Saturday, May 11, 2013

Student Life in Bhutan

       The education system in Bhutan is still quite new. I am teaching in a school which is just 10 years old. I have visited a few newer schools and there is one nearby which was established 40 years ago. My school, Gaselo Higher Secondary School, is typical, it is in a rural area and draws many students from small villages which had no access to schooling. Many of the students in school here are first generation high school students. If either of their parents went to school it was very limited. For Bhutan to have gone from a country of very few schools to effectively enrolling 100% of the children in primary grades is an amazing step to have taken in a very short period of time.  

      Gaselo HSS has a student body of 500+ of which about 450 are boarding students. The boarding students come from a variety of backgrounds and travel different distances to come to school. Some have attended the lower school in Gaselo and are coming to the higher school for grade 7. Some are coming from middle schools for grade 11 and12. Many of the boarding students will be on campus 24/7 for a full semester and only return home during the two week summer break. Their time here is scheduled pretty tightly and the living is very communal.          
      The students live in dorms, known here as ‘hostels’. These are 2 story buildings with 2 to 4 large open rooms filled with double bunks. Each student has a bed and that’s about it, a little storage space but they have very few personal belongings with them. No electronics allowed, no personal food, no personal extras. Students all wear identical uniforms and have just a few other clothes. All students have a classroom. 30-40 kids will make up a class and they spend all day in these rooms. The teachers come to the rooms as different subjects are scheduled to teach 50 minute periods 3 to 6 times each week. A typical day starts with a 5:00am wake up whistle, an hour of hostel cleaning and washing up, an hour of morning study in their class rooms, 45 min for breakfast, 15 min of campus work, 30 min for morning prayers and assembly which includes speeches and announcements, 7 class periods with a 10 min morning break and an hour for lunch. The academic day ends at 3:50 and is followed by evening prayers, sports, or other programs. An hour of evening study begins at 6:00pm and is followed by dinner and then a final hour for night study. Lights out at 9:30. Sat is only half day of class but fully scheduled with other activities which generally includes 3hrs in the vegetable gardens after lunch. Sunday’s are pretty open with optional sports and activities going on.
       Meals are pretty amazing demonstrations of what can be accomplished with meager facilities and limited time. Feeding 500+ students 3 meals daily with only 45 min to an hour to serve and eat is awesome to watch and demands a whole blog entry unto itself.
       All of this is accomplished with only two faculty, dubbed warden and matron, who are on campus 24/7 with the students. The solution to the problem is student leaders. Every classroom has two captains, one male one female, each house has two captains as well, there is a meals captain, sports captain, overall captain, and who knows how many other captains. These students take care of attendance, not just for class but for all scheduled program during the day, they organize many weekend activities, they take care of all of the details of the school. The teachers teach, attend and oversee many of the activities, but the details are taken care of by the captains. It is an ingenious, perhaps brilliant, way to enable the school to function in what we would consider unworkable numbers in terms of student/ faculty-staff ratios. Bhutanese culture is such that these students do get a lot of respect and response from the student body. My communication skills and relationships with the students are at a stage where I am not clear if the captains face difficulty, as we would imagine, being a peer leader. It is a great opportunity for them to have a wealth of experience in management skills and leadership which ought to serve them very well in their futures. I know we in the West are always looking for ways to give students leadership experience and the system in Bhutan certainly provides a few students with exactly that.
         As I try to fit the puzzle pieces of Bhutanese culture and education together I can almost always see benefits to their way of doing things even though at the outset the methods might seem counterproductive. This is not to say everything is perfect but the Bhutanese do try to identify problems and do make real attempts to address those problems with the resources they have at their disposal.

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