Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Nge gi la lobey in

Nge gi la lobey in - My work is to teach. We started Dzongkha lessons today so I had to use this for the title of today's blog. I want to share some photos of the school we visited yesterday - Jigme Losel Lower Secondary School in Thimphu. Madam Deki and Madam Tara, the two teachers who have been preparing us for teaching in Bhutan invited us to see their award winning school.

Fortunately for us when we arrived the principal was also there to show us around and share her educational vision. It is winter time, so the students are still on holidays for another couple of weeks, and because it is winter the flourishing flower and vegetable gardens we had seen photos of had mostly died off. Nevertheless the school was inviting, colourful and brimming with personality. It is definitely a school that students love to come to everyday, and a place of learning above and beyond the national curriculum.

The school has won awards for its 'feeding program' which provides lunch to 37 needy students. Parents who are able come to the school to cook up large pots of nourishing food for these kids to eat. When the principal won an international award for this program, she took her 30 teaching staff to Bangkok to visit high performing schools there  (including a GNH school) to inspire her staff. During our orientation Madam Tara and Madam Deki both used collaborative learning techniques they'd seen in Bangkok to give us some new ideas for ways to motivate and engage our Bhutanese students.

I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story:

In Bhutan, caring for the environment is just one aspect of being a green school.

Inspirational quotes painted by students were 'planted' throughout the gardens.



Outside each classroom were colourful displays of student work.
Some displays had colour photos of the activities that students have been doing.
Bob, Remy, Xavier and Sarah check out the displays.

Important messages are prominently displayed on buildings.

We saw many examples of how students use recycled materials for art work and making things around the school.

 A papier mache necklace looks like traditional coral and tiger eye necklaces.

Even in winter, some flowers were blooming: most plants are in reused containers.

The inpirational school Principal enjoyed showing us around her school.

An inspirational quote hanging in the assembly area.

Bob and Xavier in the assembly area.
Visiting this school is a really great example of how being a volunteer teacher here in Bhutan is definitely a two-way learning experience. We have many ideas to share from schools in our home countries, but there is much to learn from inspiring teachers and schools here too. Kadinche-la Jigme Losel LSS!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Teaching - The Noble Profession

I am thinking of my teaching colleagues in Australia (hello Bellevue Park!) as they return to school tomorrow, if floods don't cause the school to close. I want to assure you that I am not just sitting on a mountain top in my pretty kira drinking butter tea: we are down to business here in a way that reminds me so much of home.

Today we met with two experienced local primary school teachers who provided an inservice on the Bhutanese curriculum materials. Sitting in the conference room amongst my fellow foreign teachers and looking to the projector screen to learn about how planning and assessment is done here, I didn't feel a million miles from home. After looking through the relevant text books we divided into groups by subject area and used the local lesson plan format to devise a year four poetry lesson focussing on similes. The professional exchange between our group of four was really interesting - comparing school systems in Canberra, the UK and Canada. I enjoyed sharing the Queensland perspective and discussing the C2C materials that I worked with last year.

In Bhutan all children are given identical text books (at each year level) for English, Maths, Science and teachers work from an accompanying guide with their year level cohort of teachers to plan 5-6 week units of work, that cumulate with assessment items. It sounds so familiar, and I will enjoy the opportunity to do my own planning again based on the syllabus provided.

The major point of difference is that within each lesson plan we must think of how to incorporate the unique perspectives of teaching for Gross National Happiness (GNH). This means that to fulfill the goals of the Bhutanese education system we consider academic outcomes alongside the four pillars of GNH: the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. I look forward to the challenge of exploring teaching for GNH, observing how it is done in schools and finding a way to incorporate it in my teaching when I return to Australia.

Continuing on the education theme in the past week we had an official visit to meet with the Minister of Education (Lyonpo in Dzongkha language). Its almost unimaginable that a visiting teacher to Australia would be afforded a meeting with the Federal Minister for Education in Canberra, so it was an enormous privilege for our group. Not only that, we were welcomed as special guests to the country and extended the hospitality of being served morning tea as we are finding is customary at all meetings, large and small.
Most of the 2013 BCF teachers stopping to see the Guru Rinpoche shrine enroute to Chagri Monastery.

