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Tara Devi Giri: Advocating for inclusive education in Bhutan

Posted: 4 March 2021

Bhutan, COVID-19, Disability, Impact, Inclusion,

In line with this year’s International Women’s Day theme, ‘Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’, we met with Australia Awards alumna and special education teacher Tara Devi Giri to discuss her work and how it is contributing to the overall development of inclusive education in Bhutan, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tara graduated with a Master of Education (Inclusive and Special Education) from Monash University in 2016 with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. She currently works as a Special Education Needs Coordinator in Tendruk Central School in southern Bhutan. In this role, Tara leads the Special Education Needs (SEN) Team to support the school in developing tailored programs for students with disability, with the goal of providing education for all students—with or without disability—in an inclusive setting.

What inspired you to get into your line of work?

“My own personal struggle as an average-performing student in school was enough cause for me to get into teaching students with special needs. I always felt my learning needs were not addressed appropriately to bring out my full potential and felt I would have performed better with the right guidance. When I started teaching, I supported students struggling academically because I could see myself in them.

Secondly, I grew up seeing students with disability being mocked by their peers, parents and teachers for their poor academic performance, only to realise later that most of them would naturally struggle academically due to their disability, coupled with physical, attitudinal and social barriers.

My curiosity to learn more about students with disability and their learning style heightened as I advanced in my teaching career. My curiosity was sated when the school I was teaching in at the time was endorsed with a Special Education Program, whereby a 5-day training workshop was provided to teachers. This exposure to teaching-learning strategies for students with disability deepened my interest in inclusive education.

This interest drove me to seek higher education in the field in order to advance my knowledge, skills and strategies to support children with disability appropriately.”

How has your Australia Awards Scholarship helped you enhance your career?

“Prior to my master’s degree, my contribution in the field remained exclusively within the four walls of my classroom. Obtaining a master’s degree from Monash University tremendously enhanced my knowledge and skills in special education.

My Australia Awards Scholarship helped me realise my dream and prepared me both professionally and personally. It equipped me not only with the required knowledge and skills to academically support students with disability, but also to acquire other soft skills like collaboration and networking, which helped me liaise with other stakeholders to support these students.”

Tara (left) attending the Australia Awards – South Asia Regional Alumni Workshop in Colombo in January 2020

As a woman educator, have you faced any challenges during your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

“As a working mother, at times it was hard to strike a balance between my professional career and my family life, especially when there were high expectations from my superiors. However, I always viewed challenges as an opportunity to improve myself personally and professionally. I learnt stress management and time management skills to balance my life between home and work.

Professionally, I also struggled to apply my newly learnt ideas, skills and strategies in the field, since the school management failed to understand the importance of inclusive and special education. The initiatives that I wanted to undertake to strengthen inclusive education for children with disability were turned down multiple times simply because my ‘foreign’ concepts were not supported by the national education policy. I did not relent; with persistence, I was ultimately able to execute my concepts successfully in the schools I served in.”

How have you managed to teach and support children with disability during the pandemic? What challenges did you overcome?

“When the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Bhutan, all schools were closed as a preventive measure. This triggered an almost overnight transformation of the teaching and learning culture from textbook and classroom into e-learning and online forums. This sudden transition became confusing for everyone, especially children with special needs and their teachers.

The financial impact of e-learning was also felt by almost all students with special needs across the country. Out of 78 students with special needs in the school I served, 69 did not own a smartphone and neither did their parents. Teaching these students using digital mediums was extremely difficult without smartphones, since teachers were instructed to use social media platforms such as WeChat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram and Google Classroom. Even if the students did have access to a smartphone and social media, the condensed ‘Education in Emergency’ curriculum, designed by the Royal Education Council of Bhutan, did not meet the learning needs of students with special needs.

