Teaching English in Myanmar

February 26, 2014

Last month I was given the opportunity to live high in the mountains in a Palaung Village teaching English. As I woke up that morning, I frantically searched the Internet for lesson plans realizing I had little clue in what I was getting myself into. What do I teach them? How do I teach them? Will there be a translator? How many kids will there be? How long will I teach each day? I began to think I got myself in too deep but then remembered, any help is better than none so I put my worries aside and just decided to roll with it. Waiting for someone to pick me up, I sat in the lobby promptly at 9am, when he was due to arrive. Hours passed and before I knew it was 1:00pm. Thinking they forgot about me (and not wanting to leave the hostel in fear I would miss him), I sat practicing patience. Around 1:15pm, a man came to the door and motioned me to get on his bike. Sitting on his bike I realized I would have to carry my large bag in my back as we were hauling gasoline where I normally would set my bag. Fearful I would fall off backwards from the weight, I decided to empty half of my bag, leaving it in the hostel. As we began the journey we made a quick pit stop and picked up some rice wine (home made alcohol, tastes like bad liquor). The man motioned me to drink up. “So this is how it’s gonna be” I thought. I obliged and had some drinks with him and mounted on the motorbike, feeling quite nice. So off we went up the mountain dirt path winding through valleys and villages until we reached Htan Sant Village (pronounces Tawn Sant). He dropped me off at my host families house and I bid him farewell. I never saw my drinking buddy again. Entering into the house I was greeted by a man named Maung OO (pronounced Mong-Ew) and his beautiful wife Chit La. They had a 4 year old daughter named Kin Tay. His parents, Joe Minh and Em Ai also lived with them. Their house was quite nice. A two story wooden frame with a large upstairs. One thing I realized is how smokey it was inside. The room for cooking had a wood fire inside most of the day and there was not adequate ventilation so the smoke circulated through the house. The cigar and cigarette smoke added to the mix. They walked me upstairs and offered me my own room. They laid a thin padding on the ground and gave me some heavy blankets as it gets extremely cold at night. The village is located in the mountain tops and has roughly 35-50 homes throughout. Their main trade is tea plantation and most of the village men spend their days in the fields. There are horses and oxen regularly wondering through the pathways and their feces is scattered everywhere. Maung OO had about 8 horses right outside his house. I’ll get into life in the village later but now let’s dive into why I am there.. To teach.

As I woke up the first day I wasn’t sure exactly where to go for school. Maung OO, who was supposed to be my translator, mentioned to me that he had to go to the fields and couldn’t accompany me on my first day. I was a tad bit concerned and mentioned to him that I didn’t know where the school was and if he could show me. He said “yes” and I told him I would go to the bathroom and be right back. When I got back, he had already left for the fields. There was a communication error. We had many of these lost in translation moments. So I stood there thinking, “where the heck do I go?!” and soon thereafter the head of the village came and motioned me to follow him. Not being able to speak their language, I couldn’t ask any questions. He took me to the monastery and upon arrival I noticed about 10 monks under the age of 13 peering out at me. He took me to pavilion outside and motioned me to stay. I waited and soon about 10 villagers trickled in one by one. As it turns out, during the morning and early afternoon I would teach the villagers and in the late afternoon I would teach the kids in the school. It was great. One difficulty was some days villagers could make class and others they would have to go to the fields. So if I taught one lesson one day the missed, the next day when they came to class they would be behind. Some would come for just one random day and I would help them as much as I could but in general me just being present and them listening was beneficial even if they didn’t practice speaking much. (sorry this is hard to write because there are so many aspects and it’s impossible to cover every dynamic of what went in. It’s hard to explain it all in words, but I’ll try my best.) The villagers ranged from ages 15-45 and were attentive. They wanted to learn so bad. I would go to each individual having them pronounce the word or answer the question. So the older group, the villagers, really got one on one practice. Usually when I went up to one person, someone else would say the answer to help them out and it was really difficult to get them to be quiet. It was nice they we’re excited and knew the answer but whoever I was talking to wasn’t able to think independently without help. There were a lot of challenges that came about in teaching English that I never realized before. Since Maung OO, my translator spoke extremely little English and came to 20% of the classes, I was on my own. We had one book and no translator. I had to get creative. For example, when