The Lyonpo, like most Bhutanese had a very genuine, humble and graceful manner and when he spoke we were drawn to his words and the room was completely silent. I felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to be in the room with this particular group of people, and feel thoroughly energised about my career choice to be a teacher. I wish that my colleagues at home could also have been present to hear the Lyonpo's message.
From the outset he was interested in us as people and teachers and what we are bringing with us in terms of motivation and experience to Bhutan. Each one of us was asked to articulate what was our ‘moment of truth’ when we knew that we wanted to become a teacher. Among the group there were common threads, but each one of us has had a different journey in life that has brought us to be educators and then sees us here for the opportunity to develop our skills further in Bhutan.

I’d love to share with you the main points that Lyonpo covered in his talk with us, and I hope I can do justice to what he shared with us.

In Dzongkha language, Lopen is the word for teacher which means King or Queen of knowledge, and as such a teacher is held in very high regard by society. In Bhutan, there is a strongly expressed expectation that teachers are role models not only in their conduct at school, but that this extends to the way they conduct their lives in the public domain. The Lyonpo would like to see the 'lost graces of education brought back: integrity, dignity and honour'.
In response to a question from one of our teachers about what makes the perfect teacher, Lyonpo used the metaphor of a triangle to explain: the three sides represent the three important characteristics of a teacher. First - they must love children. Next, teachers must have a love of knowledge and learning, be aware of their strengths and weaknesses and be passionate about the subject areas they teach. The final side of the triangle represents the teacher's conviction of the importance of education to change lives, transform society and nations and make the world a better place.
As you can imagine, we came out of that room uplifted and inspired, feeling like we have the opportunity of a lifetime ahead of us this year: to positively influence the future of Bhutan.
The Lyonpo's message was particularly powerful, and together with introductions from a number of other respected educators here in Thimphu (most of whom are women - quite unexpected and indicative of the possibilities in this country for women to rise to the top), we have been given all the strength and motivation we'll need to go to our respective schools across the country and get down to the business of teaching. I will let you know how it all unfolds...

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Shopping for kiras... and everything but the kitchen sink!

This morning we embarked on the biggest mission of our time in Thimphu – shopping for all the household items we will need in our new home. All of the teachers will be moving to empty, unfurnished accommodation so we need to buy all the things that you need to get by in everyday life. It is surprising how much stuff that is, and for us with kids, it means many of the things we are buying are multiplied by four!

I opted for the most fun option first this morning – buying national dress. For women, this is a kira, a wrap around skirt, and a silk blouse. Actually this is a modern day, easy to wear version of the traditional kira which is usually a full dress with special brooches at the shoulders to hold it all together and a blouse and a jacket over the top. Lucky for us, we were taken to a shop which had readymade skirts in all sorts of fabrics and two in one blouses also readymade in a one-size-fits-all size that actually fitted me perfectly!
A pink and purple ensemble.

 Arwen (from Australia) goes for green and lilac.
Heather (USA) chose shades of blue.

 Valerie (Canada) chose red.
I intend to wear a kira to school each day as is expected of Bhutanese teachers. As foreigners we probably have a little lee-way in the way we dress, but after the Minister for Education’s talk yesterday which focussed a lot on the image of a teacher I want to present myself in a way that is respectful to the local culture and also shows how I value the cultural traditions of this country. It helps that I love the opportunity to dress up in vibrant, beautiful clothes (as I did when I travelled in India).

I ended up buying three skirts (pink/purple, green and gold with primary colour stripes) and five blouses that colour coordinate which hopefully gives me enough to last a week of wearing to school at a cost of just over $100. Just as we (the other girls and I) were nearly ready to leave, Bob and the boys appeared and it was the perfect opportunity for Bob to get his own gho which is the male equivalent. It is a long robe, similar to a kimono, which is worn over a white shirt and then hitched up and tied at the waist with a belt. Men wear knee length black socks with their ghos and in this weather still look a bit chilly!
Bob getting dressed up in his gho.

