On foreign soil

This is not the usual post about maths pedagogy or behaviour management. I am writing from Nuku’alofa, Tonga. At 4am yesterday with 3 other staff and 17 weary-eyed (read: hyperactive for some) students we touched down, 12 hours since leaving home and after three flight changes. On the ground we were immediately met with the reality of our new environment: a hot climate, the air thick with moisture.

Not much bigger than our own airport in rural Australia, Tonga international airport consists of a large shed cooled by fans. To deal with what seemed to be the night long heat, customs officers and other officials adapted their uniforms, sitting on stools behind their counters with thongs.

And in front of this counter we waited. Out of the three queues – “Tongan Nationals”, “Airline staff, the elderly and the disabled” and “Other passport holders” – ours was longest. Eventually after the other lines died away, some of our group split off to join another line.

It doesn’t take long to realise the friendliness and hospitality that exists here. Perhaps, this is due to Tonga’s small geographical size, its population or due to its relative isolation. After picking up our bags, we stepped outside to be greeted by the Principal and Deputy Principal of the school that we are working with. They assisted us with our luggage, directing us towards the bus which they explained is to be ours whilst we are here.

Since then, we have been given coconuts, watermelons and bananas for breakfast by one student’s uncle. Another’s relatives brought more coconuts carried in large woven baskets, followed by a variety of meat dishes, rice, taro, kumera and other sweet potato-esque root vegetables. Both of the students had not met these relatives prior to this. Today the generosity continued. Being a Sunday all the shops are closed and aside from going to church, the main activity for the day is eating. Our host school put on a feast for us, complete with an entire roasted pig. The meal was put together by the school’s IT department as thanks for the computers we are donating to them.

As my own school Principal said upon leaving Australia, it’s not every day you get to take students on an overseas trip. Luckily for me, this was one of those days.

Term 2 completo, and what a way to end it. What job sends you on an all expenses paid trip to a Pacific Island? Teaching of course!

My school was recently awarded a grant to undertake a social responsibility project with a group of students, and I am one of the fortunate teachers to be accompanying them. As a result, my current “holiday” has turned into a series of meetings with community groups, the Australian High Commission on this island, and the other accompanying teachers. For the trip, students will be involved in organising and setting up IT equipment for a school in need.

In many ways, this trip is the sort of opportunity I only dreamed of when entering this profession. The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young People aims for all Australian students to become active and informed citizens. Back in 2010, I wrote my Honours thesis on civics and citizenship education, disentangling the very concept of citizenship. I concluded that active and informed citizenship necessarily involves respect and engagement in dialogue with those around us, so that we can learn about the boundaries of our own thought and discover commonalities with those who appear different.

Opportunities such as this trip, will develop students’ moral and intellectual capacities; they will gain a heightened sense of awareness of their own identity and the roles they play within their (local/national/international) community. The students will undoubtedly meet with confronting situations that will force them to acknowledge the privileges of their lives, but also to realise that, in many ways, young people around the world face similar issues.

In the lead up to the trip, I will be teaching the students for a term. Students will research the nation we are to visit, organise aspects of the project, and develop team and leadership skills, as well as a sense of social responsibility. From the outset I am cautious that “social responsibility” is not associated with some patronising colonial mind-set. It is not our aim to impose a developed nation’s unneeded tools on another, who we perceive as worthy recipients of our generosity.

Instead, the project aims to develop ties between our rural community (which contains many emigres from the particular Pacific Island nation) and the destination country, and provide assistance as is deemed appropriate at their end. For our students, who have never travelled overseas before, this will not be a trip to Canberra to learn about Australian political history (the “textbook experience”), nor will it be a unique – though increasingly common – opportunity to get a taste of the culture and traditions located throughout Europe. Instead, this trip will enable students to become more socially aware, capable and autonomous, deliberate and respectful young adults.

…And yes, this is a public school.