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Breaking Barriers: An interview series with a teacher from Lao PDR

Breaking Barriers: An interview series with a teacher from Lao PDR

Meet Ms Sengphet Khounpasert – an innovative educator, a mother and a student who challenges gender biases and creates new opportunities for her students and their community.

The Lao PDR gender focal point of the Gender in Education Network in Asia-Pacific (GENIA) and UNESCO Bangkok present an interview series with Ms Sengphet Khounpasert, Head of Physics Subject at Oudomxay Provincial Secondary School, Oudomxay Province, Lao PDR, in which she speaks of her work in promoting girls' education, gender equality, and environmental sustainability through community engagement.  

The stories were originally published on UNESCO Bangkok's Facebook and Twitter sites during the week of International Women's Day, 8 to 12 March 2022 in celebration of the United Nations International Women's Day on 8 March.  #IWD2022 #BreakTheBias 

Women's Day Lao 2022

Sengphet Khounpasert:

‘From my own experience, I once met a girl who told me that she wanted to study further in another province, but her parents didn't want her to go. They thought that ‘as a girl’ she was not strong enough to be far from home. As a teacher, I have always felt that my students were like my children. I want each one of them to have equal access to opportunities in the world. So I talked with her parents. If teachers can communicate well with parents, it will benefit their children.

Being a member of the women’s union of the school, I helped explain to the parents the equal roles of women and men to build their confidence. Some of my female students want to study science, and these days parents are more open, because we have more women who are science teachers and scientists. Having seen these examples, parents are confident. They realize that it is possible for their daughters to continue their studies.

I want every student to learn whatever they like or have talent for. There should be no barriers that block them from pursuing their future. Both the women’s union of the school and I want to encourage our students. Sometimes it is all about communication and building confidence, so I try to help students, especially in terms of safety.

For example, when students are chaperoned by a teacher when they participate in a competition, parents feel assured by the presence of a teacher. Teachers are like parents. I usually take on the role of a mother taking care of the children and ensuring their best interest. I try my best to support my students and their talents. What students do well, I try to support, and I push them to achieve their goals and to go as far as possible. I was given the opportunity to graduate from a university, to become a teacher and to receive many awards, so I want to pass on these opportunities to all my students’.

Women's Day Lao 2022

‘I am a physics teacher, so most of my lessons are related to natural phenomena and the global environment. For the lessons of grades 11 and 12, I teach global warming, climate change, and greenhouse gasses, which are related to all of us. So, I try to nurture my students’ love and care for Nature. For example, as we don't have fans or air conditioners at our school, how can we keep the temperature in the classroom comfortable, while taking into consideration the light and air flow? As the global temperature changes, it directly affects us. It's all about both the lessons and the daily life of the students. When performing scientific experiments, each student did theirs at home at different times, and within different environments, so the results could vary from one student to another. I taught my students to understand these things.

Outside the classroom, my family are involved in environmental conservation and fully support me. My husband graduated with a degree in science and chemistry. He did research on promoting local handicraft groups, through an environmental lens. So, he can advise me in how to operate projects outside my classroom or within the community without causing any negative impacts to the environment. When I visit the communities, I often go with my family. My children also come along and participate in the activities. My children can then see by themselves what we can do with rubbish. If we sort rubbish, we can sell some of it and give the money to our school. This also helps reduce waste burning. Alternatively, we can be creative and turn some waste materials into something usable. I always ask my children whether they want to take part in my projects, and whether they have any ideas. This way, they can see and understand what role their mother has in this matter’.

Women's Day Lao 2022

‘Gender equality is another thing that I try to emphasize and raise awareness about. Everyone must work together, and it's not just about saying out loud that we support gender equality and then not giving equal opportunities in reality. When I was a student, there was gender discrimination in our society. In my own classroom, I try to be open as much as I can to offer equal opportunities to all students to express their opinions, regardless of their gender.

As a teacher, I think it is about teaching techniques. It’s not about taking sides or regarding any students with special favour, but rather giving equal opportunities. For example, when I asked for a volunteer to answer a question, if a male student answered, I would then ask a female student to answer the next question. Another technique is to let male and female students work in pairs so they can exchange ideas. With certain topics such as a lesson about colours, female students may want to lead, so I let them lead then I make sure that male students also get to lead alternately. Each student, boy or girl, should have an equal opportunity and role to participate in all activities. When I walk the talk, students learn and absorb this practice. When we choose our representatives for an inter-school academic competition, female students are aware that all competition opportunities are equally accessible to them.

