Reflections on a two-year teacher development project in Myanmar (Burma)
This blog presents an insightful conversation between Sarah Hampton & Ally Shepherd,who met on a two-year project in Myanmar working in teacher training institutions which develop primary and secondary teachers in different regions of the country. Both are former University of Leeds students.
Ally: What attracted you to this position? For me it was a combination of curiosity about a country that had been isolated for so long going through a historical period of change, and the role we could play in the development of Myanmar’s education sector. I also wanted experience working on a nationwide project to understand how things were implemented and organised.
Sarah: I had started teacher training in Kabul and loved it. I wanted to keep doing something similar in a university – but there aren’t that many roles – especially for long-term projects. I have always been interested in Myanmar – I wrote my first essay at Leeds on it. When preparing for my interview I found that there seemed to be a lot of similarities between the Myanmar and Afghanistan educational contexts. I felt like my experience and the parallels might mean I could be useful. Would you say there are any similarities between here and the university you worked in previously in Mexico?
A: In some ways, yes, because both are in contexts where politics affect how the universities are run. Mexico has a long history of student and teacher protest, and the university tried to discourage that; and Myanmar is emerging from a decades-long dictatorship, so I suppose the top-down nature of the institutions is a similarity. And both are quite regimented in the way they have full-time timetables for the students. But people in Mexico were much more open to talking about political issues, unlike here.
S: Yes, I can imagine that Mexico was very different culturally. Afghanistan definitely was. It made it harder for me to adjust in the beginning I think. I had liked how I worked in Afghanistan with the local people and the change of dynamic was disorienting and left me questioning a lot of things, including my teaching.
A: I also found it very difficult to adapt to rural Myanmar during the first year (but as I transferred in the second year, I found living in the city much easier and the people at the uni much more open to giving their opinions).
I think the leap between the methodology that Myanmar teachers are used to (teacher-centred rote learning), and how we teach them and what we came asking them to do with their teaching was huge. Even though the project didn’t expect to see radical changes in such a short amount of time, what we were presenting them with must have been unfamiliar.
S: That is definitely true – the experience in our sessions has been really important I think. A lot of what we are teaching isn’t that new in that a lot of it is covered in materials they already use here – I think that many of the teachers didn’t know what it really meant or looked like. For example, many consider or considered a Q&A slot controlled by the teacher to be a discussion, even though students cannot ask questions or talk to one another. Some teachers still need a lot of support to understand what some of the things we talk about in our training sessions might actually look like if they did them. There’s a lot of classroom skills that some of them need before they can do things well – so continued support is important or they might get turned off some ideas if they feel they’re not working, without understanding why.
I have also been thinking about what might be lost that is good and I am not sure we have really tried to figure that out on this project – would you agree?
A: It has been very difficult to find this out due to a language barrier. Teachers not being able to express what they do in English, and us not being able to understand Myanmar when we observe has slowed the process down a lot.
S: Language barrier has been a massive problem here. I think that if the training had been delivered in Myanmar – a lot more teachers would have done a lot more with a lot less heartache and a greater depth of understanding. That said, maybe there is an extent to which there needed to be outsiders delivering ideas for people to pay attention to them.
A: I completely agree regarding delivering training in Myanmar. Hopefully with the extension of the project going ahead this will evolve, as the teachers trained to deliver the materials in the future will be able to do so in Myanmar language. But I understand what you mean about outsider knowledge being seen as the most ‘up-to-date’ due to the country’s previous isolation.
What would you say has been your most valuable learning from the past two years?
