I enjoyed my one-day teaching gig last year at the Tat Ein village primary school so much that I volunteered to teach multiple times during my most recent visit. In between field trips and side trips, I squeezed three teaching days into this trip. Once again, the children were delightful and the other teachers very helpful. The school’s principal wasn’t around this time — he was visiting his family in Mandalay — so he couldn’t help me translate anything, further putting the burden on me to explain things in my fractured Burmese. But hey, it was good practice, and the kids seemed to understand everything I asked or told them to do.
I taught English in Thai public schools, and also at a private language institute, back in the late 1990s, so I’ve got some experience with teaching the language to foreign learners. The biggest challenge teaching in Thai schools was the class sizes; sometimes there were 40 or 50 students in a class. I found it very hard to teach effectively with that many kids in a class. But at the school in Shan State, the biggest obstacle was the decibel level. It got very, very loud. Grades one through five are packed into a single room, with only thin wooden partitions dividing the classes. It cuts down on the visual distractions, but not the noise. The Myanmar teachers urge the kids to shout their answers in unison, so whenever I was trying to teach something or conduct an activity, I had to work around the rumble on the other side of the room. Instead of shouting, I just waited for a break in the noise.
As I noted in a recent post, the book Go, Dog. Go! was very popular with the students. They also enjoyed the animal jigsaw puzzles that I brought with me. Take your pick: Elephant, Tiger, Lion, Giraffe, or Zebra (the latter two being totally unknown to these kids). Whenever I had time to kill, or wanted to perk up their interest level, the animal jigsaws were a perfect activity. Apparently, they had never had to put jigsaw puzzles together before, so they found the activity both fascinating and frustrating. They were relatively simple puzzles (expect for those darn zebras!), yet some of these kids took a long time to figure them out.
Another activity using animals also went over very well. I brought about two dozen graphic drawings of various animals, ones that I thought these village kids would recognize, and pasted them on 3 x 5 cards. I explained to the students that I would show a card to one of them, and then without speaking they would have to “be that animal” by making appropriate sounds or miming the actions of the animal. The novice monk that picked the frog picture, for example, ended up hopping around the room. The girl that got the cat picture had to make meow sounds. The boy that got the snake pic, had to either hiss or shimmy. Anyone that got the crocodile had to snap their jaws or use their arms to imitate the croc snout. In any case, they loved it. Even though they weren’t supposed to say the name of the animal, half of them blurted it out prematurely anyway. Typically, they would see the picture, giggle at what they would need to do, and then tell their friend in the next row which animal it was. I had to gently remind them not to blurt out the name before they went into action. Of course they all knew the Burmese name for the animals, but other than dog and cat, they didn’t know many of the names in English. But that gave me the chance to actually teach them some new words, which was one of the objects of this silly activity.
The other teachers kept bringing me snacks and either coffee or tea — or sometimes both — almost every hour. The lunches were another treat: very tasty vegetarian dishes prepared the same cooks that made meals for the monks and teachers each day. Really, those meals were as good as anything I had at fancier restaurants back in Nyaungshwe. Such hospitality! The school doesn’t have any electricity, so needless to say, the rooms aren’t air-conditioned, nor are their ceiling fans. But that’s not such a big hardship in this part of Shan State. Due to the higher elevation, the temperatures are usually milder than the rest of Myanmar, so I wasn’t sweating like I would have been in Yangon or Mandalay.
By the end of the three days — teaching third, fourth, and fifth grade classes — I had exhausted most of the teaching materials I had brought. I was tired, but it was one of those good feelings of exhaustion, when you felt like you had really accomplished something. Talking to the head monk, U Sandi Mar, the final day I was in town, he told me that the children had found the lessons “interesting and enjoyable.” That was one of my goals, so such feedback pleased me. I really didn’t expect them to learn a lot in three days, but hopefully a few things sunk in and they’ll be happy to have me back again. I’m sure looking forward to returning.