C is for Cherry

Although we may be living in the connected age, the act of connecting is filled with tenuous dilemmas and delicate setbacks. In the case of Cherry Mathew Philipose and our interview, we spent a whole morning trying and re-trying to connect. We did succeed, however because either the sound or image transmission failed us, I have decided to share a transcript of our talk. Should time and technology permit, later I will include a possible audio by Cherry.

Cherry Mathew Philopose, a young voice with much to share in the educational world, has travelled in a different direction than so many others. Coming from Kerala, Cherry has been teaching and training in Myanmar. What follows is his perspective of change and difference, moving westward in the beautiful Asian continent.

Ana Cristina :  What differences in education culture have you noticed between India and Myanmar?

Cherry Mathew Philipose : India and Myanmar share a common colonial history which in a way has laid the foundation for the education culture in both countries; however in the post-independent days Myanmar (then known as ‘Burma’) broke away from its colonial past quite consciously and banished English education (a grim reminder of the British) from its borders. Lately this policy has undergone revision and English is back in favour.

In India as well as in Myanmar getting education or being educated is considered important. In India education remains the prerogative of its many states whereas in Myanmar the Ministry of Education oversees the education – basic as well as higher education.

The school year in Myanmar annually begins in June and continues till March – something similar to the school calendar in many Indian states including my home state: Kerala, in the south-west of India. However the entire school education system in Myanmar lasts for eleven years with a public matriculation exam as its culminating point. In India, on the other hand, it’s ten years of school education. Then after a public matriculation exam students move on to study two years of higher secondary or pre-collegiate programme with fewer specialised subjects of students’ choice.

Then another major difference is the school uniforms – in Myanmar students as well as their teachers in the basic education stream wear white top and green bottom whereas in India there is neither such common uniform for the schools in the country nor any demand on the teachers to wear any uniform.

The matriculation exam in Myanmar is of great significance especially because the final marks decide the stream the students can pursue later – generally hi-scorers find it easy to get into technical streams (medicine, engineering, maritime related courses) and others find their places in arts and science universities. In India students desiring technical education have to sit for further entrance examinations and there are plenty of examinations to choose from!

The higher education system is also quite different. In Myanmar university teachers are transferred every three years, a practice that is not so widespread in India.

Then there is the uniform for the university teachers which they have to wear on Mondays and Fridays.

The starting point for undergraduate and post-graduate courses is also quite different – the former begins in December every year and the latter in June. In India both these courses begin at the same time – somewhere after June every year.

Then there is this graduation ceremony which is a big event in Myanmar. It is like passing a milestone in one’s personal life and most often people get into a  job soon after their under graduation degree. Apart from professional courses, in India students study further before taking up a job.

In both education cultures teachers hold a very important part in a person’s life; in Myanmar it is many times more and the student gestures to show how much they care and appreciate the work teachers do,  can at times be a bit overwhelming for the uninitiated.

Ana Cristina : What are some of the challenges you need to deal with working in the field of education in Myanmar?

Cherry Mathew Philipose : Working in the field of education can be challenging anywhere in the world and Myanmar is not an exception. The foremost challenge anybody might feel is the pace with which things happen over here. Because of the top-down model of governance all papers have to go to the top and come down the same way before anything could happen and sometimes this can take very long time.

Then there is the problem of getting the information – people tend to  withhold it for various reasons and one can find out about a minister’s visit or high delegation visit on a particular morning without any clue of what the agenda is going to be and nobody to help him/her out.

Apart from the administrative challenges at times classrooms can also be quite demanding. Across south East Asia students want the teachers to do all the talk and are ready to do things the teachers would ask them to do rather than taking the initiative and controlling their learning. This is strongly felt when you are an expatriate teacher. However, this does not mean that the students are not intelligent or they do not want to participate in the learning process; instead they are just products of the educational system they grew up with and giving time and being patient can really bring some changes in their attitude and behaviour and I’m saying this out of personal experience. Nothing rewards one more than to see a reluctant learner evolving into an active learner over the period of the course and there are many instances of it happening.

After all teaching is all about transforming and the humane face of it cannot be unplugged from it.

Ana Cristina : What are some of the positive aspects you have experienced and kept with you during this experience?

Cherry Mathew Philopose : Well there are many and it is hard to pick on some (but I’ll try to or else the list would go on and on).

First and foremost there is the people factor – be it your colleagues or students, they are quite warm and friendly and once that knowing-each-other phase is over and they find you ‘safe’ and ‘non-threatening’ then they take you as their own and do all that they could to make you feel at home. The help can come at the most unexpected moments from the least unexpected quarters and none of it is done with any expectation of any reciprocal action which is quite amazing.

