Before moving to Myanmar I had a lot of people interested in how I felt about moving from the elementary level to the high school level and I gave each and every person the same exact answer: “There is no way I would be able to teach high school here in American public education at this point in my life.” The challenges that public school teachers face every day are so far beyond most people can comprehend. See in the states many people consider teaching as a lower level career. The old saying goes “those who can, do and those who can’t, teach.” Teachers are some of the lowest paid and most underappreciated professionals. We often work far outside the normal workday hours while we plan lessons, prep materials, work on professional development, take extra classes to learn about the new buzz topic, give students extra help, decorate our classrooms and so much more. After everything a teacher does and all they give to the students they still feel like it is not enough. I do not know of one teacher that feels like they have done enough, we always strive to give more time, more resources, more energy, more love to our students.
When looking to go abroad I began getting introduced to the international classroom and let me tell you – it is a whole other world. When moving here I had been looking forward to seeing if the research that I had found was true, in particular the fact that teachers are highly regarded in Myanmar. What I had heard was the hierarchy whet something like: Monks, Government Officials, Teachers, and so forth. What I have experienced so far this is in fact correct. Ask any teacher in my school why they love to work here and I garentee you each and every one of them will have the same answer: the students. I know most teachers continue on each day for the benefit of the students but these students in particular are phenomenal. They great me each time they walk into the classroom, their personalities are bright and positive, they are each intrinsicly motivated to do their very best, they always complete their work – most often beyond my expectations, they are bright and willing to be challenged, and don’t even get me started on the quality of work they submit which is far beyond what I could imagine for students at this age. Most relevant to this topic is how respectful they are to teachers. They listen when I speak, not just because they are supposed to but because they are actually obsorbing what I am saying. They express their opinions in polite ways, never to backtalk or undermind others.
Beyond the person to person, respect is ingrained deep in the culture of the Myanmar people. It is a part of the Buddhist philosophy to be appreciative of where you are and not envious of those who have more. This is easier to do when you believe that you have a seemingly endless amount of lives, each of which will keep on improving if you gain enough merit. One way of the many, many ways to gain merit is to pay respect to those you honor, elders, religious leaders, and teachers.
Next week is a big Buddhist holiday called Thadingyut where it is especially important to pay respect to anyone you consider a teacher in your life. There are many community events where they feed and pay respect to the monks in the neighborhood. On the day of the holiday my students told me that they will go out to the elders in their family and show them respect. In the middle school they invited their family elders in to watch a special performace in their honor. In the elementary school they held an assembly for the teachers where the students knelt on the floor and chanted to show their respect. In the high school students will individulally pay respect to teachers by giving them gifts leading me to why I received a $50 bottle of wine on Friday. Many other teachers received special gifts also, many got wine or liquor like me but some were given longyis (the traditional Myanmar skirt type clothing that men and women wear) and others got food of sorts. The bus ride home was like Christmas morning with each of us showing off our gifts.
I feel very lucky to be a part of this society where they understand the importance of what I do and show that in both special ways and ordinary day to day tasks. When the occasional taxi driver asks (in broken English) what I do here, I am proud to reply that I am a teacher – a response that always receives a big smile and a respectful nod.