Engagement, School Community

Teaching in the Land of Happiness: The Canada-Bhutan Connection

Every morning, Kendra wakes at dawn to the sound the Kulong Cho River rushing through the valley. She has mastered the art of tying her Kira and dresses quickly in the early morning light. As the sun rises, she finishes correcting the student papers she set aside the night before. At eight o’clock she begins the walk to school, meeting many students along the way, all of whom bow and shout “Good Morning, Madam!” before running away in giggles.

The day begins slowly as students busy themselves doing mandatory Socially Useful and Productive Work. Eventually, Kendra and her students make their way to morning assembly, which opens with a group prayer for wisdom and one minute of meditation, and ends with announcements and the singing of the national anthem. The students’ voices echo through the assembly hall. The school day has begun.

Kendra’s classes go by quickly; two Grade 5 Math classes, one Grade 7 English class, and a section of Values Education. She doesn’t have many resources to teach math so she uses rocks for division and pasta noodles for geometry. Her students don’t mind. Seventh period comes and goes, but the day is not over. Today is Math Club day and there are 40 eager Grade 5 students waiting to learn about negative numbers, fractions, decimals, and ratios. Eventually, Kendra walks home in the twilight, tired and happy.

Kendra is one of an adventurous and dedicated group of Canadian teachers working in Bhutan, one of the most isolated countries in the world. She is part of an effort to combat a growing teacher shortage and support an education system that is undergoing transformative change.

Known to the western world as “the land of happiness” or “the last Shangri-la,” Bhutan is a magical and mysterious place where Buddhist values prevail and the majestic peaks of the Himalayan Mountains are part of every landscape. Sandwiched between two giants, China and India, it is also a country that works diligently to promote Bhutanese culture and preserve ancient traditions, while seeking prosperity and peace for its citizens.

Education is believed to be vital to this mission, as it is to the thoughtful development of the country. Today, Bhutan remains the youngest democracy in the world, having adopted a constitutional monarchy in 2008. It is the country’s commitment to the continual improvement of education that, in 2010, resulted in the placement of six Canadian teachers in rural villages throughout Bhutan. In 2011, this number more than doubled, with 13 Canadian teachers and eight native-English speaking teachers of other nationalities teaching in remote public schools across the country.

This is not the first time Canadians have had a hand in supporting education in Bhutan. The legacy of Canadian involvement dates back to 1963, when Father William Mackey, a Canadian Jesuit, entered Bhutan for the first time and established Bhutan’s first high school in the remote reaches of the country’s Eastern region. Over the next 26 years, Mackey worked tirelessly to develop secular education in the country. Between 1985 and 1991, over 40 Canadian teachers were sent to schools in Bhutan through World University Service (WUSC). Author Jamie Zeppa documented her time as a WUSC volunteer in Bhutan in her best-selling novel, Beyond the Earth and the Sky: A Journey into Bhutan.

Today, much of Canada’s involvement in providing educators to Bhutan is carried on through the work of The Bhutan Canada Foundation (BCF), a Canadian charity working in partnership with the Ministry of Education in Bhutan to encourage the growth of Bhutan’s system of universal education. Teaching in Bhutan is unique among international assignments because the language of instruction is English, with the national language, Dzongkha, used to teach only a handful of subjects.

In April, a colleague and I had the opportunity to travel to Bhutan to see these teachers in action. For two weeks we snaked our way across the country by auto, teetering on the edge of sheer drops and dodging the ever-present threat of rock slides, as we climbed Bhutan’s highest mountain passes and visited some of the country’s most remote communities. We saw schools perched on rocky ridges, in tiny villages, attended by boarding students from all over the country who have left the family home in pursuit of education.

This dedication to education is immediately apparent in even the most isolated communities. In many schools it is not uncommon for children to walk an hour or more each way to and from school. Ian, an Australian national who teaches English to students in Grades 4, 5, and 8 at Rangjung Lower Secondary School, told us of one boy who walks seven kilometers each way every day, up and down a steep mountain path. “The students’ dedication is just amazing,” he said.

Classrooms overflow with eager students; however, in many cases, the teacher supply is simply not enough to meet demand. According to the Ministry of Education in Bhutan, the country currently faces a shortage of nearly 1,000 teachers, primarily in rural areas. Teachers placed in Bhutan through BCF are part of a solution to address this shortage, with teachers now in eighteen different communities across the country.

For these teachers, all of whom work for a local salary and live in basic conditions, the initial incentive to teach in Bhutan varies. For some, teaching in Bhutan was an opportunity to discover an ancient culture, while for others it was a chance to share professional knowledge with a developing education system. Regardless of what gave these teachers the initial push to journey to Bhutan, their motivation to stay comes directly from the students.

“I love teaching here because the students are so wonderful. They want to learn, they are funny, and they are very respectful,” said Julia, a Special Education teacher in Mongar.

Indeed, the culture of respect in Bhutan can come as a bit of a shock to teachers when they arrive. When Nick – now in his second year at Jigme Sherubling Higher Secondary School in Khaling – first began teaching in Bhutan, the deferential nature of his students surprised him. An early classroom experience, documented on Nick’s personal blog, serves as an illustration.

 “My first exposure to the Bhutanese educational culture came the second I stepped through the classroom door. There was a shuffle of chairs against the wooden floor, every student popped out of their seat, and at the top of their lungs and in perfect unison they all yelled, “Good morning, sir!”

Perhaps, the feature of Bhutanese education that Canadian teachers find most unique is the effort to integrate the development concept of Gross National Happiness into both curriculum and school culture.

