A lot of monks teach in Myanmar; they typically have more education than lay people and they are more able to provide for those less fortunate than themselves. As we have mentioned; this is a country which gives the highest percentage of its income to charity. The charity being the thousands of monks (and to a lesser extent, nuns) in the country.
They are revered and listened to. This makes them suitable teachers because they have the attention of the class simply through their red robes. I would question whether this fear of the teacher is actually healthy; however, that is not the topic for today. A monk is not a great companion for a round table discussion on how to improve teaching techniques with a young volunteer teacher. When I suggested that everyone observe and give feedback to someone else in the group, I was met by dazed rabbit in the headlights expressions which conveyed that giving feedback to a monk just wasn’t the done thing. However, I persevered.
It is hard to know how much to push the culture and how much to respect it. I ran into the same broad issue in the US with Saudi students; they refused to interact with members of the opposite sex, and generally male students completed board work first and then the female students had a go. It was the widely held belief in the department that these students were in the US and so should adapt to US cultural norms. While that in itself was a grey area, my being in Myanmar and enforcing my will is even more grey. I don’t hold the same opinion of monks because to my eyes a good teacher is what I'm interested in; regardless of who they are outside of the classroom.
Meeting with the monk presents me with a different challenge than I get from the student teachers alone. The student teachers are reticent to say anything; often don’t know why they do a particular thing in the classroom and have flat-out no clue why their students respond in certain ways. The monk told me everything that I wanted to hear; he knew about a student-centered classroom; he knew that his students were bored and therefore not concentrating or, worse still, not attending classes. When I asked him, he gave the correct answers. He paid attention and nodded his agreement in the right places. However, this did not translate into action in the classroom. His lessons were teacher focused and dull. In addition, for reasons that are unclear to me; he was teaching material that the students had already covered. I knew they had covered the topics, because I had taught it to them! Yes, some of them faced memory recall problems, but can I delicately point out that of course the students are bored? They had this same topic taught in a much more engaging way only a month ago, and now you expect to lecture them and have their rapt, full attention?
Despite the hurdles of a lay person mixing with a monk, and a monk who has a silver tongue but is all fur coat and no underpants, I find myself enjoying the meetings. Of course, I wish that there would be more action taken in the class. However, the student teacher is making good progress in not being scared of the monk and in self-reflection and in his English language skills. Perhaps this forum is not the most useful for the monk, but it seems to be having a positive impact on the student teachers and for that I am thankful.
NEH Director of Studies and Teacher Trainer
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