Challenges facing school education in exile Tibetan community; what teachers are saying?
In his inaugural speech on the First Tibetan Teachers meeting, Sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration said—Department of Education (DoE) in the past has arranged a scholarship for Tibetan school children to study in the U.S, where top 20 students from all the Tibetan schools were selected and SAT was conducted. Surprisingly, the highest score of SAT was just 54% against required 90%. He then said—local Indian students admitted in Tibetan schools usually perform better than their Tibetan classmates.
According to Mr. Apurva Chandra (Jt. Secretary, Ministry of HRD, Govt. of India), the average board exam result of Kendriya Vidyalaya schools is around 80%, whereas for Central Tibetan schools (CST), it is just around 60%, despite having similar learning facilities. So, the question remains, why Tibetan students are underperforming in schools and what are the challenges facing school education in exile Tibetan community? These questions seem the overall theme of the First Tibetan Teacher Meeting held at Lower TCV School from 3 to 5 January 2013. Some 140 Tibetan teachers from all Tibetan schools in India and Nepal shared their experiences on the issue. These experiences are powerful information as it gives direct insight into the problem, and like any other ethnographic studies, these experiences are in-depth and first-person knowledge from the knower's standpoint. This paper therefore aims to highlight those grassroots level issues experienced by school practitioners in their daily work, which can be incorporated into building better school education system in the exile Tibetan community.
Conceptually, school education is not just about securing high marks or strengthening future livelihood. Former Kalon Tripa of the CTA, Prof. Samdong Rinpoche said—if school education is meant only for getting good jobs in future, then kids of rich families don't even have to go to school. For him, school education is all about learning life and not livelihood. Black educationist Booker T. Washington in his autobiography "Up from Slavery" narrates a story of a poor black farmer, who worked very hard and sent his children to school, but children after getting education, stopped working in the field and demanding better clothes and food, which put more pressure on the already impoverished parents. So, there is an urgent need to deconstruct the meaning and purpose of school education in this modern time, but this paper looks only into the challenges facing school education in exile Tibetan community raised by Tibetan teachers. The paper will first categorize all challenges into three broad components for analysis. The three broad categories are teaching and learning environment, enabling environment and education policy and management. It is followed by discussion on those challenges, and finally, a brief conclusion on the findings.
Teaching and learning environment
According to the literature, two factors namely Course/Curriculum (Content) and Teaching effectiveness (Pedagogy) constitute teaching and learning environment, which generates child's motivation and ultimately lead to learning. These components are most crucial for school education without which all other education supports go waste. Teachers in the meeting expressed a need to change the Tibetan language curriculum—the present curriculum incorporates Tibetan political & religious history, literature and grammar all under one subject. Such curriculum exerts huge pressure not only on children but also on teachers to complete on time. The school curriculum seems worst in Nepal, where the flow of syllabus from one grade to another is not all smooth. Teachers suggest that in Mathematics, basic Arithmetic is taught till 5th grade and suddenly Algebra is introduced at 6th grade instead of Integers. Similarly, in Tibetan language, children are taught in Umed script till 4th grade but when they reach 5th grade, suddenly, Tibetan textbook is found in Uchen script. Besides, quality of textbooks in Nepal Tibetan schools are poor due to some irregularities.
As far as teaching effectiveness is concerned, shortage of teachers due to high attrition rate and presence of unskilled and unmotivated teachers are the main problems. The shortage of teachers in Tibetan schools can be divided into two—actual shortage and proxy shortage of teacher. Actual shortage of teacher is a seasonal loss of good teachers, wherein school administrators are often unable to replace the loss. As a result, classes remain either empty or filled with unqualified teachers. This problem is severe in remote and far-flung areas (e.g. northeast and Nepal regions) where teachers generally don't prefer to go. These schools generally tend to have only one subject teacher e.g., Math or English for the whole school.
Proxy shortage of teachers is common in Snow Lion Foundation (SLF) and Central Schools (CST), where local national teachers constitute more than 70% and thus the need of Tibetan teachers are felt. It is said that the cultural differences between local Indian teachers and Tibetan children lead to poor teaching-learning environment. For example, seeing few indiscipline Tibetan students, Indian teachers tend to generalize all Tibetan students as indiscipline and treat differently. Some teachers take lackadaisical approach in schools and do just enough to avoid getting fired. It is said that in many CST schools, teachers' credentials are based on their students' result; thus, all students are deliberately passed in exams. In board exams, CBSE allot 30% marks and remaining 70% marks are allotted by their subject teachers. So, it was found that 80% of students fail in CBSE marking but get high marks from their subject teachers. Such practice is rhetorically referred as "Petty magic" by other teachers, which creates disincentive towards learning.
Nowadays, many teachers in Tibetan schools are young college graduates, who are academically qualified but may lack experience in dealing with students. With lessening age gap, they should in-fact better understand student's problem but the reality seems different. It was surprising to see many teachers still in favor of using methods like spanking and punishing when it comes to classroom teaching. Prof. Samdong Rinpoche in his talk remarked that the teaching through hitting and punishment is against both the Buddhist philosophy and modern theories of learning. He said; teaching through spanking forces children to learn under fear, which only has short-term effect. When asked on how to handle troubled child, Rinpoche said; there is no universal method to deal with such issue. Teachers need to treat each case differently and analyze the root cause for solution. However, such investigation requires time and effort, which Tibetan teachers don't seem to like. And that's why, many Tibetan schools have generalized clear-cut rules and punishments for offenses, which make teacher's job easy but turn student's life miserable. For example, if a single chit is found "around" student during exam, the school rules generalized it as copying and students are failed in exam. No case study and no benefit of doubt. School is often called 'temple of learning' where children are ought to make mistakes, and teachers with their saint-like gentle spirit has to guide them with patience and wisdom, not to scare them. Let's remind of a great line from movie -3 idiots, which says; "you can teach a lion to sit on a chair by whipping but we call it 'trained lion' and not 'educated lion".
