Thursday, May 20, 2010

Blog #22: The Pains and Joys of Teaching in Bhutan

DISCLAIMER: This is by far my longest blog entry so far. I apologize once again to those of you who just want the gist of what’s going on. Apparently I am incapable of reducing my thoughts and reflections to a few words. I assure you that, just as with all my other blog postings, I have done my very best to only share with you the most amusing, absurd and transformative experiences of my journey. I hope you enjoy!

I realize that one of the major shortcomings of this blog so far has been that I haven’t really mentioned very much about teaching, which is in fact the reason for my being here. My failure to address the teaching aspect of my experience is not intentional, at least not on any sort of conscious level, but rather a consequence of being subject to so many other exciting things. But my teaching experience definitely does deserve mention, so I will do my best to communicate my experience in the classroom over the last three months.

When I think back to my first few days teaching here the one thing that really stands out in my memory is just how little an idea I had regarding what I was going to do. The fact of the matter is that this is my first year teaching and even if I were back at home I would have felt like I didn’t know where to begin. Compound this with the fact that I only arrived in Khaling the night before school started and you can imagine just how unprepared I felt. In all reality I really wasn’t told anything before marching into my first class. I arrived at school early in the morning, was given my timetable, and told to teach. Looking down at the timetable I was given I became confused. I was quite sure they had made a mistake. It said I was teaching “IX A”, “XI Sci A”, and “XI Com B.” I went straight to the principal to remedy the situation.

“Sir, I think there is a mistake in my timetable. It says I’m teaching science and commerce, but I’m supposed to be
teaching English,” I explained.

“No, no. Science and Commerce are the class sections that you will be teaching, but you will be teaching them English,” he replied.

This information would have been helpful, I thought to myself as I left his office and headed to class. I, of course, had no idea where I was going because no one had shown me where the classrooms were (the school is divided into several buildings, each of which contains numerous classrooms), but I asked a few teachers where class IX A was as I passed them in the halls, and they pointed me in the general direction.

My first exposure to the Bhutanese educational culture came the second I stepped through class IX A’s door. There was a shuffle of chairs against the wooden floor, every student popped out of their seat, and at the top of their lungs and in perfect unison they all yelled, “Good morning, sir!”

“Good morning everyone,” I replied, and I walked over to an empty seat at the front of the class and threw my book bag down. The students remained standing at attention until I realized that they wouldn’t take their seats until instructed to do so. “Sit down, sit, please.”

My first day with each class was much the same. I had no idea what I was doing and was genuinely rattled by the experience. I had thought of some activities on the bus ride to Khaling (we all shared our ideas with each other), but for the most part they didn’t seem very realistic. I passed around a notebook with a rough sketch of the layout of desks that I had whipped up in the first few seconds of class and asked students to write their names in the appropriate space.

Then I introduced myself and told my students everything about Canada and Toronto that I could think of off of the top of my head. I ended up speaking for almost the entire class, and only realized weeks later that I never really gave my students a chance to introduce themselves (I think this was partially because I was thrown off by the number of students in the classes). I don’t think they really minded at the time, and I think they were genuinely curious about Canada and their new, funny looking, strange sounding teacher. I still remember the one fact that fascinated them more than any other. I asked them the population of Bhutan, and they all obediently replied, “6 lack (or 600, 000 to us North Americans).”

“So there are six hundred thousand people in Bhutan. Okay, well where I come from, Toronto, which is the biggest city in Canada, there are over six million people. So the population of the city I am from is ten times the population of your entire country.”

This drew hysterical laughter as well as an assortment of bug-eyes and dropped jaws.

The end of class was just as confusing as the beginning. When the bell rang I wrapped up my lesson and said thank you to the class. They shouted back, “Thank you, sir.” I stood there waiting for them to leave so I could pack up my things and erase the writing on the blackboard, but not one of them moved, I felt like I was engaged in a staring contest. Both parties refused to blink. Finally, I realized that these poor students were not going to leave until I had left, and that they were missing a part of their morning recess waiting for me, so I shoved all my things in my bag and led the way out of the classroom, a wave of students on my heels.

