Portrait of the Schools

Students walk home at the end of the day.
What do students wear to school?

Students, level Pre Primary through Level 10, wear a uniform issued to them. Girls wear a blue skirt and white blouse, and boys, blue pants and a white shirt. Girls with long hair must wear their hair in braids, and boys are encouraged to have short hair. Students have colored patches/ribbon sewn on their clothing, signifying which “house” they belong to within the school.

How do students come to school? What do they bring?

They walk to school from their huts, bringing their books and their notebooks, all of which have been provided to them at no cost.

Teachers: Students in the camps received all books and materials for free. The concept of buying your own books and materials is new. You may want to consult with the caseworker at the Refugee Resettlement Organization to help cover costs when students need to buy materials or pay for field trips.

What does a classroom look like?

A thin wall separates this classroom from the
one behind it
The walls of the classroom are woven bamboo from floor to ceiling. Sometimes the bamboo covers a 2 to 3-foot wall of concrete or brick. Walls are designed to let in light, as classrooms do not have electricity. Some classrooms have mud floors with thatched roofs; some have concrete floors with tin roofs. Students are responsible for sweeping classrooms daily, and cleaning is organized by the class monitor and by the teacher. Students in rooms with mud floors are responsible for smoothing them weekly.

Proverbs are posted in the classroom.
There is one blackboard at the front of the room, and the teacher carries chalk. Blackboard space is used for teacher models, or at a teacher’s request, a student model. Students are expected to copy from the board. A typical classroom may have pictures of the flowers studied in science, or Dzongkha letters, or proverbs in English. Students do not have access to computers in classrooms, although some of them use computers on their own time at the internet cafes just outside of the camps. Computer use may be as frequent as once a week to several times per week.

Classrooms with a courtyard in the center.
Most classrooms are arranged around a courtyard where there is room to assemble in the middle. All schools have gardens, and all the students tend the gardens.

Teachers: Students are accustomed being responsible for the upkeep of their classroom and school environment. They may not be used to displaying their work on the board if they feel it contains mistakes because only model work was allowed on the board in Nepal. Computers may or may not be entirely new to them.

What is the school day like?

Student pledge allegiance to Bhutan daily.
The school day is from 8:30 to 3:30 or 4 o'clock. Classes usually last for 40 minutes with breaks after every two periods. After four periods there is a “long break” for lunch. Students assemble as a group in the morning and sing the Bhutanese national anthem in Dzongkha, pledge their allegiance to Bhutan, and recite a Hindu prayer. Some schools also designate time for students or teachers to share thoughts and announcements.

What language is used in the classroom?

The schools at the camps are English medium schools. Technically, the term English medium means that English is spoken, written, and read in the teaching and learning of most subjects.

While school textbooks are in English and teachers teach in English, teachers may occasionally use Nepali (or other mother tongues, including but not limited to those used by the Rai, Subba, Tamang communities) to explain concepts. Of course, this is discouraged.
Walls are used to send messages.

English is very much a school language. Students and teachers both speak Nepali or other mother tongues at home and with friends. For a variety of reasons, the English fluency of the current teaching staff is not as strong as before 2007.

Teachers: My American accent made it difficult for many students to understand me, even as I spoke slowly. Teachers usually translated my words into Nepali. In addition to differences in accent, there are differences in English language usage. For example, it is common in Nepal to ask someone "Give me your introduction" when you want to meet them. Or, they might ask for your "good name" when they want to know your first name.

What subjects do students study and what tests do they take?

First, I will provide an overview of the curriculum, then discuss each subject, and then provide information on testing.

Until 8th grade, the Bhutanese Refugee Education Program (BREP) follows an integrated curriculum, combining the Nepali and Bhutanese curricula. Students study English, Nepali, Dzongkha, both Bhutanese and Nepali social studies (history, geography, and civics), Science, Math and Value Education. While there is no formal Physical Education class, they have a games teacher, and after school, students practice for the sport that is in season. They have tournaments with class competitions.

