Last updated on February 11, 2020
When I booked my volunteer experience to teach English to young monks in Nepal all those months before landing there, I could not have known what waited for me when I touched down in the country. I knew stories of trekking in the Himalayas. I knew of the deep and rich history in Kathmandu. But I could not have known how much I would love the Buddhist monastery where I volunteered teaching English for two months. I could not have landed in a better place to volunteer than the Manjushri Di-Chen Learning Center. This Buddhist monastery was built to specifically address the poverty and lack of education in Nepal. It runs on donations and the donations sponsor rural children to attend the school, and also further develop the monastery with the needed classrooms and dorm facilities for the children living and studying there.
The children come from the poorest families in rural Nepal—areas where they live miles from the nearest school and may never have previously attended school. Once they are accepted into the Learning Center, they receive a formal education. As one would expect from a Buddhist school, students learn Tibetan language, script, and religion. They also study mathematics, English, and several basic courses. Although many of the youngest children have just left their families and were dropped into this new environment, they take seriously the opportunity to study, learn, and live in a safe environment.
The boys live at the monastery throughout all of their schooling and they return home to their villages for two months every year. Through several of the older monks, I learned that if they attend University, the monastery also pays for that tuition from donations and sponsorships.
One question I had regarding the schooling specifically centered on the Buddhist nature of it. These boys come to the school as young as five or six, and they haven’t chosen to live as a monk. The local leaders and the students themselves shared with me that they are not required to stay with the monk lifestyle once they leave the monastery. They are free to learn and study at the monastery, but then become “householders”—which means work, wife, house, and kids—once they graduate. That said, many students continue the lifestyle and religious practices into adulthood.
My monastery is receptive to native English speaking volunteers willing to teach English to the young monks. When they have no English-speaking volunteers, a non-native speaker—usually one of the head monks—takes over the class. For this reason, they are keen to have a rotating cast of native English-speaking volunteers gifting the students their time. The volunteers teach classes for eight levels of English language courses. During my time in 2009, there were 40 boys living at the monastery, and I taught all eight levels. The curriculum is based on the Indian schooling system and the young monks leveled up unevenly, so some classes were tiny with just three students. My kindergarten class had thirteen! Children stay in their given level for several years. It’s different from the US system where you progress annually to a new grade-level; several of my level eight monks were preparing for University.
Learning to Control the Students
During my first week, I shadowed another volunteer named Louise, with me co-teaching the class to learn the rhythm and keep the disruption of transition to a minimum. She had warned me about the naughty kindergartners. As the youngest of the bunch they had the least command of English. Once Louise left, I spent my evenings studying by candlelight, intent to memorize the most important of my Nepali verbs and phrases. I knew that if I wanted to control the class I would need to communicate in Nepali, otherwise they would just continue to ignore me and throw things at each other. They really only liked the Dr. Seuss stories, so I used that as a base for each class but then also learned a few commands in Nepali. These ones came in handy: sit down, please start writing/reading, repeat me, sit down, don’t do that, stop doing that, stop touching each other, sit down, please sit down. Sit Down—said in a harsher voice with emphatic hand gestures. STOP DOING THAT. And then time-out.
My first attempt at time-out actually yielded much different results than I anticipated. The kindergarten class is huge and wrangling thirteen boys who speak very little English is even harder than you may imagine. The thing is, I am really good with kids. I am patient and skilled at coaxing them into good behavior.
But these kiddos! They frustrated me to the max. One of the little boys would not stop headbutting, slapping, licking, nudging, rubbing, and pestering the others as we sat on the floor reading Are You My Mother by P.D. Eastman. I used several of my key phrases. I emphatically gestured to him that trouble was near. More key phrases. He still didn’t stop. After a few minutes, he had called my bluff. I had to follow through or lose my credibility so I made him step away from the group where I had gathered the kids on a blanket on the lawn for story-time. I indicated that he should stand in time-out for three minutes. He promptly walked 15 feet away with his back to us and grabbed his ear-lobes and began doing full squats.
I couldn’t tell if the kid was doing squats to sass me, but it seemed like more. One of the kids with strong English saw my confusion and said, “Miss teacher, it’s OK. OK Miss, ramro chaa.” Ramro chaa, means “it’s good,” so clearly this was a normal thing. I watched him for a few seconds before realizing that it’s a local form of punishment, so I quickly motioned the kid back to the blanket.
Later, I would read a news story from India about a little girl who died of dehydration and heat exhaustion because her teacher made her stand outside in the 100+ degree weather. Apparently, it’s prevalent throughout this region. After that, I was more careful about using timeouts when they misbehaved!
Learning the Quirks of Teaching English to Young Monks
Each of my eight classes had their own distinct group personality. The youngest always flagged me down between classes to check my pocket schedule and find out if they had class that day. They loved the English lessons even though they were exceedingly naughty. The next to levels were studious, serious, and they worked hard—they also loved English class and seemed to collectively want to create a learning environment.
But then, the dynamics changed with Level Three, they were unmotivated and unenthused, for reasons I couldn’t pinpoint. Perhaps during the rotating cast of English teachers over the years they had grown weary—that is surely a downside to relying on volunteer English teachers over paid staff who can build a rapport with students. Who knows. But their enthusiasm each day extended only to my standard greeting, “Good Morning, Miss”, which was a part of the monastery etiquette.
I loved my Level Four class. They had a passion for playing “Hangman” and they would do anything to earn ten minutes of the game at the end of productive classes. From there upwards, teaching the older boys was hit and miss. Level Six never wanted to participate in English class and often asked me if they could use it as an independent study. Level Eight was similar—it seemed they had other subjects they felt were more important than fine-tuning the last of their English language skills.
One monk, however, was in Level Eight but had a profound curiosity and motivation to learn. He went by a nickname, Lucky, and he sought me out at every opportunity to practice his English. He had high hopes of being accepted into the University in Varanasi, India (which he got into the following year!) and he would bring me long essays, letters, and stories that he wrote so that I could check the grammar. I worked with him every day and it was that relationship that was most rewarding during my month teaching English at the Buddhist monastery. In the years since I visited Nepal, I would write to Lucky many times and follow his progress.
All of the students had their own quirks, and like any new experience, it took time for me to learn how to adjust to the local culture. I was there to support the monastery in any way possible, and like many of my volunteer experiences over the years, they taught me more than I could have possibly imagined.
Heading to Nepal? Check out my full Nepal Travel guide, or pick up a copy of the best Nepali guidebook. And if you’re keen to volunteer, check out the independent volunteer opportunities on Grassroots Volunteering.