So what are my observations on teaching in Bhutan after a year? Well, I am conscious that this blog may be read by staff at the Bhutanese Ministry of Education so I hope you will take my comments positively.
1. Windows are not a luxury! I have taught for a year in a classroom with no heating and with several missing windows. I don’t think that even in a developing country such as Bhutan, children should have to put up with such conditions - in winter the snow blows in through the holes where the glass ought to be. This is not conducive to learning.
2. Please re-examine the policy on making students repeat a grade if they fail an exam. A teacher should be able to cope with a mixed ability class and young children shouldn’t have to suffer the stress and indignity of seeing their classmates move on whilst they stay behind. Children with learning difficulties need to be helped not punished.
3. There is a chronic problem with teacher laziness and absenteeism. Teachers routinely arrive late, leave early, play on their mobile phones instead of teaching, or simply don’t turn up to class at all. In the last few weeks of term, a very large number of my colleagues simply sat outside in the sun chatting away instead of teaching. Several told me that they had ‘finished teaching the curriculum’ and now it was down to the students to study by themselves.
I’m not saying that this was only in the last few weeks of term; teacher absenteeism was a problem throughout the year and I simply despaired at the number of times classes were left unattended. So please, give principals some real power to deal with this problem and give the teachers some in-service training to boost their enthusiasm and encourage them to see that they have incredibly important jobs and should do them to the best of their ability. If help and training doesn’t work then commence dismissal proceedings – don’t transfer them to another school where other students will suffer the same fate.
4. Working on Saturdays! We all have to go to school on a Saturday morning for maximum two teaching periods – I only taught one period on a Saturday. But, by the time we have had assembly and a possible meeting, half the day has gone. Please consider abolishing lessons on a Saturday; you could easily make up those 2 periods throughout Monday to Friday or by commencing the school year a few days earlier. The benefits to me are obvious. Everyone is fresher and more enthusiastic having had a full two-day weekend. Also, there is less need for teachers to go absent if they can get things done in town on a Saturday.
5. Put some creative arts into the curriculum. At present there are no creative arts in the curriculum. I used to teach art on a Saturday instead of English and my students loved it. (I was of course teaching Art in English so I don’t think they suffered too unduly). Students need creative arts to express themselves and explore their creativity. For many students, art is their one opportunity to shine and boost their self-esteem, without it they simply never experience success.
6. Focus on improving reading skills. From what I have seen, reading isn’t taught (in my school at least) in a very efficient way. Quite simply, PP (kindergarten) aren’t taught letter sound relationships. Instead they are taught to read each word by spelling it. If a typical young Australian sees the word ‘carpet’ for the first time, s/he would probably break it down and say ‘car-pet’. The same Bhutanese reader would probably get stuck and later be taught to say ‘c-a-r-p-e-t - carpet.’ This is a highly inefficient way to teach reading and doesn’t equip young readers with the phonetic skills to cope with unfamiliar words.
Reading is the foundation of all learning and this situation must not be allowed to continue. I strongly urge that reading be made the number one focus for teacher training and that external reading specialists be consulted to design and implement a major reading in-service program.
This needs to be ongoing training to teachers who are in a classroom setting so that they can implement their new ‘teaching reading techniques’ immediately and discuss their effectiveness when they go to their next training session. If you simply send teachers away for training and then send them back to school, there is the danger that they will quickly lapse back into their old, inefficient ways.
The Bhutan government currently pays for many teachers to go to India and study for their Masters degrees. I would suggest this scheme has far less benefit to Bhutanese students than the training I am suggesting.
Incidentally, I didn’t receive as much as one hour of teacher training during my year in Bhutan. Teacher training not only equips teachers with new skills; it also makes them more enthusiastic about their profession. Without ongoing training, teachers simply stagnate.
If anyone at the Ministry does read this, I hope you will take my suggestions positively and note that I have made suggestions that are not dependent on large sums of cash. I know that many of my volunteer colleagues echo many of my views.