Hearts and minds in PNG

Reflections on serendipity in Papua New Guinea July 2019

The opportunities for growth in Papua New Guinea are enormous. Education is doing its very best to maintain a pace and enable change in a country that is dominated by headlines of poverty, crime, poor infrastructure and tribal infighting. The headlines are often true but underneath this lies the belief that the people of Papua New Guinea can bring about change themselves. They are beautifully diverse in their language, their appearance and their habits. They are warm and generous with time, humour and welcome. They are embracing their history and traditions, acknowledging their failings and looking to combine culture with commerce, people with prosperity and openness with opportunity.

I have been fortunate to work in some incredible places with some inspirational people. Papua New Guinea felt different. It was the serendipity of new connections, of random associations with previous travels, of conversations once had in dreams and laughter shared as if lifelong friends. So, the opportunity to work with fellow educators, to share ideas and challenge their thinking never felt like ‘work’. It was intensely professionally rewarding. Sharing ideas to ‘raise the bar’, to stretch and challenge learners, to promote positive learning experiences and develop a more resilient and independent learner was met with enthusiasm, commitment and professionalism. Teachers with vastly different experiences worked alongside each other in teams to develop their thinking.

Tony needs a special mention. Every school needs a ‘Tony’. Tony has been teaching in elementary and secondary schools for over 35 years. With a typical Melbourne-born approach to life (they get all four seasons in a day down there you know – makes you or breaks you) he never once offered the ‘seen it – done it’ line. He took every idea and moulded into something for the team. But above all this, after a quick trip home, he presented me with a PNG shoulder bag. Inside it was a pair of trainers, socks, shorts and a ‘Kokoda Track’ shirt. We were off trekking the next day into Varirata National Park, several hundred metres up and the start of something amazing. Tony does this trek as a practice run with pupils from the school, before they get ready to do part of the Kokoda Track further in to the Highlands region of PNG. But they also do residential camps on the more remote parts of the main island and even on some of the smaller islands. Skills and experiences that just don’t happen in so many other parts of the world. Tony provides this above and beyond his daily duties. The commitment is significant but he loves his job. One day he will get around to doing some serious retiring. every school needs a ‘Tony’.

So with Tuesday’s trekking, mud sliding, bird watching and burger eating all done, the focus shifted to middle leaders: the driving force of the school and so often the determinant of success. They are the actions in the ‘ethos’. We communicated on so many different levels, considering the vision required to make a difference and the ‘why’ we do what we do. Again, the two days never once felt like ‘work’. The outcomes were significant. A real shift in focus and a realignment of values. We all left feeling very positive about the future of education.

The final day was working with classroom (or learning) assistants. With no previous professional development for many years, these ‘significant other adults’ in the classroom were keen for new knowledge. There was a tangible feeling of progress, great humour and passion for learning. It was an incredible day. I would happily hang up my training hat right there and then, knowing I had done my bit.

The incredible context that those in education in Papua New Guinea find themselves, whether ex-pat or native islanders, creates a unique camaraderie, a philosophy of endeavour and triumph over adversity, a resilience to tough times and unpredictability, and a warmth of character that is quite unique.

The week finished with an opportunity to hike up to a ridge about 400m above the town of Port Moresby with Lauren and her fiancé, Demetrius. Breakfast to follow and a trip to the market before a flight to Hong Kong and beyond. Quite a fantastic way to end my short stay in paradise.

For those of you who are educators, looking for adventure and challenge, beyond the pale then try this experience. The Ela Murray International School, part of the IEA group, like many other schools in remote places, struggles on many occasions to recruit. It puts pressure on existing staff and leadership. Get in touch if this has sparked some curiosity.

For those of us privileged to travel the world, meeting educators in unique places, I believe we have a responsibility to share what we see and to tell others the good news. Our world is an incredible place. It’s up to us to hand it over in a better state than we found it.

If you would like to find out more about professional development around the world from Dragonfly Training, then get in touch with mary@dragonfly-training.co.uk.