Xavier wasn’t keen to get a gho just yet, although his school uniform will be a gho when the time comes. Remy was already kitted out in his fancy dress – a batman outfit that Bob bought him yesterday.

After that Xavier and I moved on to start buying the household items. Let’s be frank, there are no ‘Harvey Normans’ here and so shopping for mattresses and bedding was a bit different to home. Basically there were a couple of options shown to me of which I opted for the most expensive hoping for the best quality. In a tiny shop that was packed to the rafters with products, I was able to buy a double and two single mattresses, double and single doonas and covers, blankets and pillows. It really didn’t take too long and our local ally Nyima was able to help liase with staff and label the items to load them in the BCF vehicle to take them back to the hotel to store along with all the other teachers’ items. In the process we were offered a discount of a few dollars on each item for buying in bulk, so altogether these items cost about $600. Quite a bit to spend in a morning, but considering  what they would cost at home, a good deal.
I love how this crossing sign depicts a man wearing a gho.

This older couple were sitting in the clocktower square feeding pigeons.

I’m by no means finished with shopping, but that was me all shopped out for the day, so I’m back for a rest with the boys while Bob goes out shopping for other items – a washing machine perhaps?

Tonight we are getting together with all the teachers for a dinner at our hotel to celebrate Australia Day. There are three other Australians in the group, and it is nice to share a little of our culture (vegemite on crackers, clip-on koalas and some made-in-China flags!) with the Americans, Canadians, British and Singaporean in the group. While some are attempting to dress in Australian costume (will be interesting!), I am going to wear my golden coloured kira skirt with a deep green blouse – green and gold! I hope everyone at home has had an awesome Australia Day in the sun and we’re thinking of you.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

First Impressions

I'm so happy to announce that after a year or more of planning, we are in Bhutan! I still have moments of needing to pinch myself to believe that we are really here in this almost otherworldly place.

It's been a busy first few days here, we're already into orientation which means getting to know our fellow teachers and meetings in the conference room and visits to important offices around town to orient us to our new work environment. 

The amazing view of the Himalayas from the plane.

Arriving at Paro airport.

 This is the moment I had been dreaming about for more than a year!

Xavier making his first snowball! We stopped for lunch at Paro and there was icy snow all around on the ground from snowfall a few days previous. The boys had so much fun throwing snowballs at us all!

It's a great honour to be among such an experienced group of teachers from a variety of English speaking countries who are so keen to be here and share their unique skills with their Bhutanese students. We're enjoying chatting over the breakfasts, lunches and dinners that we are served up, especially as our kids have found friends among the group already which has allowed us a little break from being the primary entertainers.

Xavier in particular has been 'working the crowd' and has very confidently made friends among the other teachers, finding himself a seat next to different people at every opportunity! Both boys have enjoyed all the attention,  and in particular have made friends with one of the new teachers, a recently ordained Buddhist monk from the UK. Remy has been calling him the 'funny man', and I find it very lovely to see him sitting on Thubten Senge's lap wrapped up in his maroon robe. 

Remy had a ride on Thubten Senge's shoulders up to the Takin Reserve.

Last night at dinner Xavier sent a Chinese whisper around the table to invite the group of twenty to our hotel for breakfast! Unfortunately the hotel needs forewarning for such a large group, but it has been arranged that the group will come for dinner at our hotel on Saturday night to celebrate Australia Day. We are staying a five minute walk up the hill from the others at the Yeedzin Hotel in a large room which has a separate living room and also a kitchen. We have a large bath too, and it feels like a real luxury to have a hot bath.

