It’s Business Time

So just a quick rundown on the English lessons side of things for you…

Ko Myo’s Pantanaw-based liaison person had organised for prospective students to turn up at Ko Myo’s folks’ house at 9am on the day after our arrival. From my bedroom I could hear the first of them showing up around 7:30am accompanied by various family members – mostly fathers it seemed. I was taken around to the house of the Chairman of the NLD to use their toilet at this point (see previous post) under the impression that all of the students would be redirected around here for the “Orientation” soon. I waited here, drinking coffee and tea and waiting for “the urge” until 9am at which time Ko Myo came back to collect me. It seems they had decided it would be too crowded there so we would hold the Orientation back at the house.

There was a rather large crowd back at the house, which turned out to be around 23 students and numerous onlookers. Ko Myo welcomed everyone and then handed it over to me…

At this point it might be helpful to pause in my story and clarify exactly what I thought I was initially sticking my hand up for from the comfort of my lounge in NZ. From what I could gather, I would be assisting in some English lessons that were being given by a qualified TESOL teacher; in my head, wandering around a classroom offering expert tips to students as they completed their set activities. Set activities planned by somebody else. Since then I have been asked to write an entrance exam, plan a six-month curriculum (a near impossible task without any prior knowledge of the students’ level of English – I see your nods fellow teachers), and most recently, to interview and select suitable students for said course. Argh! Did I tell you I am unqualified and have no previous experience Ko Myo?!

…Once again I found myself out of my depth in Ko Myo’s parents’ house when asked to describe this “course I would be offering” and to urge the students to set their sights on scholarships to International Universities (of which I have no knowledge). I fumbled my way through something and then we distributed some registration forms to be filled in. The forms asked for contact details and essay-style answers to questions about their aspirations for the future, why they want to learn English and what they like to do in their spare time. This is when I got my first insight into their ability – it took most of them at least two hours to complete the form, and it wasn’t because they were writing a lot. Mind you, during this whole time there was much giggling and photo taking and not just from the students; the fathers were equally interested in getting a shot. Everyone was scattered around the floor of the house in small groups helping each other fill in the forms. Once they were completed everyone sat down to a meal prepared by Ko Myo’s family – feeding visitors, no matter how numerous, is definitely the custom here. The last of the students left around 1pm by which stage the fathers had been waiting for over five hours. Waiting is also part of the custom here I gather.

This same process was repeated the following day, though with fewer students, and then the odd one has popped in over the last couple of days to collect/drop in/complete a form. All up we had about 40 registrations I think.

They were then asked to return for the written entrance exam. About four or five students got over half of this correct. Four or five. And I’m told reading and writing is their strength. Uh-huh. Speaking with Ko Myo later on shed a little bit of light on the situation. According to him there are two main issues with the education system here – one is that many of the teachers are old and therefore old-fashioned in their teaching methods. The students remain silent throughout lessons at high school and just copy what the teacher writes on the board. He thinks some of our western teaching methods will be of benefit over here. The second issue comes from the requirements of the governing military. Apparently ALL students must pass school, regardless of their ability. This means that most will work their way through high school and, it seems, university gaining undeserved grades of between 80% and 90%. I have interviewed (see below) a few graduates with degrees in English during this selection process and none of them could manage a conversation. In fact, they only seemed to be able to recite answers to questions about their family and hobbies. It’s a worry but Ko Myo thinks there are some programmes being implemented to improve teaching techniques in use in Myanmar.

The next step in the process was a short interview where I did my best to make myself understood. They are incredibly shy about using English and their listening skills are definitely a major weakness, but we did manage to collate a list of 14 students I am happy with. And we have agreed that I will just focus on listening and speaking with the goal (in my head anyway) of developing their confidence in English communication. Let’s see how that goes … I’m so glad thoughts of TOEFL have been put to rest for the time being!

Despite the tone of this post so far (oops), I’m really looking forward to getting started with the lessons – the students are lovely and I think it’s going to be heaps of fun!

Over the past few days, on more than one occasion, Ko Myo has suggested that I also run some evening classes for local businessmen and women, and then perhaps some afternoon classes for the students who don’t make the cut for my course “because they are going to be so disappointed”. At the advice of a more experienced English teacher, I had said to Ko Myo that I would like to limit my course to three hours a day, five days a week. He agrees, understands but persists with his requests, providing further opportunity for the development of my assertiveness. Thanks. J

These requests and the ones I mentioned previously (writing entrance exam /creating curriculum /selecting students) are creating a bit of an inner battle for me. On the one hand, the need is so great here and I really want to help in any way I can. Everybody, young and old, is so eager to learn English and I am the one who can help them. But on the other hand, I feel like I need to set up some boundaries to ensure that I don’t burn myself out, get frustrated and exhausted, or feel like I’m being taken advantage of. It’s really hard to anticipate where those boundaries should be. At this stage I’m sticking by my morning classes five days a week for the first week. The second week is a holiday week for the Water Festival (Myanmar New Year), and then in the third week I may introduce some casual conversation classes two nights a week for older members of the community. I would also really like to commit at least one evening a week to reading to the local children if I can get my hands on some English story books. Any exposure to English will be so helpful for them (and then I can continue my Burmese lessons – children make great teachers). I’m hoping this is reasonable. Any advice will be greatly accepted fellow English teachers.

To begin with, the content of my course is going to be based upon some amazing resources I was emailed by a contact of the CEP founder that have been created specifically for teachers of English in remote parts of Myanmar ( Such a fabulous discovery for me! The names, places and subjects for discussion in these resources are all relevant to life in rural Myanmar (as opposed to shopping at the mall and going to the cinema), and the focus is on speaking and listening. I’m hoping these will be my lifesaver. Apparently we are collecting $5 from the students in the first month in course fees, which will just cover a white board, pens and the photocopying of this student workbook. Yay!

My lessons will now take place in a (possibly too) small room in town because it contains three computers, though I can still change to a room in the monastery if I prefer. Ko Myo’s monk uncle was very insistent upon that – apparently he (like everyone!) wants to join my lessons too.

I start on Tuesday. Eek.

If anyone has changed their mind and would like to come and join me for a few months, please do! There’s definitely a need. And I wouldn’t mind a fluent English conversation, and someone to eat my meals with.


2 thoughts on “It’s Business Time

  1. Sounds like you are doing great Kim…
    And yes you could use some help!
    I hope you can source some story books to read to the children…
    Have you learnt any of their language? Although I guess the whole aim is to teach them yours 🙂
    Go well tomorrow XX Mum


  2. Wow- yes definitely important to assert boundaries and stick to them. Hard when so many people would like to practice/ learn English or make friends with a foreigner… (I had similar experience in Kyrgyzstan). I’d just do the job with the students on the course and feel that you have your head round that & living in your new surroundings etc… maybe after a month see how you feel – if you are up for much more. Wise to say no now and add bit by bit than say yes to too much and have to pull back/disappoint someone. I really enjoyed adult conversational classes in Korea- learnt lots about the culture from the women I taught. (Their level higher than your students I think). Whole thing sounds quite daunting- and I’ve had tesol training & experience! Good on you Kim- you will be fabulous!! Great news about that curriculum -ideal!


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