Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The JigSher Team

Coaching the Jigme Sherubling football team was one of the highlights of my entire two years in Bhutan. I had the opportunity to get to know my students outside of class and travel with them to numerous football tournaments.

The following is a video that was recorded primarily in Orong, Samdrup Jongkhar at the Inter-dzongkhag championship. We spent four nights sleeping on the floor of a classroom, and our days were filled with sunshine, football and dancing.

Although we were the favourites going into the tournament (and even through out the tournament), due to several unforeseen events, we did not win. But the players, being the good sports that they are, never stopped being a team. They never stopped smiling, never stopped clowning around, never stopped being the fabulous kids that they are.

This video was a treat I made for them because coaching them was by far the greatest treat I experienced in Bhutan. Thanks guys.

video

I apologize for the low quality. The blog will only accept certain file types and has a maximum size that has forced me to convert it to a low quality video.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Overworked, Underpaid

Disclaimer: It has been a long time since I last posted a blog, so you're probably all terrified that this is going to be another epic posting. Well...it kind of is. I must also warn everyone that this posting is not really a ray of sunshine. It's once again that time of year when all the work seems to be piling up, and truth be told so is my stress and frustration. I hope to post a few more entries in the coming weeks, and I assure you that the brighter side of life in Bhutan will eventually emerge. It is, after all, an amazing place to live and this experience has been - contrary to the negativity that consumes my blogs at times - the most rewarding, life-changing and positive thing I have ever done in my life. So bear with me while I vent, or disregard this posting all together; the choice is yours. But please, no matter what you choose, know that I want nothing but the best for Bhutan. The people here have treated me like family and I consider them no differently. It is for that reason that I feel it necessary to voice my concerns when they arise. I do so only because I care about the future of this country and the general well-being and happiness of my friends here. I hope you enjoy.

I’m choking here. I’ve clearly bitten off more than I can chew. But I’ve lived a long, satisfying life, right? Why not go down in a blaze of glory? No one remembers the guy who just fades away. It’s the person who dies for a cause who is immortalized in the pages of history. Life without purpose is hardly worth living.

Okay, perhaps I’m being a trifle melodramatic, especially since I am not entirely confident that I have found my purpose in life (that seems like a fairly intimidating task), but in some ways I do feel as if I’m sinking in a bottomless sea of responsibilities.

Being a teacher in this country is no easy job. With no unions or organizations unifying teachers, there is really no limit to what a teacher can be asked to do. And that vulnerability, in my opinion, tends to be exploited fairly regularly. I do not view this “exploitation” as a result of malice, but rather of justifiable necessity. Because most schools in Bhutan are boarding schools, and because of budget limitations on the part of the Ministry of Education, teachers are constantly being asked to do more, almost without limit.

Teachers are the only civil servants who are required to work a six-day week (deemed an absolute necessity in higher secondary schools where the curriculums are so vast that students’ textbooks dwarf the Toronto White Pages). They are also the only civil servants who are obliged to serve in their field for a minimum of ten years – a duration which, in an effort to solve the teacher shortage problem, the current education minister is proposing to increase to lifetime service (let’s see how many people join the profession if that happens). What worries me most when I think about my Bhutanese friends is that the stipulations of their service seem to change without any means of objection – if the Ministry says that they have to serve for life, they have to serve for life. I don’t mean to be cynical, but if such a policy were adopted, it would be, in my opinion, one of the most glaring hindrances to achieving Gross National Happiness, the political philosophy that Bhutan so rightly prides itself on.

Luckily, the general feeling here is that such a service requirement will not be adopted. In the National Assembly, the Opposition Leader (part of a two-man opposition party…yes, Bhutan is a cute country), has been an outspoken opponent of the introduction of such a policy, and public opinion seems to agree with his stance. So for now it seems as though teachers hired through the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) are only committed to ten years of service as teachers (yes, I do have a difficult time using the word “only” despite its growing familiarity after living here for so long). However, there is a whole portion of the teaching population in Bhutan that is not quite so secure; enter the contract teacher.

Despite the overwhelming shortage of teachers in Bhutan, and for reasons I am not quite sure of (and choose not to speculate on), there are a very limited number of positions in the country’s two major teachers’ colleges, Paro College of Education and Samtse College of Education. As a result, only a relatively small number of new teachers enter the profession through the RCSC. However, this number comes nowhere close to satisfying the demand, and so a large number of contract teachers are hired to fill the void. These teachers have no formal training in education, but usually hold a bachelor’s degree in their teachable subject. As contract teachers, these people have very little job security, and in my opinion, are (or at the very least, have been) taken advantage of.

For example, a contract teacher, who typically has a similar level of education (though less training) and equal responsibilities to their civil service counterparts is paid almost 50% less than a regular teacher and their salary is fixed regardless of years of experience. Paying these teachers less than fully trained civil service teachers does not bother me so much, but the dramatic discrepancy in compensation seems somewhat unreasonable in my opinion. But for the time being, I will accept this. What does bother me, however, is the manipulation of these teachers’ contracts.

Bhutanese contract teachers who joined the teaching profession in 2009 were hired on a two-year contract that would supposedly yield them opportunities to enter into teacher training programs in Paro and Samtse upon completion of their contracts. However, last year, in 2010, only three or four months before the completion of their contracts, these teachers were informed through a notice from the Ministry of Education that there would be no advancement upon completion of the two-years and that they must complete a third year in order to be eligible for a position in the colleges of education. In addition, contract teachers would now have to write an exam in order to qualify for these positions. Oh yeah, and the number of positions being offered in these colleges was now far less than was previously being offered.

I don’t think that a three-year contract is an unreasonable amount of time to ask contract teachers to serve in order to receive further training. In some ways I actually think it is a good idea. It increases the likelihood that teachers who are entering the profession through the RCSC are certain that they want to be teachers. It will also obviously produce more experienced teachers in the long run. What I do have a problem with, however, is changing the terms of a teacher’s contract only a few months before the original terms were about to be satisfied. It seemed to me (and again, maybe this is the cynic in me speaking) that it was quite cost-effective to dangle the carrot of formal training, job security, and an 50% salary increase in front of the contract teachers’ noses for an additional year. From what I have heard, the general feeling (one that seemed both logical and reasonable to me) was that the new contracts should apply only to the new contract teachers, and that the original terms of all current contract teachers should have been grandfathered in. This was not the case, and the majority of the 2009 contract teachers had little choice but to renew their contracts for an additional year and hope that they would get one of the few positions in the teacher training programs at the end of their third year…that is, if their contracts weren’t once again changed.

Obviously a teachers’ union would help protect teachers in some of these situations, but at the moment unions are still illegal and talk of them is still quite taboo. That being said, there do seem to be some disgruntled mumbles and murmurs coming from teachers across the country on the wall of a Facebook group for teachers in Bhutan (that’s right, Facebook might not be entirely evil).

I fall into a strange category of teacher here. I am not a civil service employee, nor am I a Bhutanese contract teacher. I’m an expatriate teacher, but I’m somehow different than the ten Indian expatriate teachers teaching at my school. I’m a volunteer, and that title actually says a lot. I chose to be here. I chose to be overworked and underpaid. And I’m okay with that decision – it has been well worth the sacrifice. But what I am finding now, is that the basic expectations of teachers (which are anything but basic) are making it difficult for me to achieve some of the other things I wanted to achieve while being here. That doesn’t mean that I’m not still trying. I would really like to leave my mark at this school, and so I have taken on a few initiatives that have proven to be extremely challenging and extremely time consuming.

The first initiative that I have taken on at the school (which was actually inspired by an initiative that Keira took at her school last year) is to coordinate a school newspaper. Last year I founded the Creative Writers’ Club, a club designed to encourage and inspire students to write for fun. In spite of its 32 members, the club got off to an extremely rocky start last year, as it was not an official school club due to my late arrival at the school. Any and all conflicts between the club and other school activities went against the club, which, in all honesty, seemed reasonable, given our ambiguous status. This year, however, we were granted official club status, and so, with newfound ambition, I decided to extend the mission statement of the club to include a…laugh…monthly school newspaper publication.

I knew that launching a school newspaper was an ambitious goal, but Keira had accomplished it at her school (in retrospect, I realize she only published one issue last year), so I figured that it was worth a try.

It was a lot of work getting the newspaper off the ground and truth be told, it’s still only hovering. Students here are not so familiar with the process of editing and revising their writing, so rather than publishing an incoherent collection of hogwash, we pushed back our publication date several times in order to improve the quality of the articles. After several rounds of peer editing, the ultimate burden fell on UK and myself (with the utmost humility I must say that it was mostly me for that first edition, however, UK has stepped up a great deal since then), as I spent hours trying to decipher the hidden messages lying between dozens of redundant and often nonsensical words, clauses and phrases.

The end result was something that the students as well as UK and I were extremely proud of. The newspaper, The JigSher Voice, was inaugurated on May 16, 2011, exactly thirty-three years after Canadian Jesuit Priest, Father William Mackey, commonly regarded as the father of modern education in Bhutan, founded the school in 1978. I couldn’t help but feel like I was doing my part to follow in Father Mackey’s footsteps and contribute to the Canadian legacy in Bhutan.

The second initiative I have introduced at the school is a student-counselling program. I have always been interested in counselling and feel as if I have a bit of a knack for it. My mother is a social worker and teaches social work at Seneca College, and so, I felt that with a little bit of mommy’s help and my own common sense I could introduce a counselling program that would greatly benefit students.

The need for such a program was evident everywhere I looked. Again, for a country priding itself on the philosophy of Gross National Happiness, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the students at my school were unhappy. “Student life is a golden life” is a common expression here. But the reality, from what I’ve seen and heard from my students, is a very different situation.

Student life is a tough life. There is absolutely no freedom for students here. Their daily routine is strictly regimented, beginning with a 5:30 a.m. wake up. From 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. they engage in supervised study (that supervision becomes the teachers’ job). Next comes breakfast from 7:30 a.m. to 7:45 a.m., followed by social work (essentially gardening, grass cutting or other manual labour) from 7:45 a.m. to 8:15 a.m.. The school day then begins and classes are taught until 3:30 p.m.. There is a short recess from 10:30 a.m. to 10:40 a.m. and lunch break is from 12:30 p.m. until 1:40 p.m., but during this time students are encouraged to study or at the very least sit quietly (games and sports are not permitted). At 3:30 p.m. there is a scheduled “games period,” however only a small percentage of students (10% at best) will participate in any sort of activities. The rest will either stand around watching those who participate or sit quietly and study. At 5:00 p.m. the bell rings to indicate the end of games period and students shuffle back into classrooms where, at 5:20 p.m., supervised evening study commences. At 6:20 p.m. the bell rings again and students move from the classrooms up to the dining hall where they engage in a group evening prayer (taking between 15 and 45 minutes) followed by dinner. Then, at 7:30 p.m. the boys return to the classrooms and the girls return to their hostels, and all students engage in yet another hour-long supervised study. Finally, at 8:30 p.m. the bell rings to indicate the end of study and students have just fifteen minutes to return to their hostels, where they are not allowed any electronics or even playing cards, and because they often share a room with thirty other students, many of whom have extremely important exams approaching that they would like to study for, they are even discouraged from speaking much of the time.