Entering and exiting classes here is so very different from anything I experienced at home, as I explained to several colleagues who asked me about the difference in culture. At home, a teacher is generally in the classroom before students arrive (which is not difficult when students arrive 15-20 minutes late, as they did at one school where I did my practice teaching), and when students do arrive it often takes some authoritative commands to calm the class down and begin the lesson. Similarly, in Canada, at the end of class students are already packing up their belongings before the bell rings, and regardless of whether the teacher is in the middle of the most important and entertaining lesson of their lives, like Pavlovian dogs they are out the door the moment they hear the bell ring.

The respect for teachers in Bhutan is extremely impressive and something I think is much needed back at home, but at the same time, I also think it comes at a bit of a price. It is my understanding that this respect stems from a time when teachers used to beat children who “misbehaved”. I must strongly emphasize that there is absolutely no corporeal punishment taking place at my school, nor is there supposed to be at any school in Bhutan under the Ministry of Education’s “Child Friendly” schools policy, though I’ve heard the practice of beating children does still take place in many schools. So though it does not occur at my school, many of my students have at some point in their lives been subject to a beating or two for what was most likely an arbitrary offence. As a result, yes, the students respect their teachers (fear might be synonymous with respect in this example), but as a result, they are extremely timid when it comes to responding to questions or asking questions themselves. This continues to be a problem to this very day, as I will ask a question to the class and no one will answer, until all of a sudden eight to ten people mutter some inaudible response simultaneously. I then tell them that I can’t hear them when they all speak together, and ask them to raise their hands and I will call on them to answer. All of a sudden, once again, no one wants to answer. It is actually quite an amusing phenomenon if you don’t let it get under your skin or disrupt the lesson. I have learned to rely on several of the more confident students in order to keep the lessons’ momentum alive.

I think the number of students plays a significant role in the classroom atmosphere as well. I am actually quite lucky with my class sizes. I have only 18 students in my grade nine class and in my grade eleven classes I have 33 and 36 students. The classes are so big that it is almost impossible for me to remember everyone’s name (see blog #23 which is coming up) and it essentially provides anonymity to anyone who is seeking it (usually those students who need to be called on the most). I shouldn’t complain though. It might sound difficult to believe but Keira has one class that is 46 students. With classes this big, it becomes extremely difficult to ensure that all the students are learning. As an English teacher, it is also an absolute nightmare when it comes time for marking students work. For the last two weeks I actually haven’t been able to see my desk in the staff room because it has been consistently buried under piles and piles of notebooks and papers.

Perhaps the biggest challenge I have faced in adapting to teaching here is the lack of resources in the school. I think back to my student teaching days when I would hear teachers complain about not having the resources they needed to teach their class. All I can do is laugh at those memories. We may not have had all the resources we would have liked, but we definitely had most of the resources we needed. At my school, basic resources are unavailable. For example, for the first few weeks I watched as my box of chalk disappeared in front of my eyes. Chalk is like gold here. It took me a week straight of people stealing my chalk to realize that I needed to hide it from plain view if I wanted to have any chance of using it myself. The matter is only made worse by the fact that the chalkboards here are often just framed sections of concrete walls painted black, so the chalk will have literally crumbled into nothing by the time you have finished writing the word “onomatopoeia.”

In teachers’ college we were taught the importance of providing students with handouts and graphic organizers in order to maximize retention and enhance learning. This is the practice being used with Canadian students in high schools all over the country. Well here, where English is still very much a second (or third, or even fourth) language, and we are teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets and essays by Booker T. Washington, students don’t have the privilege of handouts. You see, the fact of the matter is we aren’t allowed to make photocopies. There is only one photocopier in the school and it resides inside the principal’s office. Photocopying handouts for an entire class-worth of students is out of the question. There is a cyclostyle machine (if you don’t know what this is, I urge you to look it up in the dictionary; you will find it quite amusing), but in order to make copies using this prehistoric machine you must provide at least a day’s notice, and bear the guilt of asking someone to turn a crank eighty times, so that your students can have a handout with ten questions written on it. This might seem feasible once in a while, and it is, but as a regular practice it is not at all realistic. As a result, the alternative is to simply read the questions aloud or to write them on the board. The problem with this is that it is incredibly time consuming. The reality is that there is barely enough time to actually teach the content we are expected to cover, so spending 10-15 minutes reading out a list of questions is not worth it. The result is that I rarely assign homework other than reading or maybe a writing topic.

