GNH and Space for Mutual Illumination: Some Reflections on School Leadership…

Once upon a time by the Paa-chhu

Here is this place we have grown to call school. In the beginning, it was all space – bare and plain – a part of this good earth. We animated sand and stone, brought brick and mortar and saw our temple of learning rise before us. We etched the impressions of our hands on the walls and the floors and the corridors. We wrote our dreams here. Today, we call it our school.

This nation cared and it dared. It set its eyes on the light – the light of learning. This school is the living, flowing breath of that light and that care and that love. Today, we inherit that light and that love by right and by responsibility. The future will show what we make of this inheritance. This is the moment to decide.

Children are already here. The bell has gone. It is assembly time. As the flag rises and the anthem rings, we merge with a vaster realm. The school transforms. We are uplifted. The vision of our flag connects us with a bigger reality. The rhythm of our national anthem links us to a wider consciousness. All distances dissolve and all differences disappear. The East and the West and the North and the South become one.

It is the charge of the sacred and the solemn. At this supreme moment, my individuality merges with the collectivity that is the nation. I am a part of the whole and the whole is part of my being. I partake of all that goes to the making of my nation and of all that is dear to her being and her sovereign self. I embrace the very person of my nation as I pray for our king and our people and for all the sentient beings. I obtain a glimpse of her very soul.  Bhutan comes together. We build our nation.

The assembly is a moment of solemn reflection and dedication. It is the time for the big theme of the day, for the galvanizing message to the surging mass. This moment is meant to capture the mood, enlarge the mind and expand the heart. It invokes the destiny of the institute and the destination of its scholars.

This moment is bigger than the individuals, higher than the subjects and larger than the many activities that will define the day. The person who stands in front of the multitude is called upon to measure up and to inspire. Truly, the life of the institute is shaped by what happens during this precious moment. 

It has been my good fortune to share a common space and a common passion with you as teachers. Today, I would like to pay my tribute to all of you, my fellow-educators, for your courage to take up the most difficult job there is in the world – teach.

At that moment of truth, when you told yourself that of all the things that you could do, you would rather share your life and learning with children, you set yourself on a mission like no other. A glowing testimony to your ability and success, you are today called upon to lead and to guide the destiny of your school.

At school, it is leadership of a special kind. You are face to face with real people, flesh and blood individuals. You do not have the luxury of space and distance that provide some respite, however brief, as in some other occupations. Right here is the child, your scholar, your charge, who is a pupil and more than a pupil. Here is a bundle of dreams, of hope, and of possibility. How do you organize your school to support and advance the myriad dreams and hopes and possibilities that children come with?

And, here are the teachers – looking up to you to lead and to inspire. You are called upon to set the priorities and lay the ground rules for the school. Teachers are an amazing community – they hold the key to the success of our children. Your leadership has the power to ignite the fire of their imagination and achieve excellence in student performance.

Curriculum and community have their own share of claims on your time and attention. The curriculum, as a treasure-chest of a nation’s aspirations for human excellence, is the reason for the school being there. The community looks up to, and is expected to look up to, the school in much the same way as the ancient mariners looked up at the North Star for direction.

And then there is the general presentation and ambience that sets the school apart from a utility facility. Every object speaks here. The entrance gate, the play-fields, the gardens, the streams, the plants, the corridors, the hallways, the classrooms, the staffrooms, the library, the laboratories, service facilities, the surroundings, nooks and corners – all make their own statements and convey powerful messages. Whether these objects and spaces inspire the love of life and of learning depends upon how imaginatively and creatively they are engaged.   

You preside over an empire that is made of dreams. The school is a celebration of children, of learning and of living. You are at the centre of this magic and fun.

So far, so good! With all its imperfections, we have an education system that is up and running. Our leaders are leading and the led are learning. I believe that despite many challenges and, often, unkind criticisms, our teachers are doing a commendable job. I feel too that our children are learning their mathematics and science and languages and some are doing exceptionally well. It is thanks to your hard-work and sacrifices that Bhutan is more educated and enlightened today than ever before.