A few other rules must be pointed out in order to grasp the full nature of student life. First and foremost, especially from the perspective of a teenager, are the extremely strict rules regarding the interaction between girls and boys. Relationships are strictly prohibited. At the end of last year, one of my brightest students, a leader in the class, was transferred to a new school because he was caught having a relationship with a class twelve girl. From what I understand, there are two main justifications for the “necessity” of such a rule: first, is to prevent students from becoming distracted from their studies, and second, to prevent student pregnancy. I understand the logic behind both justifications, and yet, from my very Westernized perspective, I feel as if the means do not satisfy the ends. What I have observed is that many of the students are still engaged in relationships. However, because student relationships remain a taboo and illicit concept, students are unable to talk about them or seek any guidance from teachers or any other adults for that matter. The results, in my opinion, are that these relationships become even more of a distraction as the drama of adolescent romance plays out, and students remain relatively ignorant to information regarding safe sex and reproductive health. I studied the statistics on the failure of “abstinence only” sex education in the U.S. when I was in teachers’ college, and my fear is that the attitude towards sex and relationships among students is following that same path, but with one glaringly apparent difference – the attitude here is one of abstinence, but the “education” is still missing.

Students are quick to recognize that I come from a culture unlike theirs. In few other aspects are Bhutanese culture and Canadian culture more different than in their attitude towards romantic relationships (both student relationships and adult relationships). Most students I am seeing in counselling came to discuss alcohol use or social problems at school, but as we have gotten to know each other better and as their trust in me has grown, the conversations have often shifted to discussions of boyfriends or girlfriends. In all honesty, I barely do anything at all. I don’t gossip with them or encourage them or scold them. I simply listen to what they have to say and repeat it back to them in some strategic ways and they tend to figure out what is best for them.

The counselling program has just begun to take shape. In the early stages I was met with a number of obstacles, mainly a school with a very different concept of what counselling is. At first, the school management wanted me to submit reports after each session listing the things that were said. This obviously wasn’t going to happen, so I took some time trying to explain to the principal the importance of confidentiality if we really wanted to achieve anything in counselling. He accepted this with a few stipulations, to which I agreed .

Then, after only a few weeks of counselling students I was told by the principal that I needed to make sure that I was telling students to do things that emphasized the school’s values. I brushed this off and eventually dismissed it. I was not starting a counselling program to promote the school’s religious values or coerce the students into doing anything. I was starting a counselling program to help students find strategies to deal with issues they were confronting. Counselling was going to be the one place where students could speak their minds and not have to worry about getting in trouble for doing so.

The program is doing great. I haven’t even announced its existence, but already lots of students are coming up to me and asking to meet with me. This, however, means that I have been staying at school until 6:30 or 7:00 some days and have often been forced to sacrifice my lunch break to meet with students. As a result, I’m feeling pretty exhausted by the time I get home, but the truth is I’m loving it and I think I’m pretty good at it. In fact, it has become something that I’m very interested in and would consider as another potential career path (another underpaid one, of course).

The final initiative that has been consuming so much of my free time is the school football team. The existence of a school football team is not something that I have introduced by any means; it has been around for ages and some players live and breathe football. However, never before has the football team been properly coached. In the past there has been a football coordinator who is in charge of selecting the players and informing students about the matches they are to play, but typically those coordinators would not even step on the field.

Last year I laid the foundations for what I thought would be a pretty good team. In the classroom I taught them about proper spacing, about triangles and support, and about the offside trap. On the field, rather than their familiar practice style of scrimmaging, I made them do ball control drills, shooting drills, pass drills and scrimmages with interruptions to point out glaring mistakes in their formation and decision making. I felt we had the best team last year, but we lost 1-0 in the Intra-Dzongkhag finals to the home team. This year, with many of last year’s star players returning, I was determined to take the football team to the next level.

For the first time in Jigme Sherubling history, Namgay and I held tryouts for the football team. The result was that we were able to select not just a group of talented players, but also competitive and committed players.

So I’ve been holding practices every day after school. Two days a week we do drills, light fitness training, and some simple two-touch games. Two days a week are fitness days where we run to the chorten (3.5 km uphill) where we stretch and meditate for a few minutes before running back. And the remaining two days are scrimmage days where the boys hopefully implement the skills and theories they have been working on in practice. More than anything else, however, I have been working on developing a sense of team spirit that brings these boys together through hard work, a little bit of pain, and a strong desire to do well.

The problem, however, is that this type of commitment is still not entirely self-motivated. In fact, I have noticed (and my captains have told me) that unless I am present, many players will not come to practice or will refuse to run. The only solution, therefore, is that I make the same commitment that I expect from my players, which means that I must be present after school six days a week (at least most weeks), that I remind students of practice on a near daily basis, and that I run to and from the chorten with the boys (teenagers whose fitness is improving quickly and dramatically) two times a week. If my only commitment were the football team it would be tiring but manageable, but considering that I’m also doing the counselling program after school hours, it is completely exhausting and I’m starting to feel like I’m running on empty. Again, I wouldn’t sacrifice coaching the football for anything; I have established a nice relationship with my players and I’m watching them become what I consider to be a highly capable and competitive team, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to having some free time once again.

So those are my additional responsibilities this year, and on top of that I have to fulfil my regular duties as a teacher, which include supervising a study period every week, and overseeing the proper functioning of school once a month as TOD (teacher on duty), which involves arriving at school at 7:00 a.m. and leaving at 5:30 p.m. (the latter of which now seems early anyway).

Life is busy and even gets chaotic at times, but like I said before, I am a volunteer so I’m in no position to really complain. I chose this lifestyle when I signed up to come here and I chose it again when I decided to implement the programs and initiatives that I have. And the truth is I don’t think I would change anything (except maybe the basic duties of a teacher, which I still believe deter teachers from getting involved in extra-curricular activities). After all, only a small percentage of what students learn in school happens inside the classroom; the larger lessons they learn – the lessons about what is important in life, about what should motivate us to do the things we do, and about what hard work and commitment really mean – those lessons are learned by simply observing the people who embody positive values. It is easy to tell students how to be good people and positive members of a community, but the people who are effective in teaching those values are the ones who practice what others only preach. I can only hope that I fit into this category.


Addendum:

I regret to inform you that since writing this entry the newspaper has come to a complete halt. After our first issue, we encountered a few technical difficulties, as well as several political difficulties.

On the technical side, printing became an obstacle that continued to postpone issues from being distributed. With only one functional printer in the entire school and a steady flow of exam papers to be printed (I hate weekly tests!!!), our newspaper was given very little importance. Eventually we accepted that we could no longer call it postponement if the next issue was never going to come to print.

On the political side, after only one issue it became quite evident that we would not have the freedom to tell stories the way we would have liked. For example, one student chose to write an article on the school’s clean plate policy, a policy designed to reduce the amount of food being wasted by students in the dining hall. When she reported that our school as a whole was not doing very well in upholding this policy, we were told – rather diplomatically – that her article might not paint the nicest picture of the school. When a student reported on the hostel renovations and how their completion was once again delayed by the contractor (the blame for which was clearly directed away from the school) we knew it would be best to drop his article. To make matters worse, while gathering articles from students for the second issue of the newspaper, we began receiving instructions about what we should report on, such as a few minor community service activities, activities that were not particularly interesting or newsworthy. I was very disappointed in the direction the newspaper was being pushed and was in no way interested in publishing propaganda for the school, nor did I have any intention of publishing a newspaper that unfairly slandered or attacked any person, place or thing. My only intention was to provide students with an outlet for their ideas and an opportunity to look at things critically. Essentially, I wanted to give the students a way to express their ideas, be they positive or negative. It was for this reason that we named our newspaper The JigSher Voice, but we have joked since cancelling the paper, our vocal chords seemed to have been forcibly removed.

U.K. and I have now been charged with a new task: to publish a school magazine (kind of like a yearbook but less fun) in time for the Royal Wedding. We were only given a month’s notice and are now sifting our way through hundreds of articles to find some that are intelligent and – more importantly – coherent. Then comes the task of editing all of the articles that are going to be included in the magazine. In some instances this is not so bad, but in others it requires that we basically rewrite entire sentences or paragraphs. Then students will resubmit their revised articles and all of them need to be sent for typing (remember all articles are handwritten…and sometimes illegibly so). Then U.K. and I will do one final check of the articles to make sure that they are free of mistakes before taking them to Kuensel (the main Bhutanese newspaper) to work on layout and publishing.

The whole task is extremely time-consuming and frustrating, and our immediate deadline is not helping anything. We will do the best we can and hopefully the end product will be something that will be appreciated by all who read it. So R.I.P. JigSher Voice, there’s a new sheriff in town…or something like that.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Blog #34: Peaks and Valleys

Keira keeps telling me that if I ever want to write a book about Bhutan I need to have some sort of steamy Bhutanese romance to write about, some intriguing love affair that entangles the remainder of the story. While the introduction of such a character seems unlikely, the excitement of such a plot twist would not be unwelcome. But I honestly don’t think that this is that kind of story. There is no heroine waiting to make her grand entrance, at least I don’t think there is. But that is not to say that mine is not a love story. It is. It’s just of a different sort.

When I think about my time here, the thoughts that run through my head echo those of a mind in the static stage of a relationship:

At first everything was so exciting, but lately life has been feeling a little routine – like a little bit of the spark has been lost. The spark, but not the love. The love is still there. But recently there really hasn’t been so much to talk about.

No, this is not a traditional love story; it is the story of the love between a man and a country, and just like any relationship, it is filled with ups and downs, highs and lows, peaks and valleys.

What’s interesting is how quickly the tides can turn. One moment I’m loving life, enjoying every minute of my day, and then, as suddenly as the clouds sweep in and block out the sun, emptying themselves on the world below, my mood changes and I’m left feeling frustrated or sometimes even angry. I don’t want to feel this way, obviously, but “life” sometimes forces this mood upon me. My only hope is that just as the flowers grow in the wake of all the rain, so too will my resolve and love of this country.

One of my goals since arriving in Bhutan has been to visit as many dzongkhags (provinces) as possible. I have already accomplished more than I had hoped to by this time, reaching thirteen of the twenty dzongkhags that make up this spectacular country. But there has been one dzongkhag in particular that has always sparked my interest, and until recently has eluded me: Pemagatshel.

It all started back in Canada when I was reading Jamie Zeppa’s book, Beyond the Sky and the Earth (again, highly recommended if you still haven’t read it). Jamie is a beautiful writer, and as only talented writers can, she brought me with her on her adventure to Bhutan. And because Pemagatshel was her first exposure to Bhutan, it became mine as well, and from there all my expectations were set. But when I finally reached Bhutan, six months after reading Jamie’s book and approximately twenty-five years after she arrived in Pemagatshel, things were not quite as I had expected. And so, a curiosity was born; I needed to know…what was Pemagatshel all about?

