Retired Mid North Coast teacher supplies books, helps set new learning practices in Bhutan

Barb Roberts first became captivated by Bhutan in 2015 while travelling through the tiny nation on the Himalayas’ eastern ridges.

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

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

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

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

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

She was given a month-long placement at a large boarding school in the remote Tang Valley in central Bhutan.

“Tang Valley is beautiful, often called Little Switzerland.

“Many rural schools are boarding schools, as the government has stated that if you live more than five kilometres from the school you board, it is too far to walk on a daily basis … very few people own cars.”

‘I need to get a good education’
All children in Bhutan learn English at school and Ms Roberts’ focus was on helping them improve their English reading and writing skills.

She spent many years teaching and as a principal in the Manning Valley on the NSW Mid North Coast.

“The children in Bhutan all aspire to finishing school and going on to tertiary studies.

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

“The kids will say, ‘I need to get a good education as I need to get a good job because farming is so hard in Bhutan’.”

Ms Roberts said the children often had trouble speaking English and with reading comprehension.

It inspired her to implement a new program in the school which was later adopted elsewhere.

“We did a lot of demonstration in classrooms on how they could use literature books to encourage children to speak and improve their comprehension.

“During my time in Tang in 2017, I introduced a phonics program to the lower grades.

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

Books for Bhutan
Feeling as though she still had more to give, Ms Roberts returned as volunteer to the same school in 2018 and 2019.

She also arranged for a large delivery of books with support from the Rotary Club of Taree on Manning and helped establish a special needs room.

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

“I took about a tonne of books with me as they really needed some good English literature books for the children.

“We culled out a lot of books from the 1950s that were in their school library that were very old and not very appropriate to them.”

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

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

Modernising 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 Vocation Training team.

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

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

‘The last Shangri-la’

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

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

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

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