In December, I returned back to Singapore and then almost immediately straight on to Chiang, Rai, Thailand. I’m sure you all know that I’ve been working in Thailand for about 10 years now and after living and experiencing the power to relación tutora here in some of the toughest communities in México, I wanted to bring it back to my region.
For me, for the first time in about 10 years in Chiang Rai, I really felt we did something special in both Blessing Home and in Negseduak, something we can continue, something we can keep building up as we build ourselves up.
December 12, 2011, we began a network of tutors through a teaching method called relación tutora in 1) a village hill tribe community and 2) Blessing Home, a youth hostel for mainly Lahu students who had come from various villages to the city center to study.
You see, there were so many challenges against us and at times I’d think of all the reasons why it would fail. There was no teacher in the village, and yes- it’s a village, not a school – so we would be going into people’s homes and trying to create a red de tutoría (network of tutors) there. Second, time as it always is, was against us. Many students work on Saturdays and we literally only had Sundays to count on to be sure there would be people in the village. During the week, the students would only come home at 5pm and we would be clothed in pitch darkness at 6pm as there was no electricity in the village, and no more tutoría could happen after 6pm. Almost none of us (except for 3 university students and another local Thai from Bangkok) were fluent in Thai, the team was new and this was the first time we would come together, we wanted to create a English program where students would learn to speak, listen, read and improve their vocabulary, but above all, speak. And in tutoría now, speaking a foreign language has been the most difficult to train. Furthermore, English while taught in school uses an alphabet completely different from Thai. When in Spanish it’s easy to decode words and figure out cognates of large words, it’s a completely different system in Thai. And to me the biggest challenge was for the students to see themselves as teachers, it goes so against Thai/ Asian culture where all we are taught is to absorb and we are in no place to teach. I’d thought getting over this hurdle would be the hardest. I was so worried that the kids wouldn’t want to teach, would feel too shy etc. But shame on me, and was I in for a shock because I had met on this trip some of the most creative and innovative teachers.
I just needed to believe.
We began on Sunday with a whole day with the kids. We started with an ice-breaker and then asked the kids to choose the listening activity or adjectives and Jamorn, Jap and I worked with one secondary student each. That day, we worked 3 hours in the village and had to completely modify our lessons on the spot. Some students had such a low level of English that we really had to start from scratch. We had to think of activities that would engage the students and be at a level where student could really understand and apply what they have learned. So each day, we would prepare for lessons in the morning and in the afternoon, drive up to the village by 3pm to work on painting the new sports court or build a small library and then at 5pm or 5.15pm, we would begin our lessons. What was most astonishing was that even after a long long day of school, even as the days went by, the students would still run up to the team at 5pm each day, with notebook and pen in hand, ready to begin their tutoría. In fact, as the days went on, the students took less and less time to change out of their school uniform to come and join us. I don’t even think I would change quickly to do more learning after school. Something different was in the air.
You could see a change in how they viewed learning. My absolute favorite part was our last day in the Negseduak village and at Blessing Home. That was when they tutees became the tutors. At Blessing Home the kids paired up and began tutoring each other, using the same styles, the same activities that we had used with them, and they knew it by heart. They knew the content well but I was amazed at how they could really guide their tutees, and they were even better than us, and could lead their own peers to a high level of understanding and knowledge in a much shorter time than we could. A lot of it was learning vocabulary and also using our senses and actions to experience the words, it was a whole new way of learning and teaching that the team had created. And when tested, their tutees knew the content, and knew it well.
More than new English vocabulary and speaking and listening practice in English, we created a real culture of learning. Now asking questions and encouraging curiosity became a way of life. As we walked in the village, they would point out or pull out things like leaves or flowers or the table or the chicken and ask what that is in English. The kindergardeners would tug at our shirts and show us that they knew where their head was, eyes were and all the body parts they had learned the day before. And best of all, you could see them asking each other questions. There was a new faith in their people, that everyone knew a little bit, and knew something different, and that even the kindergardeners could teach a secondary student. In the village, there was one girl, Nitaya in Primary 5 who created new activities when learning adjectives she had begun tutoring two students from K2. After she was done, another boy, Witaya who was in a grade above, from the village came up to her to ask her to teach him too. With a glisten in her eyes, she proudly took him on. Each tutor had a real experience sharing that knowledge, and tasted that they could. They were driven, so driven by the opportunity to share the knowledge with their peers. And they had confidence because we really believed they could. For me, Meizhi and Bevin were exemplars of that. There was in this village, a girl named Ah choo, an 11 year old who refused to go to school at a young age and was made to take care of the peanut harvesting in the village, she would barely read or write her own name. Driven by the sheer delight of seeing another learn, Meizhi and Bevin were so patient with Ah Choo and made sure she knew various adjectives. They had the highest belief in her and by the end of it, her face shone with satisfaction as she eagerly showed me her notebook filled with new words and new knowledge.
It’s hard to measure belief but one can feel it. I saw how that made people come alive. To be honest, the first day we arrived, we were treated as outsiders- exactly what we were. And slowly the kids started to warm up to us, and still not the families yet. Then the families started staying out with us after it was dark, and then by the end of it we were eating and sleeping with the villagers, singing and dancing together. We became family.
Now our biggest challenge is to take care of the process very very carefully. We will have to keep refining our work, the temas, keep building more temas, keep building relationships, keep changing, while keeping our principles constant and our passion to learn and work, our hunger and heart constant.
And something that tutoría is about, is that, whatever we do will never be enough. But that’s good, because it shouldn’t. That keeps pushing us to innovate, improvise and keep working, keep believing in others and in ourselves.
Back in México, I feel like there’s so much more to be done, and my burden to go back is even stronger. I keep thinking of all the places in Southeast Asia I have worked in, in the school for street children in Cambodia, in another children’s shelter, in Calcutta… they people are so hungry to learn, and I feel like finally I’ve found some answers that could make create real changes in both the students and their families through relación tutora. This is just the beginning. This is where it gets exciting.