Well hard to believe I know, but I am now in the last couple of weeks of my year’s placement here at Monywa Education College. The time has flown by so quickly; it hardly seems 5 minutes since I was writing the first installment of my amazing Myanmar adventures.
Resisting the temptation to focus on an fantastic 2 week holiday I had in July, visiting Sabah in Malaysia (formerly known as British North Borneo) complete with 105 wild elephants swimming across a river less than 10 yards from our boat, a clouded leopard spotted during a midnight rainforest trek and rescued baby orang utans in a rehabilitation centre, here is my final blog-A Life in the Day of Monywa Education College.
The day begins early, just after sunrise, with a 30 minute exercise drill on the college football field at 6am every morning for all of the 650 student teacher trainees who attend the college. Although I don’t usually join in myself, the shouted instructions and chanting of numbers acts as a very reliable alarm call. Regular drill and marching competitions between the 6 classes in each of the two year groups help to keep everyone on top form and very much echo the college principal’s own military background. In Myanmar all public servants, including teachers and college lecturers, even have to attend a 6 week basic military training course at the officers’ training base in Pyin Oo Lwin at some point during their career. Maybe it could be introduced in the UK as part of the post-Brexit changes-Dad’s Army meets Big School!
The first 45 minute lesson of the day begins at 7.00am; these are for “co-curricular subjects” such as Agriculture (how to grow rice), Domestic Science (how to cook rice) and Technology, (how to weave a basket for your rice tiffin tin), along with PE. This week, I am up early as it is the last round of teaching observations before the end of the project and PE is on the agenda today; with over 60 observations to get through, there is not a moment to lose. 56 enthusiastic trainees, aged 17-18 and nearing the end of their training, gather in a corner of the sun-baked football pitch where a white line has been marked as a take-off board for a long jump lesson. No sign of a sand pit, however. Bearing in mind the tally from one football session last week was 1 broken leg, 1 broken ankle, I broken wrist and various strains and sprains, I was a little worried. All the lads in the class attacked the challenge with gusto while the girls looked on serenely and took no part whatsoever in the lesson, even though they were all dressed in their very smart bright green or blue Monywa EC tracksuits. After many attempts, a winner was finally announced and everyone left the field with all bones, joints and tendons still miraculously intact.
There is then a one hour break for the trainees to have breakfast before getting changed into their uniform of green longyis (long skirts worn by both sexes) and white blouses or shirts. Ladies’ hair is always long but must be worn firmly tied into a bun, often decorated with fresh, highly perfumed white flowers. A hearty breakfast of rice with vegetable, bean or lentil curry is served before all 650 trainees walk two by two in a long crocodile from their campus hostels to the classrooms for cleaning duty before the first academic lesson of the day begins at 9.15am.
On Tuesdays and Friday mornings, everyone really looks forward to the assemblies which take place in the college hall. These normally last for 1 ½ to 2 hours and usually consist of a long speech from the Principal together with some traditional Myanmar music. Unfortunately, I have yet to attend an assembly because they clash with my own timetabled lectures and seminars-how very disappointing.
Lessons for the trainees in a full range of both academic and methodology subjects including Myanmar, English, Maths, Economics, Physics, History, Education Theory etc continue until 4pm with a 45 minute break for lunch. Classes are big, with around 60 students crammed into dark, cramped rooms with a few fans if they are lucky. In most classrooms, tables and bench seats face the teaching stage and whiteboard at the front of the room, but a few of the more daring lecturers are experimenting with a new hobby, much-loved in UK classrooms, of moving furniture to make group tables. This is a REAL departure from tradition and somewhat frowned upon by the establishment who are suspicious of many of the new-fangled foreign ideas which are creeping into the college. Teaching conditions have been made even more challenging this week as lecturers struggle to be heard above the sound of torrential monsoon rain hammering down on the corrugated roofs and cascading past the window gaps. The only resources are a whiteboard and very outdated black and white textbooks with no pictures. To make learning even more interesting, some subjects including maths, science, history and geography are taught in Myanmar, but the textbooks are printed in a language that looks vaguely familiar to me, but is almost impossible to understand. For example….”It is not surprising that the Aye-Chins oif such literary figures were permeated with patriotic inspiration and martial spirit. Nat Shin Naung wrote hundreds of ratus on diverse subjects such as lovm, war, the beauty of the lady of his heart, parrot messengers, a worrier on a battlefield, homage to the Lord Buddha and was acclaimed king of ratu composers. ” (Parrot messengers-your guess is as good as mine. 2nd Year History-I think!)