My last example of the lack of resources is perhaps the best to illustrate just how frustrating and challenging teaching here can be. The evaluation for English class is fairly complicated. It is divided into two separate courses (which are being taught in one class), one of which focuses on reading and literature, and the other that focuses on language and grammar. For the first course, called English I, the evaluation is based on two exams worth 80% of the students mark, and on a reading and writing portfolio, each of which account for 10% of the student’s overall mark. The expectations laid out by the Ministry of Education are that the students read forty books a year. Forty books! I have openly admitted to each of my classes that I could not read forty books in a school year. The expectation that these teenagers who have a limited grasp of English, and for whom simple tasks take a considerable amount of time, is not just unrealistic, it’s completely absurd. But the unrealistic expectation is not even the point. The point is that even if my students were capable of reading twenty books each term, they don’t have access to that many books. There is a school library, but students are only allowed to visit the library once every two weeks (I’m not exactly sure why), and for some reason the librarian was not allowing them to borrow any of the school’s books; they were only allowed to read them inside the library. I talked to the librarian and arranged for my students to be allowed to visit the library during lunch one day and borrow a book each. Most of them did take advantage of this opportunity, but I think some of them were already feeling discouraged and didn’t bother. I still haven’t seen the inside of the library though I now know that it does exist in an extremely limited capacity.

One of the consequences of this lack of resources, in my opinion, is a glaring abundance of plagiarism and cheating. I was told that these issues have never really been addressed in the Bhutanese education system and that plagiarism in particular is deeply ingrained in student culture. To be honest, the issue never even crossed my mind until I collected the first essay I had assigned to class XI Com B. I was not particularly impressed by their work at first, not was I disappointed. The ideas were relatively sound and the grammar was as I had expected it to be. But my surprise came when I first read one essay that sounded identical to another that I had already marked. I quickly skimmed back through the essays I had already marked in order to find the essays partner only to discover that the two essays were - word for word – identical to one another. I wrote a quick comment at the bottom of each instructing the students to speak to me about my suspicions, recorded “copied” into my marking sheet, and continued to read on. By the time I had finished marking the entire stack of papers I had a separate pile of twelve essays that had been copied, once again word for word, from one another. I asked Deva Kumar, the head of the English department, what I should do, and he explained to me that there wasn’t much that I could do. You see, Jigme Sherubling – and I’m sure most schools in Bhutan for that matter – does not have a plagiarism policy in place.

So students cheat, right? No big deal. It happens everywhere. Well it doesn’t end there. No more than two weeks ago I was approached by one of my senior colleagues. I was sitting at my desk, which was once again buried under a stack of books and papers, when he asked me if I was busy. The answer was obvious, but the culture here dictates that when someone senior to you asks you to do something you do it. So I told him that I was marking and then asked him what he needed. He explained to me that his sister is studying at a neighbouring university, and is a very good student, but that she was feeling very overwhelmed at the moment and needed some help with an essay. At that moment I thought that he was going to ask me to help edit her essay, a favour I would have been happy (well maybe not happy) to do. But then he handed me a piece of paper with a essay topic written on it and some very broad, rough ideas scribbled down. “Globalization is an powerful force of good in the world. To what extent do you agree or disagree with the above statement.” I chose neither to agree, nor disagree. I didn’t want to even think about it. But after handing me the piece of paper he asked me if I could please write a few paragraphs on the topic.

At this point in time I told him I wasn’t exactly comfortable with the idea of writing this essay, as I am not just a native English speaker, but also an English teacher with two university degrees. In an attempt to meet him half way I offered to brainstorm some ideas for the essay and create an outline for the essay, but somehow – I’m not entirely sure how – he dismissed my ethical concerns and told me just to write some sentences with ideas linked together (this sounds like a paragraph to me).

I came home that night, opened my laptop and created what I considered to be an incredibly detailed outline. Next, I opened up a new word document and began typing an introduction. After one sentence my brain locked. I couldn’t write another word. The truth was that I didn’t want to write another university essay. I feel like I’m done writing essays. It’s now my turn to evaluate essays. On top of that, I couldn’t bring myself to write an essay for a university student that I knew would be evaluated and count towards her overall grade.