S: I have learned a lot – despite being unsure if the project was exactly what I was looking for in the beginning. I had been working on a project where the voice of local people was fairly central to everything we did – and we tried to think about making it sustainable at every possible point. This project has – at least at my level and in my opinion – not really had much space for the Myanmar voice. On such a big project managing that voice is a massive challenge though – so I guess I learned about that – minimal management structures are not good for coping with the large amount of information produced at the beginning of a project and that is a problem because it seems like in development some donors prefer minimal management structures (or that’s my impression). I am sure people at a higher level are thinking about a lot of the same stuff in terms of project changes and development – but it’s hard when it’s not visible to you – you don’t know whether it is happening, and that can be frustrating. In summary, I think I have learned a lot about management and communication. I say that now – but ask me in two weeks and my answer may be different. I feel like all the time I am reflecting and reinterpreting and learning new things from new understandings of things that have happened. You?
A: I was exactly the same about feeling unsure about whether the project suited me but felt it was too interesting an opportunity to not apply. I also agree regarding a lack of Myanmar voice. It seems the relationship has mainly consisted of getting the MoE on board, which automatically meant the Principals and Rectors and thus the teacher educators had to be. Although I also prefer a more horizontally-organised working environment, I think it’s reflects the country’s history and culture as well as the implementing organisation’s approach. I do think it is a shame that the trainee teachers have not been involved, though. The young ones have so much energy and are less afraid to give their opinions!
S: Yes, I agree – trainee teachers would have been an easier starting point because they are much more open and if we were their teachers I think it would have been easier for them to understand than for our students who have up to 30 years’ experience teaching in one style. That said, it would have been harder to measure (i.e. we would have had to have waited until they started teaching to see results). I also think there needs to be a lot more support for leadership – Heads of Departments need to understand and want change and be able to support their staff in implementing it. If they don’t, then they will be a barrier and the training we’ve done won’t leave our classrooms.
A: Definitely. The difference between the departments whose HoDs are on board and those that are not is totally visible in terms of motivating and leading their staff in a new direction.
The biggest learning for me was the richness of understanding how these kinds of projects work. It’s one thing to read about them but I feel like I understand so much more about decision-making processes and priorities, as well as M&E procedures.
S: Yes, definitely. I guess I had some understanding of how bigger development projects work from talking to friends who worked in development in Afghanistan – but it was definitely interesting to be on the receiving end.
A: What has been the most challenging aspect of being on the project?
S: Poor work-life balance. Your friends are your colleagues. I don’t think it’s always conducive to working well together. More collaboration at work could have reaped some rich rewards I think – but sometimes it was just too much – and I was really lucky with the colleagues I had. It’s been intense living on campus too. (Although there’s been massive privileges as well). In the beginning, it was especially hard with things like having someone turning up at your door and saying you were expected somewhere – now… even if it was to go and have a free dinner! I guess in the past I used my social life to switch off – and I can’t do that here so much. I’ve found loads challenging if I am honest.
A: Agreed. It’s an intense working and living environment. For me, the struggles with bug explosions and water/power cuts and working in 40 degree heat and getting sick, I expected and have done that before (though the heat and sickness are still pretty challenging). But I definitely found it more challenging arriving with my ideas and values about ways of working eg. participation and democratic decision-making and so on, and having to fit into a prescribed outline of work and then make the teachers fit into it too, regardless of whether I felt it was the most relevant thing to move forwards with.
S: Values from the way [the organization] normally work have been brought to a different context [development], and from a more NGO approach it seems undemocratic and untrusting. But there is value to both ways of working.
A: Sure. It definitely has got things done quickly working this way, which might not have happened if allowed to be more organic.
How you think studying development has helped frame your reflections throughout the project?
S: To be honest, at first I regretted choosing to do an undergrad in development. I felt like it had given me no skills (I studied before the semester abroad was offered as part of the programme). But since becoming a teacher in developing countries I appreciate the world view it gave me. One of the things that drove me crazy when I was studying at Leeds was all the repetitions of error and the lack of learning in development. It’s why I never went into “development proper” after uni. I think this must have been before M&E became so popular because I don’t really remember that being talked about – but I guess I am conscious of those development mistakes and how easy it is to be part of that. I reflect a lot on what I do (which I think comes from working as a teacher) and I wouldn’t say I am at peace with it. I have reflected a lot on whether by setting Myanmar up in the general direction of Western education, we are maybe just setting them up to be at where we are now in 10 or 20 years. Do they really want that? What are your thoughts?
