Destination Druk Yul: A Big Thank You!

Our much anticipated trip to Bhutan has now come and gone. We arrived back home last Saturday and have spent much of the last few days readjusting to life in North America: the straight roads, the noise and chaos, the bland food and the conspicuous lack of mountains.

We’ve also spent much time answering the question, “How was it?”

“Incredible!” we say. “Amazing!” “Beautiful”

But, the truth is, that doesn’t even begin to describe our experience. Our trip to Bhutan was inspiring and authentic and, most of all, transformative.

As Toronto office staff, we spend most of our time promoting our programs, recruiting teachers and ensuring that North American operations are running smoothly. Our previous knowledge of Bhutan was gained through discussion with BCF field office staff, reading Keunsel or, in Raewyn’s case, a brief visit to Bhutan in 2008. Now, having spent nearly a month traveling across the country, enduring the bumpy roads, staying in teacher accommodations, meeting with school principals and education officials, interacting with students, visiting with locals, taking bucket baths and taking in endlessly breathtaking views, we can say that we have firsthand knowledge of the country and the experience teachers will have when they decide to teach in Bhutan.

Our trip would not have been the same without the support, guidance and humor provided by incredible drivers/guides, Nima and Rinzin. Whether we were listening to Nima softly singing as we ascended some of Bhutan’s highest passes, or holding on for dear life as Rinzin raced us down a particularly bumpy road to get to the Bank of Bhutan before it closed, we always knew we were in good hands. We both feel incredibly lucky to have been so well taken care of and to have made two new friends.

The hospitality of both our BCF teachers in the field and members of the communities in which they live was astounding and touching. Each village we visited felt like a long forgotten home and its inhabitants our dear friends. I cannot think of any other place I have visited where I have felt so immediately welcome.

And finally, the purpose of our trip all along was to see our teachers in action. When we started out we expected to find at least a few teachers who were struggling or homesick or discouraged. What we found was the exact opposite. Our teachers are flourishing. They have made Bhutan their home in record time and are quickly becoming part of the community. Most importantly, they are incredible in the classroom; students pay full attention, listen carefully, follow instructions and are engaged and active learners. BCF is proud to have such wonderful ambassadors in communities across Bhutan. Keep up the good work and THANK YOU!

Destination Druk Yul: Becoming Bhutanese


“To be a good teacher in Bhutan you must become Bhutanese.”


Bartsham
Throughout our travels in Bhutan we have been offered many wise words. This particular advice came from the Home Minister, after he had been asked his suggestions for new BCF teachers preparing to start work in Bhutan.


Over the past few weeks we have had the opportunity to observe many BCF teachers as they go about their life in Bhutan. As our journey winds down, we’ve had a time to reflect on the Home Minister’s advice and how our teachers are applying it on a daily basis. What is most evident is that, although there are commonalities between our teachers  (i.e. they are all adaptable, adventurous, motivated, etc.), the experience of working in Bhutan is different for each and every one. As a result, the advice to “become Bhutanese” is expressed uniquely by each BCF-er.


Julian with his Class One PE students

In Bartsham, Shauna and Julian teach at the Lower Secondary School and the Higher Secondary School. Perhaps two of our most adventurous teachers, they have fully embraced Bhutan’s incredible outdoors by trekking the countryside in their free time. In fact, during school break in July they have volunteered to plan a 5-6 day trek to Sakteng for the rest of the BCF group!


Kendra in Trashiyangtse
In Trashiyangtse, Kendra is becoming Bhutanese by embracing the culture. She has learned to make traditional Bhutanese food, and has even put a spin on one of her favorite dishes kewa datsi, calling it “Kendra datsi.” She is also enrolled in a course on traditional Bhutanese painting and, much to our surprise, extolls the virtues of the bucket bath.


Scott, Lisa and Natalie have quickly and easily integrated into their community of Kanglung. Scott is a lecturer in the Life Sciences department at Sherubtse, Lisa teaches at the primary school and Natalie is a Class 11 English teacher. In between their busy work schedules, they have all found time to socialize with fellow teachers, attend local rimdros and pujas, and make new friends. For these three, becoming Bhutanese is about community.



