All in the Same Boat
Myanmar is far behind in terms of education, compared to other countries, having been shut off from the outside world for 50 years by the military junta. Now, they are struggling to catch up with the rest of the world. I feel that the education system here can be so oppressive. Students are required to pass the 10th Standard exam to proceed to University, and if they don’t pass they have to take it again the following year until they do. They have to go through the same process of review which would require them to stay in boarding schools where their studies are strictly supervised by hired teachers from dawn to dusk. Students have to get up as early as 5:00 a.m. to start studying their lessons under the supervision of their teachers until late in the evening, taking only short breaks to eat their meals. Unfortunately, due to poverty, not all parents can afford to send their children to boarding school. If they don’t pass the exam the first time, it can be devastating as it would put an end to their dreams.
I teach basic English to students and young professionals as well as working in the diocesan curia office. With increasing numbers of nongovernment organizations (NGOs) coming to Myanmar, many young people are aspiring to get jobs with the NGOs. However, they must have skills in English language. Some of my students are working in NGOs like Karuan (Caritas), while some are young professionals, high school and university students who want to improve their grammar and speaking skills. I never envisioned myself teaching English, because even I struggle with my grammar but thankfully can get help with resources from the internet.
Not all of the students come regularly because of work, exams and so on, and I would often wonder how many would turn up. In the beginning, they were enthusiastic but as time went on only a few retained the motivation to continue. Generally, young people here are timid and inexperienced. They lack motivation and perseverance to continue when they are faced with difficulties.
Teaching is not really my forte. It’s a real challenge for me to be patient and find creative ways to motivate and encourage the students t o value the importance of education so that they will not give up on their dreams. I often wonder if my words are sinking in or not. For instance, I would often invite them to ask me if there’s something they don’t understand but they will not say anything. When I ask them, “do you understand?” they’d invariably say “yes.” Then I’d reverse the question and ask, “what do you understand?” and they would remain so quiet, sitting with their eyes downcast, that you could almost hear their heartbeats.
I have to remind myself to talk to them as gently as possible, knowing how vulnerable they are. So, I have to be careful with the tone of my voice especially when I lose my patience. They were never taught in school how to assert themselves and were never allowed to question authority. For me, it is a very oppressive way of learning. So it’s not only about teaching them English, it’s also about helping them boost their self-esteem and confidence so they can assert themselves in the wider world.
To understand their reality I have to dig deeper into their history of being oppressed. There are so many factors that contribute to how and why they behave the way they do, and I cannot help but join them in their resentment and sorrow of being deprived of their right to speak for so long. Some of them are orphans or are separated from their parents because of civil war. Each has their own sad story to tell. Motivating them to use their personal experience to achieve what they really set out to achieve is important. They need somebody who can listen and understand them without judgment.
I think at this time, they feel that I care deeply for them because even if there’s only one that will turn up, they know that I will always be there waiting for them and am not willing to give up on them. I often think of the image of the compassionate God who never abandons His people, and as a missionary I continue to live out and be a witness to His compassion. I tell them that learning is a lifetime process and like them, I too am learning from them every day, so we are all in the same boat sailing on the ocean of life.
Columban lay missionary Lenette Toledo lives and works in Myanmar (formerly Burma).