Saturday, March 16, 2013

Seeing the positives

Today was my first turn at being Teacher on Duty. I felt a bit anxious about it actually, but it wasn't so bad, and it turns out the two hours I had supervising students study gave me a rare chance for quiet to gather my thoughts.

The TOD day begins at 6.30am. When I walked down to school in the early dawn light, all was quiet. Smoke rose from chimneys as families stoked the fire for tea and breakfast. There was no one to wave to or greet, no cars on the road. Chumey is a sleepy place at the best of times, but early in the morning there were few signs of life.

My duty for the first hour was to supervise class 7 -10 boarding students study. They were already in their classrooms, so for an hour I paced the assembly area, and walked past classes with a menacing look on my face! I don't think I am cut out for the policing aspect of teaching; I much prefer having fun with kids than being a disciplinarian. But still, I don't want the students thinking I am a pushover!

While wandering in the assembly area I read the notice boards. The thought of the day really got me thinking, mainly about what on earth did they mean and what part of the English needed correcting and then wondering if it was just too deep for me! (originally it read Trust the cave, cave is emptyless).

On the UNESCO noticeboard was an interesting poster displaying short interviews with kids from Africa and Bhutan's neighbouring countries (I suspect this may have been the work of Miss Sabrina, last year's volunteer teacher). They described the life of children who have no access to school due to gender, money or language and it really got me thinking.

I must admit in my first month here it has been easy to fall into a negative mindset when evaluating schools in Bhutan. When compared with the education system at home many areas are still in need of development. But when I started to think of these examples of children in other developing countries, I came to see how far Bhutan has come with its education system since its inception in only the 1960's.

Now in Bhutan free education is offered to all, and to ensure all children can get to a school despite geographical remoteness, or lack of transport options, children can choose to be boarders. Many  schools offer boarding which is also free. At my school even students who live at a nearby village 4km away choose to board rather than walk daily. I suspect life at school offers more opportunity to study as well and I heard that often the boarders do better academically than day students.

Girls are fully represented in the school, and it is pleasing to see how in Bhutan women's right to equality in all aspects of life is encouraged from the highest levels. On International Women's Day last week I was given the honour of reading Her Majesty the Queen Mother's address to the school assembly for this occasion.

When it comes to language, students are taught in Dzongkha and English, in order to maintain  Bhutanese culture while still opening opportunities in life with an international language.

There is much Bhutan has got very right and it felt so good to open my mind to this. Through international aid Bhutan has built new schools in communities across the country and over time has built up a workforce of teachers who are Bhutanese nationals (after relying on Indian teachers initially). Many teachers also avail themselves of scholarships for masters degrees in foreign countries which will improve the professionalism of the teachers through exposure to new ideas and school systems.

The national curriculum materials that I have been using have been developed in collaboration between local and foreign teachers, ensuring that the curriculum meets international standards but remains true to Bhutan, for example all the set texts we use in class two are Bhutanese stories with illustrations of local people in national dress.

With a new way of looking at things I see that Bhutan is far ahead of neighbouring countries with its implementation of a modern education system for all, and though much can be improved, Bhutan has much to be proud of! And so my first hour of supervision slipped by quickly!!

My duties also included supervising breakfast and lunch for the boarding students. I was also encouraged to eat with the students and comment on the food in the log book. Breakfast was a huge bowl of rice with a few flecks of carrot. I saw some girls add liberal scoops of chilli paste to liven it up. A very well mannered boy came up to me and offered me a cup of hot suja (butter tea), which I quite like (not as thick and oily as in Ladakh).

Lunch was a huge bowl of rice with a small scoop of beans, cabbage and soy protein balls. Although it was tasty I was pleased to know I could come home to a home cooked meal for dinner. Incidentally, I brought Xavier home at 4 pm and Bob had hot banana and apple pikelets ready for an afternoon snack and they were delicious, he is coming a long way!

My TOD duty was competed after one more hour of study supervision from 5-6 pm. The kids were rowdier and I needed to give some stern admonishments as well as menacing stares to keep them in line!

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