When Helio Ramos, 25, decided to join a three-year teacher training course at a Catholic college in Baucau, the second largest city in Asia's youngest country, he hoped he would be part of a new crop of educators that would help transform Timor-Leste. The education sector, like much of the country, was destroyed by departing Indonesian forces in October 1999 after the East Timorese overwhelmingly chose freedom from Indonesia in a UN-sponsored referendum. Fifteen years later, the country remains in a slow rebuild, and Ramos wants to be a part of it. He graduated from the Catholic Teachers College last year and now teaches at an elementary school in Baucau. "Teaching at this time is not easy," Ramos told ucanews.com. Teaching is not only about the transfer of knowledge, he said, but how to best deal with students from families raised in the shadow of Timor-Leste's violent past. Ramos said the country is still scarred by this history. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress abound and often manifest itself in the form of corporal punishment and child abuse. Many teachers in Timor-Leste schools are physically abusive toward children, which easily fuels additional trauma. Ramos told ucanews.com that he hopes this new generation of teachers emerging from the Catholic Teachers College will help break the cycle of trauma and abuse.
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Maria Sidalia de Oliveira, a 2011 graduate, said that before she enrolled at the Catholic Teachers College, she was told she would "need to be rough" with her students if she wanted to maintain order. "This is another problem with many Timor-Leste teachers. They often think that since the children have tough characters then teachers must also be tough on them," she said. "I absolutely disagree. When a teacher can walk and play with the children, they build a mutual trust. When children trust their teachers, they will love us and follow what we tell them," she said. As part of the college's curriculum, aspiring teachers are taught to avoid corporal punishment, stressing that it is not an effective form of punishment or discipline. Marist Br Fons van Rooij, the college's director, said that in the long run, the college hopes to help eradicate violence in Timor-Leste society by producing more qualified teachers. "Too often children in East Timorese classrooms had cause to be fearful because of harsh corporal punishment and other intimidating behavior on the part of teachers. Children will not learn anything when they are afraid of their teachers, and worse, they will not come to school," Van Rooij told ucanews.com. "One of the big problems in the country is trauma. Many Timorese have witnessed someone in their family being shot. Trauma from these experiences may easily trigger violence. That's why we emphasize non-corporal punishment in the classroom. We create a context of mutual respect. Take away that fear and students will learn. Put in fear, the students will stop learning," he said. The school was founded in 2001 by the Marist Brothers at the request of Bishop Basilio do Nascimento of Baucau and is affiliated with the Australian Catholic University. Prior to independence, 90 percent of the teachers on the half-island country were from Indonesia. After independence, the education sector needed a complete rebuild, with very few available teachers. The college has since graduated or re-trained about 450 qualified teachers who are spread across the country. Van Rooij said many of the college's students are the sons and daughters of subsistence farmers. They have few resources to pursue higher education, but show good character and a capacity to teach. Mariano dos Santos, the college's deputy director and also a lecturer, said the school emphasizes student participation. He said graduates learn how to interact with students, not just present a set of facts to memorize. This daily interaction encourages trust and helps cement a closer relationship between teacher and student. "If violence toward children continues, when they grow up they will also replicate what they have learned," he said. Dos Santos said many Timor-Leste teachers, particularly in villages, still use a rattan to discipline students, a practice he experienced many years ago during his school days. "It's ineffective because it creates a feeling of revenge. Our violence-dominant culture perpetuates a circle of violence," he said. "I'm quite sure teachers can break that chain of violence by preparing students correctly during their formative years."