Teacher Abroad: Bhutan

Reese is a fellow BCF teacher abroad like me in Bhutan! I'm so excited to share someone else's experience of teaching in Bhutan in this Teachers Abroad Series because everyones feelings and experiences are so, so different. So many people have contacted me asking about what its like to teach in Bhutan, but the truth is if you want to come here you have no idea where you'll be placed and my experience will not be the same as yours. I'm hoping that this post will give your more insight into what its like teaching in Bhutan in the broader sense.

Reese blogs over at Chillies and Dragons, and I absolutely love his writing style! It really inspires me to be a better writer when I read his pieces. He has recently taught in South Africa (yay!), South Korea, the US and Senegal so he has a lot of experience in teaching abroad and I hope to one day follow in his footsteps and teach all over the world! Happy Reading ...

1. Tell us about yourself - who you are, how old you are, where are you from, where are you currently living, your teaching experience and what are you currently teaching?

Hello and thanks Megan for giving me a stage unto which I can share my passion! My name is Reese Ishmael. I am 28 years young and hail from the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, where shades of emerald and grey dominate the earth and sky. I have been a teacher since 2009, working in both public and private settings in 5 countries spanning North America, Africa, and Asia. I currently reside in the city of Mongar, situated just east of central Bhutan.

Here in Mongar I work as a Math and English subject teacher for grades 3 and 6 at Mongar Lower Secondary School (MLSS). The school sits at the edge of a cliff overlooking subtropical mountains and valleys clad in verdant jungle. MLSS is spread out over various terraced levels of grass-covered terrain and is equipped with various sports, IT, and Special Educational Needs (SEN) facilities in addition to classrooms and offices.  This year there are currently 791 attending students spanning Pre-primary (Kindergarten) to Class 8 (8th Grade) with roughly 42 faculty and a handful of additional staff. 

2. What made you decide to teach abroad?

When I was 12 I moved to Brazil with my family because of my father’s work in clean-air projects. Thusly, I attended the American School of Rio de Janeiro for 3 years, where I fell in love with the small class sizes, enthusiastic faculty, lush scenery, and field trips—not to mention the food, festivities, and beaches that my nearby surroundings provided. I was bit by the travel bug. As I matured and decided upon teaching I realized I didn’t need to sacrifice my love of adventure for my career choice; I have been doing everything in my power since to insert myself into the international circuit. 

Teaching internationally is an incredibly niched career choice—most people I talk to assume this is just a temporary venture, but there are thousands of teachers all over the world who have committed themselves to expatriation and I am among their ranks. I chose it specifically because it merges a variety of personal interests—language, culture, ongoing learning about myself and the world around me, adventure, teaching, and experience. 

I am very fortunate to be able to choose such a lifestyle, but I went into teaching because of its versatility. It is one of the oldest professions known to humankind, and teachers are needed in all corners of the globe. Due to globalization schools around the world look for qualified teachers to come work for them—particularly those with a strong English background due to its ubiquity in international business and exchange. The potential of being able to teach anywhere in the world provides an element of adventure and forces me to continue learning as I face linguistic, cultural, and systemic differences in foreign educational settings. 

3. What’s it like living in your current country?

Bhutan is in many ways the land that time forgot. Never conquered by a foreign power and kept rather hidden in the shadows of neighboring powerhouses China and India, Bhutan has been allowed to develop culturally and developmentally on its own terms. Today’s Bhutan more closely resembles its 17th century iteration than the bustling metropolises of the modern west. Although you will see people drinking Coke and wearing jeans as they sit in chairs and ogle over the TV this is a relatively new fad, and you are just as likely to come across men and women wearing their national dress, cross-legged on the grass drinking butter tea as their cattle graze nearby. Its culture is still central to their identity, which makes it unique. And boy, is it beautiful.

Bhutan’s beauty is difficult to describe and near impossible to capture by pictures alone. Its sharply peaked and valleyed landscape creates an unbelievable sense of smallness—an odd sentiment considering its rank as the 137th largest country in the world. The winding roads that hug its mountains weave a complex tale of geological and biological diversity and there is no shortage of wildlife. In short, it is a natural haven from the destructive path of the industrial revolution, kept intact by its hermitage. 

As I mentioned previously, I live in the city of Mongar, home to just over 3,000 people. By Bhutanese standards, this is a big city. Mongar is spread across a mountain ridge overlooking nearby valleys and the Gangala river. My experience here differs somewhat from my colleagues participating in Bhutan Canada Foundation’s Teach in Bhutan program because of my town’s size and central location. I have access to luxuries such as a bakery, a 3-story vegetable and meat market, and a major hospital which doubles as the largest building in all of eastern Bhutan. Amenities such as water, electricity, and internet are more readily available, though it is still very much an undeveloped area by western definition. 