My opportunity for answers finally came when the teachers of Nangkhor HSS, one of two high schools in Pemagatshel, invited us to their school for a friendly football match. It wasn’t easy getting people to commit to the four-hour drive and the early Sunday morning departure, but eventually we found a combination of teachers, townspeople and former students to make up a team.

So, at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, my one and only day to sleep in and rest up in preparation for another long, busy week, I emerged from my house crusty-eyed and bed-headed, ready to set sail for this long awaited land.

I hadn’t driven east in quite some time, and I must admit that I had forgotten just how beautiful it was. Even before we made it to the turn-off for the road to Pemagatshel I was snapping pictures left, right and centre. The early morning mist still draped the mountains’ curves, blurring their ridges in silhouette. Little mountain villages clung to the steep slopes on impossible angles, their farmlands stretching out like safety nets. Temples sat tranquilly atop of prominent mountain crests, meditating like the Buddha sitting cross-legged, looking down on a world of sentient beings just waiting to be awoken. And all the while, our little convoy of three cars crawled through this endless expanse of mountains in search of a small village hidden deep within one of these countless Himalayan valleys.

It was only when we turned onto the smaller road towards Pemagatshel that the mist suddenly transformed into a bright blue sky. And then, for the first time in months I saw my old friend; the one who is always welcome in my hometown of Khaling, but who visits so rarely; the one whose image has faded from my memory; the one whose warm touch I miss so dearly...my old friend, the sun.

As we moved deeper into the dzongkhag the road narrowed, the cliffs steepened, and the valleys dropped further below us. But the anticipation of what lay ahead trumped any concern for the dangerous road. Suddenly, the cliffs that lined the side of the road softened into sloping hills covered in massive bamboo trees as we descended into a lush valley surrounded by monstrous mountains on all sides. This was it. This was Pemagatshel.

Nestled deep in the valley, Nangkhor HSS was just as impressive as its surroundings. We were all taken aback as soon as we arrived at the school.

This year, the Ministry of Education has tried to infuse the environmental pillar of GNH into the education system by adopting the slogan, “Green schools for a green Bhutan.” When I first heard this I was so excited to be a part of something I believed in so strongly. However, the truth is that from what I have seen, environmentalism has its complications here, and this slogan, in many ways, is little more than a collection of words – a catch phrase that hasn’t quite caught on as a practice. At least that was my impression until that moment when we arrived at Nangkhor HSS. This school was flexing its innovative and creative muscles when it came to environmentalism.

Solid waste is a big problem throughout this country. What to do with all the garbage that we humans inevitably generate? Last year we dug pits in the community and buried much of the waste. What wasn’t buried was tossed over the side of the road into what became a makeshift dumpsite. That was last year. This year it was decided that this garbage dump was spoiling the beauty of Khaling, and so the entire community was informed that anyone caught dumping garbage would be subject to a fine. Instead, we were to burn all of our garbage. So, under a banner reading, “Green Schools for a green Bhutan: Khaling Mass Cleaning Campaign,” the entire Khaling community gathered to set ablaze every last piece of waste produced by our town. The tree-hugging, Birkenstock wearing side of me wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “This is NOT green! This is actually the worst possible thing we could be doing for the environment!” but unfortunately, the reality of living in a small little community surrounded by mountains is that there are few alternatives.

At least that’s what I thought until I saw a sign posted outside of Nangkhor HSS which read, “Welcome to Green School” (perhaps missing an article or possessive pronoun). What made this sign particularly intriguing is that the letters were formed out of used bottle caps. But that was only the beginning. Directly beside this welcome sign was a six-foot tall mock clock tower built entirely out of empty litchi juice bottles. The tower didn’t need to be there. It served no functional purpose. It wasn’t the most beautiful decoration, but it was certainly interesting, and what it really did was symbolize a genuine effort to put useless things to some sort of use. And that effort became even more apparent as we walked through the school’s campus. “Garbage” was being put to use in every which direction. This school was killing two birds with one stone; it was solving at least some of its waste management problem, while at the same time “beautifying” its campus and living up to its expectation as a green school.

The irony is that Nangkhor HSS’s campus needs very little beautifying; it is gorgeous already. The school lies on the rolling hills of the Nangkhor valley and is littered with a wide variety of natural vegetation, including orange, mango and guava trees. The main academic block stands on a plateau at the entrance of the campus and is guarded by smaller academic buildings on either side, leaving a grassy quad to serve as the school’s assembly ground in between the three buildings. Just below the quad are the school’s MPH (multipurpose hall) and dining hall. Then, down a gentle slope lie some staff quarters as well as the girls’ and boys’ hostels. Between the hostels is a beautiful basketball court with Plexiglas backboards and a scoreboard. And just below this, off to the side of the campus, on the very edge of the mountain’s plateau is the football field…and it’s perfectly flat!

The actual football match became only a secondary source of enjoyment. What had really lifted my spirit was the sweltering hot weather and the picturesque view I found myself staring at while running up and down the field. I was sweating before the match even started. I had honestly forgotten that it was spring and that not everyone shared the same weather as Khaling. This was a good wake up call, one I welcomed as much as I did the sunburn that it induced.

Pemagatshel was blissful. When we finally had to leave it felt as if I had just met the girl of my dreams and was being torn away from her before anything was allowed to blossom between us. I wanted more time with her, and perhaps if I had had more time something amazing could have formed between the two of us; I know I was ready and willing. But alas, I had already made my commitment, and it didn’t matter that that commitment was to a cold, miserable hag; it was a commitment nonetheless. So, I did what any loyal, devoted man would do. I said my goodbyes, took one last mental photograph of this absolute beauty, stepped in the car and drove off into the sunset, staring out the car’s rear window the whole way, wondering what might have been.

I was on such a high from that day in Pemagatshel that the journey back home was a complete blur. My mind was someplace else, somewhere magical. I should have known that that feeling wouldn’t last forever. It couldn’t. It never does. But I never expected such a dramatic re-entry into reality. As we came to the little settlement popularly known as “Handloom,” approximately 3 km away from Khaling, the heavens opened and the rain came pouring down. Her message was loud and clear: welcome home!

It rained through the night and most of the morning. And not just your everyday drizzle, but rather torrential droplets, like a million angels were hawking loogies down on us for fun. I’ve gotten used to this type of rain, but still there was something about that Monday morning that hung heavy. I was still exhausted from the previous day’s journey and wasn’t particularly thrilled to be walking to school through puddles and clouds.

Monday morning is weekly test morning. Every Monday the students are tested on a different subject according to the school’s timetable. Let me start by saying that I’m fundamentally opposed to the idea of these weekly tests. Not only do I find it intrusive for the school to tell me when I need to test my students, but I also feel that the tests are weighted disproportionately considering that they are only thirty minutes long, consist of only ten marks each and are supposed to account for 10% of the student’s overall grade. Anyway, I digress…

It was a rainy Monday morning and I trudged up the driveway towards school resenting the fact that my job was getting in the way of my sleep. I arrived at school at 7:50 a.m., ten minutes before the weekly tests were scheduled to begin, received the test bundle from the school’s examination cell, and hiked up the steep, rocky path to my class’s classroom. No sooner did I arrive than the bell rang to commence the weekly test (one of the things I have grown accustomed to here is that there is no single watch or clock that is used to measure periods, and so the result is an unpredictable timetable in which you never know exactly when the bell might ring).

I’m sure the bell was at least five minutes early, so I rushed to distribute all of the test papers as quickly as possible.

Snag number one: there are not enough test papers for every student, and because the school insists on taking these tests very seriously and counts them so disproportionately towards students’ overall grades there is little room for creative solutions. So what do I do? I poke my head out the door and search for a helping hand. Do I find one? Of course not, it’s still pouring rain outside; no one in their right mind would be wandering through the campus. So I tell my students to please keep quiet and to keep their eyes on their own papers, and I run out of the class, through the pouring rain, back down the steep, rocky path, and back up the stairs to the examination cell where I explain to the examination people that my class is missing two test papers. For a few minutes they tell me that that is impossible because they counted them before giving them to me, and then finally they give in and print me two new question papers. So I take the fresh papers, march downstairs, back up the steep, rocky path, through the rain and back into my classroom. By this point in time the silence that I left has evolved into a roar audible from outside the classroom walls, so I distribute the two missing questions papers and repeat my instructions about keeping quiet and keeping their eyes on their own papers.

Snag number two: detecting cheating in a classroom of 39 students when those students are taught to read aloud to themselves to improve their comprehension is simply impossible. I’m actually not sure this is the reason that students read aloud to themselves, but what I do know is that they are not the only ones. Pretty much everyone at the school, teachers included, when reading a document or a letter or an essay or an announcement – anything with words really – reads it out loud. It’s not that they are projecting their voices, but it’s certainly something that takes getting used to, something that can still be distracting. And in the case of a test it would almost be better if they were projecting their voices. Instead, there is just a steady murmur sweeping across the classroom and a dizzying wave of lips mouthing words. So who is speaking to themselves and who is talking to their neighbour? After a little while a few students become less subtle in their conversation and I warn them to stop talking or I’ll take their tests away. I abandon the work that I had brought with me and start hovering over students as they write. After a few laps of the classroom I perch myself against the back wall and watch over the class. Then, as if I don’t exist at all, two students start reading off of each other’s test papers right under my nose… no exaggeration intended. I’m talking about two students in the very back row, literally sitting directly under my nose. I snatch their papers from them and march up to the front of the classroom, being sure to be seen by the rest of the class, and slide their incomplete test papers into a file folder. I expected the message to be loud and clear: enough of this messing around. But to my surprise and dismay, by the end of the test I had collected another four incomplete test papers as a result of wandering eyes and over-active vocal chords.

This was not a good start to my already miserable Monday morning. I was tired, frustrated and generally grumpy, and it was only going to get worse.

My Monday teaching timetable was not particularly impressive, but the attractive quality that it did possess was that I didn’t have to teach any classes until third period – a particularly advantageous situation when one is busy all weekend and doesn’t have a chance to fully prepare for one’s Monday classes, as was the case on this fateful Monday. However, by the time I returned – sour and soaked – from my class’s weekly test, there was a little present waiting for me on my desk accompanied by an announcement.

“Teachers, please notice the new timetables on your respective desks. They are in effect as of today.”

No warning, no notice, no surprise (at least not in my second year here), but a whole lot of frustration. First and second period – class XI Sci A and XII Sci A. I’m partially to blame for not preparing on Sunday night after getting back from Nangkhor, but I was exhausted and thought I had two hours – ample time – to prepare for these classes the following morning. That’s fair enough, no?

At first I lost my cool. I was livid that the school would do such a thing. But then I listened to the wise words of a few of my Indian friends and heeded their advice. “Why to bother,” they told me. Well put, good sirs, well put.

I went to my first two periods completely unprepared. I spent a good portion of my class XI period lecturing the students about what had happened with the class tests. I warned them that that was their one warning and that next time I would instruct their subject teachers to give them an automatic zero as well as inform the VP of their misconduct. And in my class XII period we simply chatted about the story we were reading and I attempted to clarify any doubts the students may have had. I wouldn’t say either class was terrible, but they certainly weren’t my best.