The Bhutanese people who we have met so far have really impressed us. We have been welcomed wholeheartedly and made to feel instantly at home. It has been surprising after our time in Thailand where English is not widely spoken that all Bhutanese we've had contact with speak perfectly fluent English. It's really refreshing to be able to strike up a meaningful conversation with locals (as we did at the toy shop this afternoon) and I look forward to make some Bhutanese friends. The eductional policy of school being taught in English has been very successful and allows the Bhutanese who already speak a number of local languages such as Dzongkha, Sharchop, Bumthap, Nepali and Hindi to have an international language that opens up opportunities for study, work and travel.

The boys have already made their first friend and are playing with him as I write. The toy shop owner's nephew Jigme at 5 years of age speaks excellent English and they are squashed together on a chair playing computer games. I feel really positive that the kids will have a  great time here - it has started so well.

This morning we were taken on a sightseeing drive around Thimphu, mainly to show us the shops, banks and government offices we need to visit. It's fascinating that all buildings here are built in traditional style with ornate paintings around windows.

Almost all buildings have these beautiful designs painted around the windows.

 The shopping areas where we will soon be buying up all our household supplies.

I bought a lovely supply of fruit and veg at the markets today for the boys who are in need of some plain and simple vegetables.

 The Yeezdin Hotel where we're staying.

 Xavier at the top of the 'piazza' area.


As a capital city, Thimphu is small and easy to get around on foot. There are no traffic lights: at the busiest intersection a policeman directs traffic by hand (at one time this was replaced by traffic lights, but the public did not like the change and the traffic lights were removed!). 


Approaching the main intersection in Thimphu, with a lady in foreground wearing a beautiful kira.
We took a diversion on the tour to the Takin Reserve on the outskirts of town where we could see the Bhutanese National Animal - the Takin, a strange looking, slow moving animal whose habitat is the high altitude mountains in the north of the country.


There are many shops but they are small and mostly sell a general supply of different things which means you have to pop your head in the door to scan the contents to see what they sell. There are no big western chains at all, and we visited one of the two supermarkets yesterday which sells a neatly organised array of mostly international food items, and has a scanning machine at the checkout, but is very small compared to supermarkets at home. It will be a good place for us to stock up on things like pasta, tuna, sushi nori, peanut butter and cereals before we head twelve hours east in two weeks time.

The weather has surprised us - in the middle of the day the sun is high above the Thimphu valley and it feels hot. At that time a t-shirt and jeans is sufficient. But an hour later when the sun goes down behind the hills that surround the city centre it is suddenly cold. The heavy down coat I bought on eBay has been perfect and along with gloves, hood, and thermals keeps us warm as we walk between our hotel and where our meals are served at the Dragon Roots hotel. We were told it was -3degrees yesterday morning as we walked to breakfast.

With little time to write in between orientation sessions and spending time with the boys, I will post this first post now and look forward to write more of my observations in a few days. Most importantly we are all settling in well, and enjoying being here in Thimphu.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Calling all arm-chair travellers!

Sometimes, during our days here in Thailand, I've had a thought flash before me - I'm not ready to go home! Who hasn't had that thought while they're on holiday? The days go quickly and the next thing you know, its all over and you are back to reality.

Following that thought, I have this realisation that it's ok - we are not going home - somehow we have arranged to put our life on hold to have a whole year in Asia and I intend to enjoy it as much as I can as the opportunity may not arise again.

We went for a final sightseeing walk at dusk this evening to see the 'Giant Swing' and have our last taste of Thai street food.

Thailand has been wonderful: three weeks of unwinding and at the same time energising, refreshing and spending quality time together as a family. The Thai people have been friendly, smiling and kind, and above all affectionate to our little travellers. But the real business of this year away begins today as we board our Druk Air flight this morning at 7.20am, bound for the mysterious Kingdom of Bhutan!

A while ago I found this great clip on youtube and so I invite you to come along for the flight with us today - as we head into our new life in Bhutan. Come and sit in the cockpit for what has been described as the most difficult landing on earth! 

