Sunday, 20 April 2014

Same Same but Different

As promised, I begin with the mouse tally. It currently stands at 39 – things have been a little slow lately! As I write a mouse has been brazenly scurrying around our living room (and I imagine) laughing with contempt at my peanut butter laden mouse-trap.

Well, I’ve been in Bhutan for a few months now and I think it’s time I shared my thoughts on the similarities and differences between school life in Australia and Bhutan.

In some ways kids are the same wherever you go - playful, easily bored, a little cheeky. There are of course many differences. As a teacher, when I enter the school in Bhutan, I am greeted by every student I pass. Each one bows reverently and says, “Good morning Sir.”
Frankly, I find this a little over-the-top but I do appreciate the politeness and respect.

We have an assembly every morning. The students stand in lines so straight a North Korean sergeant major would be impressed. Standing in a straight line can surprisingly be a challenge for some western kids.
Morning Assembly
Of course, it is not all a bed of roses here. Corporal punishment, although officially banned is still very common. One teacher recently smacked every child once for every question they got wrong in a test. Imagine - anything less than perfect resulted in a smack. Even my own son Thomas did not escape the beating. (I told him to walk out of the room if the teacher ever tried to do the same thing again.) Justine recently took the Kindergarten class for a library lesson and sang the alphabet song with them. It was exactly the same as we sing it in Australia except for the last line..... Instead of singing, “next time won’t you sing with me,” they sang, “Madam, don’t beat me if I don’t know my ABC.”

Another down side to student behaviour in Bhutan is that they have been conditioned into a form of group behaviour. In the West we famously encourage the individual. This is often criticised as creating a ‘Me Generation.’ No doubt that is partly true, but one thing that is undoubtedly better in the West, is the students’ willingness to answer questions. In Australia some kids are so desperate to be asked for an answer that they look like they will explode if they aren’t chosen. In Bhutan you feel like you have to ‘prod them with a stick’ to get a response. (I don’t really prod them with sticks). Similarly, Australian kids are generally not afraid to ask for help if they don’t understand. In Bhutan this hardly happens, I think the ‘chalk and talk’ style of teaching still so prevalent, does not allow time for individual help. Students who don’t understand must rely on friends, copy, or simply get left behind.

I am very lucky that I only have 19 students in my class. In Australia, class sizes are typically close to 30. I simply couldn’t fit 30 kids in my class and teach in any sort of meaningful way. The Year 4 class has 34 kids and they are jammed in so tightly (3 to a desk) that there is no way the teacher can move around the room offering help to those that need it. My room has no heating and little in the way of insulation. There are several broken windows and so the inside temperature is essentially the same as outside – which regularly drops below zero in the winter. 
Broken windows and home made resources
There is very little in the way of resources; my room has a blackboard and chalk, desks and stools - that’s it. I have to make resources as best I can. This can be very difficult, the school does not provide paper and the school printer (1-2 copies only) has been without ink for weeks. There is no photocopying and so students must spend a great deal of time copying down questions from the board into the books they have bought for themselves. Curiously most of my students bought blank books and either waste time ruling lines or write in pig tails rather than straight lines. When I point out that lined books are the same price as blank ones they simply shrug their shoulders and give a slight (Indian style) head wobble. 
Thomas's maths class with very little room to move
My room has no electric power-points so there is nowhere to plug in a music player or a laptop. It does have two electric lights but when I arrived they weren’t working. When I asked for new bulbs I was told to ask the students for money to buy some; I went out and bought them myself. I also bought all my stationery, cardboard for posters, everything! Some teachers don’t buy these things with their own money and so the children simply go without.
My Class 3
School hours
Day students (it is also a boarding school) must report to school by 8.15am and the school day finishes at 3.50pm. All students must clean the school for 15 minutes (there is no school cleaner). Every morning at 8.30 we have an assembly which includes silent meditation, singing a Buddhist song, and the National Anthem. Two students usually give a speech afterwards and this can be in English or Dzongkha. The minute’s silence is always silent; no one ever dares talk to a friend.