But perhaps, the feature of Bhutanese education that Canadian teachers find most unique is the effort to integrate the development concept of Gross National Happiness into both curriculum and school culture.

In recent years the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has garnered global attention as an alternative to the standard practice of measuring the quality of a country through Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In contrast to GDP, which uses the market value of goods and services produced within a country to indicate quality of life in that country, GNH proposes a more holistic approach to measuring the quality of life of a country’s citizens. GNH is supported by four pillars: sustainable development, promotion and preservation of culture, conservation of environment, and good governance, with education seen as the glue that holds the enterprise together. As a result, the integration of GNH principles into learning environments has become a key objective of the Ministry of Education and school administrators, as they work to create GNH learning environments for all Bhutanese children by 2012.

At the Educating for Gross National Happiness international workshop held in Thimphu in December of 2009, Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Yoser Thinley shared his vision of GNH education, the aspiration of which is “to see young people graduate from our educational system with a deeply felt care for nature and for each other, steeped in their culture, seeing reality clearly, living in harmony with the natural world and with their neighbors, and acting wisely for the benefit of all beings.” During the conference, international educators were charged with making GNH in education a reality by identifying practical steps to infuse the concept into daily school life. Today, more than two years after the workshop was held, Canadian teachers in Bhutan are seeing the results of the early stages of GNH education.

“We have weekly themes integrated with GNH philosophy, on which students prepare speeches daily. For example, the GNH values of cooperation, fairness, and sharing,” said Shauna, a teacher at Bartsham Middle Secondary School.

Other teachers see GNH in action in their schools through daily school-wide meditation, GNH infused curriculum and lesson plans, bulletin boards and posters promoting GNH values, and monthly GNH faculty meetings.

Shauna’s husband, Julian, teaches at Bartsham Primary, a school recognized as a leader in GNH implementation and environmental conservation. In 2010, students at Bartsham Primary organized a community-wide cleaning campaign that earned 45,000 Nu ($1,000) through the sale of metal scraps. The school then used this money to replace old blackboards with a more environmentally-friendly green board alternative. Bartsham Primary currently runs a number of GNH based environmental initiatives, including a tree planting program, a clean water campaign, and a school beautification project. The idea, says Bartsham Primary School principal Pema Norbu, is that “creating lovely places for our children to study will go a long way towards achieving and imparting the values and the main principles of Gross National Happiness.”

While GNH learning environments are sure to encourage vibrant and active learning, the truth is that amongst Bhutanese students, education is already highly prized.

On our last day in Bhutan we accompanied Maureen, a veteran teacher from British Columbia whose husband, John, teaches high school in the same community, to one of her classes at Wamrong Lower Secondary School. Within minutes of our arrival a group of 30 curious students had us surrounded, asking question after question.  As the period came to an end we asked the departing students, most of whom come from local farming families, if they liked school. Many nodded timidly until finally one brave student spoke up and said, “Education is like gold, Madam.”

Although they are teaching a world away from Canada, in a country where the way of life could not be more different, these Canadian teachers feel right at home. Shauna and Julian have embraced Bhutan’s incredible outdoors by trekking the countryside in their free time, Kendra has learned how to make traditional Bhutanese dishes, and John and Maureen have learned to speak the local dialect of their community.

Of course they are making sacrifices to teach in Bhutan – giving up a year’s salary, living far away from family and friends, enduring bucket baths, electricity shortages, and a limited variety of food. However, the reward of teaching in a developing education system, where new ideas, strategies, and approaches are welcomed and the impact of a foreign teacher is evident throughout an entire community, far outweighs the challenges.

 “It was possibly the most satisfying teaching experience in my whole career. I was able to use my skills and experience, and could see the positive results of my work,” said Ann, a retired teacher and BCF alumnus who taught in Mongar.

Now that she has returned home, Ann says that, in the end, she learned much more from Bhutan and its people than she taught.

“I feel that I came away from Bhutan a much richer person. The students, my colleagues, and my neighbours taught me a great deal about Bhutanese culture. More importantly, immersion in that culture also taught me a lot about myself. Bhutanese people are the warmest, kindest, most generous people I have met anywhere in the world. They will always be in my heart.”

EN BREF – Les écoles du Bhoutan débordent d’élèves enthousiastes, mais elles manquent souvent de personnel enseignant. The Bhutan Canada Foundation (BCF) est un organisme de bienfaisance canadien qui collabore avec le ministère de l’Éducation du Bhutan, envoyant des enseignantes et des enseignants canadiens dans les régions éloignées, où ils gagnent un salaire local et vivent dans des conditions de base. L’aspect de l’éducation bhoutanaise que les enseignantes et enseignants canadiens trouvent la plus unique est l’intégration du concept du bonheur national brut (BNB) au curriculum et dans la culture scolaire. L’objectif, c’est que les jeunes obtiennent leurs diplômes du système d’éducation en ayant acquis un souci profond de la nature, un grand respect des autres, une sensibilisation à leur culture, une vision claire de la réalité, en vivant en harmonie avec le monde naturel et avec leurs voisins et voisines, en agis­sant avec sagesse au profit de tous les êtres. Ce concept est inculqué dans les classes au moyen de thèmes hebdomadaires intégrés à la philosophie du BNB, de méditation à l’échelle de l’école, de même que d’un curriculum et de leçons infusés du BNB.

Meet the Expert(s)

Kristen Scott

Kristen Scott is Program Manager at The Bhutan Canada Foundation and a firm believer in the power of education to effect social change and build strong global communities (www.teachinbhutan.org). She has previously contributed to LAist, Torontoist, and Healthynomics. She blogs at www.lostinwanderlust.com and can be found on Twitter @kristante. 

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