Thursday, September 15, 2016

Educating Young Children to Promote Social Change

Pai-Tino is teaching in the UNICEF-supported home-based alternative preschool.
He is running the center for over two years now. ©UNICEF Timor-Leste/2016/bsoares
As Martinho Soares (65) enters his classroom, his preschoolers lovingly greet him saying ‘Pai-Tino’. In the local language, Pai-Tino translates to Father-Tino, demonstrating the love and respect Soares receives from his students. The Preschool teacher’s infectious smile and youthful energy immediately lift the spirits of the room. As soon as he starts talking anyone can feel his passion for teaching and learning. The visibly joyful and compassionate teacher immediately makes a connection with everyone’s heart.

Lari, a remote village of Viqueque Municipality is around three hours’ drive from the town. Here, Soares is tirelessly working to constructively engage young children. “I used to see children of this community sitting idle and using bad language. Timorese people all over refer to our residents as Muturabu, which means tough people,” says Soares.

“We fought so hard to have our own country. Now, we have to do something good with the independence which we gained in 2002. Now we have to teach our children about peace,” Soares added.

“The Chefe Aldeia and I discussed this issue and thought of ways to change this. We decided to start an alternative preschool and teach young children how to be peaceful. When children grow up it is difficult to teach them love and peace, so we decided to teach young children,” Soares added.
In 2014, after extensively discussing Viqueque’s future with the community leaders, Soares decided to start classes for the village’s young children.

In the initial days Soares’ aim was simple. “I wanted to engage idle children, and reduce the extent of cursing and fighting among them,” he says. But he didn’t have enough resources and turned to the students of the national university, the University of Timor-Leste, to find ways to organize the children. With the University’s help, he gathered the attention of the villagers and mobilized parents to send their children to his preschool. The Chefe Aldeia offered the porch of his house as venue for the classes. Soares started teaching preschoolers three times a week.
Natalina with her 4-year old son Acacio. Acacio has been attending Pai-tino’s preschool for 6 months.
©UNICEF Timor-Leste/2016/angomez
A year later, in January 2016, Soares attended a UNICEF-supported teacher training programme in Viqueque district. He received training on teaching small children, classroom management, maintaining attendance records, and engaging parents. He was also provided with teaching and learning materials like reading books for kids, notebooks, wall decorations, etc.

Most importantly, he started to appreciate the concept of ‘learning through play’. In just six months, the preschool was transformed. Preschoolers in Soares’s class are now seen singing and dancing to amongst others their very favorite “chicken dance”. The then bare walls of the porch are now full of color and life. They are decorated with drawings, posters of alphabets and numbers.

Natalina Brito Fernandes, mother of a 4-year old Acacio, a student in Soares preschool happily expressed “Acacio loves coming to the preschool every day. He comes on all days, except when he’s sick. He sings the ‘eyes, nose’ song at home. He knows the alphabets too. I send him here to become bright and smart.”

Pai-Tino dedication has led also to his nomination as a facilitator of a parenting education programme by the villagers.

The parenting programme is implemented by the Ministry of Social Solidarity with UNICEF support to raise awareness among parents on young children’s needs and rights. Being a parenting programme facilitator, Pai-Tino provides parents with information and key messages on various topics including general parenting, early stimulation, alternative discipline methods, and danger signs for illnesses.

“Teaching in the preschool as well as facilitating the parenting programme is demanding but the trust my community members have shown in me keeps me going. I have not done this before but, the training and guidance help me to support parents,” he says.

Soares’s goals for the preschool have now grown. The new goals include reaching more children and moving from the home-based preschool into a more spacious community-based center. Parents and community members of Lari are now coming together to discuss ways to translate these goals into actions. With their children’s future as the focus, the villagers don’t seem “muturabu” anymore.