Shan State is the largest state in Myanmar, reaching towards China in the north, Thailand in the south and Laos in the southeast. Its mountainous terrain has created people who are strongly independent, self- sufficiency and agriculture being the traditional way of life in its mainly rural communities. There are areas where women and children live in great poverty, due to economic reasons and in parts of the country due to civil war – many live in camps for ‘displaced persons’ – essentially refugees.
Buddhism plays a major role in Myanmar. The monasteries, either of nuns or monks, provide much of the social support for the community, establishing and running schools, kindergartens and health facilities. Employment and wages are often minimal and monasteries and village committees set up kindergartens to enable parents to work.
How did Waldorf education become involved?
A group of Buddhist monastics and educationalists did extensive research to find an education supportive of their cultural, social and community needs.They found that Waldorf education is compatible with the spiritual and conceptual basis of Buddhist teachings and in 2012, with support from IASWECE, a Waldorf kindergarten training program was set up. Each year since there has been a 2-3 week training course attended by 70-80 students. An organizing network, Dhamma Mitta, provides administrative support for member schools, co-ordinates the kindergarten training and, as possible, augments the far-below living wages of kindergarten teachers. There are currently nineteen monasteries and village centers working towards using Waldorf ECE ways, with a wide variety of facilities – or lack of them -and over a thousand children involved.
For the past three years Nun Aye Su Wattie who was part of the original investigative group and who is the principal of Hitikari school in the northern city of Lashio, has offered the facilities of her school and kindergartens for the training courses. After the first training course three staff members from Hitikari school did a three month practicum in Waldorf kindergartens in Thailand, returning enthused to share and put into practice what they had learned.
Teachers from other schools are offered practicum time at the Hitikari kindergartens and attend training sessions and discussions with the teachers. Interest in what is happening at Hitikari is spreading and many visitors are now asking about the early childhood work there.
This year the Dharma Mitta group arranged for me to visit as many kindergartens as possible prior to the training. This gave the basis of what we were to work on, with the teachers and with community leaders. Physical conditions in many of the kindergartens are difficult and local economic and social situations not easy. ln some of the poorest kindergartens there was tangible love, warmth and childhood wonder, real play with no ‘toys’ and teachers who deeply understand the needs of children, with their committees, doing all that they can to work with Waldorf education.
There is a strong core of people with the will and belief to improve the educational practices available for their children. Plans for the next stage, schools, are developing. Many teachers are learning English, but there still remains a need for relevant study material to be translated into local languages.
I didn’t mention that these observations, connections and conversations have all been made without any ability to speak the local languages,Shan and Burmese. Although l was very reliant on and grateful for all interpreters and people who kindly –and patiently- practiced their English on me, somehow the qualities of our work overcame this.
Thoughts that remain strongly about the work and training in Myanmar are
- the strength of the people.
- the living principles of Buddhis
- and recognition for the need for education reform.
It seems to me that these thoughts echo the closing words of Rudolf Steiner’s ‘Study of Man’:
‘Imbue thyself with the power of Imagination,
Have courage for the truth,
Sharpen thy feeling for the responsibility of soul’.
Kate Bryant has been involved with the project in Shan state since 2012. She is a semi- retired Waldorf kindergarten teacher and lives in New Zealand.