The 9th and 10th grade students follow the Nepali curriculum in preparation for the high-stakes 10th grade exam taken by all students in Nepal, called the School Leaving Certificate Examination. Six subjects are compulsory for this examination: Science, Math, English, Nepali, Social Studies, and Health and Environment, which is a combination of sex and health education and environmental awareness. The students also must choose two more subjects from a list of subjects. Due to limitations in their facilities, the refugee education program can only support four of these electives. Students may choose either Accounting or Education and may choose between Economics or Optional Math. Since these levels use Nepali curriculum, there is no Dzongkha or Bhutanese social studies beyond 8th grade.

The text books that students use are in English and published in Nepal. The official language of instruction is English, although Nepali (or one of the other mother tongues) is occasionally used to support students’ understanding. The use of languages other than English is discouraged.

Science instruction mixes Biology, Chemistry, and Physics each year, rather than separating it into different years. In science, the approach is to teach formula first, then give examples. As one teacher explained, in a science classroom, students would first learn and memorize the formula for calculating volume, then look at different containers and talk about what volume is.

Math also combines different topics, rather than following a Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Geometry sequence. Again, the emphasis is on memorizing formulas.

In English at the 8th grade level they practice writing paragraphs, newspaper articles, letters, and personal stories. There’s also a strong focus on grammar. In 9th and 10th grade, English instruction focusses on writing and reading job advertisements, paragraphs, essays, articles, and stories. Teachers encourage a three-paragraph essay format, referring to the paragraphs as a head, body, and conclusion. In paragraph writing, the emphasis is on coherence of all the information in the paragraph. Story writing focuses on students’ ability, with several clues/prompts, to retell stories they have read in the past.

In Social Studies, students learn about the geography, history, and civics of Nepal and Bhutan. They learn some world history as well.

High-stakes exams are given at the end of Level 8 and Level 10, and for all other grades, the central office of CARITAS prepares the end-of-term exams. At the end of the 8th level, the end-of-term exam is designed and graded by the District Board of Examination of Nepal, and students must pass in order to proceed to 9th grade. The exam covers English, Nepali, Math, Science, Social Studies, Dzongkha and Value Education. Students take at least two exams during the school year to prepare them for this final exam at the end of the term.

The 10th grade exam, called The School Leaving Certificate Examination, covers the following subjects: English, Nepali, Math, Science, Social Studies, Environment, Health and Population (HEP), and two electives, which, as explained earlier, depend on the students’ choices: one from either Accounting or Education, and one from Economics or Optional Math. Students must pass in order to pursue higher education in Nepal.

What do students and teachers actually do in the classroom?

There are habits of entering, standing, and leaving the classroom that reflect a level of formality between teachers and students. In classrooms, students stand up on three occasions: when a teacher enters the room, to ask a question, and at the end of the class. Students must wait until the teacher has left the class before they can leave. Students also must ask permission before entering or leaving the classroom.

Typically, at the start of class, the teacher presents material at the front of the classroom while students sit in rows and listen and take notes when instructed. Teachers report that they also sometimes begin class with the homework, given daily in most classes. Students may copy from each other’s notes, but copying during testing is discouraged.

Although students do exercises in their books during class, oral questioning and answering as the main form of daily assessment. Teachers check for understanding by eliciting responses from students based on students’ understanding of the text and presented material. Based on these answers, teachers then make corrections. Because there are no photocopying machines and limited access to supplemental materials, teachers typically do not give written quizzes or distribute extra worksheets.

However, there are a few times when students break from sitting somewhat passively at their desks. In the 8th level science class, students work on projects using the natural environment to create books categorizing the plant life around them. Another exception is the Value Education class, where group discussion is expected. Teachers report that they use group work once or twice a week. Otherwise, students learn at their desks.

Teachers: Students may think they need to stand up when you arrive or when giving an answer to a question. They may ask your permission before entering or leaving the room.

What happens to students after they finish level 10 (tenth grade)?

Some students continue for their PCL, Proficiency Certificate Level, or what is informally known as “plus two.” The books for the coursework are in English. It is said that private schools use English as the language of instruction with Nepali to support understanding, and that government schools may use Nepali as the language of instruction. After that, some pursue a 3-year Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree.

Teachers: Any studies after 10th grade are pursued outside of the camp schools. In these years, Bhutanese students join the local Nepali students at Nepali schools.

