Friday, 12 January 2018

The teacher in Papua who won't give up

By Saskia Raishaputri Moestadjab

Ibu Naomi teaches a class © Saskia Raishaputri Moestadjab / UNICEF / 2017

We sailed through the river flanked by mangroves, taking lefts and rights, heading in what felt like thousands of directions. The night before, I’d spent 7 restless hours waiting for the waters to rise and the boat to come. I was exhausted.

Finally, at midnight, the team and I reached Wainlabat Village, 8 hours later than expected. 

Set in the province of West Papua, Wainlabat is home to SD Inpres 58, one of 120 schools participating in UNICEF’s Rural Remote Education Initiative (RREI, funded by DFAT).  Launched in 2015, the RREI aims to boost literacy and school attendance among early grade students in Tanah Papua (West Papua and Papua Provinces), where education performance lags far behind national averages. 

More than 100 “mentors” have been trained by UNICEF on literacy-building techniques, which include teaching letter sounds, employing interactive singalongs, and introducing newly designed textbooks. Each of these mentors are placed in one of the 120 participating schools to train teachers on the new approaches.

Midway through the 3-year programme, results are already in evidence: The number of non-readers has halved from 1 in 2 to roughly 1 in 4, while fluent comprehension has doubled to around 14 per cent of early grade learners. It is clear to me that that the programme is working.

Motorcycles are often used to traverse the wooden path leading the river to the the village © Saskia Raishaputri Moestadjab / UNICEF / 2017

After exiting the 2-kilometer path from the river to the village, I saw very few people. I wondered where the community leaders were. Then I met Ibu Guru Naomi. 

Ibu Naomi, a Wainlabat native, has dedicated her life to this community, doing what many do when they want to make the most difference: She became a teacher.

Entering her classroom, I tiptoed through the aisles watching her teach. The 3rd grade class was singing and writing, grinning ear-to-ear. Next door, older students were sitting and talking. Why were they alone? Where was their teacher? I wondered.

I later found out the reason: Naomi is the only teacher in town. 

Every day, Ibu Naomi splits time between the six primary school grades. Sometimes, she combines first and second grades, or fourth and fifth grades, into a single class. But even then she still misses some classes. 

Ibu Naomi shuttles between classrooms to teach © Saskia Raishaputri Moestadjab / UNICEF / 2017

"There used to be other teachers here,” says Pak Slamet, the UNICEF-trained literacy mentor in Wainlabat. “They left for a couple of days to the city, but it's been months and they haven’t returned".

“And the principal? he's barely here.”

Teacher and principal absenteeism are major hurdles to education in Tanah Papua. Part of the problem is that principals are often posts of patronage rather than merit, which affects their capacity to run the school and appreciate the full value of education. The situation compromises the ability for students to get the education they deserve. 

Two schoolgirls read outside their classrom in Wainlabat © Saskia Raishaputri Moestadjab / UNICEF / 2017
In 2015, when Ibu Naomi returned to Wainlabat from Sorong, where she attended secondary school, she was devastated to see how many children were unable to read. “They didn’t even know how to order words,” she recalls. “There was no structure to the classes – it all depended on the teacher and what they wanted to teach.”

With the new approach to literacy, she says, progress was swift. After a couple  months, “they [the students] began to show improvements in knowing letters, even stringing words together!”

“Parents were telling me, ‘if this is working, we can’t let you leave. These children need to be able to read’!” 

"But I'm alone here,” she reminds me. “How am I supposed to teach six grades of students?" 

 I swallow, not knowing what to say.

“Hopefully with what I do, I will try to open people’s hearts to see they should be here for [the children] too," she says. 

Our conversation ended at noon. As I turned off the camera and closed my notebook, Ibu Naomi said she needed to go back home to change clothes before her 1pm class. We said goodbye.

Wainlablat Elementary School in Sorong, West Papua © Saskia Raishaputri Moestadjab / UNICEF / 2017

Leaving the village, I took one last look back at the school. The door ajar, I could see Ibu Naomi teaching.

The image has stayed with me; here was a grassroots education champion, a true daughter of the land. I could only imagine how much literacy would improve if Papua had more like her.

"Even if the school is simple, or the students are few, we must never give up,” she told me. “We must never give up.”