When a newly trained volunteer teacher arrived at Drepung Gomang Monastery in the Tibetan settlement in South India, she was handed a piece of crumbly chalk, and confronted with a large class of young trainee monks. Five years later, Kristel Ouwehand tells of the extraordinary circumstances she still finds herself in as the only Western female among 1500 monks.
There I was on that first day, with no more than a year’s teaching experience in Dharamsala, and unable to speak any Tibetan, standing in front of forty wide-eyed, expectant little monks, who had rarely seen, let alone been taught by a Western female.
Teaching aids were unheard of and non-existent. Whatever I needed, I had to make — I was spending more time in preparation than in actual teaching time. Resorting to charades, Pictionary-style cards, and generally learning the hard way in the classroom, I eventually picked up enough of the language to learn their names, discover personalities and find out what they did and didn’t know about English.
Class sizes range from twelve students to over one hundred and twenty, sometimes with three or four students packed in to one two-seater desk. The students are mostly from the Northern Indian regions of Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, but these Himalayan regions have retained many of the same customs, traditions and even use the same written language as Tibet. The spoken forms of the language have gradually become distinct dialects, which tend to cause chaos in Class I for the first year, when the students from differing areas can’t understand each other, let alone the teacher.
Kids range in age from the youngest at five or six years old (this year there are two three-year-olds, one who threw tantrums until his parents let him stay in the monastery), to those in their early twenties. Classes are divided into eight grade levels. The majority of them are from extremely poor families; others are orphans or semi-orphans. A quarter of the school-age monks are refugees from Tibet …