Scott and Lisa in Kanglung

At Jigme Sherubling HSS in Khaling, Nick is a constant fixture. Whether it’s coaching sports teams, chatting about new ideas with his principal, or having jam sessions with his colleagues.  


In Wamrong (where we are now), John and Maureen have done the almost impossible task of learning the local dialect, Sharshopka. They may not be fluent (yet…) but they have picked up enough to share a short conversation with the locals.




Yesterday, as we drove into Wamrong to visit our last two teachers, we both started to feel quite sad that our Bhutan adventure is drawing to a close. We’ve had an incredible trip and are lucky to have experienced the world famous Bhutanese hospitality and generosity first hand. Although our time here has been short, we both know that the adjustment to life back home won’t be easy. The truth is, in the last few weeks, we’ve started to become a little Bhutanese too. 

Destination Druk Yul: It’s All About the Kids

For a new BCF teacher, living in Bhutan may not be the easiest adjustment.  In rural Bhutan the comforts of home will seem very far away; electricity is not always available, hot water can come and go, and fresh fruit and vegetables are sometimes in short supply.

Over the last few weeks we’ve had a chance to visit many of our teachers in the field and surprisingly, when asked about their life in Bhutan, none of these challenges are mentioned.  Instead they’ve all said the same thing, “I love my students.”

Scott with his Vice Principal and Principal at Yadi MSS

 

Whether it’s Scott in Yadi, who said his math and chemistry students are very receptive to his North American teaching style (and Utah accent), or Ian in Rangjung, who managed to get his class five students to dress up in costume to act out a lesson on constructing arguments, our BCF teachers all remark on the incredible intelligence, dedication, and enthusiasm of their students.

Ian at Rangjung LSS
We witnessed this enthusiasm first hand when we paid a visit to Jean-Daniel’s school in Bidung on Friday afternoon. When we arrived Jean-Daniel was just about to begin his class. As we made our way across the school lawn we experienced what we have been told is called “the swarm.” This is exactly what it sounds like- students of all ages (but mostly small ones) engulfed us the moment we stepped onto school grounds.  “Madam! Madam!” they called. “Hello, madam!”  “Where are you from, madam?” “What is your name, madam?” At one point we each had ten to fifteen children hanging off our arms, holding our hands, or just generally trying to get our attention.
Jean-Daniel invited us in to his grade-three math class but, because one of the grade-four teachers was out for the day and there are no supply (substitute) teachers in Bhutan, Jean-Daniel had to settle the grade-four class before beginning his math lesson. This meant that we were left to keep the grade-three class entertained.
Jean-Daniel’s Class Three in Bidung
In most other school visits, we do a little question and answer session with the students, giving them the chance to ask questions about us or about North America. Most often, the students are quite shy or reserved and getting questions out of them becomes quite difficult. However, class three students are full of confidence and don’t seem to have any reservations about asking all sorts of questions.  “What is the name of your village, madam?” “What is your mother’s name, madam?” “What class are you in?” “How do you like Bhutan?’” “How old are you?”  The questions kept coming and coming, each response soliciting giggles, whispers and chatter amongst the students.

 

When Jean-Daniel eventually returned and began his lesson on borrowing the students gave him their full attention. However, when the lesson was over and we all moved outside for a yoga class, the little ones engulfed us again, leading us through the yoga poses, checking in to make sure we were doing okay, fighting each other to sit beside us, and giggling giggling giggling like they had never seen anything as amusing as two North American girls.

“Madam! Madam! You are soooooo white. Like a cloud, madam! And so thin, madam and so long! Madam is very beautiful, madam.”

Compliments, enthusiasm and general cuteness aside, Bhutanese students really are incredible.  They are focused, studious, engaged and eager to learn.  In Bhutan, education is highly prized and it shows in the quality of the students. This is a country that is cultivating a generation of leaders. We at BCF couldn’t be more thrilled be part of the growth and continual betterment of Bhutan’s education system. 

