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Voices from the Region: A Conversation with Chief Orrukem and Instructional Specialists at the Palauan Ministry of Education

REL Pacific
Laura Ostrow
February 10, 2020

 Janet Ebil Orrukem, chief of the Division of Instructional Implementation and Teacher Training at the Palau Ministry of Education

“How do we get to our students, how do we reach them, so that they can learn? We need to adapt to their styles of learning and their interests and focus on how we can accommodate these needs through our instructional strategies.”
—Janet Ebil Orrukem, chief, Division of Instructional Implementation and Teacher Training, Palau Ministry of Education

Janet Ebil Orrukem is the chief of the Division of Instructional Implementation and Teacher Training at the Palau Ministry of Education and currently works as a REL Pacific locally based consultant, specializing in the Palau Professional Learning Framework, which is being developed in conjunction with the Palau Partnership for the Improvement of Teaching with REL Pacific's support. The purpose of the Framework is to provide Palau leaders, specialists, and principals with practical guidance on how to design, implement, and evaluate sustained professional learning. Chief Orrukem earned her A.A. in Liberal Arts at Lassen College in California, and earned both her B.A. in Elementary Education and M.A.Ed. at the University of Guam. Prior to her work at the Ministry, Chief Orrukem taught for four years at the grade 4 level at various elementary schools, worked as a Palauan language specialist for four years, and as an English specialist for 10 years at the Ministry of Education. Chief Orrukem and her team's work focuses on providing training, coaching, modeling, classroom observation, and technical assistance based on research and data from assessments, administrators, and specialist observations to improve teaching and instruction in Palau.

REL Pacific staff recently had the chance to catch up with Chief Janet Ebil Orrukem and a few members of her team of instructional specialists including Linda Ngotel, Vanessa Mobel, and Jay Watanabe about their work in Palau! Read on to learn more about their important work and thoughts on education in the Pacific region.

REL Pacific: Could you describe your role in your current position at the Palau Ministry of Education?

Chief Orrukem: I am the chief of Instructional Implementation and Teacher Training at the Palau Ministry of Education (MOE). Our office develops materials and resources to train teachers on the Palau Professional Learning Framework and other supports as needed. We provide training in all of the content areas, including science, social studies, Palauan studies, math, and more, and aims to strengthen the use of research-based strategies and methods in the classroom. We work closely with Palau's public school principals from all grade levels, and provide training and support that covers teachers of all levels. We also provide advice for parents on how to support their kids, especially within the subject of mathematics. In addition, at the principals' request, we conduct classroom observations at end of the school year to observe the teachers' progress based on the delivered trainings. Our team then continues to provide technical support for teachers and principals based on the data that we collect. Another important role of the office is the implementation of a mentoring program that focuses on new teachers and veteran teachers who still need to acquire the knowledge, skills and expertise to become competent and qualified teachers.

The main mission of our office is to see instruction being implemented well to help students succeed year after year. We work closely with all the divisions and the rest of the Ministry. Through this collaborative work, we make sure that we are speaking the same language and have the same expectations for our students.

REL Pacific: What drew you to this work?

Chief Orrukem: I have always loved to work with students since I was young, so much so that I used to say, “I'll be the teacher!” when we were playing as children. My background is in education. I started as a classroom teacher and then became a reading specialist for Palauan and English studies. I worked closely with other teachers through these positions, and then the opportunity came to create the Division of Instructional Implementation and Teacher Training in the Ministry. My work then began to focus on how to integrate teachers, parents and students into education in a more cohesive way for student success.

REL Pacific: What are some of the current needs and priority areas that you see through your work at the MOE and in the region?

Chief Orrukem: Some priority areas that we have been seeing are increasing mathematics comprehension skills and introducing differentiated instructional strategies for our teachers.

Vanessa: We really want our kids to be able to apply the skills, and not just understand them.

Chief Orrukem: Yes, and another one of our priorities is social and emotional learning for our kids and for our teachers. We know through our research that students succeed when they believe in themselves and feel respected. We are inviting both students and parents into the conversation.

REL Pacific: What do you expect the outcomes of the Palau Professional Learning Framework implementation to be?

Chief Orrukem: We are hoping that it will create system-wide impacts, from students and families to teachers and principals. We hope to educate principals on how to really be aware of more effective ways of supporting teachers and coaching them to be competent and qualified. We hope that this framework will be able to assist in the manner where a principal can pick it up and say, “How can I coach this specific teacher, and what specific types of supports do they need? How do I know I am making a difference?” We would then help to provide that support. The question is first, how do you provide resources, and then, how do you use them to make important decisions?

One more benefit of this initiative is the relationship that the Framework is building between the Ministry of Education and Palau Community College (PCC). PCC educates our future teachers using data from the Ministry. For future teachers, understanding how they can use the data that the Ministry offers to improve their programs can help to make them more qualified teachers, which is one of the benefits of focusing on our connection to PCC and the support they provide to their teachers.

REL Pacific: What are some challenges students in Palau face, and how are they addressed?

Vanessa: One of the challenges our students face is really comprehension of academic content. But we know that if we improve teaching, we can improve our students' success.

Linda: We also know that reading in English is still a challenge, as well as critical thinking.

Jay: Another challenge is Palauan studies. Palauan is our first language, and most of our students tend to speak in this language. However, most of our instructional materials are written in English, except in our Palauan Studies classes. Our challenge is to motivate our students and teachers to continue to use Palauan in these studies.

REL Pacific: What are the strengths of students in Palau?

Chief Orrukem: Our students take the Pacific Island Literacy and Numeracy Assessment every year, and we have the highest scores among all of the Pacific islands. We have high expectations for our teachers and our kids, and they prove to us that they continuously meet these expectations.

Vanessa: Our students are very competitive, and because of this we are not worried if they decide to leave Palau for school or work. We know that they will find success. A lot of our students have experienced success all over the world; in Russia, China, Taiwan and more. One student just graduated as a doctor from a Russian university! We are very proud of our students.

Chief Orrukem: One thing we would like everyone to know is that our students are visual, kinesthetic types of learners. They not only need to hear, but they also need to see, and touch, and feel. We encourage our teachers to use visual aids and to really implement hands-on activities. These are 21st century kids. They want to be with technology, they want to be moving about, and they are ahead of the curve.

So how do we get to them, how do we reach them, so that they can learn? We need to adapt to their styles of learning and their interests and focus on how we can accommodate these needs through our instructional strategies.

We are so thankful for Chief Orrukem and her team for letting us know a bit more about their work in Palau!