Third period: previously my first teaching period of the day, now my first free period of the day. Master (UK’s father and the school’s Tae Kwon Do Master as well as “Health In-Charge”) comes to me and informs me that my students aren’t fulfilling their duties of cleaning and maintaining the boys’ toilets.

Toilet duties, being the absolute worst possible duty one could ever have, are distributed on a rotational basis, and it just so happened that this Monday morning fell right in the middle of my class’s duty and, to make matters oh so much worse, they had neglected this duty up until then. Now I tend to approach most class duties with a “who gives a shit” kind of attitude, as a great deal of the work students are asked to do is just busywork, but in this situation that kind of attitude seemed unbefitting; the answer to that question itself emphasized the importance of the duty.

But it was only after pulling six boys out of class and entering the boys’ bathroom myself that I realized just how shitty the situation really was…literally. The smell actually hit me long before I stepped inside the small cement structure, but it was seeing the six clogged toilets that made this one of my most memorable experiences to date (one I could have done without). So there I stood, staring at what a daily diet of chili, rice and potato curry looks like once it comes out the other side, while the boys tried to solve the problem. First they poured buckets of water in the toilets because sometimes students just choose not to flush, but when the toilets’ contents started to ascend rather than descend we realized there was a bigger problem. Next, the boys took some giant bamboo sticks and started poking at the muddled masses, twirling the sticks in an attempt to loosen the clog.

Nothing was working, so I went to Master’s office to ask him what our next move should be. He returned to the toilets with me, and after the boys showed him that the water they were pouring in one toilet was gurgling out of the other toilets as well as the trough (for urination), Master identified that the clog was not actually in the bathroom but rather in the underground pipe leading to the septic tank just outside of the bathroom.

After almost an hour inside the smelliest place I have ever been, having witnessed some of the most disgusting conditions I have ever seen, I decided that I had had enough. I returned to the staffroom while the boys retrieved their spades and began digging up the earth beside the toilets. When I returned thirty minutes later to check on their progress the boys were gone and so were the masses in the toilets, but unfortunately the memory of what I saw and smelled hasn’t been quite as quick to disappear. I know that “shit happens,” but quite frankly I wouldn’t mind if it never happened to me again.

Needless to say, I was having a bad day. It was not quick to get better either, but it couldn’t really get any worse than watching students deal with toilets that were overflowing with human feces. After the toilet fiasco the principal called me into his office and asked me to edit a letter that he was sending to Dasho Dzongda (the governor of our dzongkhag). It wasn’t a particularly large order, and if it had not been for the terrible morning I had already had (not to mention the massive pile of work on my desk that remained untouched) I wouldn’t have minded at all, but at the time it certainly felt an extra burden that I didn’t need.

I finished editing the letter by lunchtime and went to the hotel (restaurant) with UK to treat myself to a lazy lunch break and a delicious meal. Over lunch I blew off a lot of steam by complaining about my day to UK who could only laugh at me. I would have laughed at me too. What’s not to laugh about?

Somewhere between the hysterical laughter and frustrated rants I decided that the time was right to talk to the principal about relieving me of my class teacher duties.

At the beginning of the year I was given numerous responsibilities including English Subject Committee Coordinator, Literary Committee Coordinator, Football Coordinator, Creative Writers’ Club Coordinator, and to my disdain Class Teacher. After being a class teacher last year, I knew all too well that this responsibility consumed a great deal of extra time and demanded a great deal of extra work. I was not thrilled about the idea from day one, and so, no more than a week into school I spoke with the principal about relieving me of that one responsibility considering all of the other responsibilities I had agreed to. He told me that it wouldn’t be possible just then, but that perhaps I could be a temporary class teacher until the new teachers, whose arrival we were anticipating, finally reported to the school. I agreed and waited patiently.

So on that Monday afternoon, knowing full well that two new teachers had recently arrived at the school, I stepped into the principal’s office to ask to finally be relieved of my duty. His response was not exactly what I was looking for.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that. I think for now it should be quite okay for you to continue.”

“But sir, I’m finding I have so many responsibilities right now that I I’m having a difficult time doing any of them with the full attention that they deserve,” I retorted.

“Well, I’ll see what we can do, but I think you will have to continue on as class teacher for the time being.”

I convinced myself to chalk this up as a partial victory, though I was not naïve enough to actually believe it to be one. “I’ll see” and “for the time being” do not have a particularly good track record at my school. In fact, more often than not they translate to “probably not going to happen” and “get used to it.” But I had broached the topic nonetheless, and the day was almost over, so I resigned myself to the staffroom and started doing the corrections that had been neglected for so long.

The day ended with an inter-class volleyball match between my class XII Science A boys and another class. It was still drizzling outside, but the match was held despite this minor setback. What’s a little rain anyway?

The match was just what the doctor ordered. The audience was sparse – only the teams’ classmates and a few teachers braved it through the rain – but that was just what I needed. I was once again reminded of what lured me back here for a second year. It was not the weather, nor was it the school really. It was the people, more specifically my friends and my students. Watching XII Science A win that match, seeing the way they had bonded as a class over the year and a half I have known them and they each other, hearing them cheer for each other and crack inside jokes to which I was even privy sometimes, and sharing those observations with people who also appreciated those types of moments – those students – as the payoff for a frustrating, exhausting, and sometimes shitty job, ended my Monday on a note of optimism, one that actually allowed me to look forward to the following morning.

This is the nature of the relationship that I have formed with this strange land. It is not always one of laughs and smiles; I think it would be unfair to portray it as such. My story is not a romance, for romance is not reality. Romance is hyperbolic love; it is the exaggerated portrayal of what love would be in a perfect world. That is not to say that moments of romance don’t exist in a relationship, they certainly do in this relationship, but they can’t exist all the time. Romance would be easy, but love is not supposed to be easy. Real love is much more complicated than that. It is about accepting someone for the good and the bad, for all their perfections and their flaws; it is not just about the highs that you share, it is also about pushing through the lows that inevitably arise in all relationships. And never before have I been so constantly reminded of this. For when I look at the mountains around me, I realize that it is the valleys that lie below which make the mountain peaks above stand so spectacular. I have learned that where there are peaks, there will always be valleys. That’s just the way it goes.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Blog #33: Back in the Saddle

It’s good to be back in Khaling. And it’s good to feel that it’s good to be back. There is no question in my mind that staying on for a second year was the right decision for me.

It really does come down to people and the relationships I have formed. I visited a few of my friends in their home state of Kerala while I was in India. By the time we were reunited it had only been a month since I had left them, but still it was so comforting to see their faces and to reconnect with them. They took such great care of me while I was with them, welcoming me into their homes, stuffing me with the most delicious food I had eaten in a good long time, and proudly showing me the sights of their hometowns. My time in Kerala was just what I needed to reassure myself that these relationships that I had formed would be enough to help me through another – probably longer – year in Bhutan.

I didn’t really speak to any of my Bhutanese friends over the winter break. I was in India doing my own thing; they were back in Bhutan doing theirs. But something happened on my first night back in Bhutan that spoke volumes to me about my friends. I was upset and frustrated about something that had happened earlier that day, so I decided to take a walk through Phuentsholing to clear my head. Eventually I wandered into a park which was home to a beautiful temple. After spinning dozens of prayer wheels I found a bench and just sat there thinking about everything that had happened over the last year, the last month, the last 48 hours. For the most part, India had been so chaotic that I didn’t always think about what was happening until long after it had happened. After a few minutes of deep breaths and meditation I took my phone out of my pocket and sent UK a quick text message to let him know I was back in the country. No more than thirty seconds later my phone rang. There was such excitement in his voice that I was instantly lifted out of whatever funk I had been in. He knew that I wasn’t feeling so great at the moment and – like any good friend would – he shared with me something that was bumming him out in order to make me feel better.

Needless to say, it was so exciting to be reunited with all of these great friends when I arrived back in Khaling. And not just my close friends, but also my other colleagues who have become friends over the past year. We are like one big family here, and so, within the first few days of being back, the JigSher family gathered around a campfire in the middle of the school campus and celebrated our reunion in style.

Campfires in Bhutan are the real deal. The Bhutanese don’t mess around. I’m talking five to six foot high flames and skin scorching heat. By the time my friends and I arrived at the party the fire was healthy. We sat and poured some drinks and joked around. Eventually, the whole staff was encircling the fire and engaging in the celebration.

Over the past year I’ve noticed that every once in while I have these out-of-body experiences. There is really no other way to explain it. I think we all experience these such moments from time to time, so I’m sure everyone can relate – these moments in which your mind drifts from the external world to its own internal world – moments where you exist only as a mental entity, not as a physical one. That night I had one of those moments. I just remember looking around and feeling something special, some kind of energy. It was like the scene at the end of the movie where the music comes in and the camera cuts to different groups of people talking and laughing in slow motion. It just felt like a moment, and in that moment I was happy to be back in Khaling.

And Khaling welcomed me back the only way it knew how – it rained. At this point in time I can laugh about it, but it’s really not that funny. It rains all the time here. But I can deal with the rain – no problem. It was, however, a problem that I not only returned to the rain, but also to a water supply problem. For some reason – I’m still not sure what that is – none of the houses in my community had water for the first two weeks of being back. I consider it to be the perfect example for teaching students about irony. Outside it wouldn’t stop raining, but inside we couldn’t get a drop of water.

So rain outside, dry taps inside – what a great situation to return home to. But Khaling wasn’t done yet, oh no! She still had one more trick up her sleeve. What could be worse than a freezing cold winter with constant rain and no water? Well, a freezing cold winter with constant rain, no water and no lights, of course. That’s right, no lights (which is a Bhutanese way of saying no electricity). Electricity simply did not exist during daylight hours. This might not seem so bad, but cooking without electricity is no easy feat, and coupled with our water problems, the situation became more of a headache than I was really hoping for during the transition back to work. I suppose I could have managed if the electricity just went off during the day. That, however, was not the case. For the most part the lights would come on for no more than an hour a night, and for no longer than fifteen minutes at a time. It reached the point that I would always sit with my flashlight beside me and a box of matches ready to light the candles strategically placed around my house.

I have always found that blackouts create an ambiance that can’t be reproduced in any other scenario. In the absence of electricity, human energy seems to thrive. I began to take comfort in the collective sighs that could be heard through the walls and windows as televisions, stereos, curry cookers and the like all shut off simultaneously. Doors would swing open and the members of my community – my friends – would all emerge and gather in front of our houses. And I can honestly say that there was a smile on each and every person’s face. This is Bhutan. This is Khaling. These things happen and they aren’t going to dampen our spirits; nay, they will lift us up and bring us together. We are, after all, a community.

And I don’t think I have ever before felt such a part of a community. The faces here don’t ever change. Walking through town, you see the same people as you did at school earlier that day and on the football field after school and when you step out of your house in the morning. There is a stone wall separating my house from the school’s campus. It’s just low enough that I can see students walking to and from school, just low enough that they can see me. It has become the perfect symbol of the insignificant distinction between my work and home life.

