Sitting quietly at the end of the long conference table in Trace Foundation’s headquarters in New York, Kelsang Kyi nervously plays with a few sheets of paper, shuffling and bending them. When she finally speaks, her voice is clear and surprisingly deep, with only a faint shadow of an accent. “It has been a long process of learning and struggling to live in a new culture,” she says, and indeed, it has.
Kelsang Kyi was born in a small village in Chentsa County in the Malho (Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Unlike the regions to the immediate south and west, which are dominated by high mountains and primarily populated by nomads, Chentsa County forms part of a small patch of arable land centered on the provincial capital Xining. Many of its residents are employed in agriculture and Kelsang is no different. “I’m a farmer’s daughter,” she says, with a laugh that betrays an awareness of the cliché in English.
“Growing up, women my age had few opportunities to get an education,” she says. “Girls had to stay home to help with the work of the family. All my siblings are uneducated.” Kelsang’s father, however, made her mother promise that Kelsang would go to school until she decided to drop out—at that time still the most common end to young Tibetans’ education.
Kelsang did not drop out. In July of 1991 she became the first member of her family to graduate from senior middle school, which is roughly equivalent to American high school. She continued her education in Repgong at the Malho Teachers’ College. After graduating with her zhongzhuan (the minimum degree required for teacher’s in the PRC) in English and Tibetan she returned to her former primary school to teach Tibetan, Chinese, English, History and Geography.
From the beginning Kelsang was eager to improve her teaching skills, and soon began a three-year correspondence course to improve her English. “At home,” she says “there was little opportunity to practice English, so I mostly practiced by reading, or recording my own voice and playing it back.” Still unsatisfied with her language skills, she returned to school, enrolling at the Qinghai Teachers’ College in Xining in 2001 to complete her benke (equivalent to a bachelor’s degree) in English. Shortly thereafter she returned home to take up a new position at the Chentsa County Nationalities Middle School, where she soon became a head teacher.
Chentsa County Nationalities Middle School is a boarding school comprised primarily of the children of nomads and farmers whose homes are far from the school. As a head teacher, Kelsang was responsible for her students day and night, and taught as many as eighty thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds in a single small classroom, rotating seats each month to give each student an opportunity to be near the front of the class.
In 2004 Kelsang traveled to Xining for a workshop, sponsored by Trace Foundation, on student-centered teaching methodology for Tibetan English-language teachers. “It was a rare opportunity, particularly for English teachers,” she says. “I learned about more ‘hands-on’ teaching methodology, and became impassioned to learn more about how to teach.” It was during this first meeting that Kelsang also learned about the international scholarships provided by Trace Foundation, which would eventually bring her to the US.
Kelsang applied for the scholarship in 2006 to pursue a Masters of Arts in teaching English at the School for International Training (SIT) in Brattleboro, Vermont but the admissions office was skeptical that Kelsang would be able to compete in the program with native English speakers. Ultimately, however, they decided to grant her the opportunity and in January 2008 she arrived in the US to begin seven months of intensive English-language training at the International Language Institute of Massachusetts.
At first, the adjustment was difficult for her. “Before coming to America, I’d never been outside of Qinghai—I’d never even been to a big city like Beijing,” she explained. Everything felt new and unfamiliar to her and she dearly missed her family and the tight-knit community of her hometown. “I kept thinking: I can’t do it; I want to go home. I cried a lot.” But, she stayed, and in September of that year, began her studies at SIT with a focus on language acquisition, teaching methodology, and culture.
Although she admits to being shy at first, Kelsang eventually began regularly visiting each of her professors after class to discuss with them the situations she faced at home and possible solutions. Kelsang was inspired by these talks with her professors. “I found I was learning in two ways: in one way through the actual content and in another by sitting back and watching how my professors were teaching.”
Kelsang also had the opportunity to take part in teaching practica, including one at the Brattleboro Union High School where she was amazed by the incredible number of books and computers available for the students to use. “At my school,” she told us, “we have a library, but we don’t use it much as it has nearly completely collapsed.” Crumbling infrastructure is not the only challenge she faces at home. “Being a teacher is a challenge, particularly in the countryside. We have very few teaching tools. The most challenging part though is teaching your students how to become good people…students need an education that will not only teach them skills, but one that will help them learn how to learn and how to be a part of a community.”
Perhaps because of her interest in cultivating whole and well-rounded students, she took an early interest in course design. She was inspired by the emphasis her instructors placed on culture and the importance of relating new knowledge to the experience and context of students. “A textbook,” she says, “is just a tool. It’s not everything.” Far more important, she believes is the relationship between a teacher and her students and the teacher’s ability to make the lesson relevant to a student’s life.
Kelsang progressed rapidly. Though she’d never used a computer before, the program required that she submit weekly typed assignments: a challenge she soon mastered, finding along the way that her writing improved dramatically. In 2010, when Kelsang graduated, the admissions counselor who had expressed concern over her ability to compete with her fellow students came forward to tell her that she had risen to the challenge, and counted amongst the best students in her class.
Thinking of the teachers who will follow in her footsteps, Kelsang advises “When living in another culture, it’s hard, but all human beings are the same. Don’t get intimidated or be afraid of making mistakes. Whatever’s in your mind, just open your mouth and say it. You have to get out of your room, and go out and experience things; learning happens there too.”
“There must be more opportunities for rural teachers to receive training. The teachers in these areas really need this opportunity to create even a small change in the community,” she says, reflecting on her time in the US. “The more I see, the more I learn just how important education is.”