See you on the other side!!!!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Bangkok - The City That Eats

From early morning till late at night along every street, round every corner, down every alley way, in every glitzy shopping centre, people are EATING! It's a little overwhelming to contemplate the amount of eating that goes on in this city!

Below are the highlights (many of which involve food) of our week in Bangkok. Bangkok is the ultimate juxtaposition of step-back-in-time Asia and a vision of the future that is mind-blowing and dazzling. It has been a really great place to explore with kids, and allowing a week means we've had time to meander, stop for another snack or two, play and enjoy.

Our accomodation ( two bed apartment) at Ratchadamnoen Residence has been perfect. Down a quiet street near the Democracy Monument, and a stone's throw from Khao San Rd, we've been able to walk to many of the attractions below, including the Grand Palace. It's immaculately clean, modern and fresh, and yet only about $80 a night including a big varied breakfast. Can't argue with that!

Remy has enjoyed the little sausages that appear at breakfast everyday, not to mention the tropical fruit platters.

Bob and Remy at the Grand Palace with some school girls Remy charmed.

Pink and fancy Tuk-Tuk!

Xavier didn't approve of me photographing graffiti, but I really liked it!

Wat Ratchanaddaram - an amazingly beautiful temple, completely unique in architecture, and full of serenity.

The Golden Mount (Wat Saket)- another beautiful temple, lots of steps to get to the top.

The top platform has amazing views of the whole city.

Remy at Wat Saket

The journals came out and the little artists drew beautiful pictures of the temple.

Sky Train platform.

Bubble tea is perfect for a hot day in Bangkok!
These colourful steamed coconut cakes were delicious!

Xavier has got the hang of street eats now and inspects what's on offer. He's a sucker for a sweet treat and can pick the good ones!

Khao San Rd at night - has changed a lot since the last time I was here.
Remy requested sushi for dinner, so we found Taketei Japanese Restaurant. Avocado sushi kept the boys happy. Bob and I enjoyed a set meal with teriyaki fish, miso soup, rice, kimchi and chawanmushi for less than $5 each. Sitting at a low table on tatami mats was fun too.

Remy and I on board the taxi boat. Remy is making faces at more school girls!

 Silom Shopping Centre.
We've seen many orange robed monks, who Remy calls 'Chipmonks'.

Evidently Bangkok does not have a 'disability access code' (no lift). The stroller has been very handy, but also difficult on uneven and blocked footpaths, stairs etc.

Lumphini Park, central Bangkok.

A beautiful place to go paddleboating. We saw a monitor lizard, turtles and fish.
There was also a large playground at Lumphini Park.

The boys had a nice play with some other foreign kids (all the local kids must have been at school).

We stumbled upon the Queen's Gallery which was showing an exhibition of Marsi (a Thai Princess who has lived most of her life as an artist in Paris).
I really loved her paintings and am interested to find out more about her life.

Eggplant spicy salad at May Kaidee's Vegetarian  Restaurant, near Khao San Rd.

 Mango and banana sticky rice. Delicious!

Learning about how silk is produced at Jim Thompson's house.

Traditional dancing at Jim Thompson's house.

Sweet and salty steamed coconut cakes - sixty cents for a plate full.

 The most amazingly comprehensive food hall I've ever seen - foodie heaven - in Siam Discovery.

 Another bold food choice for Bob -  Pandan custard on toast and it was delicious!
Newly renovated Siam Center was an awesome way to spend most of a day!

 We found all the arty installations fascinating, just like being in an interactive modern art gallery.

What kid wouldn't love to climb all over giant sea creatures!

This one was super cool: the kids drew a picture on an ipad...

that was then projected up onto these huge floating spheres!
In a strange twist we came across a big group of Thai teenagers dressed up as cooky Japanese teenagers, all posing for photos!

 She knew how to work the camera!

The icing on the cake was Japanese ramen for dinner, I thought I'd teleported to Tokyo!

If you haven't already jumped online to buy your ticket to Thailand, do it now!!!!