On a typical weekend I will wake up, make a cup of coffee and sit outside on my veranda listening to music while reading or writing (this is actually the case right now). Students stroll by casually, usually giggling at my messy hair or the unfamiliar music spilling out from my house. At one time I found it awkward and uncomfortable, now I kind of enjoy it. I think it’s nice that they get to see the other side of their teachers, the more human side. I mean, it’s Sunday morning and I just rolled out of bed, why wouldn’t my hair be a mess?

And the students aren’t shy about blurring the lines either. I’m not sure whether it is just with me because I am “different,” but I don’t think so. They seem perfectly willing to do so with UK as well.

Sundays are the only day of the week when there is a little bit of freedom for students to have some fun. As a result, Sunday has become synonymous with football. So, while I’m sipping my coffee and jotting down my thoughts or writing a song, the boys are usually gathering on the football field directly across from my house. It doesn’t take long before students are shouting across the road to me, telling me to come join them, insisting when I decline their initial invitations. Sometimes I stand my ground and go about my business on my balcony; more often than not I join them. It’s one aspect of my experience here that I really enjoy, even though it wears me out at times. Students always seem to want me to be a part of what they are doing. They don’t want distance from their teachers as they might back in Canada. I don’t cramp their style. If anything, they cramp mine.

This lack of space can sometimes yield embarrassing results. A few times I have been woken up on Sunday morning to a knock on my door. I drag myself out of bed (sometimes more reluctantly than others), throw on my sweatpants and a t-shirt and open up. And who should stand before me but one of my class twelve students here to hand in an assignment that was due the previous day or to ask a question about an assignment that is due the following day. The sleep is still firmly crusted in my eyes, my mouth is still sticky and pasty, and my voice is still hoarse. I should be embarrassed – I know this – but come on, it’s 7:30 a.m. on Sunday morning!!! I’m allowed to look, feel and be this way.

All of this would bother me if I didn’t enjoy the students as much as I do. My students were a big reason for me wanting to stay here for a second year, and I’m once again reassured that this was the right decision for me. I’m lucky enough to be teaching two of the same classes as I taught last year. What’s even more fun is that the two classes I have continued on with are both class twelve classes, the senior-most students at the school.

This is a privilege for a few reasons. Firstly, I have watched my students move into positions of leadership in the school and thrive in those roles. It is no surprise to me that they are doing so well as the school’s captains, and it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if some of these students became the leaders of the nation in the future. They are smart, mature, witty, funny and cool. They have the full package and class with them has become an absolute pleasure. It has taken on a life of its own, often evolving into highly intellectual and philosophical conversation (which might not sound so productive in terms of covering the curriculum, but is undeniably beneficial to students’ development as English language speakers).

This leads to the second reason that I feel so fortunate to be teaching these students once again. The class twelve curriculum is right up my alley. It’s filled with highly philosophical material that I find refreshingly conducive to discussion and debate. And now that my students are more familiar with my teaching style they are no longer so timid to step in and participate in figuring it all out. Through Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” I’m able to engage them in existential discussion and questions of self-perception and identity. In a story entitled “The Mirror Image,” about a girl who has a brain transplant after getting into a terrible car accident I am able to discuss Cartesian dualism and the basic ideas of the mind-body connection. I obviously avoid explaining these topics in such complex ways, but the subject matter is still there and they find the discussions fascinating, and I – more often than last year – find classes intellectually stimulating.

So things at school are generally going well. That being said, I’m finding life extremely busy and I’m already exhausted. I have many more responsibilities than I did last year, which is both an honour (one I’m not entirely sure I deserve) and a gigantic pain in my ass (one I probably do deserve).

It all happened very quickly. “So, who should coordinate this?” the principal would ask. “How about Mr. Nick,” he would suggest with zero opposition. “And what about that?” Silence. “Maybe…Mr. Nick.” I probably should have spoken up, but a part of me was looking forward to having some greater responsibilities, as I assumed they would provide me with the opportunity to do some of the things I have wanted to do since arriving here (this assumption has yet to pan out). The result is that I am now coordinating the Literary Committee, the English Subject Committee, the Creative Writers’ Club (which is also going to be publishing a monthly school newspaper this year), and all football in the school at all levels, both girls’ and boys’. On top of this I am trying to introduce a Student Counseling program at the school, which is complicated enough to create from scratch, but which became even more complicated once I realized that I was going to have to somehow balance the basic ethical guidelines of counseling with the somewhat rigid rules of the school. I still haven’t figured out how this is going to work, but I’m sure that – living in a Buddhist country – I will find the middle path. And lastly, for the time being at least, I am once again a class teacher, which means basically nothing to most of you sitting at home back in Canada, but basically means that I have a million extra responsibilities ranging from collecting students’ fees to filling in paperwork to distributing school uniforms to doing pretty much anything the administration asks of me regarding the forty students in my class.

So life is busy…busy but good. Like I said, I’m already exhausted, but I know that the cause of my exhaustion is also a source of contentment for me in this second year. I am a full time member of my community and I feel like I have made a place for myself here. I’m no longer treated as a guest (at least not in the awkward way), I’m treated just like every other teacher at the school. People have a better idea of what to expect from me this year and I them. I finally understand how the system works (as much as one can) and I have learned how to work within it and maneuver outside of it when necessary. I have made progress in figuring out how to teach my students not just what they need to know, but what I want them to know and what many of them long to know – how to identify the philosophies and psychologies that shape the human experience and connect all of us, regardless of age, religion, ethnicity or nationality. And this has perhaps been one of the greatest lessons I have learned in being here – that when all is said and done, despite being from a very different culture and a very different country in general, as an individual I am not so different from my friends, my colleagues or my students. In fact, we are all here for the same purpose: to do something meaningful with our time. Would my time here have been meaningful if I had come home at the end of last year? I’m still not entirely sure. But what I do know is that this second year in Bhutan has bought me more time to grow professionally and personally, and to touch and be touched by all the amazing people around me. What a privilege it is to be here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Blog #32: Bardow the Beautiful

NOTE: I'm sorry for the long gap in postings. Just so you all know, India was an amazing experience. It didn't really recharge my battery in the way I had hoped it would, but it was one of the most interesting travel experiences I have ever had. I went in with no plan and I think that allowed me to really gain the most from my time there (although I certainly didn't see as much as I would have liked).

Anyway, I have decided not to include stories from my time in India in this blog because, well, it's Bhutanlines, not Indialines. The experience was very different from my life in Bhutan and therefore doesn't really fit in to my Bhutan story. I have been working on a tale of my journey to and from India because that does contain a taste of Bhutan, but the posting has turned epic and I have decided to put it on the back burner for now. It may surface in the future, it may not.

For now, I will include one post that is from my time in India because it too has a taste of Bhutan within it. It is about a gentleman I met in Delhi named Bardow. In a city of millions, what are the chances that a stranger from Bhutan would approach me of all people on the street? I thought it was worth writing about. Enjoy!




Bardow approaches me and asks me where I got my hat. “From Sikkim?” he enquires.

“No, my mom made it,” I tell him.

“Very nice,” he compliments me, “ just like in Sikkim.” He pauses so I keep walking. Strangers approaching you on Delhi’s bustling streets is anything but strange.

“Where are you from?” Bardow finally fires back as I realize he is still keeping pace with me.

“Canada,” I respond to the question, which has become so familiar it seems always to be resting on the tip of my tongue.

“Oh, Canada!” he gasps as his face lights up. “I’m very happy. This is very beautiful. You are the first man I have met from Canada.”

Though I’m in a rush, something about this soft spoken, elderly stranger draws me in, sparks my interest in conversation. His long, tweed coat and fuzzy scarf are cause for envy on this frosty Delhi night. The twinkle in his eyes lures me in.

“Where are you from?” I finally ask, knowing full well I might be getting myself into a conversation I have neither the time nor the patience for. Delhi has lowered my boiling point considerably.

“Bhutan,” he replies. This time it is my face that has become aglow.

We talk for a while about where he lives, what he does, what he’s doing in Delhi. Eventually the conversation shifts from the middle of the street to an empty chai stall after he suggests, “Should we have a cup of chai?”

We talk for nearly an hour. He explains that he was a teacher back in Bhutan and how he was forced into retirement when he turned sixty-five. He speaks of his sixty-forth year as a time of happiness, as the ‘good times,’ but things have become much more complicated with just one added notch on his belt. His grey hands tremble as he sips his chai and tells me of his family – a wife and one daughter, one son, both just finished their high school studies. He speaks of their hopes and dreams – their ambitions and aspirations– as if they are his own, every so often lowering his shaking head into his hands, slicking his long, silver eyebrows with his thumb and forefinger. The topic clearly upsets him, but he never loses his joyful countenance, his glow.

His daughter wants to be a nurse, he explains with great pride. But there are no nursing programs in Bhutan, an outdated piece of information, I inform him, but he retorts that even the programs n Bhutan, though tuition is free, cost more than he has. Hostel fees and meal plans: the unavoidable realities of sending one’s child away from home for studies.

He explains that he came to Delhi for work, that he had hoped there would be greater opportunity to tutor students in the big city, more consistent work. He received no pension from his previous job.

“What to do la?” he mutters.

I smile at this common Bhutanesism, a favourite of theirs and mine.

He doesn’t like Delhi at all. He describes all the same attitudes and behaviours that frustrate me as well; the greed, selfishness, aggression – the ego. There are glaringly apparent differences between the simplicity of Bhutan and the complications of India. “Materialism,” he repeats over and over again throughout the conversation. There is a distinct Buddhist undertone to most of what he says, I realize.

I agree with most of what he says; it has been shockingly apparent to me ever since I arrived. Many shop owners, when asked how much something costs, will respond with dramatically overpriced quotes, as is somewhat expected in this part of the world to make room for haggling. But the negotiations are an exhausting process that have often left me walking away frustrated. Vendors will often refuse to give reasonable prices, preferring to hold out for one sucker whose purchase will yield an absurd profit rather than move quantity at a smaller, but still respectable return. “Always wanting more,” is how Bardow describes it. A recent experience of mine reaffirms this.

I took an auto-rickshaw from the airport to my guesthouse in Delhi. I had already made the journey several times and was well aware of both the distance and the correct fare, so when I approached a group of rickshaw drivers and was asked, “How much you want to pay?” and one driver quickly agreed to my response of “150” I was both pleased and shocked. No negotiations? No hassle?

I loaded my bags into the mobile pod, rocking it slightly with the added weight, and plopped myself in my seat, happy to get going so quickly.

About five minutes into my journey, just far enough that I had lost sight of the other rickshaws, my driver turned to me and said, “So you pay 150 plus 120 parking fee.”

Okay, here goes, I thought to myself. I had watched him pay a parking attendant when we left and it certainly hadn’t been 120. And anyway, the agreed upon price ha been 150, not 150 plus some.

“No, no,” I stood firm, “we said 150. I don’t pay for your parking.”

He fought with me for a little while saying parking was very expensive, then shifting strategies and arguing that my destination was very far.

