Saturday, April 4, 2015

A fond farewell...

The twenty monks of the first LME class with teacher Brodie (can you spot him?) on a birdwatching trip.
I am on a 22 hour train ride from Guwahati to Bodh Gaya and finally have some time to reflect on the 14 months I spent teaching the young monks of Lhomon Education pilot project at Chokyi Gyatso Institute. Cliche or not, I can't believe all those 14 months are already behind me.

I arrived in October of 2013, a novice teacher with a few years of teaching in Asia under my belt, but having never been to Bhutan. I remember being met at the border (after 44 hours of travel) by Noa, the director, and two of my would-be students, Pema Gyeltshen and Tsering Samdrup. They seemed so young, and full of excitement and curiosity, but most of that was veiled by their shyness. As I was introduced to the rest of the 20 monks, ranging in age from 12 to 19, I could have said the same thing about them all.

Over the next year and a half we grew to know each other and trust each other, and at the same time we explored education together, and what it means to know and to learn. In the course of teaching, I was sometimes amazed by knowledge that I took for granted, coming from one of the better public school systems in the U.S. During my first month at the institute we all walked to the river together for an afternoon of swimming, and one of the boys, standing in the middle of the river with the water swirling around his waste, asked me if the ocean was deep like the river. I explained that the ocean was deeper than the mountains were tall, pointing to the peaks that loomed some 500 meters above, and he was incredulous, clamoring to tell any monk around him what I'd said.

At other times I was amazed by their knowledge, which they themselves surely took for granted. On every walk I took with the monks, they would show me different plants, telling me the names, and explaining which ones would sting, and which ones you could eat, and which ones were medicine, and which ones you could surreptitiously throw at your friends when they weren't looking, and have it stick to their clothes. They knew which trees bore fruit, and at what time, and knew which birds ate them. All of this they taught me, never openly judging my ignorance but probably wondering how I had survived to adulthood without knowing these basic things.

During the majority of my time there, my task was to improve their English as much as possible, and Dawa's was to improve their math, but our education was never that straight-forward. Dawa and I were happily subsumed into the fabric of the daily life at the monastery, and the borders between class time and other time was continually less and less distinct. Our office door was always open, and our extra chairs in the office were always occupied by curious monks, some wanting to look at the books on the birds of Bhutan, some trying to make a boat out of recovered materials, some asking for help with their homework, some just wanting to chat.

And even in class, it seemed it was never as straight-forward as a simple grammar lesson, as the boys' curiosity nudged our class time towards learning about the different countries of the world, and how cars work, and why the moon is dark on the left side when waxing, and the right side when waning. Over the months we encouraged the boys to ask as many questions as they could think of, answering those which we could and researching those which we could not. As a teacher, I enjoy saying "I don't know but I'll find out," because it instills in the student that none of us has perfect knowledge, but we should never stop striving for it. And for the students, they relished in finding out what we knew and what we didn't. (I'll never forget one of the more poignant questions asked of me at the beginning of my time there: "Teacher, who is great in your village?" I never could sufficiently answer this question that was so easy for my students).

It is also a fact of teaching in a monastery that not all of the monks are going to be great students. In fact, many of the monks were in the monastery explicitly because they were poor in their studies. Bhutan, which it should be said has made remarkable strides in the pursuit of universal education over the last thirty years, is still operating within the constraints of the very traditional Indian education system on which it is modeled. One of the drawbacks of that system is that it doesn't value individual traits, and has a very rigid and one-dimensional evaluation of ability.

So for our part it was extremely rewarding to take these students and show them not what they were bad at, but rather what they were good at. We tried in our daily teaching to explore the different kinds of intelligences, and then demonstrate to the students that while one may struggle with spelling, he may excel at crafting, or while another is not skilled in mental math, he may be the best gardener in class. Exploring how the brain works, not just with rote memorization (which is standard not just in the modern education system, but also in Bhutan's traditional monastic colleges) but also with problem solving, creativity, imagination, and ingenuity was as rewarding to Dawa and myself as it was to the students who gained a new-found appreciation for what they could do.

And although they weren't perfect students (I suppose its possible I wasn't always the perfect teacher), they never stopped amazing me with their cheerfulness, earnestness, and joie d'vivre. We actually had to make rules in class limiting the singing and dancing, because I learned that if you aren't clear on that, the classroom will quickly resemble a rehearsal room for a Bollywood film.

Looking back, there were a few days that didn't go perfectly, and others I've already forgotten, but both of those are dwarfed by the number of days I'll remember as wonderful explorations with young monks who were just starting to understand the world, and leaning on me to help broaden it. I feel so fortunate to have been one of the people these young men came to for answers about the world. I miss them already.


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