Since there are cases of teachers lacking skills and motivation even if they are qualified, in-service professional development including evaluation on teacher's motivation and teaching effectiveness seem necessary in Tibetan schools. Dr. Pema Yanchen in her PhD dissertation asserts that Tibetan teachers have limited professional development opportunities due to geographical and economic constraints. Some teachers in the meeting raised the issue of salary to retain good teachers, but the paper argues that teachers so far resigned from school are mostly due to other reasons, not salary. However, it may be potential for attracting people into teaching profession. So increment in remuneration will not prevent good teachers from resigning. What we can really do is to reduce the workload of teachers by reducing teacher student ratio. The literatures reveal that financial incentives alone will not lure good teachers, factors such as good working condition and teaching facilities are first and foremost.
Enabling environment here refers to conditions supporting teaching-learning environment in schools. The two main enabling environments discussed in the teacher's meeting are school infrastructure (provision) and parental support to education. A teacher from Kunphelling Rawangla said that the absence of hostel facility in their school leads to poor learning experience. According to her, parents leave their school going children for almost six months with old grandparents to earn living from winter sweater selling. However, these old grandparents fail to oversee child's education, which results in poor performance. because children often live with their grandparents, as their parents go for seasonal sweater selling businesses. Some teachers are of the view that the absence of laboratories for English, Science and Mathematics make it difficult for students to understand class lessons, while those schools with laboratories complained the shortages of tools and equipment. Teachers also suggested the lack of reading materials, teaching aids and low quality textbooks published by CTA's Department of Education bearing spelling mistakes, poor lay-outs and less user-friendly. Sikyong although denied of poor education facilities in Tibetan schools but we may still need to focus on it because all Tibetan schools are not homogeneous. The teacher's meeting confirmed that the school infrastructure and facilities vary significantly between and within different autonomous school bodies. School infrastructure and facilities are better in Tibetan Children Village (TCV) schools and poorer in CST and SLF schools. However within TCV schools also, those located in remote and far-flung areas have comparatively poorer infrastructure and facilities than its other sister schools.
Talking of parental support, parents have important role in creating conducive environment for child education. However, teachers argue that parents spend excessively on their child's unwanted demands but unwilling to spend money on child's education. Similarly, parents, mostly newly arrived from Tibet, take out their child from school amid exam periods, for things such as visa application. In boarding schools, foster parents often fail to create learning environment in hostels, as they take little interest in classroom assignments. In the past, Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) were set up to provide platform for interaction between parents and teachers, but in reality, their activities are limited to managing funds for mid-day meal and receiving school guest and etc.
So, what causes unresponsiveness of Tibetan parents towards their child education? The paper think of three possible reasons: first is obviously the lack of awareness among parents (1st and 2nd generation exile Tibetans) many of whom are either illiterate or school dropout. The second reason could be financial insecurity; the declining economic opportunities and increasing inequalities in settlements are turning exile Tibetan economically insecure and mobile, which lead to the prioritization of income over education. The final reason could be the relaxed attitude among Tibetans due to free schooling. Majority of Tibetan parents don't pay for their child education even in case of boarding school; some pay subsidized fee but again the majority of them somehow find sponsorship for their child education. Since it is the nature of human mind to value less on freely available things, education in exile community may have become the victim of its abundance. Free school education itself is not bad but moral hazard is part and parcel of it.
Education policy and management
The final component - education policy and management refers to macro-level decision-making and execution of policies, providing strategic leadership and overseeing educational effectiveness in all the Tibetan schools. The issues discussed on course/curriculum, teacher's professional development, school infrastructure and parents participation are all related to this component. The more specific issue is the medium of learning, which the teachers in the meeting were discussing; whether the Basic Education Policy (BEP) should be extended till 8th standard. Unfortunately, all inferences on BEP are based on self-perception, as objectively verified research doesn't seem to exist. Few teachers on the other hand claimed BEP guidelines as broad, conceptual and lacking practical approach.
Another important issue discussed was the uneven distribution of schools and students in Tibetan settlements. Decreasing school enrollment—due to decreasing fertility rate in exile community and increasing attempt of parents to send their child to "better schools"—has skewed the strength of students in various Tibetan schools. In bigger schools, one class contains 40 students and in smaller schools just average of only 7 students. The ongoing closures of these small schools inversely affect the wellbeing and education of children. For example, the closing of higher secondary section in Mainpat and Bhandara forced students, as young as 11 years old, to move to Mussoorie, far away from their families in totally different surroundings and weather. Kamrao settlement doesn't even have kindergarten or primary school, which led to the migration of families to other settlements, when their child reaches the age of school education. Such issues can be resolved if the Department of Education (DoEdu) plays more equal and strategic leadership role between various autonomous school bodies. The paper believes DoEdu need to take more key role in building networks and creating partnership ventures with autonomous school bodies.
To conclude, all above issues raised in the meeting were not new: criticism on Tibetan curriculum was more than a decade old; and shortage of teachers, lack of teacher's professional development and teaching aids especially related to Information Technology were there in DoE's 1998-Current Status Report. Similarly, closing of schools due to the shortage of student enrollment started way back in 2000s. In fact, many of the issues raised in this paper are listed in successive DoE reports but remained unresolved so far. Thus, these issues can be considered as serious challenges facing school education in exile Tibetan community.
It is, however, also important to mention that the problems raised by teachers in the meeting do not imply that exile education is failing. It is rather the rising expectation from the hard work and determination of CTA and DoEdu that is not generating satisfactory outcome.