A version of this post was published on The Tea House newsletter today.
Interview with Chloe Smith
Teacher, traveller and lover of tea
You’ve just returned from a trip teaching students in Myanmar with the New Education Highway, did you enjoy your time there?
Yes I had a lovely time. I was quite nervous before I went because it was the first time I had been to Asia and I didn’t really know what to expect but when I got there and I met my students and they made me feel very welcome. I lived in one of my students houses so I got the very local experience as well.
Could you tell us a little more about the New Education Highway?
New Education Highway is an American non-profit (Organisation) and we have been setting up a school which a local teacher will run and we will help to manage from outside of the country. I have been [in Myanmar] for a year now training the teacher and teaching the monks.
You mentioned to us before that the Monks in Rakhine state tried our Superior Earl Grey?
Yes. I took Superior Earl Grey, Heavenly and Emperors Seven Treasures with me and the Earl Grey was the favourite of the monks. They liked the smell of it the most. They said at first that it tasted a little bit bitter compared to what they were used to but they soon got used to it.
Yes it’s a nice Superior grade tea made with French Bergamot so we are very glad to hear the monks enjoyed it. They obviously appreciate good tea!
So what is it that you enjoy most about teaching English around the world?
I like meeting new people and I like learning about the differences that people have in their pronunciation and what grammar they find difficult.
Ok so dealing with the individual difficulties in learning a different diction / vocabulary?
Exactly, so for example in Myanmar people don’t say ‘S’ so for plural they say 2 tea 1 tea or 3 tea without S, whereas my Saudi Arabian Students couldn’t say ‘R’ very well so that’s my favourite part.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of the job?
Being away from home and always saying goodbye. No matter where I’m going I’m always saying goodbye. When I left Rakhine I was like “ohh bye” and then I come back and see my mum and I’m like “oh hi“ but then after a couple of weeks I have to go back again and I have to say goodbye to my husband and all my friends…it always seems like I’m getting on a plane and going somewhere else.
But do they make you feel welcome wherever you go?
Yes… and I always take tea with me! It’s always the first thing... I say “ Where’s the Kettle?”
Okay so a good secret to be welcomed into any household...
How does the teaching differ from country to country?
Hugely. When I was in Greece my boss rigged the grades the students got. She said this is a good student, his fathers a doctor and he’s paying lots of money so he needs to get an A. This student is a bad student, there’s only one of him and he doesn’t have a brother or sisters that we need to worry about so he needs to get a C. I was like “oh really! But this student..” but my boss said “ no this is how it works” whereas in Myanmar they are much more willing to learn anything about the outside world, culture and English etc and I definitely prefer working with poorer non-profits.
And do you think the children are getting as good an education in Myanmar as they are here?
No not at all. Their government schools have up to 8 classes in one room and they just have a flimsy MDF type of divider. They have 20 to 30 students in each class times by 8 in one room. Often the teachers just chant and the students just repeat and no one really learns anything, they can just parrot a few answers for the exams if they are were too noisy in the wrong place they get hit with sticks.
Oh dear! That doesn’t sound too good, and I can imagine they don’t have all the mod con’s students have here either?
No, the village I was in only had electric for three hours a day and no running water and we had to wash in the river so it was quite different.
What’s been your favourite place to work so far and why?
I think Myanmar because of how friendly the people are and how much of a difference it makes to them because if they can learn English they can improve their economy and improve their country
So you get good job satisfaction working there?
What kind of tea do they drink in Myanmar?
They drink Oolong tea and they drink a lot of it! All of their water for cooking etc is flavoured with Tea.
Did you get the chance to visit any tea plantations on your travels in Myanmar or elsewhere?
No I haven’t, I’ve been to see chilli fields, the monks took me there, but not Tea plantations unfortunately!
So with tea in mind, can you remember a time when tea has saved the day for you? You mentioned rats in the kitchen for instance... what’s the story there?
[In Myanmar] Before I moved to the village I was living in an apartment in Yangon, which is the capital, and I had rats come in in the middle of the night. They were just horrible and I was too nervous to sleep once I knew they were in the flat running around.
Oh no…so was it easy for animals to get in and out?
Yes there weren’t windows, well no glass in the windows and the doors had enormous holes in them
But I suppose thinking about time when tea saved the day, I was once sitting drinking tea actually and two cows came into the house, one of them was a female cow and one was a male cow and the female cow was running away and the man cow was ready for action and they chased each other round the house. My student said “Teacher upstairs” whilst he beat the Cows out with a stick and they upset my tea and it went all over the floor even now there’s still footprints where they ran around!
And were there any monkeys there?
No Monkeys where I was no... In other parts there are but luckily not where I was because I think that could be worse than a rat in the kitchen. I did have a plague of about 500 locusts that came in and they died over night. That’s was pretty unpleasant because I was finding them everywhere dead in the morning and for the next few weeks!
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