Who teaches in the schools? How has resettlement influenced teaching since 2007?

The scale of resettlement created tremendous change in the schools in a short time. According to CARITAS (December, 2007) when resettlement started in 2007, schools served about 32,121 students and as of June 30th 2010, they serve 19,341.

Teaching in the camp schools has always been seen as community service. Teachers receive a small renumeration referred to as an “incentive” for their work. Until resettlement began in 2007, teaching was a way an educated individual could support his or her community at a time when the future of the community was more uncertain and third-country resettlement had not emerged as an accepted option.

Many experienced teachers in the camps were among the first to resettle in 2007, creating the need to train new teachers. The newer teachers who filled their places have finished their PCL, which is the equivalent of 12th grade. Now, most teachers have their PCL, a few teachers at a school will have a BA, and one person in a school may have an MA. Teachers are also often in the process of resettling, and so may leave in the middle of the school year or may need to be absent for appointments related to resettlement. Newer teachers sometimes feel compelled, to use one teacher’s word, to teach.

Training and support for these new teachers is conducted by the CARITAS office with added school-based support. CARITAS conducts a New Teacher Training (NAT) when there are enough new teachers to fill a training class, which means that teachers may be in the classroom before the training is available. Additionally, office resource teachers give workshops to develop teaching techniques and skills. Sometimes outside resource teachers are invited to conduct workshops for teachers. The school has a teacher designated as a Resource Teacher to help newer teachers, but it’s important to note that this Resource Teacher may also be a relatively inexperienced teacher because of the turnover due to resettlement. In spite of these efforts to train teachers and staff schools, very occasionally school administrators are in the position of having a classroom with no teacher to cover.

What extra-curricular activities are popular?

Students have opportunities to develop their leadership skills and express their talents both in and outside of school. Counselors train students to be peer counselors to help their fellow students. Students also have class captains or student representatives who serve as go-betweens when students and teachers have issues. Students have competitions and games after school. In some areas, they have just started to compete with other local schools. Essay writing competitions, dance, speaking, singing, and quiz competitions allow students to hone their skills.

Teachers: Students in Nepal take on leadership roles in the classroom and are accustomed to this as part of school culture.

Are school counselors available to students?

Each of the seven schools has at least two counselors, one male, one female, who strive to meet the student needs. Teachers may ask a student to visit a counselor or may ask a counselor to speak to a student. Students may also independently seek out counselors. Both personal counseling and group counseling is available. Counselors conduct various awareness programs on HIV/AIDS, Human Trafficking, Drug Abuse, Domestic Violence, Child Rights (CRC), Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) etc. to the students, teachers, and parents. They provide special support to children with disabilities. UNHCR staff and school counselors coordinate closely.

It may be worth asking your student or the refugee resettlement agency in your area if a school counselor from the refugee camp is among those resettled in your area. This person has great potential to help you or other teachers better understand the Bhutanese refugee community and how to address any issues with a student or a family.

What is the relationship between parents and schools?

At least three times a year, parents come to school during the day to attend a large group meeting. Additionally, parents come at least three times a year at report card time for parent-teacher conferences. The homeroom teacher has greater, though informal, responsibility for the 40 or so students who are in his/her class, and, with the help of the administration, may call in a student’s parents if a student is struggling. Teachers report that they see about three parents a week.

This community is accustomed to a school system that communicates with parents. Contact is welcomed.

Is early childhood education available?

Yes. Children come to the Child Play Centers (CPC) for about three hours a day and are assigned by age into one of two groups. Children between 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 years old play games, sing songs, and learn to play with others. Those 4-1/2 to 5-1/2 begin to learn their numbers and develop literacy skills. Letter books are bilingual (both English and Nepali). After this, children enter the pre-primary (PP) class.

What happens to differently–abled children in the camps?

While the schools try to be inclusive where possible, there are facilities at each of the camp schools to help children who have disabilities. Each of the seven camp schools have at least one Special Need Support Teacher (SNST) for the differently-abled students. They identify the differently-abled children with respect to physical disability, mental disability, hearing impaired, speech impaired, vision impaired and low vision students and provide required support. The SNST conducts remedial classes for those students and provides them with the necessary equipment available in the school.