Saturday, March 17, 2012

Getting Real

"Education and knowledge by themselves do not bring inner peace to individuals, families, or the society in which they live. But education combined with warmheartedness, a sense of concern for the well-being of others, has much more positive results. If you have a great deal of knowledge, but you're governed by negative emotions, then you tend to use your knowledge in negative ways. Therefore, while you are learning, don't forget the importance of warmheartedness"
-His Holiness the Dalai Lama-

The above quote was made known to me by my friend, and although I certainly can’t take credit for the words themselves, I have invoked them wholeheartedly. My presence here is about much more than simply imparting my knowledge of English to my students. Much more. I could be the best English in the world (which I am so far from being!) but that wouldn’t be enough to do this work. I am being challenged and stretched farther and in different ways than I ever could have imagined- some days I can literally feel it. Although my teaching experiences and training have prepared me well content-wise, I feel so utterly lacking in other ways that some days all I can do is fall back on a sense of humor, warmheartedness, and blind faith that I was chosen to do this for a reason…

At the 5th King's Birthday celebration, Autsho MSS

The field looked like a royal court.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, it was the 5th (I’d like to correct the mistake I made by saying 4th in my last posting, sorry!) King’s birthday on Feb. 21st. As Autsho MSS is a brand new school, it has the best campus around; so five other schools in this district came here to celebrate. It was a grand affair. As the hosts, our school put a lot of effort and pride into this day. The students collected green pine needles and spread them on the sports field to make a green “carpet.” The field was set with flags and tents. It looked very regal. 

Reception of our honored guests
Breaking it down Bhutan style!
The chief guests included the head of the Lhuentse Monastery and all the administrative officials from the district. As they arrived, they were received at the school gate through the smoke of burning cypress boughs and led up a path lined with fluttering flags. There was a procession line of traditional Bhutanese dancers and horn players that followed them in and added to the line up. All in all, it was a very impressive sight. To begin the celebration, the culture clubs from each school marched around the field. This was followed by performances of traditional Bhutanese singing and dancing. I watched wide-eyed from the guest tent at first, but soon opted to join my fellow colleagues on the sidelines (much more comfortable for me). The day ended with a ceremonial dance that is performed at the end of all formal celebrations. Not wanting to miss out on any experience here, I eagerly joined. It gave all the students a good laugh to see me trying to act like I knew what to do. It was basically just walking in a big circle, moving your arms up and down. I’m pretty sure they were all impressed with my moves...

View of the altar and proceedings from the inside the tent
The next day was Losar, or the Bhutanese New Year. Due to this, we didn’t have school for the rest of the week, and the District Education Officer was nice enough to take me around to see some remote local schools and villages. One, Domkhar, was under repairs from a mudslide that overtook it last July. It made me feel how small and delicate human civilization can be and is in this place. In the dirt I found a handbook for constructing rubrics and the English Curriculum Guide I was lacking. Very useful souvenirs. Perfect.  I also took the opportunity to go to Mongar, and check it out. Mongar is the largest town in Eastern Bhutan and a hub of commerce for miles around; it’s about a two-hour drive. I went with my friend Neljor and we got a ride there from her friend and then stayed at his hotel that night- don’t mind if I do! It was lovely. She showed me around and I got to see the temple, some new sights, and get some supplies and fresh produce. 

New dining hall being built at Bachu Primary School- about 3,000 ft. up the mountain from Autsho

Mongar town square- donkey included

In front of the temple at Mongar

It was really great to get out to see some more of Bhutan. Since classes have started it is hard to get beyond the reaches of campus; and it’s easy to feel a little cabin fever-ish. Autsho itself could easily fit into one city block. The 400 students who board here all live right around me and sometimes I feel like I’m living in a fish bowl because they try to look in my windows. Having only one day off a week does make it hard to do anything but just teach and prepare to teach. I can’t say that I’m used to working a six-day workweek or happy about it. But who am I kidding? I’m not used to working at all, so anything would be a harsh reality check, I suppose.

At the new teacher orientation

Morning assembly
My first guests- three sisters. They brought me potatoes and dried chillies
I’m teaching three sections of class 8 English and three of class 7 Library (which isn’t really teaching- I just take them to the library or read to them). The sections in 8 are huge! The smallest is 37 students; biggest- 39. The main difference in teaching here is, obviously, the students. Though all the students I teach are in class 8, they range in age from 13 to 19. They are so hardworking and obedient it is almost disconcerting. They stand each time I enter the room and greet me as they bow,“Good morning/afternoon, Madame!” And as I leave, “Thank you, Madame!” (bows again). I know it’s an inculcated part of common procedure around here, but I can’t help but feel a little special each time…Another thing that’s different here is that the students stay put in the same room all day and the teachers rotate. The first day, I almost made the embarrassing mistake of trying to excuse my first class. I like it. I think it creates a sense of unity, group identity, and ownership for them to have their own room; thus they have their own classroom culture- it’s like a little community within a larger one. They all (even the little ones) get up at 5:00 a.m. and begin the day with social work- maintaining the school grounds- and then have an hour of study time before school even begins. I came from a situation where I gave up on assigning homework because it was such a struggle and disappointment to have nobody do it. It makes me realize that things can be different; it’s all about the culture. 
Staff and principal quarters at Bachu Primary School

