A retired teacher in the middle of the North Coast provides books and helps establish new educational practices in Bhutan

Bhutanese Barb Roberts was first captured by Bhutan in 2015 while traveling through the small country in the eastern hills of the Himalayas.

At the end of her tour, one of the guides made a comment that struck a chord.

“He said, ‘We really like it when the tourists come back and do some volunteer work in our country,'” Ms Roberts said.

“I vowed to him that I would.”

But organizing for volunteer work in Bhutan turned out to be no easy feat amid strict government guidelines.

Barb Roberts says it has been a privilege to work with teachers and students.(Supplied: Barb Roberts)

It was another two years before Ms Roberts, a retired teacher from New South Wales, was able to return as a volunteer through the Bhutan Foundation Canada.

I got a place for a month at a large boarding school in the remote Tang Valley in central Bhutan.

“The Tang Valley is beautiful, it is often called Little Switzerland.

“Many of the rural schools are boarding schools, where the government has stated that if you live more than five kilometers from the school you are in, that is too far to walk every day… Very few people own cars.”

Green farmland with mountain in background, surrounded by clouds.
Tang Valley is a picturesque agricultural region.(Supplied: Barb Roberts)

I need a good education

All children in Bhutan learn English at school and Ms. Roberts’ focus has been on helping them improve their English reading and writing skills.

She spent many years teaching and as principal in Manning Valley in New South Wales mid-North Coast.

Primary school students in Bhutan stand around a table in a classroom, dressed in their national clothes.
Many students go to boarding school as it is too far away to travel from their farms every day.(Supplied: Barb Roberts)

“All children in Bhutan are looking forward to finishing school and moving on to higher education.

“Most of them come from very small farms; the average farm is self-sufficient, so it’s a hard life.

“The children will say, ‘I need to get a good education because I need to get a good job because farming is very difficult in Bhutan.

A man in Bhutan walks in a field with oxen plowing a field.
Most of the farming in the Tang Valley is done by hand.(Supplied: Barb Roberts)
Bhutanese woman between wheat field and harvest.
The average farm in Bhutan is self-sufficient.(Supplied: Barb Roberts)

Ms Roberts said children often had difficulty speaking English and reading comprehension.

This inspired her to implement a new program at the school that was later adopted elsewhere.

“We have done a lot of demonstrations in the classroom about how they use literary books to encourage children to speak and improve their understanding.

“During my time at Tang in 2017, I did the phonics program for lower grades.

“One teacher adopted this program and trained 50 local teachers; he also adapted it for Bhutanese culture… It is now used in many schools across the country.”

Young school students in Bhutan sit listening to an English language teacher reading from a picture book.
The children loved the picture books that were provided for their distant school.(Supplied: Barb Roberts)
Young school children in Bhutan studying English speech.
Kindergarten students do the phonics after Ms. Roberts introduces the programme.(Supplied: Barb Roberts)

Books for Bhutan

Feeling that she still had more to offer, Ms. Roberts returned as a volunteer to the same school in 2018 and 2019.

She also arranged for a large number of books to be delivered with the support of the Rotary Tarry Club in Manning and helped set up a room for the disabled.

A girl in Bhutan sitting in a school looking at a picture book.
Ms. Roberts helped provide picture books to help students learn English.(Supplied: Barb Roberts)

“They have very few books available, very old books they have.

“I took about a ton of books with me because they really need some good English literature books for kids.

“We culled a lot of books from the 1950s that were in their school library that were too old and unsuitable for them.”

A group of Bhutanese teachers and students dressed in brightly colored patriotic clothes stands in front of the school building.
Opening of the special education room that Ms. Roberts helped set up.(Supplied: Barb Roberts)
Children in a Bhutanese school sitting at desks looking at books.
Ms. Roberts will return in 2023 to help train librarians and improve library systems.(Supplied: Barb Roberts)

Ms. Roberts said it was great to see the students’ reactions.

“One of the kids said, ‘That’s cool, I love these books, I can understand what’s going on because the pictures are helping me and the language is not so difficult.'”

Bhutanese Libraries Update

Ms Roberts, who now lives in Tamborine Mountain in Queensland, will return to Bhutan in 2023 with two other retired teachers, Chris Goodman and Margo Beckworth, as part of the Rotary apprenticeship team.

Their focus will be on training librarians and providing resources in schools in central and eastern Bhutan.

A Bhutanese man stands next to a car with a number of books in the back.
Book delivery from Australia arrives in the Tang Valley.(Supplied: Barb Roberts)

“People who work in school libraries receive very little training, so they asked us to go back and put more structures in some of the libraries to make it more efficient,” Roberts said.

“Last Shangri-La”

An Australian woman wearing Bhutanese clothes stands in front of a school in Bhutan.
Barb Roberts in Bhutanese national costume.(Supplied: Barb Roberts)

Roberts said her experience in Bhutan was a “privilege”.

“I will cherish this experience forever; it was great to have the opportunity to teach and introduce the different learning practices to the students.

“I was welcomed and made to feel as if I was a member of their community.

“Bhutan will remain in my memory a unique and special place – the country is known as the last Shangri-La, and it certainly is.”

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