primary school became free for the first time this year - yay!). Or the mother is sick and so the kid needs to stay home and help out with younger siblings, etc. This means that some kids have huge gaps in their schooling and so they must pick up where they left off – difficult for so many reasons. Still, it makes you wonder about those people in countries like Australia who promote kids to the next grade or into high school who can’t read even very simple texts because they worry that the kid will be socially damaged if they are a whopping whole year older than their peers. In the classes I’ve taught here, the kids range in age (a year 9 class might range from 15 to 21 years old) and no one’s head explodes and no one cries themself to sleep because they’re not the same age as their peers. Naturally, if students are used to being around people of different ages in their class, it seems, well, natural. I think it’s a good thing (not good though that they’ve experienced lapses due to hardship).

That elementary school is taught in the local vernacular (Kuanua around here) is a source of anger and frustration for many parents and teachers. I’m not weighing into the debate – just repeating what I’ve heard – many people think that the kids should be taught in English from prep and that failure to do so confuses them and prevents them from getting the grounding they need in English. I’m constantly asked what I think about this issue and I tend to answer like this: I don’t know which is better for students academically and culturally, but until PNG can address the teacher shortage (there aren’t even enough teachers to teach high school and yet there are many more elementary schools than high schools) it’s not a debate worth having. To teach in English requires teachers who can do so and they don’t exist as yet in the numbers required. It’s like thinking about whether you’d like to learn to ski when you have no access to snow. I also think there are bigger fish to fry, though I’m no expert in this area. “What sort of fish require frying?”, I hear you implore. OK, here goes.


Schools are under resourced. Unsurprising but worth illustrating. I went into one school library that had received all its books through a significant donation from an Australian charity - in 1967. And they weren’t new books then either. So, you’ve got kids trying to research about modern conflicts and the only materials they can access have maps of the USSR. And they’re mouldy. Awesome. Some schools have one well-functioning computer lab. Others have none.

year 9 classrooms
Schools have crumbling infrastructure. We’re talking holes in the floor, stairs with missing steps, libraries 
that have burnt down and not been re-built, blackboards you can’t write on, not enough desks or chairs, the list goes on. Oh, and toilets that spread disease. Now I’m not talking about a nasty flu. Here it’s cholera that 

everyone worries about and with good reason. One school that I visited last term had to close for about a month as some students had contracted dysentery.  Scary stuff.

Schools are over-crowded. The biggest class I’ve encountered has 64 students. I’ve been known to skool people who go on about what a cushy job teachers (in Australia) have by serving them up a big ol’ plate of perspective. I mean, your average Australian parent of teenagers has 2 or maybe 3 in their care. They have the power to give them things they want (phones, ipods, etc) and take away things (stop paying for their mobile, don’t drive them to their friend’s place, etc) and yet parents often say that they ‘can’t get their kids to listen’, ‘can’t do anything with them’, etc. People usually listen sympathetically. But, if you can’t get two teenagers (who you love and share a bond with) to wash a few dishes after you feed them it’s amazing that anyone expects one teacher to get 25 teenagers to solve algebraic equations without any incentive or significant punitive action to call upon. Now what about 64 teenagers? How the hell does anyone get anything done here? Hats off to the hard working teachers of PNG but my lord, does it have to be so hard?

Classes are commonly 50 or over, and a teacher will probably have 5 classes. That’s at least 250 essays or exams to mark for each item of assessment and 250 reports to write! This is one hell of a fish that needs frying – PNG needs more teachers. And now. I even know of one teacher who is scheduled to teach classes that happen at the same time. No, PNG does not have some sort of advanced cloning technique, the man is required to go back and forth between two classrooms in two different buildings and try to teach both classes at once! It brings new meaning to the term ‘overworked’.

Students at assembly being told off for not preparing their kaukau (sweet potato) in the morning (so that it's ready for the evening), and instead, begging for rice (which requires no such prep) from school staff who were soft and gave it to them! 

Students singing the national anthem. The students from this school have only one set of the uniform each so they don't have to wear it on Tuesdays and Thursdays - the washing days.

The blackboard in this classroom is too decrepit to write on in some places so the teacher brings in posters with his notes on them.

Student 'mess' at a boys' school.

Schools lack means of communication. This one affects me in my role quite directly. Of course, there is no email (no school in East New Britain has internet access), but many schools also don’t have a landline, which means you need the personal mobile of someone. And they may or may not be in mobile phone range (they may need to walk up a particular hill and wave their arms about like they just don’t care to get reception). When we recently ran an in-service for teachers, the wonderful and resourceful principal at my base school had to stand out the front of a central supermarket on pay day afternoon as a means of making contact with teachers to invite them to the in-service. She also tracked some teachers down through their churches (and turned up there on a Sunday). I would never have known to do these things (she’s awesome). This makes it very hard for schools to work together, share resources, information, etc.