At the same time, these students aren’t used to thinking critically or independently. They are accustomed to rote methods of instruction/learning and are totally confused by my teaching style, having an open classroom, and true dialogue. They really don’t know what to do if they can’t find the “right” answer in the book and copy it directly. Getting them to think and write for themselves is a work in progress, to say the least. I'm also really struggling to teach to those of my students who don't understand English. Even the ones who do are used to hearing the Bhutanese accent; we’re all confused and having difficulty understanding each other. Most of my students in San Diego were ESL learners, but they could understand the spoken language well. Some of my students here simply do not comprehend the words I speak. I have ascertained that the curriculum is far beyond the capability levels of these students (and at the same time, it’s right on point for others).

Academic block at Zhamkhar Primary
Spinning some prayers...
I have one class that is great and always so satisfying, such a pleasure to teach; I walk out of that class feeling like I'm doing well. Then, in other classes the same lesson goes totally south and I feel like I’m failing my students. There is so much back-teaching that must be done in order to properly explain an abstract notion if a student doesn't know the meaning of the concrete language and concepts leading up to it.... it really goes back to language development and I can draw pictures and act things out, (which I do, I’m sure it’s quite a sight!) but if there isn't some conceptual base, there won't be any comprehension. Like in math, if you don't know the first step, you can't move on, it's a building process. Not to say that the level of thinking is above them; they are absolutely capable of grasping these ideas; but many don't even understand the directions I'm giving them for an activity, let alone the concept related to it. I feel so responsible for teaching them everything they are required to know and to be the best English teacher they've ever had. It's scary to feel like I don’t know how to do that for everybody.

This is Autsho. All of it...
“Oh, you didn’t know?” “I meant to tell you, but I totally forgot.” “How do you do it, Madame?”- Phrases I’m getting very used to hearing these days. Most of the time I feel very out-of-the-loop and like I’m literally a day late and a buck short. These are all inevitable things and part of the process, I know. I'm trying to take it all in stride and appreciate all aspects of this experience. Of course I expected some of this stuff but it's always different when it's really happening. I absolutely love that I'm here, but it's not all perfect; however, nothing is...

I've had some pretty surreal moments when I just realize exactly where I am, what I'm doing, and I just can't believe it. It just amazes me. And then, sometimes feel lonely and like my ego won’t let go of my former self and life. Like all my familiar ideas and thought patters have become so very much a part of my personality, even though many are not positive, that without them I feel hampered, or desperate to sustain some kind of continuity of myself...I still want to go Betty's every Sunday so much! I miss being with my family and friends, in comfortable surroundings, and my bad TV so much, sometimes it hurts. I feel like so much has changed in my life, and yet, I still feel oddly like the same old Reidi, just in the Himalayas..
A Sunday afternoon trek

My trekking guides, Tenzin, Kencho, and Guym

In the short amount of time that I’ve been here, I’ve learned about myself and what I’m made of- both good and bad. Coming to Bhutan has forced me to grapple with the hard-hitting question of “Why teach here?” I’ve realized I may not have been entirely clear about this before I left. I knew I wanted to improve, but improve what? Myself? Yes, that is why I initially came. But now that I’m here, I realize my time here needs to be entirely focused on what I can give to Bhutan, not what I can get out of it. I will spend this year living with the soul purpose of giving everything I possibly can and have to this school and my students- being truly and just of service. I’ve always known I would choose a profession that would allow me to interact with other people (kids) in a meaningful and significant way. In this way, I consider teaching a true vocation- a calling. I make NO claims to be an expert at what I do, but I have clearly identified my intentions and recognize a certain capacity within myself to get there. Bhutan will help me. It already has. Hopefully someday I’ll actually be good at the teaching part, and more than simply well-intentioned and warmhearted, but for now, that’s what’s getting me by!

Da-ri gi nim de-lu Tashi Delek yea! (Have a nice day today!)
More pictures of the birthday festivities- student dancers

Starting off the ceremony


Bird's eye view. My house is right in the middle of this
This is why driving here scares me!


  1. Its good to see your beautiful smile in all your pictures and your such a warm hearted person.

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