Then there is the material factor – how people live without things like good transport or telecommunication or IT facilities (which many who live in the better parts of the world take for granted) and still feel happy and content with what they have got rather than worry about what they don’t.

It has been a ‘rewarding’ learning experience for me in all its senses because looking back I can literally feel how this land and its people have touched my soul and shaped me the way I am at this point in time.

Ana Cristina : How do you see the teaching practices of ELT changing over the next couple of years?

Cherry Mathew Philipose : Well there are lot of changes happening all around the ELT world. First and foremost there is a great sense of community feeling among the people in ELT that is dissolving all distance and space. Teachers are reaping the benefits of it through social media like Twitter, Facebook and Web 2.0 technologies. English language teachers are discovering their voices and making themselves known to the world and there are unique and varied voices heard out there.

Textbook writers, methodologists, publishers, testers, educationists are all coming together more often (as opposed to  the practice of them appearing in conferences or seminars). This is leading to better understanding and collaboration.

Also,  there is this renewed call to view English as something for ‘life’ rather than for ‘exams’. As a result teachers are thinking hard to help English language learners to enjoy using English.

Then, with technology becoming available and affordable to more and more people, teachers are seriously redefining their roles and are thinking what they add to the new paradigm thereby fighting all chances of being a redundant presence.

Lastly, the impact of the rapid changes that are happening around us will be fully felt only with time; but, to know and understand these changes in our field as well as the world at large and keeping up with them is in deed the need of the hour.

Thank you Cherry for your time and sharing your insights!

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10 comments on “C is for Cherry

  1. David says:

    Really interesting. Thanks. The point about students taking the initiative and controlling their learning is something I think can be problematic when students come to study in UK universities.

    • Hi David,

      Thank you for visiting and leaving your thoughts. Yes, learner autonomy is much easier to talk about than actually take place – for a number of reasons. Nevertheless, as Cherry says, with time and patience (and plenty of encouragement) learners do become active, autonomous owners of their own learning process. Valuing this change, supporting learners and showing them how much they have grown and achieved are essential steps as well.

    • Many students from Myanmar (Burma) are moving out and are pursuing higher education in many parts of the world. Affordability is an issue and those who can afford would already have undergone an international schooling system that is becoming available at least in major cities like Yangon and Mandalay lately. The learning culture at large, however, remains to encourage acceptance of authority and power. But as Ana said things can change with time and teacher effort in the right direction. Thanks David for dropping in and joining the conversation.
      Cherry.

  2. David Warr says:

    Very enjoyable to read about a country’s education system which we don’t normally hear about. Thank you.

    • Myanmar (Burma) is slowly opening up and I’m personally amazed at the pace with which some of the recent developments happened. With time I hope we’ll have more access to the system in place. Thanks David Warr for dropping by.
      Cherry.

  3. HI David,

    Thank you for visiting and leaving your comments. So many educators are doing such wonderful work around the world, that is a shame that more people don’t know of all the positive, constructive change they are initiating. Cherry Mathew Philipose is definitely an inspirational case to point out.

  4. A fascinating read! Great to gain some background knowledge about Cherry. His students are exceptionally lucky, by the sounds of it! Isn’t it amazing how similiar educational- teaching and learning experiences can be even from India to Sydney Australia! Cherry reflects “instead they are just products of the educational system they grew up with and giving time and being patient can really bring some changes in their attitude and behaviour and I’m saying this out of personal experience. Nothing rewards one more than to see a reluctant learner evolving into an active learner over the period of the course and there are many instances of it happening.” I heart this “…dissolving all distance and space. Teachers are reaping the benefits of it through social media like Twitter, Facebook and Web 2.0 technologies.” Absolutely and I am loving the it!

    • Thanks to Ana that I returned to see your comment Ms James. Your comments are heart-lifting and you’re so very right when you say that we’ve similar educational situations in many parts of the world. It’s always good to listen and understand the underlying unity that binds us together.
      Cherry.

  5. B Baxter says:

    In reply to the above comment, it is encouraging to see teachers communicating via social media, sharing experiences and ideas – that is exactly how I found the above blog post. I recenlty noticed that the UK’s Times Eductional Supplement has launched TES India which also encourages teachers to share their teaching activities and lesson plans. So I would have to agree with you a sense of community is clearly the way foward especially when it is free!

  6. Hi B Baxter!

    Thanks for contributing to the conversation. In our age what you said is the way forward – building communities of practice and the TES India along with couple of other teacher networks are making their landfall in this huge country and making all that true.

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