Gold peaks of the tops of pagodas reach up toward the sky every couple of blocks here in Mandalay. Sometimes in the afternoons the sounds of monks’ chants ride the back of the breezes. Migrating birds glide by overhead. I experience all of this from the roof of our school.
After teaching English in South Korea and China, I had a change of pace in Turkey. By the end of my two years there, I ached to return to Asia. I missed incense and Buddha’s kind eyes smiling down at me when I visited temples. I missed the rice paddies that roll on for miles. I also really missed the sweet faces of the gentle children I’d taught. Once I started to look for jobs back in Asia, I found a position with a Montessori kindergarten in Mandalay, which sounded perfect so I snapped it up.
Our school boasts the best English program in the city, with children learning every subject in English from primarily native-English speakers. The young students even speak to each other in English at recess. Our school recently became WASC-accredited which means children are learning an American style curriculum and could possibly transfer directly to an American school.
I work in the kindergarten, which is intended to be Montessori, but lacks some of the philosophy in the actual day-to-day practice. The children are divided into 3 age groups, nursery, pre-KG, and KG (kindergarten). Our classroom has 4 teachers, one Montessori-trained local co-lead, two Assistant Teachers and me.
In the morning, we have line time, where students sit together in a circle and learn about a weekly topic. Teachers guide them through songs and chants or read them stories. Sometimes we use Powerpoint presentations or photos to help them understand new concepts. These topics include things like water animals, transportation, nutrition, and community helpers.
Then we have Montessori work time where children direct themselves to lessons they know in areas of the classroom, including practical life, sensorial, math, language, cosmic, and art areas. We teachers show the students new lessons in each area when we feel they have mastered the ones they are working on.
Later the students go to the playground or PE, the cafeteria for lunch and Myanmar language lessons. Then the younger two levels go for nap time and the oldest kids stay with me for KG time.
In KG time, we learn in a more “traditional” way so they will be ready for first grade. We work on reading, writing, more detailed topics like phonics, grammar, stories, sequencing, friendship, scissor and craft skills, a bit of science, and anything and everything else the teacher can think of that might help for first grade. We have a curriculum, but it is a loose list of topics. There are also expectations for a high level of reading. After KG time/nap time, we have more lesson time and then another short line time where we review the morning’s topic before the students go home.
We are contracted from 8:30 to 3:30 with a weekly meeting (or two) before or after school. We also have extensive, detailed report cards that we must fill out along with parent meetings each quarter to discuss the report cards. We are also responsible for choreographing some kind of show for the students twice a year. We choose the song or play, teach it to them, and make or buy any costumes or props they need.
At our school, the teachers live on-campus. Each teacher is given a minimal studio apartment with a small kitchen and bathroom. Most teachers have decorated and furnished the apartment further to their liking. I bought vivid patterned textiles at the market and made pillows and other items to brighten up the room. Other schools’ teachers live off-campus in housing provided by their school.
The Myanmar language is a tough one. From what I understand, the grammar is quite difficult and the sounds are too, because of the tonality of the language. I haven’t learned nearly as much as I hoped I would. Many people around town also speak English, which makes it easy to choose not to learn. Myanmar was once ruled by the British and their legacy brought their language.
My students are learning a lot of new English vocabulary and grammar, but there are some things they have trouble adjusting to. They often phrase questions out of order, like “Teacher is doing what?” or “They go where?” Also, they like to use the word “do” in place of many verbs and they don’t yet understand tenses. They also say, “he no call me” if their friend didn’t ask them to come play. They confuse a and e and struggle with a few other sounds like “th.” Many of their mistakes have been corrected enough that and if reminded they can fix them on their own.
In Mandalay, there is a small community of expats. We hold regular quiz nights and sporting events. There are some places around town to hike. Largely, though Mandalay is a small enough place that you have to make your own fun.
The pace of life in Myanmar is a bit slower and things don’t get done quickly. Sometimes it’s nice to slow down and join in, but other times it can be frustrating.
There are a couple of large grocery stores in Mandalay. Also, there are many of small local markets and women selling produce out of baskets on the side of the road.
Myanmar food includes curries, rice, and rice noodles. There are also some bready snacks and fried treats.
Around town, there are also Thai, Indian, Nepalese, Japanese, Chinese and Western restaurants.
Most expats in Mandalay have a motorbike. In Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, motorbikes are not allowed. It’s essential to independence in Mandalay, we motorbikers would argue. There aren’t many options for public transportation, though our school has a twice-weekly bus to the grocery store. Otherwise, to get around you must call a taxi in advance to come to the school to pick you up. Our school is not centrally located in town so taxis and motorbike taxis aren’t exactly waiting outside like they do in other areas.
Travel within Myanmar
There are many interesting sights to see in Myanmar. Bagan with its thousands of pagodas is probably the most famous. Inle lake with its floating villages is also a big destination. Up the road from Inle, Taunggyi is popular for its balloon festival. Yangon has many famous pagodas and more expats and more Western conveniences. Also, the beaches in the south of Myanmar are quite nice. There are many day trips and over-night trips that you can take from Mandalay. My favorite is the old British hill station, Pyin Oo Lwin.
By Katia Davis
For more from Katia, check out katiayoga.com and spoonfuloftravel.com
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