[We Care, We Share] Inspiring story: The Classroom is a Place – Reflections of a teacher

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UN and JICA Bhutan’s joint initiative – Resilience tools for COVID-19

The Classroom is a Place: Reflections of a teacher

It has been almost a year now. The unused blackboards have gathered dust, the walls are barren and empty, and the classrooms are locked. Schools in Phuentsholing remained closed this year, and throughout the country, many schools painted a similar picture.

Tashi Penjor has been a Dzongkha teacher for the last 23 years and currently teaches at the Phuentsholing Middle Secondary School (PMSS). After only a month of opening, schools across the country closed in March as a precautionary step to stop the spread of the virus. Schools were directed to develop online lesson plans and conduct classesremotely. A sense of unease and unfamiliarity settled among the students and the teachers at the time.

“Without so much as getting to know the names of our students, schools closed. With the virus, everything was at stake, our health foremost. We needed to adapt and adapt quickly, not to lose the momentum. The idea of conducting classes online was very attractive. At first, it took a lot of getting used to for us. Some didn’t even join the classes because they didn’t have phones and were using their parents’ phones, and students hardly took the classes seriously. We had never conducted online classes before, and we tried all means to check and ensure that our students were actually listening and learning. Before we knew it, five months had passed,” said Tashi.

For Bhutan, technological developments and digital benefits are still new and still being explored and therefore online classes are a new approach for many teachers and students. Most classrooms still have black-boards and students use notebooks because not every student can own a laptop. What purpose can a classroom serve in a place where basic technological resources are a luxury? The classroom serves as second home to many growing children, students share desks and interact on a daily basis, with the teacher close by to respond to their queries.  Classrooms are a sacred learning place where wholesome education and values of respect, etiquette and social responsibility are inculcated. However, when the virus entered the country, it brought everything to standstill.

“When schools resumed for Classes 10 and 12 in July, many issues surfaced. Students had not maintained their notebooks, and some of them had even dropped out. We had to re-teach our lessons. As a teacher, our core duty is to make the students understand the lessons, not to finish our own syllabus on time,” added Tashi. 

Earlier in August this year, Phuentsholing was declared a Red Zone with the outbreak of the virus at the Mini-Dry Port. Tashi recalled when the school was informed it must relocate to another Dzongkhag so that lessons could continue safely. The school opted to move to Thinleygang Primary School, in Punakha which had classes till grade 6 and had remained closed this year. In September, 17 buses filled with 300 plus students, teachers and their beddings set out to their new classrooms in the north. Students were told to prepare to move away from their homes for an uncertain period of time and live as boarders, some for the very first time.

“It was difficult, as students missed their parents and teachers had their own issues such as the needing to pay the rent for their apartments in Phuentsholing,” said Tashi. In order to keep the students engaged and help them overcome their homesickness, many extracurricular activities were organized for them.

As a Self-Contained Zone, the school gradually settled down to a routine and both students and teachers grew accustomed to their new temporary settings. The classrooms though small slowly began to regain their vitality and purpose.s

“Looking back, 2020 had a lot of obstacles. But with challenges, there is also room for growth and adaptability. It has made us stronger. We’ve come a long way and as teachers, we have realized that classrooms have a value that cannot be compromised or replaced,” said Tashi.

Virtual and online learning can supplement classes and lessons and serve as a complementary measure, but can never replace nor be used as a fulltime solution.

Tashi wonders when he will be unlocking his classroom in Phuentsholing and looks forward to meeting the rest of his students face to face.

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