The school teaches kindergarten to year 10 and teachers move freely between grades. This year’s kindergarten teacher taught Year 9 last year. I am the year 3 class teacher; I teach English and Maths. I regularly have to leave the classroom to allow the Dzongkha and the Environmental Science teacher to come and teach. When I am not teaching my Year 3 class, I am timetabled to teach library to other grades. Fortunately, Justine teaches my library lessons and this leaves me free to help ‘home-school’ our kids, plan lessons, mark or make resources. (Right now I am trying to teach my class 3D shapes without any 3D shapes to show them. I can’t print out nets of 3D shapes for my class to make so it’s a little challenging. I did however make a very nice square based pyramid out of some recycled cardboard packaging.) There are a few free periods too so the workload is much less than in Australia. 

What I really hate here, is having to work on Saturdays. I only have to teach one lesson but I still have to get up and go to school. This really eats into the weekend and of course, it means we cannot go away for the weekend which stops us from travelling as much as we’d like to.
My class blackboard
In Australia, every classroom has a box of tissues and children just help themselves when necessary. There are no tissues here in Bhutan and kids simply let snot run down their faces. I can stomach a lot, but staring at a child with luminous green snot hanging from his nose is beyond my abilities. At first I brought toilet rolls and handed out lengths of tissue but I was going through so much paper that this simply became too expensive. (I no longer have my Australian salary and a Dollar has become much more precious.) Many items cost more than in the West so their cost becomes prohibitive. Needless to say there is no toilet paper in the toilets (there is often no water) and so I will leave it to your imagination to decide what goes on there.

Messages home
Given the paper shortage, all messages to parents are conveyed verbally. I cannot see this system working too well in Australia. Here children are given a message before 9am and they almost always respond to it the very next day. When asked to bring in money, my whole class had brought it in by the second day. In Australia, some kids always leave it to the very last day and many require additional notes or a phone call home from the teacher. It of course goes without saying that many of these Bhutanese kids are dirt-poor.

Student Supervision
There are no casual teachers in Bhutan. If a teacher is absent, the office assigns teachers with free periods to cover the class. This system is far from perfect and classes are regularly left alone for hours on end. This would simply be unthinkable in Australia where students must be supervised at all times. There are no playground duties for teachers here either. The students are unsupervised and they tend to behave themselves very well. Not once have I had to mediate in disputes between students over a playground incident.

When I recently had to cover the Year 4 class (34 kids in a room half the size of a typical Australian classroom) the kids were so grateful to have a teacher that after the lesson, many of them came up to me and personally thanked me for teaching them.

In Bhutan, there are constant frustrations with teacher punctuality, absenteeism and lack of resources but the politeness and enthusiasm of the kids somehow makes up for it. If you are a teacher reading this, I hope the earlier paragraphs haven’t put you off coming to Bhutan to teach.  It is very easy to criticise certain aspects of life in Bhutan and they are easily measured: litter; death-trap pavements; poorly constructed, cold houses. What is much harder to measure is what makes Bhutan so fascinating and pleasurable - the relaxed attitude, the beautiful scenery and of course the incredibly friendly, helpful, trustworthy people. I urge any teacher that can, to come to Bhutan for a year or so, it is changing rapidly and (for good or for bad) won’t be like this for much longer.


  1. Hey Paul, Justine, Thomas, Amelie and Lois,

    How are you beautiful whanau (family) we have just found your blog . I love it. I cant to hear more. I wish I could finish my degree (june 2015) and join you. Do you think you would stay longer or go back after a break? Was it too expensive to travel with some basic resources for teaching? how did you go with your clothing? enough? have you adjusted to the climate and food?
    So many questions so excited to read more x x Love always Margy, Gracie, Elijah and family

  2. Hey Margy, Gracie, Elijah & family,
    Great to hear from you. I'll send you an email xx