In her third diary entry, Shiriin Barakzai tells us all about teaching in the spiritual setting of the monastery, while sitting cross-legged for long periods of time and trying to explain concepts like morse code to students who have never seen a TV before.
Last month's experience of driving back and forth to the Institute every day was exhausting; it entailed driving 50 minutes each way for a 1-1½ hour lesson and consuming lots of petrol in the process. So this month when I spent a week in Punakha, I stayed over for two nights at the Institute. Historically, women are not supposed to stay in monasteries after dark but, thankfully, times have moved on! The gong sounds at 4:30am and the chanting starts at 5:00am, so this guarantees being well and truly awake by 7:30am for breakfast, with no chance of a lie in.
We still don't have much in the way of structure to the classes and, despite all my attempts to sit in on the other lessons to see how the other teachers get along, Lebeh manages to arrange it that I teach on my own every time! But I know that, ultimately, I need to leave some resources and materials behind for the future, and this is where onestopenglish comes in.
We've managed to get some more old school books through a friend who is also the District Education Officer in Thimphu, but there still aren't enough books to provide one per student, never mind sufficient copies of the same book on which you could base a class. Even so, the students are always keen to take any books that I manage to bring along, although I'm not convinced any of them find any time to sit and read because every moment of every day is accounted for (except on Saturdays, which are essentially laundry days).
Our classes are held in the shrine rooms of the monastery. These settings are hard to describe, but each lhakang (temple) has at least one shrine room, which contains the statues of the relevant deity for that place. Each one is decorated with traditional paintings on the walls or thangkas (wall hangings) of gods and angels, auspicious symbols and rinpoches (teachers). There are two main lhakangs at Nalanda, one with two shrine rooms and another with only one. The wooden floorboards are worn smooth by the hundreds of stockinged visitors who prostrate or kneel three times towards both the lama's chair and the shrine. They may make a monetary offering or bring fruit, incense or butter for lamps. Modern times mean that biscuits and sweets are also seen on the altar, together with the more traditional tormas (sculptures of rice and coloured butter).
Our class is therefore often interrupted by visitors who gape in confusion at our group seated on the floor by the window trying to get some light. One of the boys will then get up and offer holy water, take donations or give explanations of the statues and paintings. It all seemed a little surreal when I found myself explaining the use of morse code in submarine rescues as a family of four in traditional dress of gho and kira watched intently.
The monks are used to sitting cross-legged for hours, but I find after 45 minutes I need to shift, so now they have taken to placing the lama's cushion on the floor before I arrive. We have a whiteboard, but the light bulb above it has blown because of fluctuating voltage, so the monks at the back of the room struggle to see. I also think some of them probably need glasses, but access to an optician is limited and the cost may also be prohibitive, so anyone I spot struggling or copying is told to move up front.
They used to form a circle around me when I taught, but now I've managed to get them to sit all together so at least they are closer to me, I can hear them properly and they can read the words on the board. Depending on which class it is, A or B, we read the paper or use one of the books donated by the Department of School Education. A lot of the time is spent just practising pronunciation and checking definitions. We have two English dictionaries which are fully utilized, but usually each definition results in looking up further entries. The students don't have access to TV and they don't read newspapers in English, so much of the lesson is spent explaining the concepts we read about: newspaper problem pages, soap operas, horror movies, etc.
Reading the English edition of the national paper provides more than enough material for a week of lessons. I've given up trying to follow some kind of plan regarding grammar and the like, so I just use whatever examples come up in the class. I feel there's just not enough time for me to really make a difference when I'm here so infrequently. The main goal of the Principal is to enable the monks to communicate with any visitors and, if they get the chance, to travel overseas to study. The institute has had other volunteers in the past, but the remoteness of the spot doesn't suit everyone and so the volunteers often just taught on a short-term basis or they combined teaching with tourist trips (which meant inconsistent classes).
Lebeh has recently taken charge of a second young tulku (reincarnation) and is keen to find someone to come and teach on a more permanent basis. The Institute doesn't fall under the Ministry of Education but under the Dratshang Lhentshog (Central Monastic Body), which has status equivalent to a ministry within the government. However, because some of the monks here are not registered with the Dratshang Lhentshog, they do not receive an annual stipend for living expenses. Therefore, Lebeh is responsible for fundraising for them until they are old enough to raise their own funds.
In the meantime, although it feels more like I'm teaching 'in English' than 'teaching English', I will keep visiting the students as they teach me more about the nuances of Bhutanese culture ...