Teachers volunteer in the remote Solomon Islands

A class photo with school building in the background
Konggukolo Secondary School's students and teachers have benefited from professional development by teachers from UTS Insearch volunteering their time.

Keeping a good thing going in the schools of Marovo Lagoon

Sydney teacher and writer, Sandra Laight, thanks a passion for sharks for her life-changing connection to the beautiful Marovo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands.

“My friends know how I feel about sharks. They were diving there and they were like, ‘Sandra would love this’,” she says. “While they were diving at the Uepi resort, they also found out about a school that was in need. The resort does a lot of community work.” When her friends visited the Konggukolo Secondary School,  their first reaction was, “This has Sandra written all over it.”

Delivering books in the jungle

It wasn’t hard to persuade Sandra to take her first visit, when she taught for a week, during her own holiday time. She recalls, “I absolutely loved it. Before the trip, I asked my colleagues here at UTS Insearch for donations and they were amazing.” The teachers brought hundreds of books from home, which were boxed up and sent over.

The books then made a complex journey to the school. “From the lagoon,” Sandra says. “We got into a boat and took them up the river. All the students came down and carried books up the hill – it was more than a three-hour walk in jungle heat, but we had an absolute ball.”

Heart, humour, and hospitality

Konggukolo Secondary School is accessible only by a six-kilometre mud track. Supplies are usually shipped to the Marovo Lagoon and stored until they can be delivered to the school by the single available four-wheel drive. On that first visit, Sandra remembers seeing both great need and huge potential. “It was so rewarding to spend a week with people who have so little, and give so much,” she says. “The heart, the humour, the kindness and hospitality – everything about them is joyful. If anyone deserves a chance to succeed, it’s them.”

Sponsored by UTS Insearch

On her return, Sandra shared her photos of the Konggukolo staff and students and was delighted to learn that UTS Insearch had agreed to sponsor further visits.

She’s now completed the sixth Teacher Training Program in eight years, with colleagues Maria Greenway and David Richardson. UTS Insearch again funded the program, with logistical support from Solutions pa Marovo and Uepi Island Resort.

Over the years, Sandra has seen steady improvement in the skills of the local teachers, who were initially mostly untrained. She credits this progress in large part to the work of SINU, the Solomon Islands National University in Honiara, which has taken over teacher training. “This most recent trip really felt like a professional development program, sharing ideas as a group of peers. It’s the first time if felt that way.”

New venue – new opportunities

The latest visit also saw a last-minute change of venue, under circumstances that underline the challenges faced by the Konggukolo school community. One of the old wooden logging bridges that cross the Konggukolo river on the trek to the school had rotted away. This forced a relocation to Patukai Secondary School and, further down the lagoon, Bekabeka Community School.

Sandra sees this move as the start of an exciting new chapter in the program. It means more visiting teachers can access these schools (and therefore the training). “It’s all helping,” Sandra says. “The best teacher I’ve ever seen was a trainee doing his practical in Konggukolo, and he was an ex-student from the same school. It was so nice for him because this is his village – these are his people. He was brilliant. What they’re doing in Honiara, is starting to work.”

The benefits of good English

Sandra believes the benefits of boosting the English-teaching skills of the teachers are immeasurable. “Good English will change these students’ lives,” she says. “It would enable them to really get out of poverty. They can work, open businesses, run guest houses, work in tourism – lots of things where they could stay in the lagoon. Nobody wants to move to Honiara, so it’s heartbreaking to watch these people have to leave when they don’t want to.”

ooking back on what these visits have accomplished, Sandra says, “I think the most important skills we’ve been able to share are communicative activities. It’s helped the local teachers realise they can make the classroom fun and enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be the teacher doing all the work, with the students passively absorbing. The old ‘chalk and talk’ model is gone, thank goodness.”

Keeping the momentum going

Enthusiasm is growing. Patukai and Bekabeka have both put their hands up to host the 2020 visit. A plan is underway for two consecutive one-week courses, using both schools as venues, with participants from all the other Marovo secondary schools.

Sandra will certainly be there. She says, “I want to keep doing this until I fall off the perch. What keeps me coming back is the people. I joke with them that my heart is a shrivelled up little prune when I arrive, and when I leave it’s absolutely bursting. And I’m so happy that UTS Insearch sees the value and supports us. With their help and support, we’re making a difference.”