I was educated in a system that constantly reinforced academic integrity and honesty as core values. I talked to my mom that night, and she fully agreed with me and planted in my mind the perfect analogy. It was totally unfair for my colleague to expect me to write the essay, as it totally compromised my values, just as it would have been unfair for me to ask him to kill a chicken, as it would compromise his values as a practicing Buddhist. At that I saved my outline, closed my computer, and went to sleep.

The next day I very briefly explained to my colleague that I had created a detailed outline that I would give to him, and that I was happy to edit his sister’s essay once she had completed it, but that I wasn’t comfortable writing it for her. He didn’t seem to mind much (I should have mentioned that he is an incredibly nice man), and I left him with a load off my mind.

A few hours later, another teacher came into the staff room. I could very faintly hear him asking people about the term “NAFTA”, asking if anyone knew what it was. I, of course, knew exactly what it meant, not only because I am Canadian, but also because it was one of the supporting points I had included in my outline under the heading of economic benefits. It was obvious to me that the responsibility of writing the essay had been delegated to another teacher and that my colleague's sister would never write a single word. I quickly explained the basics of NAFTA to the desperate teacher and then washed my hands of entire situation.

The point is that it is not that people are maliciously engaging in plagiarism, but rather that they fail to see anything wrong in what they are doing. It is not even an ethical grey area for them; it’s just not in the spectrum. People just use and reuse words as if the purpose of their existence is to be recycled. A favour here and favour there are sometimes necessary in order for people to cope with the stress that life sometimes deals us. It’s funny because I actually think there is something charming about it. This is the land of Gross National Happiness, and the truth is that people are just trying to help each other and make each other happy. The reality, of course, is that we can’t always be happy and that the stress that accompanies our university studies is actually designed to teach us to manage our time efficiently and to cope with the stress that will most likely greet us when we enter the professional world.

I know that I have been feeling that stress as of late. Teaching has been nothing short of completely exhausting. Teachers’ duties here often begin at 6:30 a.m. and can extend to 8:30 p.m.. In case that doesn’t sound exhausting enough for you, consider that we work a six day week (occasionally seven), and that simply staying alive here takes a considerable amount of work, what with the manual laundry, the malnutrition, and the lack of sunlight and electricity. I’m definitely starting to feel run-down, but at the same time the two-week midterm break is only a little more than a month away, so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Needless to say, work has been quite an eye-opening experience. I knew that it would be a challenge before coming here, I just didn’t know how exactly. Again, I think it would have been an enormous challenge in the comforts of my own city, in my own province, in my own country. Being in a foreign country, immersed in a foreign culture, teaching in a foreign education system, has only amplified that challenge. I do think that I am benefiting greatly from this experience, both professionally and personally, and that I will emerge on the other side a better person and a better teacher.

I realize that after reading this people might think that I’m having a miserable time teaching here and that my life is filled with nothing but frustrations, but this couldn’t be further from reality; the truth is I’m loving it all. I can remember a time during my first semester of teachers’ college when I started to seriously doubt whether teaching was the profession for me. I pushed through, telling myself that teachers’ college isn’t teaching, it’s still school. How true that is. Both of my supervising teachers during my practice teaching told me that they thought I was a natural and that they were impressed with how quickly I was learning and adapting my teaching style. It was comforting to hear these words of encouragement, and I honestly felt as though I had developed professionally over those four months. Now I have my own classes and my own students. I am “Sir” or “Nick Sir” or “Mr. Nick” and it just feels right. Teaching is such a great profession, and although it is incredibly stressful and incredibly frustrating at times, it is also incredibly enjoyable, and when you make powerful connections with kids from a totally different culture in a country complete unlike your own and get to witness the positive impact you are having on their lives, it is maybe the most rewarding thing anyone can do.


  1. Thank you. brilliantly written...


  2. Iv'e enjoyed reading a blog so much, after a very very long time Nick. Thanks. You've made my day...

    I am an Indian getting a Master's in the States... and can so understand what a cultural shock it must have been for a Canadian teaching in the subcontinent...Either way i hope you enjoy the experience..

    Cheers and good luck..


  3. wow! you did really a fair judgement with your incredible writing skills. being born in Bhutan and growing in America, i am satisfied by your skills.

  4. I don't know if you check this blog any longer, but if so I'd like to talk to you personally about your time in Bhutan. I'm considering a position there in 2014. Thanks

  5. It looks like an amazing experience. I love this part of the world. Thanks for sharing it.