Teaching in Bhutan: Angie’s First Impressions

Now that I’m about three months into teaching in Bhutan, I feel I can address that question that many of our friends and family have posed: “What’s it like to teach in Bhutan?”

The overall takeaway from my first few months has been that if you consider any expectations or guidelines for teachers in the west, the exact opposite is likely to be true here.  This makes it frustrating and sometimes unbelievable that the system can continue to operate in the way it does.

To start, while my teachers began service on 10 February and the students began attending from 15 February, the actual teaching began somewhere around the beginning of March.  The first two to three weeks comprised mostly planning, celebrations and numerous other events which seem random to the newcomer but are apparently very much routine here.

King’s Birth Anniversary Celebration – one event that delayed classes at the start of the year

The chaos of the start of the year was definitely difficult for me, as nothing seemed to make sense given how things occur in western schools.  Things were made even more difficult to understand given that all teachers here don’t seem to comprehend that schools are managed incredibly different in the west and that and almost every meeting or dialogue occurred (and continues to occur) in Dzongkha or Sharchop – the local languages – despite government encouragement that these should be conducted in English. Even when I would ask (or still ask) ‘what will be happening for the day?’ or ‘will today have any special events?’, the answer invariably stated is ‘no’ while the days invariably does proceed with special events or scheduling alterations.  This still happens nearly every day and if I bring it up or ask what is happening, the other teachers seem shocked that I am unaware of these changes as they were mentioned during the morning assembly – which was conducted in Dzongkha.

So, despite being three months into living and working at Khaling LSS, most of my days are spent uncertain of what is actually going to happen. At times, I’m not even sure if I’ll be teaching classes or if some random visitor will show up, if we will just stop classes to have a meeting, or if there will be a surprise mass cleaning where classes will be canceled so that all students can clean the school grounds.

As a teacher, I have been attempting to instruct class III (i.e. 3rd grade, year 3) Math and class VI (6th grade, year 6) English. In some ways the kids are just like any other students throughout the world, but in other ways, the students are distinctly different – though this is clearly due to the way the schools function rather than the innate nature of the Bhutanese and Bhutanese children, as most of the teachers here would have you believe (i.e. the very commonly opinion-stated-as-fact “Bhutantese are not good at math/science”).

It seems easier to address the differences, so the first obvious difference is that the students’ English level does not match the curriculum expectations. Keep in mind that these children are already mostly fluent in Dzongkha, Sharchopkha and perhaps their own regional dialect, and are likely passable in both Nepali and Hindi.  English for many students is at least their third language and perhaps their sixth or seventh.  It’s not surprising then that my 3rd graders’ English language abilities are somewhere around Kindergarten or lower. However, the text book is written completely in and heavily-laden with English at a level appropriate for native speaking 3rd graders. As a teacher I would never choose this textbook for students as it is far too language-intensive for a math text especially at this low level. Similarly, the 6th graders are functioning around a 4th grade decoding level in English, but only a 1st grade level in comprehension. However, the textbook and curriculum expectations are for native speaking 6th graders. Following the prescribed curriculum is impossible if you are actually taking into consideration the students, which I will sadly say does not occur. The overall curriculum has incredible errors, which is going to continue a cycle of uneducated, unsuccessful English language learners.

Another difference is the strange combination of respectful but frightened behavior students show towards teachers. In my past experiences, students from Kindy to 4th are generally obedient towards the teachers and look up to them like heroes. Then, once kids get to 5th grade and older, they begin testing the boundaries and the teachers. However, here it has been completely opposite. The students in the lower grades are likely to defy teachers and can be disrespectful. The teachers then scold and/or beat them senseless, which results in student grades 5 and up who are intensely respectful and scared of teachers. This might not sound like such a poor result, but it also means the kids are more scared of being wrong because of the scolding or beating that may ensue than they are of learning.  This is not conducive to teaching kids how to think but it is encouraging to a culture of cheating, particularly by those children so behind in English that they cannot understand the text and wish not to be routinely scolded/beaten.

The issue of beating is quite surprising as almost all students and parents not only think that teachers should beat kids, but that it is in some way their duty as a way of instilling discipline. They have become so accustomed to it that they don’t view it as wrong, again despite the Ministry of Education stating that it should no longer occur. The frustrating part is that one result of this is students think that it is okay to beat on each other as well. Especially amongst my 3rd graders, it is common for them to just hit another student whenever someone gives the wrong answer, annoys or bothers them, or really it seems for pretty much any reason. I’m not sure how that benefits a society, but most of the staff think that beating is the way to control children. This is one strong and seemingly obvious societal inconsistency with Buddhism that I find difficult to comprehend.

My Class IV – which is a lot goofier now than before

The students here have not really ever experienced praise or positive reinforcement of any kind. My display of positive approval and excitement has really brought out positive energy and some silliness from the students, which I love. The students seek high-fives, use of positive vocabulary and someone just asking how they are doing. I’ve been told by other teachers that my use of positive language is unusual. I have witnessed the lack of positive praise by other teachers and the lack of any recognition by teachers when a student has done well. It is not a practice here to provide positive reinforcement, but only to treat anything less as a flaw or shortcoming.

I have built up a relationship with the students in which they enjoy talking with me. Other teachers will not spend time with the students and, it seems, actually find my attempts to care about the students inappropriate.  This is a contradiction that I struggle with on a regular basis. My friends here are very kind and caring and the idea of Buddhism is to care about and help all. However, this behavior does not transfer to students. The teachers are very harsh to the students and treat them without emotion or negatively.

Students here are similar to those I’ve taught before in that they do like to please the teacher and enjoy working towards a reward. They seek out positive attention and approval, they enjoy making me happy and feel bad when I feel bad.

These students are eager to learn and they very much want to be at school – attendance is not obligatory here, children are enrolled based on the decision of their families or themselves. Therefore students are also able to leave the educational system whenever they would like. The majority of students enjoy being at school and have a desire to learn. I have been requested by students to teach them English, as their craving to learn how to pronounce words correctly and understand the language is so strong.

Students lounging – same as anywhere

The students are same in that they enjoy playing outside, being super creative in play, and even playing inside on (gasp!) video games. I do wish that their creativity in play could transfer to the classroom, but creativity is not encouraged by Bhutanese instructional methods. To be different is to be wrong, unfortunately. However, when playing, the students are just like any other kids in the world. They like being with their friends, playing basketball, football/soccer, skipping rope, running and chasing, and all those great childhood behaviors.

My overall feelings towards teaching in Bhutan cannot be summed up, as it includes all possible emotions. At times I am overjoyed to see the smiles on the kids’ faces. Other times, I am intensely frustrated with the incredibly flawed system. I feel elated when I see the light bulb go on in the student’s mind. I feel saddened when the students come to school dirty and unkempt. I feel pleased when the students get a big smile because I asked them for a high-five. I feel depressed when the students show me marks from the beating they received during the last period. Living in a developing country like Bhutan is not for everyone, as it pulls in every direction at every emotion. However, I do feel that I am making a difference in some students lives, and for that feeling, it makes it all worth it.

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