Throughout my travels I’ve learned the importance of the inevitable gulf–the difference between imagining and experiencing. I’ve learned to wait for it, and I’ve also learned that even when waiting for it, even when you know it’s coming, you are always surprised by the gulf of the difference. It’s similar to going to university for six years, then working in the field (or similar to preparing for a child and then having one). It comes in all forms, but it is always the result of psychological preparation. You read, research, and study. You create expectations, preconceptions, and you think that you know, but you never do. I’ve also learned to relish these moments (maybe I even create them) because I’m always excited and interested when I’m caught off guard by what I didn’t anticipate.
What should I have expected about the educational system of Upper Myanmar? What did I expect?
I expected underfunded school systems, a lack of resources for students, and strict control over the education system. Myanmar’s history as a military dictatorship led me to the latter belief, and its status as a least developed country indicated that education would be a secondary concern since education is a black hole for profit margins. If you wanted to control a population, why would you educate them and pay good money for it? For this exact reason, Myanmar’s government shut down universities following each major protest over its 50 year history, changed the length of course terms, and even spread universities out across the country to prevent unrest. Now, politicians and government ministers are looking to reform the education system in order to get re-elected under the new democratic system.
Government schools are underfunded so teachers and administrators struggle to teach students with limited resources. Most classes are filled with 30-40 students, but some of the teachers in my classes have told me they regularly have up to 50 or 60. The highest total I have found so far is 77. Can you imagine cramming 77 students into a 1,200 square-foot room? I find it hard enough to fit 40. Schools only have enough money for daily operation of necessary personnel so superfluous operations such as school lunches, janitorial staff, and nursing personnel (at least to my knowledge) are non-existent. In the mornings, students and teachers sweep, clean, and prepare the school for the day.
Another major problem related to under-funding is paying teachers. No matter what your experience or qualifications are, you get paid approximately the same amount of money. The only difference between pay grades is position but this usually depends on seniority as opposed to merit. Some of my teachers have been Junior Assistant teachers for 10 or more years so they are basically waiting for the older teachers to die off in order for them to be promoted. Moreover, the salary per month that is paid to teachers is unfathomable. Private teachers make two or three-times the amount of public school teachers (which is significant here), but it is still incomparable to the United States (I’m only using the U.S. as a reference because it is the educational system I’m most familiar with). A public school teacher in Mandalay would have to work approximately 20 years to make the equivalent salary of what a rural teacher in the U.S makes in one month.
Myanmar’s government is dedicated to education and knows that education and high literacy rates are tantamount to ensuring a labor force that is modern and progressive. However, intentions are different from successful implementation. Most of the national budget is spent on the security, military, and defense branches of government. The Education Ministry receives approximately 1% (2001) percent of the national budget compared to the U.S.’s 4% (2013, FEBP). Even a three percent increase would mean an extra $300 million dollars for the Education Ministry to spread throughout the educational system of Myanmar. Rather than focusing on improved working conditions and pay raises for teachers, resources for students, and reduction in class sizes, the government has focused on building ‘E-learning’ centers, statistically high literacy rates, and more schools in cities and rural areas. The effects of such policy implementation have left no incentive for teachers to enter the field and relieve the growing number of students in classes, nor has it provided the students with a better quality of education or an improved curriculum.
No. 16 Basic Education High School is considered one of the best government schools in Mandalay. It has an ‘E-learning’ center (which I still haven’t had the opportunity to see), newly constructed buildings, and electricity. Some of the rooms even have overhead fans which is nice for blowing student papers around the room. However, being one of the best government schools in Mandalay, it still suffers from flash flooding, over-crowded classrooms (compared to the U.S., not Myanmar), and a lack of sound-proofing. When school is in session, you can hear students shouting from their classrooms as the teachers drill them through the material. During the intervals between class periods, lunch, or at the end of the day, you must shout over the din of students as they trample down the stairwells. When the band plays in the courtyard, you quit trying to shout and just write everything you want to say on the board. On my first day of teaching, I lost my voice because I was in a three-hour competition with the band.
The biggest obstacle I see to the educational system is attitudes toward learning and knowledge. Anything that challenges traditional knowledge or the status quo is seen as an aberration. Ph.D. candidates in Myanmar universities have been forced by their defense committees to change their theses to fit in line with what is familiar at the expense of new ideas. Anything other than rote learning or drilling is unknown. When I first started, my teachers were surprised and did not understand what to do when I played games with them to reinforce material that I had presented. Novel thinking, problem solving, or opinion sharing is quite hard for me to accomplish in class. My teachers have been taught that there is always a correct answer and that this answer is what the teacher shares with the students. Inductive teaching and independent observation are fictions from a fantastical world. Lastly, in my brief time of walking around and observing classrooms informally, I have been quite shocked with in-class teaching methods. In many classrooms, teachers spend the entire time at their desks furiously writing and ignoring the students. If the teacher is standing up, he/she is facing the board and writing as the students furiously copy what is being written. The teacher then turns around and has the students drill what was written. There is one classroom I walk by each day where the students always have their heads down on their desks. They never seem to be learning. On only one occasion have I seen the teacher standing at the board and the students sitting upright.
English language learning happens in an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) environment and the only teaching method ever employed is grammar-translation. Students are taught English in Myanma. My teachers have never considered the idea of speaking to them or instructing them in English. The curriculum available is very sparse and dated. It is filled with the same grammar activities, vocabulary worksheets, and matching exercises after each unit. Teachers never deviate from the book and are never encouraged to develop their own materials or use their own ideas to teach students.
Recently I looked over the lesson plan of one of my best teachers, and inquired what he meant when he wrote ‘Teach Ss vocabulary’. He explained to me that he would write the English adjective on the board, its equivalent in Myanma, and then proceed to drill them on the correct pronunciation. I was, of course, shocked by this since he was one of my best students, spoke fairly fluently, and seemed to be a capable teacher. Moreover, I had also spent the last three classes introducing new methods, activities, and alternative strategies to teaching, as well as the insufficiency of grammar-translation and drilling (it is necessary in language learning, but not sufficient). Then, I proceeded to ask him what other ways could he teach vocabulary and he simply responded, “I don’t know of any other ways to teach adjectives.” Those words still resound in my head.
All of the above being said, I have the greatest respect for teachers in Myanmar, or at least the ones I have grown to know in Mandalay over the past month. As a general group (with only a few exceptions), they are the most dedicated and motivated teachers I’ve met in my few years of teaching. They have done a lot with such little resources or funding and with a curriculum that is lacking in quality. They are hopeful and ready to work hard if they are given the opportunity.
Many of my expectations have been confirmed. There is very little funding for schools, support for teachers, and the content of the curriculum needs to be overhauled. While I anticipated a lack of educational methods and styles different from my own education or training, I did not anticipate the degree of difference and this has been the most interesting revelation to me so far. It has afforded me the chance to appreciate my own level of education, its quality, and the teachers who have struggled with differing techniques throughout my life to inculcate the knowledge that would be necessary for my own future success and the success of the future communities I would be a part of, regardless of their geographical location.