Teaching the Committed

Teaching the Committed

Bill Gilsdorf
1990 3M Teaching Fellow

ducation for The Real World” is the slogan of Concordia University, where I taught for twenty-five years. In Thailand, 20,000 kilometres from Concordia, I was brought face-to-face with teaching for the “real world.” For the past three years, Susan, my part:per, and I have travelled to Northern Thailand to work with Burmese living in exile from a violently oppressive military regime that governs “Myanmar”-the new name given by the ruling generals to Burma that exiles refuse to accept.

A small resort on the outskirts of Chiangmai, in northern Thailand, was the site for my first workshop with a group of officers of the All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF), a group which included twelve men and three women, mostly in their mid-thirties. I had been told very little about the participants, except that they had little English and they wanted training in strategies to gain increased media coverage. A Burmese translator would be necessary for the six intensive, eight-hour days of media training.

The All Burma Student Democratic Front was one of the first oppositional groups formed after the August 8, rg88 uprising of millions of Burmese, to which the military government responded with brutal repression, killing thousands. For almost seventeen years, this group of former students, representing many of the twenty-six major ethnic groups in Burma, has been combining humanitarian aid and education with armed resistance “inside,” a term used to refer to their homeland.

The maintenance of armed resistance has been a source of dissension within the group, and it was a troubling dilemma for me. The ABSDF military, now shrunk to about roo, is primarily used for defensive purposes when groups go “inside” to deliver medical or other assistance. Some of the fifteen people in my workshop spend an average of six months each year “inside,” and the other six months working along the Thai-Burma border trying to improve the circumstances of the thousands of refugees and preparing for the inevitable return to democracy. I am still struggling with the issue of armed resistance, yet I support the good work this group has done since 1988, and am in agreement with its objectives of restoring democracy and defending human rights in Burma.

One morning I arrived in our conference room fifteen minutes· early, to find them already at work, organizing themselves into campaign issue groups. They chose four issues they believed must be placed in front of the eyes of the world. These were:

Forced labour by the military;

The on-again-off-again negotiations between the military junta and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, N abel Peace Prize winner, under house arrest virtually since 1990;

Educational needs in the refugee camps and along the border where ABSDF was to open a high school in June, 2002 (which they did);

The imminent entry of foreign NGOs into Burma, which, while providing humanitarian assistance, may, in reality, be used .by the military for propaganda purposes, permitting the diversion of funds into increased military activity.

Part of their “real world” is constant surveillance. To my surprise, but not theirs, we were visited three times by three different security forces, who just walked into the room unannounced, listened for a while, took pictures and names, and then left.

Because they gave so much, I felt challenged to give them my best, and to make the material and exercises as directly relevant as possible. I’ve always known that students learn best when they can connect ideas and practices to the lives they lead. From the intensity with which they took notes and threw themselves into exercises, I saw that this learning could lead ultimately to the presentation of a point of view that could challenge the propaganda of the military, prevent further abuses, and save many lives.

Since that first relatively luxurious experience at the resort, my teaching has taken me to work with other groups in a “safe house” in Mae Sot, a small town at the Thai-Burma border. There is something very “grounding” as a teacher to be in bare feet with students similarly shoeless, working in an open air house at the edge of town that had been converted to a makeshift classroom. Visits by butterflies, other flying insects, dogs, and neighbourhood children replaced the earlier encounters with security forces.

While I know that I was able to satisfy a small part of the appetite for learning in these “students,” I am also aware of how much they challenged me and the skills for which I had been rewarded with a 3M Teaching Fellowship.

For me, there were many gifts. Most of all there was the gift of a renewed vision of the importance of teaching and learning, and the knowledge that for many, like those in the All Burma Student Democratic Front, education really is for the real world.