"Can you ever fully know the long-term outcomes of any educational endeavour?", asks Susan Michell (nee Cheeseman), who was a VSA school leaver volunteer at a school in Serian, Sarawak, nearly 50 years ago.

Serian is a small town on the main road from coastal Kuching to Sibu and beyond. A few small side roads went to villages where pepper crops were grown and rubber harvested, mostly by Hakka Chinese who had commercial connections in Serian and shipped it in small launches down to Kuching. Along the nearby river some Malay grew sago.


From the VSA photo archives: A Sarawak longhouse taken at the time Susan was teaching in Serian.

Serian Government Secondary School where I taught in 1968 had about 400 students, the equivalent of our year 7, 8, 9 and 10 classes. I mainly taught two transition classes who had done all their primary schooling in Chinese and were having a year of English immersion before entering secondary school classes taught in English.

I really just drilled them, writing sentences on the blackboard they repeated then copied: “Where are you going?” “I am going to the shop to buy sugar”. It must have been quite boring for them but I had few resources. With 42 crammed in a small room it got very hot. We were supposed to insist they spoke only English but that was easier said than done. Usually one who grasped what I was saying would translate for all the others.

I also taught Geography. Because I grew up on a Nelson apple orchard I must have emphasised fruit production as a major economic activity. Some students wrote in their exams that the main product of New Zealand was apples.

I shared a staff house with a Hokkien speaking teacher from Kuching. When shopping, she was no more able to understand the shop keepers than me, so we would take a Hakka student to help. Her parents would visit on Saturday, bringing a large block of ice which we put in the bath and used to cool water and juice. Bliss to have a cold drink!

We cooked on a little kerosene stove. Our house was in a row near the boarding houses in the school compound - a hot cleared space surrounded by thick jungle that we never entered. Snakes were in there and it was said soldiers from the days of Confrontation still wandered around.

Each night was a dark-to-dawn curfew when we couldn’t go out on the main road. Not far away was an army barracks. Every now and then the soldiers flushed out a ‘Communist’ renegade and exhibited the body in the bazaar as a deterrent to others.

Our school also had a Peace Corps couple and a CUSO (Canadian University Students Overseas) teacher. I was the sixth VSA volunteer, the first female, and among the last of the school leaver volunteers. At least three were, like me, left handed, so people thought all New Zealanders are left handed. Among the teachers were Chinese, Indian and one Malay who was the Bahasa teacher. The Chinese teachers were mostly from the city on two-year rural postings so they could get further up the salary scales.

The students were a mix of Chinese, Malay and two types of Dayak; Land Dayak from the low-lying villages and Sea Dayak (Iban) from further in the hills on the way to the interior. We visited many villages of Iban longhouses. I was asked to lead a school Girl Guide group and an excursion to the ‘big smoke’ of Kuching was an eye opener for the mostly Dayak girls. They were very shy but keen to make the most of their time at school.

In terms of my impact as a teacher, it is hard to say: can you ever fully know the long-term outcomes of any educational endeavour? After a year of my solid drilling in the transition class, some students could cope with the demands of reading and writing English in secondary school and did well in their exams, even if they weren’t very fluent speakers.

I recall that the American couple at the school adopted a little Land Dayak baby and had a local nanny to look after him. They boiled the water for his bottles and hung nappies out in the sun to dry. Soon after, neighbouring families began hanging out nappies, boiling their water and taking their babies out for a walk in the evening.