“No, not very far,” I defended. “15 to 20 minutes.”

He argued with me for a few more minutes before trailing off in some mumbled Hindi.

Always wanting more. How true Bardow’s words rang out sometimes.

There are few pauses in conversation between the two of us, and the discomfort that arises when they do happen is quickly dissolved by that majestic twinkle in his eyes.

Bardow picks up again, explaining to me his current situation. He is having a difficult time finding students. Several teachers at the colleges are trying to help him, he assures me, but once again there are complications. Students all want to be able to phone Bardow, and he is unable to afford a phone. He does have an email address, but he says that the 10 rupees for 15 minutes of internet usage is too expensive to use more than once or twice a week. It is only with this that I really begin to understand the gravity of his financial situation. I understand it even better when he goes on to explain his living situation – sharing a room with three other people for 85 rupees a day, eating from street vendors for 10 to 15 rupees if he can even afford that.

“Why not rent a room by the month?” I ask him, knowing well that it would be cheaper.

“Landlords all want security deposit up front,” he explains. “4000 rupees. Too much,” he adds, again diving his face into his hands, slicking back his silver brows. He has only been able to procure three students so far in the six months he has been living in Delhi, Bangladeshis whom he says can’t pay him much.

“How much do you charge?” I ask.

“150 rupees per lesson.”

“Okay, that’s not bad. How long are lessons? One hour?”

“Three hours. And only a few lessons a week.” His head falls, silver flashes.

“It’s no good,” he says with a tone of slight resignation.

“No, no. It’s okay. But I think you could do better if you advertised a bit around the colleges, maybe put up posters,” I suggest, trying to re-inflate his optimism, reignite his glow.

“Yes, but problem is they all want a phone number, and phones are very expensive.”

“How much are phones?” I ask.

“1200 new. Maybe six or seven hundred used.”

We talk a little longer, mostly about my family this time. I describe them fondly, though somewhat embarrassedly, realizing the extent of my position of privilege.

Being here has provided me with a profound realization that our society affords us privileges others can’t even begin to comprehend. This is not to say that everyone in Canadian society is better off than Bardow, but that simply being from Canada affords us with at least a basic system of support, a safety net of sorts.

I worked in a shelter predominantly comprised of refugees from all over the world, some of whom didn’t have a single possession to call their own. They were the lucky ones who had made it out of their countries and had landed in a good situation. And they mostly had good reasons for leaving their motherlands.

I remember helping one man fill out some government forms claiming refugee status. He was confused by a question which asked, “How did you leave your native country?”

He asked me, I think half-jokingly, “Can I say by running for my life?”

I told him it probably wasn’t a good idea, but asked myself, why the hell not? What could better describe the reality of his situation?

And what could better describe Bardow’s situation than that gentle utterance, “It’s no good.” The truth – the reality – is, no, no it isn’t.

Conversation ceases again for just a moment, a topic draws to a close. As he stirs his tea, Bardow’s spoon clinks against his glass, reminding me of the prayer bells back at school. Living in a Buddhist country has left its mark on me. I have not yet given into Buddhism as a religion, nor do I think I ever will entirely, but the philosophy has certainly increased my sensitivity to the issues of the ego and altruism, strengthened my sense of responsibility for others. I ask Bardow if he would feel comfortable allowing me to buy a phone for him to help him improve his chances of getting more students. He never really accepts, nor does he decline. He just keeps shaking his head, muttering, “It’s too much,” I assume talking about the price, not my gesture. He doesn’t want a new one, there’s no need. But maybe an old one, and maybe one or two hundred rupees of talking time. This seems like the most sensible idea to me as well.

It’s late and nothing remains at the bottom of our glasses but a few soggy spices. There’s no way we can get the phone tonight, but I leave for Rishikesh tomorrow. What to do la?

I arrange to email him one or two days before I return to Delhi and we will meet at the same chai stall again. Then I ask him where he is going now, and has he eaten dinner. He tells me he hasn’t but he will walk and get some cheap street food, find something for 5 or 10 rupees.

I reach into my pocket and pull out a crumpled 100 rupee note. Gandhi stares up at me approvingly.

“Will you take this and buy yourself a nice dinner tonight?” I ask my new friend.

“Thank you,” he accepts with poise and humility.

His hands tremble as they hover over the table and receive the money. We get up out of our seats and move towards the street where the entire fateful encounter began.

“So we’ll meet again,” I say as I extend my hand.

“Yes,” he says with a smile and a twinkle. “I do hope so.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

Blog #31: Oh So Cold!

I’m Canadian. I’m used to bone-aching winters. My blood is thicker than the blood of people of other nationalities. I have words for winter clothing that are only understood in my country. I embrace the cold, the snow, and the challenge of living in a climate that many would run from. At least I thought I did.

Winter crept up on me. At first, it was just a little cold in the mornings. But getting out of bed is always a miserable experience, I told myself. The warm bundling of blankets can’t last forever. Nothing is permanent…not even warmth. So I chalked it up to good ol’ fashion morning reluctance to wake.

The days were absolutely gorgeous. The sun shone more brightly than I think I had previously seen it shine in Khaling, with not a single cloud in the sky to hide its radiance. Its rich blue sparkled and blinded me on my walk to and from school every day. I would find myself standing on top of the stairs in front of the school, looking out over the school’s football field, the town, the valley, and the vast expanse of mountains in the distance, left in awe by the heavenly view. It wasn’t cold as long as the sun was sharing its warmth. But when the sun grew tired and ducked below the mountains to gather its rest, the cold advanced on Khaling and left us all retreating for our homes.

The problem here is that homes are not heated. Many people here rely on bukaris, wood-burning stoves that act both as heaters and as stoves. The school staff room was home to a bukari, and I admit that I really enjoyed the heat that it generated, but I generally avoided being in the staff room when the bukari was being used because it not only generated a surprising amount of heat, but also a disgusting amount of smoke. I would often walk into the staff room to find a group of people gathered around the bukari in a thick haze of smoke. Upon entering the room my eyes would instantly burn and tear, but others seemed unfazed. I’m sure the smoke inhalation experienced by the crowd could not have been far off from that of a person pulled from a burning house. My lungs stung and a lump formed in the back of my throat. I decided the warmth was not worth it.

The other option for warming one’s home is electric heaters. I actually have two heaters in my house. One is a rod-heater, a little box with a coil that glows a mesmerizing fluorescent orange when switched on. The rod-heater is a great little treat when the toes start to go numb. When placed in front of the heater those little piggies could quickly become a delicious grilled pork dinner. The problem with this heater, however, is that it fails to radiate the heat and warm a room. If you are right in front of it, you’re doing great. If you’re more than a foot or two away from it, you really don’t feel its effects.

So I also have a panel heater, which is essentially a portable radiator. This gem is slow and steady, and trust me, it wins the race. Standing directly beside it will gently warm your bones, blood, or whatever needs to be thawed, but its true value lies in its ability to warm a room. Turn on the panel heater, close the door, and return one hour later to experience a comfortable warmth filling the air.

So there are possible sources of warmth, but they also become costly if used all the time. My electric bill for November was more than ten times what it was in October (granted, it went from one dollar to twelve dollars). It may not sound like much, but it’s all relative. So I compromised by using the panel heater for an hour before bed and wearing jackets and hats inside the house the rest of the time. If it’s still too cold I will obviously use a heater, and I find that is happening more and more often, but right now I’m coping with the compromise.

What is absolutely impossible to cope with (and to really express) is my daily chores. Washing dishes is torturous. I sometimes feel as if I might as well be holding ice cubes as I scrub away at the pots and pans. It burns and tingles like pins are pricking at my skin. After less than thirty seconds my fingers are bright pink and the rest of my hand is left looking jaundice in relation. The only solution (or at least partial solution) is to have a bowl of lukewarm water readily available to dip my hands in after each and every plate. This bowl, of course, must be refilled with boiling water on a regular basis, as the water cools almost instantly in the cold air that fills my kitchen.

So washing dishes is awful. But even worse than that is doing laundry. Remember, I do my laundry in a giant bucket of water. Well, now it is a giant bucket of ice water. And the water splashes here and there, inevitably soaking the clothes you’re wearing at the time. Not even the lukewarm bowl of water will help you this time, as your whole arm turns scarlet in the icy bucket. The only solution is to go fast and take breaks to recharge in the sunlight as frequently as possible. The winter has essentially made a miserable task unbearable.

And yet, I can’t help but laugh at the cold a lot of the time. Just as I have found other parts of this experience ridiculous, I also find the cold to be. I mean, imagine going to the bathroom and losing track of where the toilet is because the steam rising up from where your pee hits the frosty porcelain hides the toilet from your view. People in the west often hate on the squatter toilet, but I’m telling you, touching your cheeks to a toilet seat in this kind of cold is not something I would want to try even once. When winter hit I finally understood the logic behind the squatter toilet.

So what to do? Well I could keep bundling myself in layer upon layer of warm clothes; or I could run my heaters 24-hours a day and just take the financial hit; or I could subject my lungs to physical trauma comparable to that of a fire victim; or I could chop of my hands, thus avoiding the burden of doing laundry and the dishes.

Well I’ve come up with an even better solution. I call it “Operation Jump Ship.” To hell with the cold. I came here to experience new things. The cold is old news. I’m familiar with it, and I quite frankly don’t need it right now. What I need is some warmth to recharge my battery for next year. I will admit that by now I’m running on empty. Work has drained me emotionally and daily life has drained me physically. I’m giving myself a vacation – I think I deserve one – and luckily one of the world’s hottest countries is my next-door neighbour. So I’m off to India. I don’t have much of a plan. I will see some of the sights, I will explore some of the cities, I will relax on some of the beaches, and I will visit some friends. And more than anything else, I will stay warm.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Blog #30: Done and Done!

DISCLAIMER: Those of you who have been following my blog will have noticed that I haven't written an entry in almost two months. I apologize for the significant gap in entries, but time has not been a luxury I have had (nor have I had any other luxuries if you want the truth). But just because I haven't written anything in two months doesn't mean I didn't have lots to say. As you will see, there has actually been quite a bit on my mind. Many people have asked me to write more about my teaching experience here (in particular those brave souls considering coming here to teach next year). I found that during the school year this really was of no interest to me since I lived and breathed that experience every day. But now that the year has come to an end, I found myself in a long awaited state of reflection. I apologize for what you are about to read. It is about two months worth of ideas and it might just take you that long to read it. Good luck and enjoy!


Work has completely consumed the last two months of my life. To tell you the truth it’s all a bit of a blur to me now. I was hoping to keep better track of the time, to take in every experience, to let life here marinate, but somehow the remainder of the school year has come and gone with little excitement to show for it.

I returned to school after the mid-term vacation with the idea that I was going to do everything differently in the second term. I had recognized several areas of my teaching that I needed to improve and I felt that I better understood my students, both their personalities and their needs. My new approach was short-lived.

