Learning about teaching


With her long blonde hair and Nordic looks Helen Eikeland looked like many of the other bideshis sitting in a café in Patan. Guests in adjoining tables cannot help eavesdrop because she speaks a clean, colloquial Nepali.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the Norwegian speaks better Nepali than most young Nepalis whose mother tongue is degraded by 10+2 education and Facebook shotcuts. Born in Gorkha’s Ampipal village to a missionary teacher, Eikeland played guchha and dandibiyo with neighbourhood children and went to school with them.

“I was just like every other kid, but an albino one,” she jokes in chaste Nepali.

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Eikeland grew up listening to conversations between her father and teachers, and she was in awe of how articulate and knowledgeable they were. Village teachers in Nepal in the 1960s were gurus in the true sense, they were community leaders, the problem solvers and idea generators.

Even though Helen left to go back to Norway with her family, her love for Nepal never diminished. Eventually it brought her back. She found her calling in education and became a teacher herself. She taught English at Mahendra Bhawan School in Kathmandu, and worked on education with various organisations.

Growing up listening to her father’s colleagues in Gorkha left a deep imprint in Eikeland’s mind, which is why it was inevitable that the PhD dissertation she completed last year is about the lives of 12 teachers in Nepal.

The most exciting part about teaching in Nepal for Eikeland is the opportunity to raise and build people. “The first priority is loving and valuing children, recognising their potential and helping them reach there,” she says. “The subjects in class are secondary.”

The values are more important than the content or method. She believes in treating every child as if they were a book by themselves, and connecting their understanding with the topic at hand.

During her work in the late 1990s in rural Nepal, Eikeland found that that essential sense of commitment which she had admired so much as a child in Gorkha was missing among teachers.

“All the different teachers I spoke with knew about what the problems were. For instance, all of them knew why the children were dropping out. But they were not doing anything to solve the situation, simply waiting for a donor program to come and fix things,” she recalls.

She worried that teachers were losing confidence, and this is what led to her PhD topic to document the life histories of a dozen teachers to find out where they got their motivation and value systems from.

Not surprisingly, Eikeland found that their struggles as children, their own early teachers, financial and domestic hardships, were all intimately connected with how they perceived their role as teachers.

Eikeland’s conclusion is that Nepal’s crisis in the quality of education is not another foreign-funded program that is implanted into Nepal’s school system that teachers feel alienated with, but a homegrown effort to restore the passion she saw among the teachers in Gorkha as a child 40 years ago. Eikeland believes that teaching pedagogy must acknowledge the local and cultural experiences of teachers to help them become confident and have ownership for their job.

Eikeland is now an associate professor at the University of Agder in Norway and she say she is taking the ideas she learnt in Nepal back to her other motherland and see if teachers there can be as passionate about their profession.

“My work represents the immense respect I have for Nepali teachers and what they have taught me,” she adds. “Of course, not everything about Nepali culture is perfect, but Nepali language and values are not inferior, and can teach us many important ideas.”

Meet these three self motivated teachers

Sarala, Rabina and Sita are three of 12 teachers that Helen Eikeland profiled in her PhD thesis. Their stories are a part of her attempt to understand how local and cultural experiences impact their role as teachers.


Rabina’s childhood was steeped in hardship: her father was an alcoholic and  family had to make do on her mother’s meagre earnings. She went to a government school, was hungry on most days, and wore plastic shoes when her friends wore leather.

At one point, the school’s fees increased and Rabina’s mother could no longer afford to pay. She was only allowed to stay on because one of her teachers convinced the principal, but she could not participate in house activities, and felt embarrassed.

Still, Rabina was never discouraged because she knew good education was her key to success. At home, her father would disrupt her studies, so she would study under an oil lamps after dark. Through sheer perseverance Rabina passed SLC with a first division. She started volunteering in the school she had studied in, and became a teacher.

One of the proudest moments in Rabina’s life was when she dressed in a sari on her first day as an official teacher, and her students congratulated her with flowers. Rabina remembers that aside from some student teachers who inspired her and the teacher who allowed her to continue school, her other teachers were not supportive of weak students.

Now, as a teacher herself, Rabina puts in extra effort for the students who are lagging behind. She tells her students not to be afraid to fail. “F-A-I-L is short form for First Attempt In Learning,” she tells them.

Rabina firmly believes that education must go beyond passing exams to learning lessons for life. She herself overcomes the scarcity of practical activities in the curriculum by including model-making, diagrams and other activities.

She is acutely aware of problems that plague Nepal’s education, she is annoyed that many jobs are given based on connections rather than qualification. She sees women teachers getting fewer opportunities to teach at the secondary level, and considers gender domination one of the biggest challenges.

The hardships Rabina grew up as a child have shaped the values that guide her as a teacher now. She dreams of starting a scholarship fund for economically disadvantaged children and those from lower castes.

