The head monk is contemplating. We know what he will say before he says it.
The 22-year-old teacher is low ranking in the village hierarchy and although he is the most alive person I have had the pleasure of meeting in Myanmar; both physically (he made himself a gym at home to workout from bamboo and rocks!) and mentally (he listens to English music almost 24 hours a day and studies late into each night before awakening before dawn to teach) he is not often given a chance to speak out in the village. He is not afraid of the monk, unlike many of the young people, but knows he must hold his tongue in order to avoid conflict and anger on the part of the monk who lives in a society which is amongst the poorest in the world, yet whose people give amongst the highest amount of charity donations to its countless monks. In turn they are prized in rural communities and their word is final.
When I first got involved in the teaching, I was told that the plan was to teach the students for 4 hours a day, 4 days a week. This is what I planned for; figuring that 16 hours classroom time without having to plan was OK. Full time ESL is 20 in-class hours and then planning and grading generally are quoted as an extra hour each per in-class hour. This makes for a total of 60 hours per week; a full schedule by anyone’s standards!
Within a week of arriving here, we realized that my plans were not going to cut for the circumstances. While my plans are good for me; they do not translate well into a second language for a trainee who has never before taught in this style. There was also the issue of grade 8; another 5 hours of classroom time each week. Things got complicated. We were beginning to average 20 hour days and all of us felt depressed and snappy. Van shouted from pure frustration in class and I took to spending alone time in the newly-built toilet. One teacher trainee’s English declined dramatically while the other one ran, skipped and puffed for miles to vent his introverted stress. None of us were sleeping and we were all trying to wear a happy facade which was quickly slipping away. It was not good.
As melancholy flooded in we all poured over the schedule in order to make some feasible changes. What the monk might think was a different matter at this point. In our sleep-deprived state I’m sure we weren’t capable of making rational choices, but the only things to focus on was fewer in-class hours. It was taking around 6 hours to plan each 1.5 hour lesson and at 21 hours multiplied by 6 there simply weren’t enough hours in a day, week or lifetime.
Our choice seemed straightforward to our sleep addled brains; grade 8 were learning. Volunteer teachers didn’t seem to be. Why waste time and energy on students who don’t seem motivated and are only present in class under the sufferance of the omnipresent monk? We thought that the new teacher would be a great substitute for our trainee.
Well, needless to say, our choices have not gone down well here. There is a tension bubbling through the surface of which I am all too aware despite the language barrier. The patriarch of the village is worried because the Arakanese Army killed over 100 government soldiers and there will surely be retaliation in kind. One teacher is saddened that he has been taken off of teaching grade 7 English on our recommendation as his English is too low to be effective. The new teacher is depressed because the students don’t understand his lessons and two failed to show up for class in protest.
As I sit in the darkening house, the setting sun glimmering over the paddy fields out of the small rectangular windows, my student skips in the garden. Burning off the frustrations and tension of the day. The light slapping sound of the rope joins with the steady chopping of firewood by a 78-year-old grandma. The pairing beats a regular rhythm into my harried thoughts. Grade 7 have been abandoned.
In part it is the fault of Van and I.
We were hasty to advise the removal of one of our trainees. He had told the monk that he wanted to teach English to grade 7 in order to improve his own English. However, Van and I considered this to be a somewhat backwards proposal. We think that his own English needs improving before he is able to sensibly teach it to anyone else. Grade 7 have had the rough end of whatever deal is being made. My other trainee doesn’t want to tell the monk that the last lesson that the students received was on Saturday. It is now Tuesday. I think that is telling. My trainee wants the volunteer teachers to have a break.
Seeing as all the teachers tend to sit at the front wielding a fear stick it may be just as well if the children are released to play and be children. One child especially plays up during class; begging for any attention. The boy seems quick and responded well to being praised. However, he is labeled as a troublemaker and currently has a gash on his foot which is swollen and turning to septic. Like children in the foster system, grade 7 have not had a stable teacher; they don’t know which way is up and they have no-one to depend on. It saddens me.
Scheduling in Myanmar always proves problematic. Things change last minute. People are fluid in their plans and culturally it’s accepted to do so. Because a lot of the teacher and workers in general are volunteers, they feel as though they can come and go as they please. Often they have family issues to deal with; one of the REC teachers was summoned home by his parents. Packed onto a bus, he didn’t have many options or time to think if it was what he wanted.
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer
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