practicing “How are you?” “I am fine, thank you”, we practiced each question first. So “How are you” we would say, I dunno, 50 times as a group before each one by one would say it 10-15 times independently. Then afterwards the same with “I am fine, thank you”. Next, time to combine the question with the answer. I would ask the class “How are you?” wanting them to respond with “I am fine, thank you”. But they would repeat the question. So I had to find a way to explain it was a question and an answer and to answer accordingly. Plus, ere was no translation so at first they had no clue WHAT they were even saying. That was one day until Maung OO came the next day and was able to explain what it meant, the question and answer and gave me the words in Burmese to use to explain. So the villagers were during he day.. Next it was time for the school children.. Oh boy, I had no clue what I was in for. As I walk towards the school, without Maung OO, I hear a roar in the distance of the children. I enter the building to see 70 energetic faces, of all ages, suddenly stand tall, arms crossed all looking at me chanting a rather long greeting in unison. I enter the warm welcome into the stagnant, dust filled air and think, “OK, now what next…” I literally had no clue. I was thinking what the hell have I gotten myself into. Here is this village seeking more wisdom than I have to give. Then I remembered, “You’ve got this!” So I say, “Hello!” as loud as I can! And the children, all 70 of them reply, “Hello!” I repeat “Hello” over and over and over as I make my way from one end of the class room and back looking at each one of their precious faces in the eyes and getting acquainted with my new surroundings. Not knowing what to do next, I walk slowing the length again screaming “Hello!” And shaking hands with random ones seeing this reactions. Most were happy, laughing and in a rather goody mood. Few were scared into statuettes and when I approached them became rather timid. I left them alone as I knew they just needed time to warm up. Then next was maybe the funniest part of my entire time. I say, “My name is Justin!” And in unison, the students scream back “My name is Justin!” (!!!) As I reaction I say to myself, “Oh no” and the group of students near me all in unison say “Oh no”.. Hah! Everything I said they mimicked. I tried to say “No wait” and it was replied with “No wait”.. So I had to use hand signals. When they would speak I would give a sign to be quiet and to not speak. This took maybe 7-10 times before all 70 understood to be quiet and to not speak. Whoever got it first would say in Burmese to the rest of the class to be quiet. I kept thinking how in the heck am I going to do this without a book nor a translator. This is impossible. False. It was possible, it was just challenging and completely new to me. After a couple days I got the hang of how to communicate and what ways were effective and what ways were not. Hand motions, facial expressions and noises were the best way to be honest. Whenever I got in a pickle, I naturally would feel frustrated and just had to remember, have fun with it. These kids are all here, smiling and loving life. Who cares if it doesn’t go as planned. So for example, as Kat taught me, repetition is key for learning a new language AND having fun. If there isn’t fun the kids will loose interest. So we would say, for example, “How are you” as a group over and over and over for maybe 3 minutes. I would speed up and slow down as I said it. Sometimes going super fast in a humorous way and the kids would get a good laugh. Then, one by one, I would go through the entire classroom. I would have each child say the phrase three times by themselves for them to practice. Now, how do I keep it fun when going through 70 children one by one? Clapping of course. So after each child we would do a series of claps initiated by me. After I clapped I would pause and so would the kids… Then sometime later I would start clapping again, and again. Then sometimes I would pretend to start clapping and then not, “tricking them” which they thought was hilarious. Then as that died down after a few days I had to think of something new and fresh. I kept saying “very good” to the kids and they would always repeat so I added “two thumbs up” to the end. So “very good, two thumbs up” became a chant we all would say over and over and I would lift both thumbs in the air making goofy faces and the kids loved it! If they learned one this while I was there, it was the phrase, “Very good! Two thumbs up!” 