Q & A with Sr. Grace Chia, training teachers to meet children's real needs

Jacinta Cordoza, left, and Sr. Grace Chia founded a teacher-training school in Myanmar that has expanded to include three sisters' communities. (Provided photo)

The Pyinya Sanyae Institute of Education (PSIE), a unique teacher-training program in Yangon, Myanmar, has deep roots in 15th-century France.

Sr. Grace Chia and Jacinta Cardoza are founders of this modern-day training program inspired by the Infant Jesus Sisters' founder, Nicolas Barré, a Minim monk who lived and worked with families barely surviving on the margins of society in Amiens. He was convinced that the answer to helping families to find a better life was education.

Needing assistance, he enlisted the help of two young women, distant relatives, to work with him. He guided them in the methodologies of teaching that was both religious and secular, including catechism, math, reading and writing. He advised them speak in a "humble, gentle and simple manner so that even the youngest could understand, and they were to teach only what they themselves had adequately grasped," according to the Infant Jesus Sisters' website.

When I visited the institute on a recent trip to Myanmar, it was easy to see that those early principles of quality teaching and personal attitudes are still at work thousands of miles from France. Today, Infant Jesus Sisters ministering in Myanmar belong to a religious congregation, but in France in the 1600s, those first women could not take "official vows" if they wanted to work among the people. But these women did live together in community and in 1669 signed a document expressing their total trust "in the wise, loving and all powerful Providence of God." Not being" official" religious confined to a cloister allowed them to move freely and to live close to ordinary people.

I was amazed at Chia and Cardoza's vision in initiating this teacher-training school. Three communities include five sisters from three countries, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and two lay partners from Singapore. Two sisters work at the institute with one lay partner, and another lay partner and two sisters minister in two remote villages, working with Catholics, Buddhists and Hindu neighbors.

GSR: Sister Grace, how did you and Jacinta begin this new venture of teacher training?

Chia: While Jacinta and I were teaching English with the Jesuits and De La Salle Brothers, Misereor, a foundation in Germany, did research on children's development in the boarding houses run by the Catholic Church of Myanmar. When it was discovered that the children were not really showing intellectual improvement, Archbishop Charles Bo, now a cardinal, asked us to initiate a teacher-training program that could help improve educational outcomes at the boarding houses.

Though we were not sure how to go about it, we did not say no to the request, but brought it back to our mission team that was meeting twice a year. At one meeting, we were encouraged to take up the challenge and assured of help from our alumni in Singapore who were in the National Institute of Education doing teacher education. With that assurance, we took the first step.

Pyinya Sanyae Institute of Education teachers in training pose together. (Provided photo)

You speak about training teachers for boarding houses. What are these boarding houses?

Boarding houses for students were first started by foreign missionaries and have been continued by local religious when the missionaries were no longer allowed in the country. Today, there are about 300 houses located in the compounds of local parishes in small towns throughout Myanmar.

Some of the boarding houses are small, having as few as 30 children, while others may accommodate up to 200. They cater to children attending middle and high school who are from remote areas and villages where there are only primary schools. Parents send their children to the houses around grade 5, and they stay until grade 11, and are usually between the ages of 9 and 16. The local parish priests manage the houses, but the children are cared for and supervised by local religious sisters and brothers.

So you designed the curriculum for the student teachers and for the students they teach? Is the curricula aligned in some ways to national education?

From the beginning, we trained teachers only to teach in the boarding houses, so we did not train them to teach other school subjects except English. We trained them to teach English in English, in contrast to government schools that teach English through Burmese. Thus, our trainees and their students can read, write and speak English whereas government-educated schoolchildren can read and write English, but few can speak it.

Although the trainees were trained first in English, their two-year training program includes courses in math, social studies, history, science, psychology, sociology and ethics for elementary and secondary teaching. They can also take elective courses in music, literature and environmental education.

I noticed on your website that the goal of the institute is to train the teachers in holistic education. Describe the kind of teaching that was different before this emphasis.

Holistic education recognizes the child as a physical, social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual being, and so the training curriculum has to help the trainees develop all these aspects in themselves and in their teaching. The child needs to become not just clever but wise, not just knowledgeable but knowing that leads to acting and deciding with integrity. The child learns to see himself or herself not as the center, but as part of a community where God is the center.

The national education system relies on rote learning and focuses on final examinations. We choose to create our own curriculum to meet the real needs of the children. Our targeted group is those children who are disadvantaged or vulnerable and have often experienced various forms of trauma.

To meet these special needs, we have Learning Corners to facilitate all aspects of the mind: thinking, creating, discovering and imagining. We have also included in our program art for healing and creative and emotional development, as many of the children in these boarding houses have experienced one form of trauma or other. Our teachers were trained by one of our Infant Jesus sisters from Ireland who is an art therapist and had worked with traumatized children in Belfast.

Our children, too, begin their lessons with a short meditation, and that addresses their spiritual need. Our teachers celebrate the children's birthdays and feast days, acknowledging each one as special and loved. Many of these children have very poor self-image and self-esteem because many were left in the boarding houses and have little or no contact with their parents and families.

Many of the children in the Catholic boarding houses have experienced one form of trauma or other, so art therapy is used to help their healing and creative development. (Provided photo)

Do many boarding-house students and those in remote area schools go on to third-level education?

On average, PSIE teachers are in contact with 1,000 children each year. However, the actual number of children who eventually pass the high school matriculation is indeed very small as their foundation is very weak. I am sorry I cannot give actual statistics, but to date, we have trained and are training 12 of the former students as PSIE teachers. We began in 2009, and now we notice that those who have had our PSIE teachers in their lower grades have better chances of passing their 10th standard. And if they move to doing the University of Distance Education, they are most likely to pass and get a degree.

I noticed that the percentage of female teacher students is larger than those who are male. What is the reason for this? What percentage of your students are sisters? Do they work for you or return to their own community schools?

Generally, in Myanmar, teaching is regarded as a woman's profession, and engineering is for men. In all our intakes, males make up about 25 percent, and in every group, there has been at least one sister. Our first group had the most sisters, five out of 17. The sister trainees are sent to other schools or boarding houses, not their own, for the first two years, and after that, they return to serve their congregational schools. One sister has served PSIE for the past six years as a trainer.

I was very impressed to learn that last year, your students had training in anti-trafficking. Is this unique to your program? Could you describe the situation of trafficking of children and young adults in Myanmar?

As the country opens up, trafficking becomes a real threat, especially to children from poor villages. Traffickers are no longer individuals but syndicates who thrive on conditions of poverty and lack of employment. The demand for child labor, sex workers and child brides has increased as Myanmar becomes more accessible to China, Thailand, India and Malaysia. Ignorance and lure of readily available consumer goods in the growing number of shopping malls in cities make youth easy targets and victims.

Our teachers have an important role to play in inculcating the right values and critical thinking in our young students. We have included in our program awareness of trafficking activities and strategies in our country hoping to protect the children from traffickers, who can even be their own family members and relatives.

You send your teachers out to the most remote villages, where children have few opportunities. How do other villages and towns get to know about your schools?

Many of our teacher trainees come from remote areas. After four years of training, they return to serve their villages, even where there are no boarding houses. As neighboring schools hear about the new teaching methods of our teachers, they request them to come to them, as well. Sometimes, funders also request that our teachers be assigned to their particular geographic sites. Even a Buddhist monk who has a monastic school became interested about our schools when he met Archbishop Bo at an interfaith meeting. He sent one of his local teachers to join an earlier batch, but because of his lack of English, he left halfway.

In the beginning, we received outside funding for the salaries, but gradually, the schools and boarding houses have been able to co-pay or fully pay the teachers' salaries.

A "natural classroom" in Nazareth Bush School has a teacher who trained at Pyinya Sanyae Institute of Education. (Provided photo)

You and Jacinta have been very successful with this program. What are three significant challenges you face, and how are you planning to make it a sustainable venture?

We have three big challenges: first, attracting the right candidates who are willing to make a great investment of heart, mind, body and time. If we have the right intake, then we will get the maximum benefit at the end of the four years, something the country desperately needs.

Second, our teachers in the field often have to stand up against authorities or parents who have different mindsets about education. This is difficult for those who are young and are not courageous enough to stand up for their beliefs, especially before their elders. So they either succumb or ask to change.

Last, it is sometimes challenging to keep our trained teachers in service to sustain the mission of providing real education to children from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds. There is always the temptation to move on elsewhere for greener pastures and better salary.

Our strategy for sustainability is to send students abroad who share the vision and mission of PSIE and have displayed commitment and passion in their field work. When they complete their upgrading, they return and serve as staff for the institute. Currently, we have seven past students on our staff and have five more going to Japan, Malaysia and India in the near future.

[Joyce Meyer is a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is GSR's liaison to women religious outside of the United States.]

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