Given the demands of our national vision and the needs of changing times, what has been good hitherto will no longer be good enough henceforth. We have often risen to high levels of excellence in our roles. Now, we need to reconnect our role with its soul. This is the moment of truth.

Educating for Gross National Happiness is essentially an invitation to Education, to all of us educators, to look for and to discover the soul behind our role. We are returning to the original and the authentic purpose of education – a process that gently draws the human mind to look for and to love what is true and good and beautiful and useful – values inherent in the goal of education. We are, in effect, returning to the root of education – educare – meaning to draw out.

We need to draw out the core principle, the primary purpose, the soul, if you will, of our role.  Educating for Gross National Happiness is, therefore, not a new fad or a call for a paradigm shift. There are no plans to develop a new GNH curriculum or to bring about a revolution in education as some people might like to assume.

We already have the basic material in our curriculum sufficient to support a GNH way of thinking and living. What is required is a creative reorientation of attitude and approach in the way we look at ourselves and perceive our relationship with our field of work.

All education is normative and therefore allied to the spirit of GNH in essence. Through our academic disciplines, we would like not only to gather information and knowledge from the different topics and chapters prescribed in the syllabus, but to gain insight into the nature of phenomena that make our universe. The current initiative is a reminder that somewhere along the way, education came off its normative orbit and lost its original course. Educating for GNH or building Green Schools is a call to regain lost ground.

Ultimately, education is but a process of finding relationships. We begin in the infancy of learning with nursery rhymes which aim to build bridges between the familiar and the unfamiliar thus empowering the child to see the world as a sensible and meaningful place.  It is the soul behind the sound that is crucial here as the child’s universe unfolds and expands with every little experience.

As the learner grows and matures, science becomes the narrative of patterns and of relations in nature as in life; mathematics a celebration of signs and symbols with loaded significance and power; history is the march of ideas that move minds and nations; literature is the song of life and living, as language is the festival of sounds and of word-relations; philosophy being the empire of the eternal and the immutable.

We want our children to learn that culture is the cultivation of sweetness and light, and that environment is an extension of our own self. When we talk of governance, we would like to begin from self-governance to governance in the family, in the class, in school, in organizations, in societies, at the national level and link it to world- governance. In the socio-economic areas, issues of standard of life and the standard of living and their ramifications on the wider natural, social, and political spheres need to be highlighted.

Could the principal please show up! I mean the principle behind the principal, or the principal-principle! If I have been a principal for twenty years, for instance, I might be tempted to ask myself: When was the last time the principal in me truly showed up? In other words, how often do the role and its soul meet?

As I see it, the biggest crisis in education today is not so much the shortage of resources or of planning and management, but of a mistaken source of motivation. We look to the market for inspiration instead of discovering the gold in our own field of engagement.

I love the idea of mutual illumination. Work shines through the worker as the worker shines through work. The principal has found a school, for instance, but has the school found a principal? Likewise, the teacher has found a subject to teach, but has the subject found a teacher to express its promise? We could and should ask the same questions to every other post and post-holder!

You are the medium through which the finest ideas about education speak. By the same token, education is the medium through which your most passionate and deeply-held beliefs find their expression. Your role finds its life and nourishment in the soul of your mission.

Left to itself, the role diminishes and dies over time. Fed by the soul, it receives vital nutrient and sustenance to bloom and to flourish. You illuminate each other and bless each other.

Education systems receive the big ideas of human aspirations and achievements over time and space, and affirm the claims of a nation’s dreams for ever higher levels of excellence and success. GNH as the sublime goal for our country provides an ideal vision for Education to give it meaning and purpose.

I know that you will rise, my fellow-educators, to match the need of the hour and release the light in you to honour and advance this nation’s dream. We owe it to our children and to our country to offer the best that we are capable of. The journey has begun. You are the light on the way.

Educating for Gross National Happiness is another name for Education coming home to itself and to remind it of its forgotten promise. It is the system taking a pause to reflect on what is important for our country, after all.

May you lead the children to the sunnier side of the street!

Tashi Delek.

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Thakur S Powdyel, former Minister of Education.