Each year, early childhood and primary education students from Charles Sturt University (CSU) in Albury, Bathurst and Dubbo can spend up to three weeks in Vanuatu in the tropical Pacific Islands completing teaching experience in a truly multicultural setting.
Ms Sam Whitehouse from the University’s Murray School of Education based in Albury-Wodonga was one of 13 CSU students and two staff who worked in three very different schools in and around Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu in November 2011.
“Education in Vanuatu is not compulsory. Students sit a national exam every year to decide whether or not they are allowed to continue. Schools are not funded by the government so parents must pay.”
Her first experience was at the Port Vila Central School.
“We were introduced to ni-Vanuatu culture and experienced teaching Island style when we commenced our practicum. We used mainly literacy materials from Australia which were familiar to us, which was a good start. The teachers, children and school community made us feel really welcome.
“I loved being a teacher from 7.15am until 2pm, then being a tourist and exploring the island after school,” she said.
Education in contrast
The second and third weeks were contrasts in teaching styles and resources, starting at the Port Vila International School, where students attended classes from pre-school to Year 10.
“Teaching in the international school was no different to teaching in a private school in NSW. We had amazing access to resources and they followed the NSW curriculum with which we were familiar,” Ms Whitehouse said.
“For me, the highlight in the second week was the behaviour management strategies I learnt from a teacher passionate about classroom management. She was very inspiring!”
In the third week of the placement, the CSU students were able to contrast this abundance of resources with the more basic facilities offered at Pango Village School, a small school just outside Port Vila for children in classes from pre-school to Year 8.
“I was amazed by the level of dedication and commitment these children have towards their education. School started at 8am due to Year 8 national exams,” she said.
“The students arrived with enough time to sing and pray, copy lessons and activities written on the board, finish work left over from the previous day and ensure the classroom was clean, all before I arrived at 7:40 each morning.”
Teaching methods and materials were rudimentary and often outdated.
“We had a few books are from 1980s, some older than me! The children usually learned by rote from a chalkboard. The classrooms are made from iron and concrete, concrete floors, and sticks holding windows open.
“But because I used various teaching strategies and games, they were excited to see what ‘Miss Whitehouse’ was going to teach them that day. They were extremely polite and friendly.”
A touch of reality
Ms Whitehouse noted that compared to Australian students, the ni-Vanuatu children live in poverty.
“They live in houses built from tin or plant materials, have no access to flushing toilets; electricity at their houses is extremely rare; cooking is done by gas or hot stones; their clothes are washed by hands in the ocean or local creek; food is often what the family produce themselves or purchased from local markets. There is no television, no electronic gadgets,” she said.
“Children play from the moment the sun shines or the rooster wakes them up until the moment the sun goes down.”
However, there are some healthy advantages for these children.
“If children are hungry, they climb a tree and pick a piece of fruit – mango, paw paw, or coconut. They are very healthy children with beautiful smiles. The island food is so good for their bodies. They grow up strong.”
It was not all hard work, and the students put on a show for one school in gratitude.
“When we arrived, the principal of the Central School gave us a ‘Vanuatu Survivor Challenge’ – we had to develop a performance to present to the school in four days,” Ms Whitehouse said.
“We were up to the challenge. The Albury group performed a mini Lion King play, with masks, music, ribbons and a narrator. The Dubbo group had a short skit incorporating a wombat, an emu and a kangaroo. They invited the school to join them to sing and dance to the ‘Wombat Wobble’.
“The Bathurst group performed Aussie dance songs then incorporated the Shikira song ‘Wakka Wakka’ into a dance routine and the whole school went crazy! In Vanuatu, soccer and rugby are the two main sports, and everyone knew ‘Wakka Wakka’ from the last World Cup.”
“I wish the visit never ended. I swam everyday, rode horses by the sea, fed huge 150-year-old turtles, snorkelled on coral reefs, shopped, canoed, ate delicious food at a Melanesian feast, visited a breathtaking waterfall, and was guided around Efate Island by my supervising teacher from the Central School.
“I was even privileged to see how ni-Vanuatu live and learned about their traditional customs, including preparations for a village wedding – what an experience!”
Ms Whitehouse loved Vanuatu, its people and their way of life.
“It was the best three weeks of my life. I don’t regret a single moment and can\’t wait to finish university so I can go back!”