5 minutes with... Alice Redfearn, English Language Trainer, Myanmar
Schooling in Myanmar is often done in the English language. However without a good baseline many of the teachers themselves lack the command of English they need to educate their students to a necessary proficiency. Alice Redfearn is a VSO volunteer, working with the British Council to deliver English Language training to the lecturers of student teachers, combining excellent language skills with strong teaching models. The programme is in place in universities and colleges working throughout the country to build up the capacity of next generation of teachers.
What’s your role here?
I work with teacher trainers, at various stages of their education. It’s a mixed bunch aged from 25-59, all with very different levels of English and teaching experience. They teach a range of subjects, so for some using English in their lessons is more fundamental than others.
The teacher trainers have often been learning English lessons for a long time, so their grammar and vocabulary is not too bad but they haven’t been able to actually speaking it. They often also lack some very basic skills. For example, whilst they have Smartphone’s, they may not be able to use a PC at all.
How has your experience helped you?
My background is in education, both teaching and management. I had promised myself that I would finish working in schools, but after volunteering in Ghana with VSO in 2010 I ended back in a school in a management role. I had a window of opportunity to volunteer again and went for it.
I don’t like travelling, being a tourist, just viewing the country from that perspective. I have only ever been to Africa as a volunteer and now Asia. I like to get deeper into the community and help people develop.
I believe in the principles of VSO, who care about the human impact of the project, not just the impact statistics.
What’s the difference between teaching here and in the UK?
The teaching style in Myanmar is very much by rote. The curriculum is very prescriptive and exam focused, so the result is that children need to learn answers to questions, which encourages rote learning. Until exams change, this will be hard to move away from.
The classes in Myanmar are also very large. Trainers will teach classes of around 40 teachers, who in turn teach over 50 children in a class. This doesn’t lend itself to the same teaching methods we advocate in the UK. It’s hard to get participation in such large groups.
As a teacher I get a lot of respect here from my pupils, they are very polite, very eager to please. That’s quite change from the UK. Teachers are highly respected in Myanmar and often receive gifts from their pupils.
What’s a typical day like?
It starts with a very loud awakening as the 6am bell ringing for PE classes goes off! The exercises - which I do not take part in - go on until 7:30am to the sound of very loud shouting. There are 560 teacher trainers doing PE right outside my house, so no chance of a relaxing lie-in!
Around 8:30 I cross a dusty road to go to work and it’s already hot. Luckily for me, I have air-con in my room, and fans with rechargeable batteries. Power cuts are fairly frequent and the result is sweltering.
I teach from 9-12:30 with a 15mins break. I have just discovered the school canteen, where for about 50p you get chicken curry with vegetables and sides, followed by watermelon! I then teach again from 1-3pm.
After school I might cycle (2miles in 40c heat) into town where I can use the internet and shop at the market. They all laugh when I try to speak Myanmar, but I’m giving it a go. I also teach a local hairdresser Emily, English and in return I get beauty treatments and food - not a bad exchange of skills! I need to get back before dark, the roads are crazy and the college authorities would worry about me if I was not back. Back in the house, we use the projector for movie nights.
On weekends, I go into Yangon and spend the weekend with other volunteers. It’s a great break from the routine and we have a lot of fun. Living and working in the same place can be a bit of a goldfish bowl so getting out is good.
What’s the biggest challenge?
The teachers here are so willing. They do these extra eight hours a week of training on top of their jobs. They’re so tired sometimes they fall asleep in my lessons. Because they’re so polite and willing it can be hard to know if they understand what I am teaching or are just saying ‘yes’, that can be frustrating.
What have you learnt?
Conversations with students have revealed fascinating insights into my students’ lives. For example we were talking about their greatest adventures. Someone said it was being on a footie team, another to travel to another region by bus. Then someone said it was being in the 2008 cyclone and another being stuck in a minefield. You can’t quite grasp this range of experiences.
What would you say to someone considering volunteering in Myanmar?
Come and visit a country before it becomes spoilt by the Western influence! People are still inquisitive and welcoming. It’s a culture likely to go through huge changes and it is fascinating experiencing it at this point in time.
Volunteer in Myanmar
If you have experience in inclusive education, teacher training, continuing professional development (CPD) and/or policy development, we urgently need you to help implement Myanmar's broad education reforms.