These cultural experiences create the foundation for understanding the portrayals of teachers in Nepal

Cultural perspectives to view the data:

The perspectives of sukkha/dukkha are used to contrast how her life was with how it has become more harmonious and happy (sukkha), through her persistence and capacity to endure hardship (dukkha). The reward for persistence and endurance, or active contribution, to shaping her life, is thus articulated by dukkha/sukkha concepts. In relation to education, one might also consider the concept of dukkha/sukkha, with the aim of education being sukkha. The sukkha found in being educated, or in enlightenment, comes from freeing oneself from the foundational dukkha of the physiological and material environment through the individual’s capacity to persist and endure the hardship of education. Rabina’s story of persistence and endurance to free her family from poverty somewhat embodies this perspective.


Sarala is a model teacher in her district now, but her own education was possible because her father helped her persist through difficult times. Her mother had poor health, so as the eldest among eight siblings, Sarala had to devote many hours in their care.

Sarala’s father believed education was the most important element that would enable her to stand on her own feet. There were multiple times Sarala wanted to quit so she could manage the heavy workload at home, but her father never let her, even if she failed.

Marriage, at 19, brought more hardships. But with her father as an anchor, she battled depression and continued studying, even if that meant she had to get up at four in the morning to fetch water, clean the house, and then go for classes. She ultimately passed SLC and got a job as a teacher.

In the beginning, Sarala taught in the same ways she had received education: with harsh consequences to discipline the children. When some Scottish volunteers questioned why all teachers carried sticks in the classroom, Sarala answered that it was impossible to discipline children without them.

But the school’s principal later introduced child-friendly policies. Sarala attended an 11-day training run by UNICEF and participated in learning activities, which deeply impressed her. She no longer had to resort to draconian methods like squeezing children’s fingers or verbally threatening them, but could foster learning in a fun way. “If we can play and learn, why can’t the children? I started looking forward to trying it out in my own classroom.”

With a strong support from her principal, Sarala has implemented most activities like job charts, group seating and news sharing. She now enjoys an even closer bond with her students. When she was sick one day, the children came to visit her with biscuits.

Not all of Sarala’s colleagues were impacted by the newer child-friendly methods during the training. But Sarala’s beliefs in child-friendly teaching is strong. She is proud of her accomplishments and says, “I imagine how it would have been if we had the chance to be taught like that.”

Cultural perspective

As a female teacher, one has most likely been given the opportunity to teach as the result of family members or acquaintances exercising their authoritative positions of social superiority. The social position of female teachers is somewhat apparent in the stories of the women interviewed.

Although women are given respect in the Hindu scriptures, via female gods and the role of women in the family, the scriptures, nevertheless, seem not to recognize the independent role of women (Awasthi 2004, p. 103). Women are to be protected by their fathers as children, by their husbands as wives, and by their son as widows. Sarala, Rabina and Sita’s stories reflect on these aspects of a woman’s life. Sarala describes her father, doctor and principal as god-like figures for helping and guiding her to achieve a respectable position in society. As a result, women tend to hold subservient positions to men in society, although there is a great deal of variation in the status of women in different communities. Sita’s involvement in community development and the Maoist movement highlights these variations of status within the community of which she is a part.


Daughters were generally not sent to school when Sita was growing up. But she received an education because of a Save the Children project which paid the fees of students from underserved families. Sita did well in school, and started teaching in the same school after completing her SLC. She involved herself in community development activities like forest protection and securing clean drinking water.

During the Maoist insurgency the police alienated the people by their heavy handedness. The Maoists began to recruit from the women’s village committee, and Sita also joined. Today, she does not want to speak much about her war years, but after it ended she continued her education and received a Masters in English.

However, after devoting 22 years into teaching and in spite of her qualifications, Sita is disheartened that she does not have a permanent job. She has applied for positions, but only those that have political affiliation get the jobs. Sita has distanced herself from politics now because she does not believe in its power to change society, she is more convinced of the power of education.

She adds: “One of my students is a well-known engineer in my district and I feel proud of that. I have had a job that has lifted people up.”

Cultural perspective:

Sita’s story also reflects female identity, or perhaps female dharma, that entails being part of a traditional Hindu family life. As seen in her story, Sita does not propose personal freedom in her involvement in development programmes, against cultural values. Her involvement reflects a quest for equal opportunity to education and employment for the poor in the community. Her belief in social justice are embedded in her experiences of rural community development.

One way to look at Sita’s story is to see her support of the rebels as indicative of a person who is grounded in her community and who sought a better social outcome than her involvement yielded. Her involvement was thus not just the result of becoming aware of an oppressive system and her rights as a citizen but founded in her social identity. This might explain why she returned to a traditional family life with her husband in a customary family setting after the peace process. Sita somehow does not promote individual freedom over foundational cultural values, which suggests that whatever commitments she made constituted in relations with others.

Sita, her sacrifice comes from thinking of herself as a person who is part of a family and who values the social outcome of her efforts. Education offers the possibility of social mobility that proposes a view of education as an opportunity and less as an individual right. This view of education as an opportunity and not a right might explain the tendency to view schooling as a test of endurance and hardship rather than viewing it critically to find ways of changing it.

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