A: At the end of my UG a lot of my classmates felt disheartened by the same issue of reoccurring problems in both development and development work, and even though we had a semester studying abroad, it wasn’t a work placement so we got the exposure to a ‘developing country’ but not development work, per se. Most of my classmates decided to work in the UK and are now doing great work with youth, refugees and asylum seekers, women affected by domestic violence, people affected by HIV/AIDS, children with SEN, etc. I think that was a conscious decision for them because of the things you mentioned.
My first job after uni was with a brilliant grassroots organisation in El Salvador which was very bottom-up and it really encouraged me. Even though funding was a constant issue, the people were so dedicated and it really meant something that they had taken control of their lives through informal farmer-to-farmer education. Many of these guys were ex-guerrillas and they saw food sovereignty as an extension of their struggle. For me that had been an office job though, and I really like working with people and loved teaching. That’s when I went to Mexico to work at a ‘Development University’ in a rural area, and the MA I did afterwards just really helped me reflect on that experience.
I’m glad I came to this project with not only a teaching head but also a development background because, although it can be frustrating at times, I feel it did ground my analysis of the work. I think discussing development should have been a compulsory part of our training as trainers because I think it’s necessary to ask those questions about if we’re doing the right thing or not. And that’s something that Myanmar’s new government is deciding, too. The next few years should be interesting.
S: I definitely agree that discussing development issues should have been part of our training. We are teaching critical thinking but there’s loads of stuff that we haven’t thought enough about as a project.
A: An extension project has just been confirmed, why did you choose not to stay?
S: Now that it has been confirmed, I could actually see myself staying on paper. But there’s lots that is still not clear, like the materials that will be used. I also want to go back to university. After everything I have learned working abroad over the last five years, I feel like I need to fill in some gaps in my knowledge, so I am going to study Public Policy and Management.
A: I did consider it as I’ve already built good working relationships with the teacher educators – and I worked really hard at that. But at the end of the day, I want to work for an organization whose values match mine. And the job I’m moving on to will also help me to learn new things.
Do you think you would work on a similar project in the future?
S: It will be interesting to see where this Master’s degree takes me. I find the context here fascinating. There is so much to learn – personally and professionally from working in places like this – and the reform process here will be really interesting to observe. I still have lots of unresolved doubts about working in development. I feel envy for people like your friends who are doing great work in the UK, but the choice to stay there isn’t a particularly easy one for me – I lived abroad as a child and even though I’ve spent over half my life in the UK, I don’t always feel very at home there. I do definitely feel conflicted about the impact I have living and working in other countries though.
As things stand, ideally I would like to work on a smaller project than this, or at least if it were a project this size, it would need to be one where there was slightly more scope for flexibility and tailoring based on the requests of the “stakeholders”. Maybe I am being idealistic. I am not sure what role I want to have as I still need to figure out if teacher training is where my strengths lie. I’d like to work in an organization where learning as a value is really central and built into how you work, not just something that you engage in by yourself on top of your job. And then sometimes, I just feel like I’d like a job that finishes at the end of the day and doesn’t leave me feeling conflicted quite so often – maybe I should go back to making sandwiches and coffee like I did while I was at uni – I loved that! You?
A: I know it can be stressful but I find it very rewarding (as with teaching in general). Perhaps years down the line I would find it interesting to work on a large project in a management or consultant role. It would depend on the organisation and its goals, and how much flexibility I would have to work with. But first I’d like to do a PhD as I want to continue the theory – practice cycle.
Sarah attended Leeds 2004-2007 on the BA International Development with Politics programme. Ally attended 2007-2010 on the BA International Development with Politics programme and again 2013-2014 studying an MA in Global Development and Education.