Because there are more than 100 trainers at the college for the 650 trainees, there is plenty of time for every lecturer to attend 8 hours of training with me or my British Council colleague Andy each week. 6 hours are given over to professional development training, which aims to make teaching in Myanmar more interactive and learner-centred. Topics, which will be very familiar to anyone working in UK schools, have included lesson planning, questioning, critical thinking, reflective practice and assessment for learning. Needless to say, these are very new to the college lecturers, who taught in the past by reading or translating from a text book, which students then learned by rote in order to pass end of semester examinations. Our own teaching is as interactive as possible, because 3 hours is a very long session each morning; thank goodness for 38 years’ worth of activities up my sleeve! The good news is that our final observations are showing just how much lecturers have learned during the year and the impact this has had on their own teaching, which has in most cases been utterly transformed. Think Pair Share-we love you! I am very excited that individual whiteboards have just arrived too.
Lunch times are very social; sometimes we welcome lecturers to our house for Lunch Club, but there are also regular invitations to join the principal and college staff for a celebration meal in one of the college’s enormous dining rooms. This week it was to welcome new lecturers who have recently joined the staff after having been promoted or transferred from one of the other 20 or so Education Colleges in Myanmar. Lunch was Shan Noodles with coconut milk and chicken, followed by fresh fruit. (Wot, no rice?)
Afternoon classes for lecturers and trainees begin again at 1pm for 3 more hours, making it a very long day for everyone. I have seen trainees fall asleep in the afternoon classes when the teaching gets a bit boring-but no lecturers of observers have fallen asleep yet-(it’s been a close call for me a couple of times though!)
Everyone can relax after 4pm, with dinner served for the trainees, followed by some free time. They are not allowed TV or mobile phones during the week, but there is lots of sport played; football obviously as the whole country is English Premier League mad, as well as volleyball, various martial arts and the traditional Myanmar game of chinlon, which is a cross between volleyball and keepie-uppie. It has 3 players per team, and each hostel here has at least one pitch. Some girls do play football and volleyball but most tend to take evening strolls with their friends or sit and chat in the gardens next to their hostels
At 5.45pm prompt, the Buddhist temple bell rings and everything stops for evening prayers in the prayer hall just outside our house. The beautiful sound of hundreds of chanting voices wafts serenely across the campus as the sun sets slowly over the football pitch-the end of another long day at Monywa EC.
But wait-not so fast! As the numerous fairy lights which adorn buildings, signs and trees begin to twinkle (Myanmar people do love a fairy light) there is a knock on my door. “Teacher Gill, please come to the hall, we have a role play tonight.” I am going to be honest, my heart sank just a little-the next episode of Father Brown was just about to start on TV, courtesy of Skynet and BBC World. I know it’s total —- but beggars can’t be choosers when nearly all our TV channels are in Myanmar.
“Ooooo role play-lovely! What exactly is the role play tonight? All the second year trainees telling us the dangers of drugs like alcohol. I’ll be right there.” I guiltily hide a half drunk gin and tonic in the fridge, grab a torch so that I can see the snake lurking in the undergrowth just before it bites me and I am ready to go. 3 hours of entertainment awaits; sitting on a beautifully carved teak chair (no wonder teak is called a hardwood) watching a series of student sketches involving lots of grieving “mothers” screaming hysterically and students, (all male of course and showing their state of utter debauchery by wearing jeans and sunglasses) who seem to know far too much about being drunk or injecting drugs and are thoroughly enjoying themselves. Mmmm PSHE, but not quite as we know it!
It is impossible to put into just a few words my feelings about the past year, living and working in this beautiful, amazing and devoutly religious country. The most memorable and long-lasting impression has inevitably been the people, especially the principal, his family and the teacher educators here at Monywa Education College. I have been truly privileged to live and work at Monywa EC, to be welcomed into the college family and experience at first hand the kindness, generosity, hospitality and compassion of Myanmar people. Every TE I speak to emphasises their pride and determination in serving their country to improve education for its children and young people, especially in the new and exciting climate of democratic change.
I am immensely grateful to VSO for providing me with this amazing volunteering experience; I have given just a little and received so much in return. And of course, I must not forget my British Council work colleague and house-mate Andy, who has valiantly put up with my constant chatter and provided copious amounts of gin all year!
As I struggle to express how I feel about this country, its people and the prospect of leaving, I am equally at a loss to describe how just how much I have missed my family and friends this year and my excitement at coming home. Thank you for keeping in touch- it has meant so much and helped to keep me smiling most of the time despite the scorpions, snakes and rats who share our house with us.
As a special end of project treat, I am off for my 6th and final visit to Bagan at the weekend-my favourite place in Myanmar and only 3 hours away by bus. There are over 2000 ancient pagodas scattered across a dry and dusty plain to be explored-so just a few more to tick off the list before I leave. Dinner and cold beers with British Council friends at Wetherspoons (yes, Wetherspoons) Myanmar–style on Friday evening-I can’t wait.
See you all very soon-I am arriving back in the UK on 31st August. Mingala Ba!