We arrived in Khaling on 09 February, one day prior to the start of school for Angie. We moved everything into our brand new cottage in under an hour – this heap of goods we’d acquired in Thimphu barely covering a corner of one room of this place that is so much larger than what we’d expected, and also larger than any place in which we’ve previously resided.
When we arrived, the six-room house was furnished with only a bed frame. Now as I write nearly a month later not much has been added. We appropriated a discarded table – or more accurately a platform of roughly put-together well-used 2x4s –which had clearly been used during construction of our home and leaned it against our bedroom wall as it could not support itself. This is our dresser. The bed frame was made to Bhutanese standards and is six inches too short to hold our mattress, which instead now sits on the concrete floor in our bedroom. The provided bed frame is now a couch the style of which is common in Central Asia.
We were eventually given two old table-style desks and two plastic chairs by the school (the chairs arrived on 06 March, the tables a few days before). The chairs will be our key pieces of furniture as they will allow us to have breakfast and dinner on our porch, which offers views down the valley that constantly remind us of the beauty that brought us here. We have yet to take this view for granted, and especially on days where the constantly moving and varying Bhutanese clouds make the mountaintops more entertaining than anything you could watch on a screen.
We have six rooms – we use only the main living room, our bedroom and the kitchen. The other three doors sit bolted unused except for the rope strung across one that we use as our clothes drying room.
The setting of the place is what makes it. We sit in a field that slopes gently down towards the Lower Secondary School (LSS) where Angie teaches, the Basic Health Unit (BHU – a government health clinic a level below a hospital) lies on equal elevation some 150m to the left along the hillside. Opposite the BHU to our right is a small village of traditional stone and wood homes mostly inhabited by the farmers the work the land immediately around our cottage. The town of Khaling is further to our left below us but up the slope from the LSS and further left, steeply up the slope sits the Higher Secondary School (HSS) and the local Goempa (Monastery). The river lies somewhere beyond the LSS though beyond the LSS and the town of Khaling the hillside becomes very steep and we cannot see the river from our porch.
All of this is pleasant, but what makes our setting truly idyllic is the steep valley below to our right and the mountains which rise across the valley. These are the peaks where the clouds play, what are no doubt billowing clouds as they approach from the opposite side soon are transformed by the sharp mountain ridge into playful wisps and dancing heterogeneous sunscreens of moving light. It’s no wonder that Peter Mathieson was able to surpass his drug-induced soul searching only with Buddhism and the Himalaya.
When it rains here, the mountains across the valley as well as the ones less visible behind us are often dusted with snow. Right now the days are on average sunny and clear and the nights cool. Khaling sits at about 2300m elevation, and when the sun passes behind that same peak that knifes the clouds open the immediate temperature drop reminds you of that altitude. We’re told that the rains will soon come and that the sun and the oscillating clouds will be replaced by solid grey skies and solid grey rains, and that the snakes will come in great numbers as well. So while the rains also bring the warmth, we’re enjoying the current climate.
We’ve now been here almost four weeks. We’ve met a lot of people in town, but in many ways we’re still getting to know this place and the people. Many people have been very welcoming and helpful but most all have been very interested in us.
Angie’s Account of the Start of School
School began for teachers on Monday, 10 February. In classic Bhutanese Stretchable Time (BST), we began the meeting later than advertised. After spending 15 minutes or so trying to get the projector to work, with repeated failures by the electrical system and the projector itself, we finally began the meeting using a notebook instead. The first order of business was to talk about what would happen over the next week – children do not report until 15 February – and so the scheduled tasks for each day were documented. It was discussed democratically by the whole staff what was needed to occur and then a day assigned for that task.
After the scheduling, we went up to the staffroom, where I was assigned a desk. I then sat at it quietly while everyone chatted in Sharchhokpa or Dzongkha. The fact that I was different stared me right in the face. The female teachers hardly looked at me or barely responded when I tried to converse with them. Even though I was sitting amongst them, there was no attempt to speak English or include me in their conversation. We were told about this, as it is not rude in Bhutan to behave this way; however as an outsider the immediate feeling of being different and alone was strong.