At first I had students reading the stories, essay, poems, what-have-you on their own, and working in groups to generate exam style questions that they might be asked on those particular readings. The groups would then submit the questions to me, I would spend the night sorting through them, weeding out the ridiculous ones and typing up the ones I deemed worthy of addressing, and the next day I would give them a practice test on the reading.

My reasoning behind this was twofold. First, I think that students learn best by asking critical questions to themselves as they read. If a student can ask a good question, they can probably produce a good answer. This is particularly true in this culture, where students are used to being spoon fed information rather than being asked to think for themselves. Secondly, a significant portion of the final exam is devoted to sight passages (25% for an unseen essay, and 25% for an unseen poem). After marking their first term exams I realized that both of these sections caused a tremendous amount difficulty – there just wasn’t anyone to spoon feed them and they lacked the critical thinking skills to comprehend the passages on their own. And so, something needed to be done about this.

So group work it was, and for a short while it worked splendidly. But only for a short while. What I soon noticed was that only a few students in the groups were participating in generating questions. The rest were sitting idly by as the smarter students did the work. This could just be a typical teenage attitude towards learning, but I do wonder if it has something to do with the apathy that I sense persists in both the students and at times the teachers. The belief in both cases is that the ultimate goal is to simply finish the task – a fallacy which in my opinion, more than anything else I have come across, has the potential to obstruct the future educational development of the country.

Unfortunately, even when the “groups” were able to produce relatively intelligent questions, individuals were generally unable to produce answers that could be described as such. I have been working for the better part of a year to get students to move beyond the superficial to a place of substance, and still only a handful of them truly grasp what that entails. Then there are some students who from time to time surprise me with a truly insightful response, but usually they themselves are more shocked by this than I. Others produce, on a consistent basis, the most basic level of response to questions that demand much more. And lastly, and perhaps most commonly, there are those students who simply regurgitate Buddhist philosophy in the most tangential way. To these students, the answer to any question that could ever be posed seems to relate to nature’s impermanence, which is enough to plunge me into an existential crisis, both as a human being and as a teacher.

After my role-reversal experiment in which students were setting the questions for their own tests I tried a new activity. I asked students to read a story for homework and underline at least two lines from the reading that they found interesting. The results, I assure you, were uninteresting. They were simply unable to distinguish the important information from the superfluous information. Again, all year I had been modeling how to do this. I would pick out provocative lines from stories or essays that we were reading as a class and ask students to respond to a series of guided questions relating to a line. Even so, when left to their own devices…nothing.

Then I came up with yet another idea, one that was considered both novel and controversial among my colleagues; I showed my students a movie. I’m sure I broke at least half a dozen rules in doing this, but I will adamantly defend my decision to do so. It wasn’t just for fun – although I wasn’t opposed to injecting a little bit of entertainment into my students’ otherwise monotonous lives; there was actually some method behind my madness. Students have almost no exposure to film or television here, and this, in my humble opinion, is a missed opportunity. My students (and friends) with the greatest proficiency in English all accredit this proficiency to movies and music (hip-hop in particular). I’m not sure how strong the correlation is, and I’m sure there are other variables in the equation (in particular socio-economic status – only wealthier families have televisions and/or MP3 players), but at the same time, the power of television and music is undeniable and constant exposure to the English language can’t possibly be a bad thing. So I showed a movie. Shoot me.

Unfortunately my choice of movies lacked dialogue for the first 30 minutes of the film. Whoops. Not my fault though. I couldn’t just pick any movie (although I did later show my students The Princess Bride “to teach them about the elements of fiction and good storytelling”…giggle), I had to at least pick one that related to the curriculum. So when we finished reading “Too Bad,” a futuristic story about a man who invents a robot that, upon miniaturization, can be injected inside the human body in order to quite literally zap cancer cells with its laser, I searched through my hard drive for a movie that could at least draw one or two parallels. I found the Pixar animated WALL-E. For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, familiarize yourselves immediately. It is an incredibly cute movie, and as is becoming the trend with animated films, it is also incredibly intelligent and geared more towards an adult audience than to children.

The students absolutely loved it. They were quoting lines from the movie for the following few weeks (again, The Princess Bride probably trumped the effect of WALL-E. Every time I passed one of my students they would say to me, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”)

I had told the students before watching the movie to bring notebooks with them and to try to draw comparisons between the movie and the short story. I expected them to touch on ideas like character traits (both robots, despite being machines, exhibit human emotion) or themes (both robots sacrifice themselves for the greater good of humanity), ideas that were fairly obvious, especially after the numerous hints I gave before starting the movie. But alas, my naïveté got the best of me once again. Instead of critical analyses on the parallels between the movie and story, I received haphazardly written plot summaries which, even then, proved to be inaccurate (somehow a number of students started talking about the “moon people”). Once again, a few students produced well written, thorough and sound comparisons, and perhaps that makes it all worthwhile, but the majority of students just couldn’t manage to think on that higher plane.

“To be articulate and discriminating about ordinary affairs and information is the mark of an educated man.” This line was taken from the unseen essay that appeared on the class eleven final exam. The essay is entitled “Classroom Without Walls” by Marshall McLuhan. It’s actually a brilliantly written essay, one which I would urge anyone in education to read when they have a chance. In it McLuhan argues that educators need to embrace the mass media as a valuable teaching tool, as it has the potential to tear down the restrictions of the classroom walls and allows for students to learn through their exposure to different forms of media. The novelty of this idea has by now worn off in the Western world, but I assure you that in Bhutan it is still considered not just novel, but strange as well. When I came across this quotation I found it ironically appropriate to include on the exam considering my failed attempts to teach my students to think critically while watching a movie.

The question I actually posed to students was, “Do you agree or disagree with the above statement? Justify your response.” I will admit that it is a difficult quotation, but the essay was actually taken from the supplementary section of their textbook, so it was deemed ability-appropriate (that is not to say that it is, just that it was “deemed” to be) and if students had understood the essay at all, they would have had some opinions on the matter. The incoherent drivel that landed on their pages spoke for itself.

I’m going to begin the next school year by writing this quote on the board. I think it establishes a good objective for the year, if not for the students then for me. I think it is a worthwhile goal. I have always believed that the purpose of education is to teach children to think critically at all times, to ask questions, to voice their opinions in a meaningful way. I have never been one to care about what is right or wrong. Obviously, in certain disciplines that is the ultimate goal. But being a student of philosophy, I have never found a point in discussing what is right or wrong, but rather why something makes sense or fails to do so. If a student can express an idea clearly and convincingly justify their reason for thinking that way, in my opinion, that student is far more likely to succeed than the student who is simply able to answer a question “correctly.”

With that being said, I find myself living in a pedagogical paradox. I was brought to this country to deliver a Canadian style of education to my students, – and I find my personal philosophy of education does align with this approach to education in most respects – however, the Bhutanese education system is still largely based on the Indian education system, which holds at its core a very different philosophy, one which does in fact stress a “correct” answer (keep in mind that when I’m discussing these philosophies I am doing so as an English teacher. I do not mean to suggest that a philosophy which emphasizes fact is not valuable in other subjects. But when students come to me and ask me, “Who is considered to be the father of the essay?” I’m not exactly sure of the answer or its importance).

Bhutan is still a relatively poor country, and as such, citizens rely heavily on the government for assistance. This is particularly true when it comes to education, as education is free for all Bhutanese citizens. However, because of limited resources and the geographic need for schools to offer boarding facilities to their students, positions in schools are quite limited. The result is that all students are offered a seat in government schools up until they reach class ten, at which point in time they must write a national board exam in order to qualify for class eleven. Of the 12, 000 or so students who write this exam (this number is an estimate based on what friends have told me – please do not consider any of these numbers facts…you know I don’t like those!) approximately one third of them will qualify to continue their education in government schools for class eleven. When students reach class twelve they once again write a national board exam. Those students who receive an average above 40% will be granted a leaving certificate which verifies that they have passed class twelve (frighteningly, these people can become teachers!). Those students who are in the top thirty percentile (again, this is an estimate), usually a mark above 65% I’m told, will qualify for scholarships to colleges within Bhutan. And then finally, those students in the very top percentile (maybe 1%) will qualify for government scholarships (which includes a comfortable living allowance as well as tuition and books) to universities abroad (which is necessary to pursue certain careers, for example a career in medicine, as Bhutanese colleges do not offer such programs). So the whole system is highly competitive and there is obviously a great deal of pressure on students, as well as teachers, to perform and get good results.

So here is the problem. The national level board exams that I have described are based on an Indian system of education. They are extremely content heavy (the Physics textbook is bigger that the Whitepages in Toronto) and notoriously unpredictable. So preparing students for this exam, especially when it comes to English, which is – despite some people’s refusal to admit so – highly subjective, is extremely difficult.

Why, you ask, is it so difficult? Well in order to understand why it’s so difficult to ensure good results I must first explain the evaluation process.

Every year in January teachers from across the country travel to a designated location to participate in evaluation camp. Teachers are not only paid a tidy sum of money to participate, but they also are given a travel allowance for the expenses they incur on their journey to said location (I’m building up ammunition to write an article for a Bhutanese newspaper on this issue).

The entire evaluation camp lasts thirteen days, one of which is granted as a holiday. During the twelve working days, teachers are assembled into teams based on subject, and these teams, usually consisting of eight or nine teachers, are responsible for evaluating the exams for all of class ten or twelve in their respective subjects. In some subjects the task is not so unreasonable (not all students take subjects like physics and chemistry, and these subjects are also relatively quick to mark). However, considering that every student must take English, and that evaluating an English exam takes considerably longer than evaluating a Math exam, the English teachers who attend the evaluation camp face quite a daunting task. Oh yeah, and to make matters just a little worse, students write not just one English exam, but two (each of which is three hours long)!

Because the camp is only twelve days long, teachers are given a daily quota of exams that they are required to evaluate (if you do the math, for English it works out to about forty-one exams for class twelve English per teacher per day). This in itself yields interesting results, mainly that exams are more often than not scanned rather than read. However, the troublesome part for an English teacher like myself is that in order to cope with the mountains of exams, evaluators are given answer keys for the exams. In some respects this is probably a good thing considering that often the evaluators are teachers from primary schools (remember I mentioned that one only needs to have passed class twelve with an average of 40% to become a teacher), but again, for the English exam it is still probably not so great.

The problem with answer keys is that the evaluator doesn’t really have to think. They simply read the answer and see if it matches the model answer given in the answer key. For English, a subject in which answers can vary in an infinite number of ways, this system of evaluation is fairly illogical and certainly flawed.

Perhaps an example will better emphasize my bafflement. I will give an example from the grammar section of the class eleven exam. Keep in mind that grammar is by far the most concrete area of the English curriculum; there are at least some rules that should be followed (although we all know there are always exceptions to grammar rules). I say this only to stress that in the English literature section of the exam, answers are even more subjective. But let’s stick with grammar for now. (Let me warn you that in some cases…sigh…I’m not entirely sure of the correct answer. Please don’t judge me. Trust me, neither are you.)

1) The new law passed by the parliament made everyone’s life secure. (Rewrite using the word “security”)

My best guess for this one is as follows: “The new law passed by the parliament provided everyone with security.”