The school I am based at has lovely grounds.

Proof that I work! Here I'm team teaching a lesson on reading comp (we were playing a game where students have to predict the meaning of a word based on the context of the story and compete with each other, (and try and trick each other -  it's more fun than it sounds!)

Me, teaching in a chapel! The wonderful young men at this school were writing persuasive essays. 

Many high/secondary schools have boarders. There are only 13 high schools in East New Britain (there are about 300,000 people in the province). This means that many people don’t get to go to high school and amongst those who do, many have to leave their village and board. So who’s going to look after several hundred teenagers all living within close quarters? The teachers of course. That means that teachers have to make sure not only that students progress academically but that they eat, shower, study and are looked after if they fall ill. No wonder there’s a teacher shortage. Who would sign up for that!

Some schools have to grow their own food to feed the boarders. So, when classes are out, teachers need to oversee students working in the fields. And of course, kids will be kids and if they can gossip with their friends instead of harvesting sweet potato they will and then what happens? Detention? Try, hunger. At one school (for reasons I don’t know) their fields weren’t ready and so kids weren’t getting enough food (one teacher worked out that they were getting less calories than refugees in a UN run camp) and so they were stealing bananas from locals living around the school. The same teacher objected to punishing kids for stealing food when they were hungry and a heated discussion followed. And to think in Australian schools we argue about whether or not kids have the right to purchase soft drinks (which we know are shocking for their health) from a school run canteen. Disgraceful. I should say, that in general, hunger is not a problem in East New Britain as people grow their own food and the soil and climate allow for that to happen well. However, hundreds of growing teenagers is a challenge full stop, but when they have to grow their own food……       

Of course, having kids board creates other pressures. We all know that some teenagers like forming clubs, gangs, groups with membership, and finding ways of aligning themselves with their peers, against others. At my school in Australia this sometimes, sadly, led kids to think they should emulate some sort of U.S, west coast, gansta inspired like scenario to show how tough they were. (sorry kids, crip walking is about as challenging as doing the merengue. Both are pretty fun but neither is proof of killer instinct). Sometimes, kids formed alliances based on ethnicity and went about challenging other kids in a less than peaceful way. Over here, the combination of beliefs stemming from Christianity and sorcery and a desire to be part of a group come together to produce a most unusual phenomenon, satanic cult worship.

Oh, you think I’m engaging in a bit of humourous exaggeration? You think I mean gangs with crazy, hells angels-like tatts and bad arse attitude. No, that’s not what I mean at all.  I mean young people, at a homemade ‘altar’, getting down on their knees, and praying to Lucifer. If you read my previous post on religion you’ve probably already figured out that the school administration is not down with this at all and freedom of religion aside – what these kids are doing is not cool.

You can probably imagine that to obtain membership in a cult that worships the devil it isn’t enough to pinky swear and master an overly complex handshake. You need to sin. You need to do bad stuff and from what I’ve been told, getting initiated requires some serious and dangerous hazing that not everyone pulls through. As a result, preventing cults from starting up and uncovering cult groups that already operate is a preoccupation for some schools which has lead teachers to hide, in camouflage, at night, by the students’ dorms to catch culprits in action. And I thought catching kids smoking at the back of the oval while on yard duty was a pain in the arse.  

I know you are now thoroughly captivated by the complexities of the school system in East New Britain but I will have to leave it there. I think though that another entry on education is warranted so I’ll continue in my next post. If you’re a high school student and you’re reading this, when your pissed off cause one of your peers called you ugly on FB, be consoled that at least they’re not trying to send your soul to Hades. If you’re a parent and your reading this, stop sending your kid to school with a can of Mother for breakfast. Seriously. 

 Lukim yu.
The books in this school library and the texts books below were donated to schools by Ausaid. 


  1. Loved the post, as always! I would definitely love to do some work over there when uni is all done and dusted. Seems like they need a lot more than just me though.

    Umm... the cults are a bit scary! I don't want to think about what they do to get initiated!

    Can't wait for the next post!!


  2. Beautiful post! "Spending time in the education system of another country is a privilege for anyone who values or is interested in why a society functions the way it does." So true--and scary to think how this reflects on why the U.S. functions the way it does. And so sad that plenty of the problems in PNG (too few teachers, overworked teachers, run-down facilities, lack of access to technology and books) are so similar to the problems in the U.S. (though obviously on a very different scale). --Lindsay