Destination Druk Yul: The Road to Mongar

“Ah, you are going out east,” our hotel proprietor, Pema, said as we prepared to leave Bumthang. “Now you will see the real Bhutan.”

We left Bumthang on Monday to begin our journey out east, which is where most BCF teachers are placed.  It’s the most rural part of the country and therefore the area where the teacher shortage is most acutely felt.

The drive from Bumthang to Mongar is long and harrowing.  For eight hours we drove along rough and winding roads, clinging to the side of the mountains  before eventually descending through Alpine forests to sub-tropical valleys.
When we finally arrived in Mongar, where we were promptly taken to see Julia and Charly Ritt at their home (the other BCF teachers call it “the palace.”) Nathan Woollard, whose school is located about 5 km up the road at Kilikar, joined us as well.  As we sat, drinking tea and catching up, thunder rolled into the Mongar Valley.  Apparently this is typical. Mornings in Mongar are warm and sunny. In the late afternoon a storm usually blows in and drenches the valley for a few hours.

Our two-night stay in Mongar offered a bit of respite after two very long and nauseating days of driving.  The next morning we had the opportunity to visit both Julia and Nathan’s school.

Mongar LSS
Julia’s school, Mongar Lower Secondary School, is a large school with close to 800 students. It is also a pilot school for Bhutan’s special education program, which Julia heads up along with a Bhutanese colleague, Yeshey. At the moment, the special education program is comprised of “pull outs”, where Julia takes five to seven students at a time for remedial and catch up work. Julia told us that most for the fifty-four students in her special education pullouts do not necessarily have learning disabilities, they are just several years below grade level and need specialized, one-on-one attention to catch up with their classmates. 
Julia’s Special Education Pull Out

 

Nathan’s school in Kilikar is located about 5 km from Mongar. The campus is situated far up the hill, with an incredible view of the Mongar Valley. Nathan teaches math to three sections of class 7. We had a chance to sit in as Nathan taught one class how to plot ordered pairs.  The students are incredibly receptive to Nathan and there were many hands in the air when he asked for students to come up and plot points on the chalkboard.

Nathan’s Class 7

 

At both schools we had a chance to sit down with the principals and vice principals as they told us a bit about their schools and the challenges they face. In Mongar, they are hoping to create a new classroom especially for Special Education classes, so that more than five or six students can be accommodated at the same time. They have a building (an old maintenance closet) but need some help to make the appropriate repairs so that it is student-friendly.  In Kilikar, it was mentioned that sanitation and access to clean water is an issue (which  it is across much of Bhutan.)

Kilikar School 
In the near future, BCF hopes to be able to provide support in these areas, in addition to providing teachers. Sometimes, providing access to education and enabling success among students by improving school conditions is just as important as recruiting excellent teachers!

Today we are in Trashigang, the Bhutanese hometown Dzongkhag of our very own Nancy Strickland! We’re looking forward to seeing a number of teachers for a group dinner tonight before continuing our tour of the east tomorrow! 

Destination Druk Yul: The Long Journey Begins

“Bhutan is a Kingdom of short distances and long journeys.”

This is what we were told by our friend, Tashi, when we first arrived in Bhutan a little over a week ago. He was referring to the fact that, although the longest distance across Bhutan is only about 600 km, the journey takes days, something we have come to experience first hand this week.

We spent a very busy three days in the capital city of Thimphu meeting officials, seeing the sites, and shopping for supplies for our teachers in the field. During this time we had the honor of attending a meeting with the Secretary of Education, where she reiterated the need for our teachers and asked BCF to supply twenty-five to thirty new teachers in 2012, in addition to those already in the field who decide to renew for a second year.

On Friday we began our journey east, driving over one of Bhutan’s highest passes, Dochula, from which you can see Tibet! From 10,000 ft we began our descent into the Punakha Valley, a tropical, lush green valley. The district (or dzongkhag) is home to one of Bhutan’s most beautiful and historic dzongs and two BCF teachers, Andrea and Lynda.