The day concluded by noon and we were sent home. My first day as a volunteer teacher in Bhutan was pretty short and simple.
The second day was a fascinating, democratic process that I had never experienced or witnessed before. The first order of business was to determine how many students were in each year / grade. Then, it was discussed and decided how many sections of each year there should be. The magic number seemed to be around 35 – that is that if there were over 35 students in a year then there were two sections, if under 35 then just one section. After that, it we discussed in which physical classroom each year section should be placed (in Bhutan the students remain stationary in one classroom while the subject teachers travel to different classrooms to conduct their lessons).
Next we discussed who would teach each specific subject area for each year and each section. Each teacher’s assignments were analysed to see the amount of teaching periods they had volunteered for and changes were made for those with too little or too much. The entire process was debated, discussed and completed by the whole staff. It was a long, drawn out event that in Australia or the USA would have been completed by the principal in less than one hour. The ability for the teachers to have so much input into this process was new to me.
It was surprising that for even in years 1-4, the students may have 4-6 different teachers each day as a different teacher is responsible for each subject. This is the first time I have seen primary level teachers be specialised in one subject. Teachers do not have all around subject skills in primary level education.
The third day, Brett and I were sent to Wamrong with the school’s office manager to open a bank account. That took most of the day, but we were lucky to touch base with Jonathon, another BCF teacher, who is located in Wamrong. It was nice to see the town and see what supplies we may be able to get there. At 27km away (which here is a 1-1.5 hr drive), it is our closest banking facilities and nearest village. While we were away I missed the house master, club, and committee assignments during meetings back in Khaling, but ones were chosen for me.
On Thursday – the fourth day, we spent an entire day writing the school year calendar. Again, this was a fully democratic process. The input and decisions made were debated and discussed at length by all and no autocratic decisions were made by the principal himself. For USA and AUS, we are just handed the calendar that someone else has completed. I have difficulty understanding why the development of the school calendar needs to be done in such a way as it is here, as most events are repeated annually and supervised by the same committee heads. However, everyone had their say in the calendar.
Our final teacher day was the most important for the school and I do agree that a democratic process is appreciated for the development of the School Improvement Plan. However, when only edits are made the previous year’s, I have difficulty seeing the effectiveness or purpose of this exercise.
The first week as a volunteer teacher in Bhutan was interesting and a huge learning experience. The beginning process is definitely unlike anything in the USA and AUS; however, it is clear that we all hope to provide the best for the students.
His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s 34th Birth Anniversary Celebration
Khaling LSS and Jigme Sherubling HSS came together to celebrate the King’s Birthday. This happens every year and it also marks the start of the academic school year. Throughout the entire country, schools and communities come together to celebrate. The event consists of official community visits by prominent local and regional political and religious figures and lots of dancing, singing and speeches.
We were asked to participate in the Khaling LSS staff dance. We practiced throughout the week after school organizational meetings and then performed at the celebrations. The style of dance is very smooth and flowing with the arms and hands, and rhythmic with the feet. The men and women look beautiful performing – very graceful. The visiting Dzongdag told Angie she danced just like a Bhutanese. He was notably silent on Brett’s dancing.
Teachers fall into a government grade system here, so that while job descriptions don’t actually change the grade and pay are promoted roughly every four years, though more expedited promotions are offered to those who perform above standard.
Four staff members at the LSS received promotions over the winter holiday, including one younger teacher who received her first promotion and the vice principal who proclaimed this his eighth and final promotion as he hopes to retire in two years’ time. It is customary for these promotions to be celebrated, and so we found ourselves at a promotion party at the school on the last day of February.
The party consisted of much drinking (ara, beer, etc), much eating and much socializing – a standard Bhutanese party. There were speeches and testimonials to those newly promoted, some of which might not have been recallable in the morning by those who delivered the speeches. All in all, it was a fun time and a fitting capper to our first month here.