😬 Luckily I saw first hand the children learn way more than just that. As mentioned, a trekking guide was the man who told me about the village. Therefore, a few days during the week, he would arrive in the town at night with a couple Westerners (someone from Europe, North/South America.. Or Australia) who he took on a trek that day and they would spend the night in the village before carrying on the next day. After the second day, as trekkers would arrive at night some of the kids were saying… “Hello, my name is Justin!” to them as they arrived. Yep, still inserting my name but it’s a ground for advancement!.. And it was only day two! The following days there was much improvement, Maung OO was able to assist me in the classroom with the students to explain basic things like when to answer and what the phrases meant I was teaching them. In the late afternoon (3pm-5pm) is when I taught the 70+ kids and I usually left with a slight headache from their screaming voices repeating everything I said. One of the major difficulties was the amount of students I was teaching at once.. Plus they all had different learning levels. Some were 4 while others were 12. It’s impossible to teach them all at once as some would get bored (the material too easy) while others confused (the material too difficult). I wish I could say there was a solution to this but in the end I just had to wing it. I tried to get the young kids one day to color as I practiced “I am happy/sad/hungry/thirsty/cold/hot/etc” with the older kids but it was still a bit of a mess. Then again, that’s just my American standards being projected on the classroom. I wanted everything orderly if you will. Observing the rest of how their day was taught, mine appears to be rather structured in comparison. During the day, when I taught at the monastery with the older villagers, the students afar in the school were running around and didn’t seem to have much class time in general. But this is just an observation. (Recall during the day 9-11am and 1-3pm I was with the older villagers at the monastery and 3-5pm I was at the school with the younger ones.) The time with the older villagers (15-45 yrs old) was way more structured. We went through a LOT of English and they were rather attentive. One difficult thing was “I am/you are/he is/she is”. When I would ask the older villagers “Are you thirsty” they would say “I are thirsty” or “You am thirsty” or even “She am thirsty” when the answer is “I am thirsty”. English is tricky and trying to teach it unveiled complexities never seen before. There were hurdles that popped up everywhere which were tackled in time. The hurdles were endless. Every explanation needed an explanation which also needed an explanation. Luckily we found a Burmese/English book and were able to do some translation. The book was organized horribly but after much searching and time I could find what I was trying to explain 70% of the time. The last day with older villagers I went through everything we had learned and tested each one. Only 5 were able to make it that class but out of each 5 I realized one thing, they were all messing up a lot. I became disheartened and had a moment of self pity thinking I was a horrible teacher which lasted until lunch. Then at lunch, usually I took a nap but this time I sat thinking.. I needed to give myself a break. I had taught them SO much English crammed into 9 days. How could I possibly expect them to remember everything? Even on exams in school, rarely do people score 100%. Shit they were speaking English and OK maybe they forgot to put the “S” on a plural or forgot “Tuesday” during the days of the week but they’ve learned so much! Plus they have their notes to go back on. So I returned that afternoon to the older villagers with a lighter heart. I had Maung OO there to translate my sincere gratitude to them all and thanked them for their hard work. They each one by one told me long phrases in Burmese which were semi translated for me but rather more I was able to see into their eyes and read their body motion to understand that these people were extremely grateful. They all brought me gifts of tea and handed them over to me. Some tried to give money equivalent to $1.00-$4.00 which I kindly did not accept. As I left I could feel their hearts aching as one student looks at me and said in English, “I.. Am.. Sad.” It just about killed me. I nearly lost it. I put cultural customers aside and gave him the biggest hug holding back tears. He was the only student who was able to come everyday to class. His name is Two Ying and he’s adorable. Two days in I went to shake his hand and realized underneath his jacket was a missing arm. He was working near the China border and got it caught in a machine. I was told he is unable to work effectively in the fields and wants to be a trekking guide therefore wants to learn English so he can fulfil his goal. He was there every day. He tried the hardest and put forth the most effort. It sucked saying goodbye. We all grew so close over the past days and then suddenly it was time to go. Leaving the children was no different. I went inside and practiced the normal routine and they all had it down to a T! Then we all went outside and took a group photo. After the photo they went to their assigned seats and I went one by one, taking my time, to shake each of their hands, looking each one of them in their eyes and trying to transpose my sincere gratitude. I got to one of the monks and upon seeing his face my throat got that every familiar ball in it and it was just way harder than expected to leave this kids. At the end, I screamed “WHAT DO WE SAY?!” Which is the trigger for “VERY GOOD! TWO THUMBS UP!” and I signalled them to stand on their chairs and dance and get as loud as possible. And just like that, I turned around walking away as the children’s roar dissipated in the background. Just like that I was closing the door on a very special, short chapter in my life. Something I will never, ever forget as long as I live.


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