Punakha Dzong
Of the two, Lynda’s placement in Gaselo is the most remote. In fact, it was almost an hour’s drive up a very windy and bumpy mountain road to reach her small village! Once there, Lynda gave us a tour of her school. She told us that last year part of the roof collapsed in the primary school building. Fortunately, it’s been fixed now and the school has some other new additions, including hostels for boarding students (previously students who boarded had to sleep in the classrooms.)

Gaselo Lower Secondary School
Following our tour, we drove back down the very windy mountain road and had lunch in Wangdi with Andrea and Lynda, before making our way to see Carson in Samtengang and Meghann in Phobjikha.
Carson’s school is also located on the very top of a mountain. Sadly, we didn’t have much time to look around because we had a long drive ahead so we grabbed Carson and brought him along for the ride. Meghann’s placement is in Phobjikha, an incredibly beautiful valley that is approximately 9,000 ft above see level and the winter home for the famous Black Necked Cranes.

Phobjikha Valley
We were lucky to visit Meghann on a very special night.  Two of her colleagues at school were hosting a “promotion party.” In Bhutan, when you get a promotion you host a party for friends and colleagues to celebrate. The event took place in the “long house” a small, open hall, which would usually used to store potatoes. There was much food, ara, and traditional dancing. Despite the fact that the party was in honor of the two teachers who were being promoted, we somehow ended up being the guests of honor and were seated at the front of the room on the best carpets.  Bhutanese hospitality never fails to amaze.
Meghann and her Principal
After a sound night’s sleep at a local farmhouse we awoke early to have breakfast with Carson, Meghann and her principal. We then had a tour of Meghann’s new school, which was recently built through a grant from the Japanese government.  The students take incredible pride in their school. Even on a Sunday they were out cleaning and taking care of the grounds!
At Meghann’s school!
Eventually we said goodbye to Carson and Meghann and got back in the car to make the journey to Bumthang, a drive of only 190km but which takes a remarkable 7 hours!
Today we head to Mongar to see Julia and Charly Ritt and Nathan Woollard J

Destination Druk Yul: Visiting Sue Hollingsworth in Chamgang

After our incredible Bhutanese lunch on Wednesday we headed out of Thimphu to visit BCF Class of 2011 teacher Sue Hollingsworth at her school, Chamgang Lower Secondary School. The school is only a 30 minute drive from Thimphu but as you ascend the mountain you are transported into a different world. Set among towering pine trees and high on the top of the mountain, Chamgang reigns over the Thimphu Valley below.

Chamgang LSS

When we arrived at the school Sue was busy with her Class 5 English class. The children were very eager to speak with us and asked many questions about where we were from and how we were enjoying Bhutan thus far. They were very chatty and not shy at all! Sue is in Bhutan teaching English to Class 5 – 7 students. She has become very involved with after school activities and has even created an English Conversation Club at the school.

Chamgang school was originally built in the 1970’s to cater to the children of the yak herders who descend from the north of Bhutan in the winter to escape the extremely harsh conditions closer to the Tibetan border. Because of this the school was previously primarily a seasonal school that only operated only in the winter months. In the summer time the yak herders and their families would leave Chamgang and head back up to their homes in the north. 
Students at Chamgang LSS

The Bhutanese government has made an effort recently however, to grant land in the area to the families of yak herders. The hope is that the children will stay in these homes with their grandparents so that they can attend school year round when their parents head back north with their yak.  Because of this the school is currently growing and new buildings are being constructed. Included in this are plans for boys’ and girls’ dormitories so that students can have the option to board at the school to continue their studies. 

Sue and Kristen

Tomorrow we head off to the tropical valley of Punakha to visit BCF teachers Andrea Giesbrecht and Lynda Deszpoth. 

Stay tuned!

