For the first two-thirds of my time in Myanmar, I taught Southeast Asian history to grade 7 students and world history to grade 8 students at a private, non-international school. Overall, I taught 4 classes so I had about 70 students in total.
I had a lot of flexibility, so I could create my own lesson plans and curriculum. I really enjoyed delving into the history both refreshing some of my previous knowledge and even learning new things myself. As an academic by nature, I found that I struggled to accept that I had to teach basic aspects of history rather than the nuances, complexities, and linkages that I personally found interesting. The reason for this was two-fold. One, I was teaching students where English was not their mother tongue so communication tended to be a barrier. Two, I had to cover such a vast amount of topics in both my classes that there simple wasn’t time to go in depth into the subjects; I often found myself suggesting resources to my students if they wanted to learn more about a topic.
Teaching non-native English speakers was challenging, informative, and fun. Some of the students in my classes had a fairly good grasp of the English language and communicate with me fairly effortlessly. Others, really struggled with English and could barely even tell me how they were feeling. This obviously made it challenging to teach to the class. I had to adjust lessons to reach the students who couldn’t communicate well, while also challenging the better speakers. I found that if a lesson was too simple for the better speakers, they would start goofing around and ended up just distracting the whole class. Whereas, if the lesson was too complicated for the poorer speakers, they would just check out and gaze into the distance. Finding this balance was always hard and something that I was constantly working on adjusting to, which made my lesson plans more interesting for me. It also allowed me to think of more creative ways to teach and ensure a student-centered teaching style.
I was teaching a bunch of 12-15 year olds, so puberty and hormones surrounded nearly everything the students did. One student would call me over to ask a question nearly every class. Once I got to his desk to answer his question, he would stare at my boobs and then say never mind I forgot. On one naive day I wore leggings to school. A kid asked me if they were Nike, and a group of his classmates replied that the student only asked because he’s a pervert and stares at women’s butts all the time. I never wore leggings to school again. Also a lot of the girls in grade 7 were “dating” boys in grade 9, so they would act all flirty and girly any time the boys from grade 9 were around. One boy in particular in grade 7 loved to discuss sex. He would often emulate sex positions like one day he straddled a chair and began humping it and moaning. Things like this occurred nearly every class. His friend informed me that he goes through phases and his current phase is being sexually inappropriate.
Correspondingly, I was the first female foreign teacher that these students have had. Their previous foreign teachers had been all males, of whom I’m actually friends with. After talking with some of their previous teachers, it became fairly clear to me that these students treated me differently. Discussions of sex were definitely more prevalent and so were discussions of my boyfriend. There was also a general lack of focus amongst the students.
A lack of discipline definitely permeated throughout the school. I found myself feeling as if my hands were tied because the students faced zero repercussions for their actions. Many students did not care about their grades because they see a disconnect between their success in school and their success monetarily in the future. Many students will just take over their family businesses and have no aspirations for attending university (In fact, I asked one of my classes about their 10 year goals and not one student had a goal that would require going to university i.e. being a doctor, engineer, etc.). Therefore, the threat of failing students often didn’t serve as a punishment. I would kick students out of the classroom, but in a way they viewed that as a reward. If I sent a student to the office, the office wouldn’t do anything; the student would just sit in the office for the remainder of the class. Rewards also didn’t work to incentivize students to behave because the students who acted out viewed their disruptions in class to be better than any rewards that I could create. Overall, classroom management was challenging.
I also noticed a divide amongst the students between those who enjoyed more western culture and those who enjoyed more Myanmar culture. The students who spoke better English seemed to watch American movies, listen to American songs, wear western clothes, play video games, etc. They were also viewed as the more “popular” kids in the school. They also tended to have maybe a British or Chinese ancestor. In contrast, some other students loved Myanmar football, spoke little English and showed no true interest in learning to speak better, listened to Myanmar music, and dressed more traditionally. These students tended to be more likely from the Bamar ethnic group.
While I found things to be challenging, I grew to love my students. Some of my favorite students were those who were originally the biggest pains. These kids were so creative and had such strong personalities. I was constantly entertained. Also, because I’m a fairly young teacher here (I’m 24 and usually young teacher teach Pre-K through Grade 4), I was able to bond with the students more than they typically get to with their teachers. We could discuss movies, music, memes, video games, books, you name it. I started a newsletter club and after one of our meetings we watched Somebody Toucha My Spaghetti memes. These moments I’ll definitely treasure.
Overall, I learned a lot about history, teaching, classroom management, and Burmese culture. I formed bonds with teachers and students and constantly found myself being challenged, flexible, and creative. While I don’t think I could teach these classes for many years, I’m glad I got the opportunity to for this past semester.