A teaching mission
Over the 2019 spring break, we visited a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in Dehradun, India. Set in the tranquil city at the Dehradun foothills, Drikung Kagyu Samtenglin Nunnery hosts about 90 nuns aged between 8 years and 50 years. The nuns come mainly from Tibet, Ladakh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Nepal. They study Buddhist philosophy, and also are equipped to appear for Buddhist college examinations. Our goal was to introduce English and sports to the young nuns, who are not as privileged, or have not had the same amount of exposure, as those at our school.
This was a big challenge for us, and a huge leap out of our comfort zone. We had no prior experience in teaching children and we didn’t know what to expect. To prepare for this experience, we sought help from Ms Nandini Banerjee (junior-kindergarten teacher at TK). With Ms Banarjee’s guidance, we learnt how to interact with the children, and how we could possibly structure our 5 day interaction with them. We wanted to teach the children in a way that was engaging, fun, but still educational. When we got there, we were glad to note that our approach was actually more engaging and effective than the more traditional approach they’re used to - one that focuses primarily on recitation and memorisation. A more modern teaching style is something we wanted to introduce to the nunnery, and we think we were successful. The children learnt with great enthusiasm and made significant progress in the short span of 5 days.
On our first day, we were greeted by Mrs Namgyal (the sister-in-law of His Holiness Dalai Lama and the ex-Director of the nunnery) with khatags (traditional Tibetan prayer Scarves) and Chai. Later we had a tour of the nunnery and we were eagerly anticipating meeting the kids and teaching them. Finally, the wait was over as we walked into the common hall to meet the nuns. At first, the little nuns were very hesitant to talk and seemed very shy. But as we got to know the girls more they became more comfortable with us and listened to us.
At the very outset, we noticed a drastic difference from the atmosphere we are used to in Singapore. Contrary to our school, the nuns don't enjoy the large campus and facilities that we do. Their classrooms were sparsely equipped with desks, chairs, and a blackboard. They also didn’t have easy access to books. They had to visit the library in order to read, hence many of them didn’t practise their lessons. We changed that by instructing the nuns to leave all the books in a classroom so that they could easily pick them up. This changed several students’ attitude toward reading. They seemed more eager to do it, now that it was more accessible to them.
We were assigned 14 girls aged 8-12 years. We taught them through song, dance, art, and games. Their English was weak, but most of them spoke Hindi. Therefore, communication with them was mainly through Hindi. This was challenging for Shreya because she wasn’t fluent in the language. Throughout the trip, Shreya’s Hindi got progressively better. During this experience, not only did we teach others, but we also learned some things ourselves. For example, the young nuns taught us how to play games that they usually play, and helped Shreya out with her Hindi.
Shreya’s mum, Bitasta, taught the elder nuns yoga and English, while Shanaya’s mum, Shibani, helped us with the younger students. A characteristic of the nuns that surprised us was how eager they were to learn. Even the little girls were all genuinely interested in improving their English and learning new things. It was inspiring to both of us how even though they led such simple lives, they had such a positive outlook on life. The looks on their faces when they saw all the sports equipment really put into perspective how privileged we are and how not everyone needs expensive things and amazing facilities to lead a happy life. We think that our biggest takeaway from this trip was that there are people in this world that are definitely not as privileged as us. However, they still have passion, curiosity, happiness and drive without the opportunities and exposure that we do. Also, this experience has opened our eyes to human potential. Given attention and access, everyone who is willing can learn new things.
On a lighter note, both of us have a much greater appreciation for teachers after being ones for 5 days.
Our special thanks to Ms Henderson (Principal, CIS TK) and Ms Stojana (TK librarian) who donated around 200 books to the nunnery. We also got donations from friends and family to buy the tools and equipment for sports, art and reading. Together we raised funds, resources and donated art supplies such as acrylic and watercolour paints, canvas boards badminton rackets, a net, hula hoops, and skipping ropes.