But maybe: “Security was guaranteed to everyone in the new law passed by parliament.”

2) He demanded them to treat the information as confidential. (Rewrite using the noun form of ‘confidential’)

I’m not sure, but maybe: “He demanded that they treat the information with confidentiality.”

I also thought of: “Confidentiality was demanded of them in regards to the information.”

3) Young people think the world is made _____ them alone.
a. up of
b. for
c. of
d. with


You tell me, is the answer “up of” or “for?” I personally would have said “up of” but I believe the correct answer on the exam was “for.” Who knows?

Okay, last one. These ones are the students’ favourites. You are instructed to rewrite the sentence using the given prompt while maintaining the original meaning. Good luck.

4) A: It would be a good idea if you went and asked her yourself.
B: You’d _________________________________.

The only thing that comes to mind for me is: “You’d be wise to go and ask her yourself.” I’m sure there are other possibilities. I urge each and every person who reads this to contribute any variations on any of these answers in the comment section.

Not only are the questions extremely difficult to begin with, but if a teacher is simply marking off of an answer key and fails to use any judgement of their own, a student with perfect grammar could actually end up doing quite poorly. I have experienced this first hand while marking exams. I usually have a pretty good idea of what to expect in terms of responses to these types of questions, but every now and again one of my brightest students throws me a curve ball and provides a response that I hadn’t even considered, a response that is perfectly correct. I do my best to award the marks where they are deserved, but I’m not so convinced that the teachers at evaluation camp will exercise the same discretion (I do not mean to criticize. I, in fact, sympathize, as the expectations placed on evaluators are far from reasonable if quality is to be maintained). With that being said, the board exams are clearly flawed and attempting to predict which answer evaluators are actually looking for, especially for a native English speaker, becomes a nerve-wracking task (after all, students’ educational futures are on the line).

So how do you deliver a student-centred approach to learning when there are very specific expectations on the exam which actually discourage any sort of deviation from the “norm?” In the literature section of the exam it becomes a matter of structure and form, teaching students the components that make up a good answer, but in grammar questions like the ones above, it becomes a game of mind reading and speculation. Combine this with the fact that the expectation is that students have a comprehensive understanding of English grammar (an expectation that most native English speakers can’t possibly meet) and students often give up before even writing the exam.

And grammar is in my opinion the biggest problem here. There is no concrete guideline for what grammar a student is expected to know, so what do you teach? What concept is being tested in question number four? Seriously, I have no idea.

Even when there is a concept to be taught, the expectations are that students know everything there is to know. According to Deva Kumar, the head of the English department and a thirteen year veteran of Jigme Sherubling HSS, in 2009, for the first time in his experience here, students were asked about idioms on the English board exam. Nowhere had the curriculum specifically mentioned to teachers that they were to teach idioms and so the students were left flabbergasted and clueless when they reached this section of the exam.

Now we know to teach idioms to our students, but the question still arises, which idioms? The answer: all idioms. Well, living in a country where English is a third or fourth language to most people has taught me that native English speakers speak almost entirely in idioms. I found that towards the end of the year I was teaching my students an idiom a day simply because I had accidentally used one and they had no idea what I was talking about. So they’re learning. And I guess I’m teaching. But if you look online or in a book of idioms you will quickly realize that to demand that students know all the English idioms is completely unrealistic (there are literally thousands and I’ve learned that I don’t know what most of them mean) and unfair. Oh yeah, and just a reminder that idioms have appeared on the exam once in the last thirteen years. So is it worth the time or the worry?

Anyways, I have digressed. Somewhere – approximately 2000 words ago – I mentioned the pedagogical paradox that I find myself in. I am supposed to be delivering a Canadian style of education to my students, – a student-centred approach that teaches students how to find answers on their own or in groups, but veers away from rote learning and lecture based classes – and yet, on their own students can’t possibly meet the demanding expectations of the exams that unfortunately determine their entire future. The reality is that it takes a heavy dose of spoon fed education to guarantee good results on the board exams. As a teacher where do my obligations lie, in educating them properly or in ensuring that they do well on the exams and continue their education? For most of the year I found myself stuck in this crisis of conscience.

So I made a compromise with myself and with my students. I decided that since I am teaching class nine and eleven this year, grades that are not subject to board exams but rather “home” exams, I will teach in my own, Canadian style, working on critical thinking and writing skills, and next year I will adjust my pedagogy, feeding them information until they’re bloated.

All was fine and dandy until about two weeks before exams when I finished the syllabus and began review. It was at that point in time that it became frighteningly apparent that my students were confused about the short stories we had studied. When I taught these stories the first time I had checked students’ understanding on a regular basis through questions and assignments, and all of them seemed to be doing okay, but again, in my naïveté I failed to recognize that they were all just faking their understanding in order to move on to the next activity or story. I figure that in a class of thirty-six students, maybe five or six of them actually did the work themselves (less so in my weaker class), and the rest just copied their friends, altering their answers ever so slightly with zero understanding of what they were saying. When I was teaching and asked time and time again, “Does that make sense?” I imagine Pavlov was rolling around in his grave, laughing proudly as my students collectively, though mundanely, answered, “Yes, sir.”

So I did what any good teacher would do. I completely abandoned my principles and started teaching them in classic Bhutanese fashion. The problem was that being Canadian this approach was completely foreign to me. Even worse still was that it was far more time consuming. Students specifically requested that I take them through each and every line of a story and explain what it meant.

Soon it became clear that class time wasn’t going to suffice, so students began asking for me to come after school to teach. How can you say no to students who are so eager to seek extra help? At home I think I would faint if even one student asked to have class for an hour after school; here there was an entire class asking me to teach for an hour to an hour and a half, not just after school, but also on Sunday, the one day of the week we don’t have school. I felt even more obligated to take extra classes when, once again (and slightly less surprisingly this time), regular class were canceled during the week leading up to exams for various (ridiculous) reasons. My friends and colleagues thought I was crazy (taking extra classes is actually quite common for class ten and twelve but unheard of for class nine and eleven), but I did it nonetheless.

For the most part I honestly loved it. These classes were usually far less formal than regular classes. Not all of the students came, though most did, so I would crowd them together and just sit on a desk and go to work. They lapped it up. Once we finished the short stories – again – the focus shifted to grammar. Even teaching grammar during these extra classes had a different feel to it. Maybe it’s that only the students who were really eager to learn were attending, I don’t know, but there was a flow that I don’t think existed during regular school hours.

Anyway, this continued for a little over a week, at which point in time I had already collected the students' reading and writing portfolios, and started to panic that I wouldn’t be able to mark them in time to return them to their owners. So extra classes were suspended indefinitely and my days and nights were consumed by students’ portfolios.

Oh portfolios, how I loathe thee! If I never see another portfolio again I will die a happy man. Best case scenario, it took about forty-five minutes to finish one student’s portfolio (that’s including both reading and writing). But that was if the grammar was good. If the grammar was bad, it could add another half hour. And if the grammar was atrocious (which is actually not a strong enough word to describe some students’ portfolios) I was looking at maybe an hour and a half, at which point in time I would just give up and ballpark their mark. So we’re talking about an average of maybe an hour per portfolio, and I teach ninety students. I get dizzy just thinking about it.

In all fairness, some of them were extremely well done. I gave one girl eighteen out of twenty. She was very creative, had great style to her writing, and a really critical mind. That was the type of portfolio that made it all bearable. But that was also the type of portfolio that came around only when the stars were aligned just right. For the most part students would all write the exact same things: essays on nature’s impermanence, stories about girls who fall in love with boys only to discover later that the boys are cheating on them (affairs are very common here; see Ann’s blog http://annsadventures-ann.blogspot.com for an entry entitled “Marital Relationships” which discusses this matter), or poems about teachers and/or parents being gods (those are my favourite). After reading two or three entries on these topics you want to throw up; after reading eighty entries like this you want to chop up a bunch of chilies, rub them into your eyes until you can no longer see, which in all reality would be much less excruciating than reading even one more portfolio.

So after working from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (and sometimes later depending on my duties for the week) during the weeks when I was taking extra classes, I embarked on a professional voyage (of a very static nature) to correct ninety portfolios in just two weeks. It took me day and night (and weekends), an entire tin of coffee, and a few bottles of whisky (upon completion of my day’s work only), but I am proud to say that I got it done, and just in time to give them back to my students before they went home (some actually refused to pick them up and so they have become entertaining kindling for the Bukari…the portfolios, not the students).

I was so relieved to be done marking portfolios that the 180 exams that I had to mark couldn’t even bring down my spirits. I have learned that the joy of marking exams is that they require absolutely no feedback. With portfolios I would read through each entry and meticulously correct each and every grammar mistake (when possible) and then provide a comment and the end of the portfolio informing the student what they did well and what they needed to work on. With exams I wrote a number next to the answer and (this was my favourite part) drew an oddly satisfying circle around said number.

I’m not saying that marking the exams was easy; it wasn’t, but it was certainly less painful than marking portfolios. I have been working on them for the past three weeks. For the last week I have been working from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. with breaks only for lunch and dinner (and sometimes a short rest), but I’m finally done.

So how did my students do, you ask? Well, I’m technically not allowed to say anything until the results are officially declared, but let’s just say they finally managed to muster up some creativity despite the questions demanding nothing of the sort. Grammar was just as I had expected, and the extra classes seemed to have paid off with the short story (for the most part).

Critical thinking continues to be a complicated problem. The unseen poem proved to be a disaster. I chose “Hawk Roosting” by Ted Hughes, admittedly, quite a difficult poem. However, the questions posed on the exam were not particularly difficult, and yet the results were shocking. Some students actually left almost the entire section blank (including the multiple choice questions). One girl actually came up with a brilliant interpretation of the poem, both literal and figurative, in which she argued that the poem was actually about a man’s sense of entitlement over women (pretty much exactly what Hughes was writing about, I think). I was elated to see such a fabulous response. My elation faded when I later awarded one student half a mark (0.5) out of twenty-five for the entire poetry section of the exam. But sadly that is the reality of teaching here. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try as a teacher, students will not succeed. It took me a long time to come to terms with this (pretty much the entire year…and I’m still not entirely comfortable with it), but my sympathy wanes when the student doesn’t even attempt to answer the questions (especially multiple choice…I mean, come on!).

So I’m done for the year! We are still asked to report to school every day, but hours are fairly loose and there is nothing to do. It has all gone by so quickly. My class threw a tea party for three of their teachers who are leaving next year and I was invited, as I was the class teacher. It was really cute and they are all such sweet kids (even the naughty ones), and more than anything it was a really good opportunity for me to once again reflect on my decision to stay here for another year.

Sitting there, sipping my tea as one of my friends spoke to the class with tears in her eyes I realized that there is no way I could have come home so soon. I was not ready to say goodbye, and I feel fortunate that I didn’t have to. Next year will be a good year. I will know what I’m doing. I will spoon feed information to my students, I will reluctantly teach to the test, I will deal with the grammar problems as best I can, and I will be sure to marinate in the experience. It really does feel like one that only comes along once in a lifetime.