To make this ‘Education in Emergency’ curriculum accessible to students with special needs, I initiated a few mini programs at my school, including:

  • Turning home into a classroom: The home of two students who lived off campus was turned into a classroom. A work plan was designed by the SEN team, who visited the students regularly to deliver lessons. Visual schedules were designed detailing regular activities, and their caregivers were oriented to carry out basic activities, including COVID-19 safety protocols and self-care on health and hygiene.
  • Campus teaching: Face-to-face teaching was initiated for students living near the school campus. They were called to school four times a week in small groups, except during lockdown, to be taught functional literacy by the SEN team (following COVID-19 safety protocols such as physical distancing, mask use and regular hand hygiene).
  • Mobile home teaching: The SEN team visited the homes of students residing as far as 40 kilometres away from the school. We focused on COVID-19 safety protocols, self-care, and other activities such as cooking, cleaning and mind training.
  • Teaching through social media apps: For those parents who were using social media, I uploaded modified educational activities with oral instruction in local languages.
  • Awareness and orientation program: Parents of students with special needs were oriented on the importance of following COVID-19 safety protocols and awareness of mental health issues, through face-to-face meetings and social media platforms.
  • Physiotherapy service: Students with gross and fine motor skill disorders were deprived of regular physiotherapy due to school closure and travel restrictions. To address this, physiotherapists were invited to our school to provide therapy services. Similarly, I asked the school management to let us utilise the school bus to take some of the severely affected children to the hospital for periodic review and to seek additional medical attention.
  • Financial support: During the pandemic, many students and their parents struggled financially. I solicited financial support from private individuals to sponsor five students who are supported with Ngultrum 1500 (AUD26) per month to meet their expenses.”

Tara (third from left) facilitating an Inclusive Education Workshop at Gelephu, Bhutan in 2019

What initiatives are you looking forward to deploying in the future?

“I want to strengthen the outreach program in remote communities where children with severe disability, coupled with dire financial need, are deprived of education. I want to send proposals to the school management as well as the District Education Officer soliciting financial and material support for the mobile outreach program.

Setting up functional, skill-based classes for children who do not benefit from academic learning is another initiative that I have planned. For example, setting up a cooking class where we can teach literacy along with cooking is much more beneficial for such children than teaching in the classroom. This has budgetary implications, so I plan to ask the Education Ministry for financial support to build the infrastructure.

To build a resilient and inclusive society for students with or without disability who identify as LGBTIQ, I plan to carry out awareness programs in the school and the community to remove discrimination and stigmatisation related to the LGBTIQ community. Additionally, people with disability are vulnerable to sexual abuse and harassment. I plan to organise awareness programs on sex education for students, parents, local leaders and other members of the community.

Nationalising inclusive education is a long-term goal where I envision setting up SEN units in all schools in Bhutan so that we can enrol as many students as possible with disability and special education needs. Currently, we have only 20 SEN schools in Bhutan, so nationalising the SEN program in all schools would benefit all students with disability and let them receive education in their respective communities.

Finally, I hope to reach out to Members of Parliament, the Education Ministry, the Royal Civil Service Commission and other stakeholders to frame policies that would ensure equal access to higher education and employment for students with disability. Rights of people with disability are easy to ignore without strong guidelines, policies and acts.”

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.’ What is your key message to your fellow alumni on how to take action based on this year’s theme?

“The pandemic has taught the world the paramount importance of women’s leadership in creating gender inclusive responses to combat COVID-19 more efficiently and compassionately. To lead in the ‘new normal’, we need new changes—and women’s empowerment is the change. One great example can be drawn from Bhutan’s Health Minister, Her Excellency Dechen Wangmo. Her leadership attributes and medical knowledge have played a fundamental part in containing the virus in this country. Let’s lead the ‘new normal’ by drawing inspiration, enthusiasm and zeal from Bhutan’s Health Minister, who has shown the world that women leaders are effective and decisive in handling the crisis.

Let’s also stand together and call for action to nationalise an inclusive education program in Bhutan to provide the right to education for all school-aged children in their nearest community school. Let us stand together to fight for the right of education for girls and women with disability, and queer or transgender women, and stand up in partnership with them!”

Tara joins women around the world who are leading innovative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are sharing their story as part of Australia Awards – South Asia’s International Women’s Day 2021 series, which acknowledges the achievements of women leaders and progress towards empowering women in our region.