Destination Druk Yul: Traditional Bhutanese Lunch

One of the initiatives run by The Bhutan Canada Foundation is a scholarship program, which provides funds and support for two Bhutanese students to complete their high school studies in Canada.  In the first year of the program, BCF was thrilled to welcome Yeshi Choden and Gaki Wangmo Wangchey to Toronto to study at Blyth Academy. 
Wendy with Yeshi’s Family

Yesterday, Yeshi’s family gave a lunch at their home in honour of Wendy Adams Oosterman who, along with her family, is hosting both girls for the duration of their stay in Canada.

Upon arrival at Yeshi’s home, our group was offered khadar (ceremonial white silk scarves) by both Yeshi and Gaki’s parents. We were then ushered into the main room of the home, which is adjacent to the family alter room. Once inside we took our seats on the floor and were treated to a traditional Bhutanese “grand lunch”, which consisted of a number of traditional Bhutanese offerings including,  suja (buttertea), ara (homebrewed Bhutanese wine), maize, zaw (puffed rice),  Bhutanese red rice, meat and cheese momos, ema datsi (chilies and cheese), dried beef and fresh asparagus. 
Wendy with Gaki’s Family

Since we, in the BCF office, see both Gaki and Yeshi on a regular basis it was incredible to meet their families. It was especially moving to see the girls’ mothers chat with Wendy, their Canadian mother.  

Following lunch we headed off to visit one of our teachers, Sue Hollingsworth, at her school in Chamgang, which is just outside of Thimphu. We met some wonderful students, took some great pictures, and were even treated to a dance! More on that later!

Destination Druk Yul: Tiger’s Nest

We had a day off from official BCF duties yesterday and so decided to see Bhutan’s most iconic site, Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest Monastery). 
Perched on a sheer cliff face, Tiger’s Nest is a sacred Himalayan Buddhist site and temple. As legend has it Bhutan’s wisest sage, Guru Rinpoche, flew to the location from Tibet on the back of a tigress and  meditated for three months in the cave around which the temple is now built. 
Below are a few pictures! 

Destination Druk Yul: A Visit to Paro College of Education


Commuting to work is a completely different experience when your route is surrounded on all sides by the foothills of the Himalayas.


This morning began bright and early as we joined BCF lecturer, Natalie Charlton, on her daily walk to work at Paro College of Education (PCE). We walked down narrow roads, through rice paddies, past archery fields, and beneath the historic Paro Dzong, eventually arriving at PCE, just in time for morning assembly.


Paro College of Education


Assembly is held at the beginning of each day, with each class level attending on alternate days.  Today’s assembly began with a prayer for wisdom in which students and faculty ask for their brains to work and for their minds to be uncluttered, so as to allow in all the knowledge of the universe.  Prayer is followed by 3 to 5 minutes of meditation, announcements from the Director of the College and student presentations in English and in Dzongkha (the national language of Bhutan.) Today’s presentations were on the topic of the importance of developing “reflective practice” as a teacher.


“You’ve come on a very exciting day!” Natalie told us after the end of assembly. “There’s a celebration for the Academic Dean today. He’s just received his Ph.D.”


Sure enough, following assembly we were invited up to the office of the Academic Dean where he was presented with khadar, a ceremonial white silk scarf given only on auspicious occasions, by both faculty members and students. After congratulating the Academic Dean on his accomplishments, we joined the other well-wishers for desi (saffron rice) and suja (butter tea).


Natalie and her Class Three students

The rest of the morning was spent observing two of Natalie’s academic writing classes. We even took on the role of assistant teachers during the Class One section! Although many of the students were a bit shy at first, they became more comfortable as the class went on, asking questions, cracking jokes, and even letting us take a picture with the class puppy, Maxi (one of the students had her hidden inside his gho!)

Raewyn and Maxi

We concluded the morning with a visit to the Academic Learning Centre, a resource and support centre for students, which was created last year with the help of BCF lecturers, Roy and Nancy Greenwood.


Tomorrow we hike to Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan’s most famous monastery.  Stay tuned!