My life here is rather simple, just as I imagined it would be. The community is close and kind, eager to help and compassionate in every sense of the word. People here don’t sweat the small stuff and speak their minds freely. Time works on a completely different scale, too—affectionately referred to by locals as BST (Bhutan Stretchable Time). I spend my free hours writing or taking hikes, eating with friends, or participating in social gatherings. I like to walk into town from time to time to pick up vegetables from the market or just meander and people watch. On the odd holiday I will catch a ride with someone to see neighboring provinces, fulfilling my need for adventure. It certainly took some time to adapt to things, but now that I am familiar with it all, I have really come to appreciate it.

4. What do you love most about teaching where you are?

Of course my answer would be the students. One particular thing I love about them is their resiliency. They endure many extremes and as a result are rather tough. Students play in the rain and mud as if no water were falling at all and stay at school hours after the last bell has rung. They give speeches in front of hundreds of students and let the stress roll off them as soon as they are finished; they approach competitions with equal grace, regardless of the outcome. They never make a fuss of having to stay for extra programs or for being given a lot of homework, never mind having to attend school 6 days a week. And best of all, they volunteer for responsibilities just because they want to help. These kids are tough and understand their duties and it is truly admirable.

5. What’s the most challenging aspect of teaching in your current country?

One challenging aspect I currently face in my school is successful English language intervention, as most students here are deficient in areas such as phonological awareness and phonics. I admit this is not one of the biggest problems facing Bhutan’s schools, but I find it worthy of mention nevertheless. Until fairly recently education in Bhutan relied on teacher-centered classrooms, equating to lessons dependent on rote memorization. Although professional development workshops tout student-centered learning, students are seldom engaged in activities that foster problem-solving, decoding, and creative response. I recently judged a spelling competition for grades 2 and 3. Half of grade 2 failed to spell the word ‘bad’ yet didn’t stutter once when the world ‘unforgettable’ appeared. The elephant in the room was that these students are being taught how to spell by memory, which means they have a limited understanding of 2 major foundations of literacy: phonological awareness and phonics, which inevitably hinders literacy. I have since brought this up to the principal and held a workshop on simple ways to integrate these skills into everyday learning, but the battle is ever uphill as teachers are not very comfortable teaching something they are not too familiar with themselves. I am hoping, though, that if I am to leave any legacy behind, that this will be it. If I’m successful in doing so, I am confident that reading culture in Bhutan’s youth will improve—at least here in Mongar, anyway.

6. What advice do you have for others wanting to teach and travel abroad?

I find it prudent to mention that travelling, living, and teaching abroad are all different experiences that yield different rewards. If you are interested in travelling abroad, start saving now. Put away a percentage of your earnings or pocket those tips in a piggybank—anything to help fund your travel. Often times flying is the most expensive part. If you have the determination though, you can make it work. I have two close friends who traveled across East and Southeast Asia for three months and funded the expedition simply by serving at local restaurants earning close to minimum wage for a year. You can also look into alternatives that can cut down your expenditures like WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) or volunteer through government and NGO programs, which have the pleasant side effect of helping the world as well!

If you wish to live abroad, there are many professions conducive to travel. Many jobs in biology, zoology, and geology tend to place individuals overseas. Work in construction, engineering, IT, and mining also tend to lean toward international work. Social work and aid will get you to even remote corners of the planet. In my years outside the US I have met countless medical professionals, diplomats, aid workers, and Peace Corps volunteers who share my love of international life. 

As for teaching abroad, there are several options, but those depend on your level of expertise. Those with little to no experience (who have a bachelor’s degree) can easily find well-paying jobs in the Saudi Arabia, China, Korea, and others. Check out eslcafe.com for listings and advice, as it is a great place to start looking. Getting a TEFL certification is a simple way to increase your viability. Those with a teaching license have even more options, but will find working in South America, Oceania, and Europe rather difficult. Teachers with a degree/license and two or more years of experience will have the most options. Check out Search Associates, International School Services, and comparable recruiting companies for information on international job fairs and recruitment possibilities. Be aware that many of these organizations will ask for a member fee in order to grant access to job listings, but if you are serious about getting placed, these are your best bets.

To all those interested I wish you the best of luck. You will have to get your hands dirty to find what you’re hoping for, but I assure you there is nothing more satisfying than making your dreams into reality. The world is yours to explore. Go out and see what it has to offer!

Thanks so much for your in depth response, Reese! I can totally relate to the children's lack of phonological awareness and its really been such a challenge for me to "unteach" what they have already learned. I'm still struggling with it after 5 months of teaching here and I'm sure many other foreign teachers have similar problems in other countries. Thanks for being such an inspiration!