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.
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.