Number one for English language teachers

Diary from Bhutan: Gross National Happiness for teachers

Type: Article

In her eigth diary entry, Stephanie Earnshaw tells us about celebrating Bhutanese New Year. She also has stories to share about the school’s new intake of PP (pre-primary) students, the challenges of teaching phonics and a feathered gatecrasher. Hopefully, the implementation in schools of Gross National Happiness – an idea of the fourth king of Bhutan – will keep morale high.

Stephanie Earnshaw and student at graduation ceremony

It's February and school has started again despite the chill winds. The exciting event this month was Bhutanese New Year. It was celebrated on 14th February so there was no time for Valentine's Day romancing! Instead, we marked the transition from female earth ox year to male iron tiger year by eating rice and onion soup and drinking arra (local moonshine) at a friend's house. New year is traditionally a family affair in Bhutan, so we were very pleased to be invited to join the festivities.

February's other big event was the King's birthday on 21st February, which meant two days off work for the whole country. Some teachers from our school didn't get the day off as they were needed to accompany students to the national stadium, where children from many schools performed traditional dances in honour of the King. Being a chillip (foreigner) with no skill in Bhutanese dance, I just got to enjoy the show!

It seemed that as soon as we came back to school we were cancelling lessons in order to prepare for the King's birthday celebrations. But we managed to find time for a couple of teacher training workshops on phonics. I was asked to run them because I’m the only native English speaker. Some added drama came thanks to the photocopier breaking down at the last minute, the projector being locked in the principal's house (a day's drive away) and pigeons flying into the room mid-workshop. Despite some quite serious ornithophobia, good fun was had practising phonics and learning vocabulary games.

Teachers at the phonics workshop

Some interesting questions were raised about pronunciation, since most Bhutanese teachers speak very good English but with a Bhutanese accent. They find teaching phonics hard not just because many weren't taught them at school or college but also because the sounds often don't make sense according to the way words are pronounced in Bhutanese English. 

There’s a new intake of PP (pre-primary) students since it's the beginning of the school year here. They're lucky enough to have a teacher, Madam Karma, who likes to play games. She also likes parents to join in with those games to help the new students feel comfortable in the first week of term. (I think it's also to give her a good laugh.) Together we watched dozens of parents chasing their five- and six-year-olds in circles around the playground. It must be quite a challenge at this altitude and while wearing traditional Bhutanese dress, go and kira, but the little ones made it look easy!

School is not all fun and games though. In fact, teaching is not a popular profession in Bhutan. Teachers get lower salaries and fewer benefits than other civil servants. Consequently, Bhutan is currently short of about 1,000 teachers – quite a lot in a country with a population of only 600,000 and a rapidly expanding youth.

Teachers at the phonics workshop

Happily, a Bhutanese teacher's life might soon be improving. Over the holidays there was a 'GNH in Education' conference held in the capital, Thimphu, which aimed to improve the implementation of GNH values in schools. GNH stands for Gross National Happiness and was invented by the fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, in 1972, when he was 19 years old. It's the idea that people's happiness is of more value to the country than money or GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Ever since 1972, Bhutan has been famous for GNH and several countries have followed in its footsteps in trying to emphasize GNH over GDP.

The good news is that the local paper, the Kuensel, reported from the conference that the ministry of education has committed to raising the percentage of teachers satisfied with their job from 24% now to 70% in four years time, through improved salary and benefits.

Despite these positive moves, our school has had some bad news. The vice principal is being transferred to the countryside after 19 years' service in Thimphu. The village where she’ll be working is three days’ walk from the nearest town. Rural schools lack both resources and staff, so it's common for the Ministry of Education to move experienced teachers to remote areas to help improve education standards for village children. In theory it's a great idea but unfortunately our vice principal has to leave her family behind and won't see them until July. And since most people prefer city life, it’s perhaps not a great example for any aspiring teachers in Bhutan.

Masked dancer and musicians

On a happier note, my Royal Institute of Management students graduated after a two-year part-time course in hotel middle management and English and I was invited to their graduation ceremony. The next day my friends said they had seen me on TV – apparently the event was filmed. I'd like to say it was because I was there but I think it had more to do with the presence of the Minister of Economics.

My other five minutes of fame this month were doing the voice-over for an advert for the college where I work. Apparently, a foreign accent will attract more students but I'm not so sure. Most of the time, I feel no one really understands what I am saying because of my funny English accent. After all, in Bhutan, e is for apple.

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