Becoming an activist teacher: Learning from Timor Leste

Lyndall Judd with students in East Timor

I often felt like I was a bit of a tourist: ever the onlooker, keen to see the sights, have some thrills, applaud others and do bits and pieces to keep busy. My adult years were spent working in art schools, waitressing, selling second-hand books, working in aged and disabled homecare, and high-level administrative positions for the NSW government (the later providing a bird’s eye view of the reckless state of affairs for the haves and the have-nots). The weary moment came, I wanted the comfort of home, I had seen too much and the discomfort was beginning to be palpable. Like so many educated white girls, I was not groomed to be a fighter, I was groomed by society to guard my piece of the pie with a nonchalant air of entitlement and to try and look good in the process. I was groomed by society to acquiesce, to please others first, to display some shining wit, to marry and to climb a social and material ladder. I found myself on the wrong side of the culture of power despite the opportunities granted me, despite my skin colour and my fluency in navigating according to the subtle cues of the dominant culture.

Activist teaching became one of the few vocational options in a world where injustice abounded, empty words and promises were utilised by the media and government and mainstream culture left me feeling like I’d swallowed paint stripper and I couldn’t pretend otherwise. I lost some of my joy, the one that comes from unidentified privilege. My disgust in the systemic inequality that I witnessed led me to question more rigorously my roles and responsibilities as a citizen in this society. It was easy to point to media magnates and to politicians and criticise their lack of humanity, but I believe there is a time for reconciling with our own conscious, and when all is mad in the world, perhaps it is time to look at the part we play in supporting the structures that perpetuate inequality. I wanted to find a way out, and I wanted to regain hope, and I did it through the only way I know how: I read books and reflected, I talked with others, and I tested out my learning through taking direct action. One of the things I read was this:

Without studying a critical global context, it is difficult for teachers and researchers to analyse fully the intellectual and material violence of the traditional model of schooling inherited from European colonialism and perpetuated today, or to have a foundation for alternative ways of thinking about and changing education to work towards social justice (Hickling-Hudson, 2011, p. 453).

Anne Hickling-Hudson suggests that the only way to imagine and envisage more socially just models in education is by seeing proof of their existence. She articulated one of the lessons I learnt through my experience as a pre-service teacher visiting Timor-Leste, and in my subsequent investigation into existing research and primary sources relating to the FRETILIN literacy campaign 1974/75. I feel that there are lessons we can learn, as teachers and as citizens, from the people of Timor-Leste and their struggle for independence.

We all know that education has a political role in ‘how collective horizons are shaped and how they constitute the basis of collective aspirations’ (Appadurai, 2004, p. 61). The manner in which the curriculum is enacted informs the creation and sustenance of our cultural landscape. A pedagogy that offers hope to combating and displacing the broad ranging inequality is one where teaching and learning are interwoven and driven by discourse, practice/action, and reflection. The distribution of power is equal between teacher and student and teachers learn from students at the same time as students learn in a dialogic fashion from the teacher, effectively disrupting traditional classroom dynamics. This particular pedagogical model was made popular by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and was utilised successfully by the East Timorese in their struggle for independence. Freire’s values stress the importance of a democratic discourse between teacher and student, with a focus on learning how to read and write words that relate to the day-to-day lives of the learner, and upon raising political awareness or consciencializacao. The literacy campaign was instigated by members of the FRETILIN leadership, some of whom had been studying in Portugal and had been exposed to the pedagogy of Paulo Freire. The campaign was also inspired by the perspectives and experiences of a number of African Independence leaders at the time as well as the early literacy campaigns of the Cuban revolution. The approach of the Cuban ¡Yo Si Puedo! (Yes I can!) literacy campaign was later utilised in East Timor under the Portugese name Sim! Eu Posso! through a collaboration between the newly formed independent government and a delegation of educational leaders from Cuba.

The nature of this literacy campaign was political, driven by a desire to empower the people of Timor-Leste so that they could read, write and question colonisation and its impact on their lived realities. As Leach (2015) argues in ‘Nation-building and National Identity in Timor-Leste’, without the literacy campaign subsistence farmers and those not based in the capital would not have been able to identify as being part of something larger, nor would the struggle for self-determination have maintained such a unified front. FRETILIN’s literacy campaign influenced the mobilisation of nation-wide action towards decolonisation and liberation, initially from the Portuguese, and then the ongoing resistance to the brutal Indonesian occupation (1975-1999).

Like so many others, I feel that some of the issues we face today require teachers and researchers to look more deeply at their roles in the classroom and in creating culture. The current system enacts the culture of power and effectively ‘silences dialogue’ (Delpit, L. 1988) for marginalised groups, frequently disengaging learners from non-English speaking backgrounds, and low socio-economic groups. Without an education that empowers learners, we are unlikely to engage such students, and what’s worse can find ourselves all too often perpetuating those very inequalities. As a preservice teacher, about to become an English teacher in a big metropolitan setting, I am thinking about how to put into practice my ideas of activist teaching.

As an activist teacher, I believe that literacy can be transformative. I believe it because it happened in Timor-Leste. It has happened, and it can happen again, maybe even here. If it can happen in a developing country facing the kind of adversities that we in the first world can only imagine in horror, why not in a rich country like ours? Literacy is recognised as a fundamental human right. It seems to me that as activist teachers we need to do some serious work to make critical and transformative literacy a widespread reality.


Appadurai, A. (2004) 'The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition', in Rao, V. and Walton, M., (eds.) Culture and Public Action, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, California, pp 59-84.

Cabral, E., & Martin-Jones, M. (2008) 'Writing the Resistance: Literacy in East Timor 1975-1999', International Journal Of Bilingual Education And Bilingualism, 11 (2), pp. 149-169.

da Silva, Antero Benedito. FRETILIN Popular Education 1973-1978 and its Relevance to Timor-Leste Today (Doctoral Thesis), University of New England. Retrieved from

Delpit, L. (1988) The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children. Harvard Educational Review, 58 (3), pp. 280-299.

Freire, P. (2005) Teachers as cultural workers: letters to those who dare teach, Boulder, Colo. Westview Press.

FRETILIN (1974) ‘Rai Timur’ images, Jill Jolliffe copy, National Library of Australia.

Hickling-Hudson, A. (2011) 'Teaching to Disrupt Preconceptions: Education for Social Justice in the Imperial Aftermath', Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 41 (4), pp. 453-465.

Leach, M. (2015) The FRETILIN Literacy Handbook of 1974: An exploration of early nationalist themes. In proceedings from Timor-Leste: The Local, the Regional and the Global, 5th Timor-Leste Studies Association conference, Universidade Nacional de Timor-Lorosa’e, Dili, 9-10 July.

Zipin, L., Sellar, S., Brennan, M., and Gale, T. (2015), Educating for futures in marginalized regions: a sociological framework for rethinking and researching aspirations, Educational philosophy and theory, 47 (3) pp. 227-246.



About the Author(s): 

Lyndall Judd is currently writing a minor thesis, teaching part-time and working on a project at CHART (Clearing House for Archival Records on Timor-Leste). She has a strong interest in local and global politics, and how education and the arts can assist in establishing a better culture towards social justice. She has been a member of the Labor Party, and is currently a member of the Greens (but doesn’t believe that the solution to some of the most pressing matters of the current paradigm can come from a political party).

Breaking Out issue: