Dr Pema Yangchen, Minister of the Department of Education (DOE), the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamshala, India. Photo: TPI/Yangchen Dolma

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Dharamshala, India — In an exclusive interview with Dr Pema Yangchen, Minister of the Department of Education (DOE), the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), Dr. Yangchen highlighted the purpose and aim of giving education in our Tibetan schools. As in her words, education policy has brought fruition if it could raise Tibetan citizens endowed with moral virtues and who could become contributing members of the society and the world at large.

She talks about how DOE is trying to come up with effective programs to support both school leaders and teachers. She also talks about the importance of creating a robust school curriculum while keeping the best interest of the Tibetan Children across the globe.

Dr Yangchen has the very critical task of managing the DOE. The Minister also shares some of her ministry’s achievements and challenges with the Tibet Post International (TPI).

TPI: Could you introduce yourself and share with us the nature of the work you do here?

Interviewee: Tashi Delek, my name is Pema Yangchen. I was born in Bhutan where I did my early schooling. In 1983, I was able to join Upper Tibetan Children’s Village (UTCV) School, Dharamshala from where I successfully completed grades 6 through 12. TCV continued to fund my education and I was able to complete my BA (Hons) in English Literature from Delhi University. During those years there were so many children in the various TCV schools in India. A policy, TCV had at that time was that if you were a TCV ward under TCV scholarship, after completing a Bachelor's degree, we were required to take a one-year gap before pursuing further education. I decided to go to TCV School Suja which was a special school for those arriving from Tibet. My teaching assignment included teaching English and sometimes I was also required to teach Tibetan and social science. I worked for a total of eight years spanning from 1993 to 2001. In between, I took a gap year to secure my teaching degree (BEd) from the University of Madras.

Then in 2001, I got this great opportunity to go to the USA to pursue further studies. I went through a one-year Fulbright scholarship. I was sent to the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa where I was awarded the funding to complete my second year of Master's degree in TESOL. Inspired and determined, I applied for more funding to pursue a doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction at the same university. With the funding support from the university and a couple of generous friends, and under the guidance of my advisor Dr. Linda May Fitzgerald, I successfully earned my Doctor of Education (EdD) degree in 2009. In 2011, my Dissertation titled "Teacher Learning in a Tibetan School in Exile: A Community of Practice Perspective" won the "Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award."

It has always been my wish to return to India after completing my studies abroad so that I could serve and contribute in whatever small way I could. Ama Jetsun Pema asked me to work at the Dalai Lama Institution for Higher Education (DLIHE) in Bangalore where I had the opportunity to teach as well as shoulder administrative responsibilities as the head of departments and later as the Vice-Principal.

During the Tibetan parliament session in March 2018, I was nominated and elected as a Kalon (minister). I am truly grateful for this opportunity to serve CTA with honor and I am determined and dedicated to contribute towards the education of the future seeds of Tibet.

TPI: What are the core objectives and functions of DOE?

Dr Pema Yangchen: During the past decades, one of the major responsibilities of the Department of Education is to oversee and guide the school systems in India and Nepal. Now, DOE has also been trying to reach out to Tibetan children spread across the globe through the OOTs and Tibetan Associations who organize and administer the Tibetan Language and Culture Schools (aka Weekend Schools). The Tibetan population in India is decreasing and the number of children in Tibetan schools in India and Nepal is decreasing rapidly as well.

Therefore, DOE’S responsibility is not only about overseeing the Tibetan schools in Nepal and India. It also supports the education of Tibetan children living in other parts of the world. The focus of their education during the weekend classes is to teach Tibetan language and Culture. Towards this effort, in the US, in collaboration with the Office of Tibet in Washington, DC, DOE organized two successful workshops for teachers in the year 2018, one in Minnesota and the other in New York. Since most of the teachers are volunteers, the workshop focusing on understanding children, the teaching of Tibetan language, and active language teaching strategies was well-received by the teachers.

Last August, DOE in collaboration with OOT, Washing, DC, we organized the first-ever conference of Tibetan Culture and Language Schools in New York during which we finalized the Curriculum Framework for Tibetan Language and Culture Schools and urged all to implement the same. The Office of Education Council in DOE developed and designed the curriculum. This will be very helpful not only to teachers but also to parents alike to get a clear idea of what their children are expected to learn at the end of each grade level. When parents understand the learning outcome, then they are more likely to send their children to the weekend schools. At the end of eight years, a child who has consistently attended the weekend school will be able to read, write, and speak in Tibetan. Therefore, we need the support and encouragement of the parents along with the interest and patience of our younger generations aboard to achieve the goal of the Tibetan Language and Culture Schools.

The weekend schools also have separate textbooks developed and designed by DOE. In some countries, they use the same textbook we use in Tibetan schools in India. However, now with the finalization of the Curriculum Framework for Tibetan Language and Culture Schools, DOE is planning to review the textbooks previously published. DOE believes that it is very important to have a common curriculum for our children to learn.

TPI: What units and how many schools are under the administration of DOE and can you tell us how many students are in these schools approximately? Dr Pema Yangchen: My information is based on the annual report of DOE as of March 2020. We have 64 schools under five major Tibetan school systems: 06 Central Tibetan School Administration (CTSA) schools, 16 Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) schools, 29 Sambhota Tibetan Schools Society (STSS) schools, 04 Tibetan Homes Foundation (THF) schools, and 09 schools under the Snow Lion Foundation (SLF). We have a total of 16,519 students and 2,151 staff members including both teaching and non-teaching.

TPI: Can you kindly shed some light on the implementation of the Basic Education Policy (BEP) in Tibetan schools?

Dr Pema Yangchen: DOE plays a critical role in awareness building and disseminating BEP in our communities. Rigorous implementation of BEP in the schools depends on the collective efforts of all the school systems, our community, and parents in particular. DOE has developed and delivered many BEP awareness-raising programmes for both parents and teachers in all the Tibetan communities and schools.

Tibetan children in Tibetan schools are taught only in the Tibetan language from kindergarten till third grade. Beginning in fourth grade, English is introduced as a second language. Except for English and Hindi, the medium of instruction is Tibetan until grade 8. DOE's Office of the Education Council has developed, designed, and published textbooks as well as educational materials in Tibetan in accordance with BEP to be disseminated and used in our Tibetan schools.

During the last two years, I have been to many schools. An obvious change that I noticed in our younger children was their Tibetan proficiency. They were frank, confident, and articulate as they spoke in Tibetan only. Those were my proud moments! As you know, one of the main purposes of this education policy is for our Tibetan children to build a strong foundation in our mother-tongue from early grades. Language and culture are intertwined. Language serves a critical function in the preservation of culture and its tradition. Our identity, values, beliefs, and customs are communicated through language. Language is the gateway to culture. Therefore, Tibetans, especially our younger generations and the generations to come, mother-tongue is indispensable.

A complete and rigorous implementation depends on many factors and conditions. For example, an in-depth understanding and belief in the purpose and aim of giving education as outlined in the BEP is necessary. School heads, teachers, and parents must work collaboratively in order to draw maximum benefits from BEP. Being able to draw from both traditional Tibetan education and modern education is an extraordinary component of BEP which will present challenges as well as opportunities for our children to become contributing members of our society.

Ever since my appointment as the Minister of Department of Education in 2018, I wanted to address a minor concern among some parents regarding the beginning of English language instruction from grade four. Their concern is that their children will not be proficient enough in English when they leave school to pursue higher education. We have Tibetan parents sending their children to non-Tibetan schools. However, there are also those who do not have a choice but to send their children to non-Tibetan schools due to the nature of their work and other circumstances. The best way to address their concern is by bringing out a revised and detailed English curriculum.

I sensed the urgent need for a revised English Curriculum and Learning Standards Frame-Work for three main reasons. For one, the existing English Curriculum adopted in 2010 is not adequate to meet the challenges of our students in terms of its content, structure, and organization. Secondly, the untraditional nature of our schools where instruction in English begins only from Class IV has its own unique needs. In reality, we are dealing with multi-level classrooms with respect to proficiency in English as different categories of students have received different numbers of years of instruction in English. Thirdly, the other stakeholders like the public and the parents in particular need to have a tangible way of knowing what type of English program is provided to their children in our schools.

On December 23, 2019, a draft English Curriculum and Learning Standards Framework was produced which was the result of two months of thorough and rigorous qualitative research conducted by a committee of 5 members constituted by the Department of Education. If parents were to go through this they will have a better and clear understanding of how English will be taught and how their children will progress through the years. This will enable parents to know how their children will attain and sustain English language proficiency required when they go to ninth or tenth grade.

TPI: What are the challenges DOE faces?

Dr Pema Yangchen: The greatest challenge that DOE would face in the coming years; I would say is the rapidly decreasing number of our student population in our schools. Within the last 56 years, we have been very successful in establishing schools, we have great infrastructure, abundant trained & qualified teachers, and a pool of great educational leaders. However, our student population is decreasing year by year. Never the less, we haven't let this get the better part of our education in exile. We are taking steps to mitigate this issue in a more constructive manner.

TPI: With aims of merging the Tibetan schools to tackle the decrease in the number of students’ enrolment. Can you highlight something on this subject matter and how this plan is coming through?

Dr Pema Yangchen: With decreasing student population, the number of schools must be reduced too. However, this has not happened. Each school system needs to understand this challenge and work towards it. Based on the need and sustainability of the schools, we must keep only those schools. We must close or downgrade individual schools where ever necessary. Maybe we can have one school system in one part of India and another school system in another part. For instance, in the north-eastern part of India, we have only STSS run schools whereas in the north we have more of TCV schools. So, a viable solution would be for each school system to concentrate on administering a particular region/part. Then whether we need all these different school systems is also something we could consider.

Another challenge that will surface from closing or merging schools is the issue of accommodating the surplus teachers. However, these challenges are inevitable and if all school systems work together, I believe that we can overcome these challenges. We must. In the meantime, as always, DOE is working hard to provide a better educational environment through school infrastructure improvement, professional development programs for teachers and school heads, publishing and distributing educational material, etc. Whatever number of schools we may have, we will continue to make sure that they have great teachers who are experienced and qualified, good resources, and infrastructures. Our goal is that as long as we have a decent number of children, we must continue to facilitate their education.

TPI: How is DOE faring so far and can you state some achievement during your term?

Dr Pema Yangchen: As you know, I was not here from the beginning of the term and I am just completing the former minister’s term. As far as DOE is concerned, we implement many educational programs throughout each year. Each year, we develop and deliver a variety of professional development programs for school heads as well as teachers. During the last two years, DOE in collaboration with the Office of Tibet, Washington, DC held the first workshop for Tibetan weekend schools in the US and also convened the First Education Summit of Tibetan Language and Culture Schools. During this summit attended by representatives from North America, Europe, and Australia, we finalized the Curriculum Framework for Tibetan Language and Culture Schools. Last December, a draft of the English Curriculum and Learning Standards Framework was completed by a five-member committee constituted by DOE. I served as the advisor for this committee and was able to make some contributions because of my experience as an English teacher and my educational background.

TPI: How does DOE determine the education level\standard of students at Tibetan schools in Bhutan, India, and Nepal?

Dr Pema Yangchen: The easiest and fastest way to determine the education standard of a school would be to look at the end-of-year exam scores. However, scores are only one way of measurement. There are many alternative ways of looking at children learning. So, if were to judge based on exam scores, I can say that during the last two years, there has been an increase in the score percentage in the class tenth and twelfth board exams. Therefore, I could say that the education level is getting better. Also, it has been noticed that girls seem to do better than boys. For instance, when we announce a scholarship abroad, there are always more female applicants. How we define education has also a huge impact on how we judge the students. We believe that education is not just getting a great score or being able to complete school or college. If we achieve in bringing up children endowed with moral ethics who are growing up to become morally responsible Tibetan citizens and who are able to understand His Holiness’ wishes and work towards its implementation, then we have achieved our goal.

TPI: Do you have any topic\ message that you would like to share with the general public?

Dr Pema Yangchen: I believe, many parents whose children go to schools today had had the chance to go to schools themselves. They are better equipped and are able to support their children's education far better than their parents. I urge them to be more active, involved, and responsible for their children’s education, especially when it comes to our language and culture. As Tibetan parents, I think they should make sure that their children could speak the Tibetan language well. I know everyone is doing their best. I also hope that parents can spend more constructive time with their children as these days there are lots of distractions. It is very important that we take value in family time. We have a great education policy to guide our children's education. However, for a successful implementation in schools, we need the support of the Tibetan public and parents of these young children. So, let us all work together!

The Tibetan Minister of Education was interviewed by  TPI reporters, Yangchen Dolma and Norzin Dolma, in a very wide range of topics related to the Tibetan education initiatives and programmes.

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