A retired teacher from the central north coast provides books and helps establish new learning practices in Bhutan

Barb Roberts was first captivated by Bhutan in 2015 while traveling through the tiny country on the eastern ridges of the Himalayas.

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

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

“I made a commitment to him that I would.”

But getting organized to volunteer in Bhutan has proven to be a difficult task despite strict government guidelines.

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

It took another two years before Ms Roberts, a retired teacher from NSW, could return as a volunteer through the Bhutan Canada Foundation.

She was placed for a month in a large boarding school in the remote Tang Valley in central Bhutan.

“Tang Valley is beautiful, often referred to as Little Switzerland.

“Many rural schools are boarding schools because the government has said that if you live more than three miles from the school you attend, it’s too far to walk daily…very few people own cars. “

Green farmland with a mountain in the background, shrouded in clouds.
Tang Valley is a scenic agricultural region.(Provided: Barb Roberts)

“I need a good education”

All children in Bhutan learn English at school and Ms Roberts has been keen to help them improve their English reading and writing skills.

She spent many years teaching and as a headmistress in the Manning Valley on the New South Wales North Coast.

Primary school students in Bhutan stand around a table in a classroom, dressed in their national costumes.
Many students attend the boarding school because it is too far to travel from their farms each day.(Provided: Barb Roberts)

“The children of Bhutan all aspire to complete their education and pursue higher education.

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

“Children will say, ‘I need a good education like I need a good job because farming is so difficult in Bhutan’.”

A man in Bhutan walking through a field with two oxen plowing a field.
Most agricultural work in the Tang Valley is done by hand.(Provided: Barb Roberts)
A Bhutanese woman among a wheat field, harvesting.
The average farm in Bhutan is self-sufficient.(Provided: Barb Roberts)

Ms Roberts said the children often struggled to speak English and understand reading.

This inspired her to implement a new curriculum in the school which was later adopted elsewhere.

“We did a lot of demonstrations in the classrooms on how they could use literature books to encourage children to talk and improve their understanding.

“While at Tang in 2017, I introduced a phonetics program in the lower grades.

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

Young schoolchildren in Bhutan listen to an English teacher read a picture book.
The children loved the picture books that were provided to their distant school.(Provided: Barb Roberts)
Young school children in Bhutan study the English letter.
Kindergarten students doing phonics after Ms. Roberts introduced the program.(Provided: Barb Roberts)

Books for Bhutan

Feeling she had even more to give, Ms Roberts returned as a volunteer at the same school in 2018 and 2019.

She also organized a large book delivery with the support of the Rotary Club of Taree on Manning and helped set up a special needs room.

A girl in Bhutan sits in a school and looks at a picture book.
Ms. Roberts helped provide picture books to help students learn English.(Provided: Barb Roberts)

“They have very little access to books, and the books they have are very, very old.

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

“We eliminated a lot of books from the 1950s that were in their school library, which were very old and didn’t really suit them.”

A group of Bhutanese teachers and students wearing brightly colored national clothes stand in front of a school building.
The opening of a special education room that Mrs. Roberts helped establish.(Provided: Barb Roberts)
Children in a Bhutanese school sit at desks and look at books.
Ms. Roberts will return in 2023 to help train librarians and improve library systems.(Provided: Barb Roberts)

Ms. Roberts said it was wonderful to see the reactions of the students.

“One boy said, ‘It’s amazing, I love these books, I can understand what’s going on because the pictures help me and the language isn’t too difficult’.”

Modernizing Bhutanese Libraries

Ms Roberts, who now lives at Tamborine Mountain in Queensland, will return to Bhutan in 2023 with two other retired teachers, Chris Goodman and Margo Pickworth, as part of a Rotary vocational training team.

Their goal will be to train librarians and provide resources in schools in central and eastern Bhutan.

A Bhutanese man stands next to a vehicle with a stash of books in the back.
Book delivery from Australia arrives at Tang Valley.(Provided: Barb Roberts)

“People who work in school libraries have very little training, so they asked us to go back and structure some libraries more to make them more functional,” Ms Roberts said.

“The Last Shangri-la”

An Australian woman wearing Bhutanese clothing stands outside a school in Bhutan.
Barb Roberts in Bhutanese national costume.(Provided: Barb Roberts)

Ms Roberts said her experiences in Bhutan had been a “privilege”.

“I will cherish the experience forever; having the opportunity to teach and introduce different learning practices to students was wonderful.

“I was welcomed and felt like a member of their community.

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

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