I personally think that female teachers also have a role to play in promoting gender equality. Partly, I think that I am a role model for my students, because when I was a student, I represented my school by participating in a physics competition at the provincial and national levels. So my students are proud of me and see me as a role model. Having female teachers can also encourage active participation of female students, because they feel that female teachers are more easily accessible to them. They feel comfortable and are not nervous to share their ideas with female teachers. At the most recent scientific invention competitions, there was an all-girl team which built a backhoe model from recycled paper and wood, and they won! The mechanical system of the backhoe model was highly detailed and well made. Today's women have greater access to scientific knowledge and innovation. The proportion of female students who have excelled in the classroom over the last four years has significantly increased.

Outside the classroom, I also lead a school sports team as a football coach. When I was a university student, I used to be a football team’s striker. Playing sports helps boost confidence in female students. When female students participate in sports and understand how fun sports are, they also realize that sports are not dangerous, and they are not reserved for men only. When female students have fun, they are eager and confident about participating. If they have the passion, if they put their mind in it and be open-minded, they can achieve anything they want’.

Women's Day Lao 2022

‘I have liked maths since I was young. I liked to research and explore, and I liked science subjects. At that time, although I did not have access to a modern, well-equipped school laboratory, I loved science. My physics teacher told me once that although we didn’t have all the equipment, the most important thing is to have a passion and a strong determination to keep going, to keep practicing, and to keep learning from theories. I believed him and have kept this message as my inspiration. Later, I had a chance to participate in a provincial science competition, and I won the first prize. I then applied for a scholarship to study in a science education programme, majoring in physics at the National University of Laos in Vientiane. That was when I had my first access to a science lab to test the theories I had learned from textbooks. When I found out that they worked in practice, it was such a joy, and I felt even more passionate for physics.

Being a physics teacher, you need to teach about different mechanisms, such as electrical circuits, and both the theoretical and practical dimensions. For some sub-topics, I may have learned the theories, but I never had the opportunity to practice them; there was no scientific practice provided. So, I had to work hard on my own or ask for help. Sometimes I failed, so I had to do it all over again, or I tried to find another way to teach students.

From my own experience, it is hard for students to understand science without teaching and learning materials, but I never give up. I try my best to reach out to my students. In every lesson, I put an effort into finding real-world evidence to improve students’ understanding. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to teach online, and it was a real challenge for me to teach practice sessions. I switched between different online teaching programs in my lessons. For example, in a lesson on mixing the colors of light, I recorded a video clip using a computer to demonstrate to my students how the three primary colours of light (red, green and blue) can be blended into white light. At first my students didn't believe it was possible. When using a computer program, it became obvious to them, and my students responded, 'Wow, amazing'; 'Oh, that's right, teacher'; 'and ‘So it's true'! On another occasion I gave students a week to prepare the equipment. After teaching them a theory online, I asked students who were able to prepare all the necessary equipment needed to demonstrate experiments to their peers. For those who were not ready, they could try doing experiments themselves when possible. I try to be flexible, and to make different options available to students. For instance, in an experiment for mixing colours, students can use any kind of materials for mixing the colours, such as watercolours, cosmetics, or even soft drinks, just like they used to play with when they were younger. When we are flexible, the students enjoy it more and understand the lesson better.

Another important thing is that we try to do experiments or make inventions using materials readily available in Nature, including natural energy sources, which do not require electricity. For example, in a lesson on sound, sound is caused by the vibration of an object. I taught the students to make a small wooden flute to use in their experiments. This way the students understood the lesson better and they understood that their surroundings were related to the subject they studied. After the lesson, they also brought home the flute they made for their younger siblings to play with’.

Women's Day Lao 2022

‘As a teacher, I want to connect with and get to know parents of my students and their home life. One of the approaches I use is to participate in activities organized by the village committees. This way, I can gain an access to students and parents, as well as the community. This is the start of my initiative in promotion of handicrafts in the community to help the villagers generate more income, and to preserve the environment in their respective communities.

I am Khmu, an ethnic group in Lao PDR. While I was growing up, I used to help my family with needlework. I learned how to sew, stitch and dye using natural colours. As a village member I want to make use of my knowledge and hobbies to help the community. Moreover, I am eager to promote my ethnic culture, which I am very proud of. So I help the villagers to refine their handicrafts to be more beautiful and modern. I then contacted the local trade council to arrange a fair. I helped connect the villagers to the market and other experts who can advise them on design and marketing.

Partly because I can speak the ethnic language, it allows me to build trust with the community. I helped the villagers upgrade local handicrafts that are used in daily life to become ODOP products (one district, one product), made in Laos. These products are being more widely displayed and sold now. The proceeds are a main source of income for some families, and are supplementary income for others. Some families can scale up their products and sell them by themselves, while others still rely on me to help with the selling. Instead of going into the forest to cut trees for firewood, the villagers work on handicrafts. Instead of ploughing grass for nothing, it can be turned into a craft with value and pride. This also helps to preserve our ethnic culture and generate income’.