In her fifth diary entry, Shiriin Barakzai shares some more of her fascinating stories about the ups and downs of teaching monks in Bhutan.

This month’s teaching has been significantly interrupted by the coronation celebrations and the annual pujas. The coronation ceremony was a huge event for the country and many monks from all over the country attended celebrations in either Punakha or Thimphu.

In addition, due to the auspiciousness of the season (which is why the coronation was planned for this time of the year), many families have been holding annual pujas (prayers) in their homes and the monks have been going out to pray in the surrounding villages. As this is one of their main sources of income, they always optimize the opportunities when they arise.

Because of the reduced numbers at the monastery, we combined classes and this resulted in a wide range of mixed abilities within each group. I found it difficult to cope with the large size of my class and the clear tiers of ability, knowing that the pace was too slow for some and that other students needed more time. In this regard, my lack of any ‘real’ teacher training has been a disadvantage, as I’m sure regular teachers would have been able to use their teaching know-how to strategically break up the group.

I have also found that in Group B, which usually consists of about 30 monks, it’s difficult to make sure that each student gets a turn to read or answer a question. It’s often the same few 'faces' who participate actively in the lesson. Over time I’m learning to put names to faces; this also includes learning to associate the students' ears and head shapes with their faces because haircuts and hair colour don't apply when trying to identify monks!

Snow-capped mountains

I’m starting to identify the students that are smart but lazy, those who don’t understand me at all and also the shy ones, who may stammer at times. Attempts to make everyone participate must be a challenge for teachers everywhere, and it’s no different here. However, we do have other influencing factors that prevent people from speaking in class. One of these factors is the principal, Lebeh's, presence in the class; if he’s there he starts to pick on particular students because he knows who doesn’t understand what’s going on. So everyone ducks down and tries not to get noticed, even the best students. The older Tulku (reincarnation) is a very keen student in the middle group, but his attendance is another reason for the other monks to shy away from participating. He is always ready to read or answer a question, which is great, but sometimes it means I have to turn him down. I’m not sure if that’s the done thing here, considering he is the founder of Nalanda and was a revered lama in a previous life! But the others in the class defer to him, even though he’s only about 14 years old. They take their hands down if his is up and if he shouts out an answer, they rarely contradict him.

One of my methods of checking if everyone knows what we’re talking about is to have them vote when answering a question or agreeing with the structure of a sentence. For example, I often ask the students to vote on whether they think an answer is right or wrong (or a variation). As I mentioned in my first diary, being an individual is not encouraged in traditional methods of monastic education. Everyone learns to read scriptures by chanting together and, obviously, the uniformity of the robes contributes to anonymity. Strict discipline when teaching includes corporal punishment and this discourages monks from questioning authority or senior monks.

So, in our class, it is the norm for monks to look around the room to check what the majority vote is. This results in a lot of half-raised hands, arms stretched across heads and ear scratching while the students make up their minds. Even Tulku tends to be somewhat indecisive and needs reassurance at times, which can be difficult because he always sits at the front of the room.

In my work as an engineer and as a teacher, I’ve noticed some sounds that Bhutanese have trouble pronouncing, such as ‘sk' as in ‘desk’ and ‘ask’, and ‘lm’ as in ‘film’. They also tend to randomly add an ‘s’ to some words or remove it from others.

Although the monks don’t get a lot of exposure to TV, many hear most of their English from TV or the radio. Those who attended school were probably taught by Indian teachers or teachers trained by Indian teachers. So I have quite a lot of fun with Indian-English grammar and sentence structure, which lives up to all the preconceptions captured in TV call centre sitcoms, including the phrases ‘they must be having’, ‘can you borrow me’ and ‘he reached me’. Some of these shows are currently being broadcast on Indian satellite channels but I doubt that any Bhutanese watch them because they don’t get the jokes or understand the fast English. But this is timely because Bhutan has just embarked on a telephone call centre initiative to provide jobs for some of the young people who are now graduating from high school as a result of the government’s extension of free secondary education.

I’ve been in Bhutan for more than two-and-a-half years now and I’ve noticed that I tend to change my own sentence structure to be understood, particularly in an office setting. Obviously this is not handy when I'm supposed to be teaching ‘correct English’, but it has become automatic. I now have to consciously concentrate on speaking correctly and I usually only do it with the people I know fairly well. In addition to changing my grammar, I’ve also picked up other Bhutanese-English phrases including ‘I’ve been in Thimphu only’, as well as a classic amongst Bhutanese when confronted with a situation that cannot be changed: ‘What to do la?’ (where ‘la’ is a term of respect in Dzongkha). So I realize that when I teach the monks, I probably don't correct them completely or consistently and that I accept anything which is pretty close to being correct.

I guess it’s going to take more effort on my part to be consistent when teaching in the future ...