An experience of transformative education
The Educational Project in Thabom Village in the northeast of Thailand is a partnership between the Assumption Sisters and St. John’s Company for Education (now a Foundation known by another name).
St. John’s High School started as the extension of Holy Redeemer School, a grade school owned by the Diocese of Udonthani. It was sowing time for our RA missionary community, a time for immersion and dialogue of life with the people in the village and the existing educational community of the diocese. One year level was added the next year and on the third year of their presence in Thabom, the Sisters and the students moved to the newly- built school building across the road. On its fourth year, the Ministry of Education granted the high school a separate status with its own name – St. John’s School -Thabom .That same year the Bishop of Udonthani requested St. John’s to administer the existing diocesan Kindergarten and Grade School . After a discernment process with the community and with the approval of our Superiors, we undertook the administration and animation of the diocesan school as an expansion of our mission of education. We saw it as a timely opportunity to share the charism of education of the Congregation on a wider and deeper level. Three critical areas were attended to – the formation of the faculty and staff, the improvement of school facilities to create a more conducive atmosphere for learning, and the financial system which was needed to support the school programs.
After 8 years, the Diocesan Grade School was ready to be administered on their own and we concentrated on the high school level which now consists of a Junior high school ( M.1 .2.3) and a Senior high school ( M. 4, 5, 6 )
The lay faculty and staff are our closest partners in this work of transformative education. Only 10 per cent of the Faculty and staff and the student population is Catholic but when there are religious activities such as Masses and feasts, celebration of Assumption Day and Christmas, everyone is involved. In the same manner, the whole school supports and participates in significant Buddhist feasts and activities. The parents whom we formally meet twice a year are very cooperative and our School Board is made up of both Catholic and Buddhist parents and officials.
This partnership contributed to the growth and development of the Assumption charism. The experience has strengthened our faith in God who is so present in this rural out-of-the-way place where we can almost touch Him in nature around us, in the simplicity of life and poverty of the people and of our own students who choose to study with us in spite of distance and at great sacrifices on the part of their parents.
Our mission in Thabom is an experience of the incarnation, particularly that of inclusion. While we often think of breaking (our) barriers to welcome and include others, our experience is the other way round. We feel it is we, the Sisters, a religious Community that has been welcomed, included by a people and a culture. While we are convinced we have something to give or share, it is we who are continually receiving and to the measure that that we keep our minds and hearts open. We have given importance to the person and dignity of each one especially the materially poor among our students, and our cooks and janitors who in the past have felt out of the circle of teachers and other personnel. We have also given them a more just wage for the service they render. Compassion, Truth, pardon, love without conditions are lessons to learn in the ordinary circumstances of every day life. Most of all we experience the power of the Gospel, of prayer- personal and communitarian – which we call the poor and powerless means of Jesus Christ.
Our community had chosen one strategic direction : “to create spaces for dialogue where “what is different is welcomed and placed at the service of life”.
Among our teachers is a former Buddhist monk. To start off the week, we gather the school community in assembly and he leads the students and faculty to quiet down and to be in touch with their inner selves. The students and teachers, mostly Buddhists and a few Catholics readily enter into this silence and bodily quiet. After some moments a passage from the Gospel is read. One feels the Word of God landing on very fertile soil, prepared by the silence using the Buddhist way of quieting down facilitated by this teacher. The learning for us is that our differences in religion could be a help rather than a hindrance in our work of transformation. We only need acknowledge each other’s presence and values and gifts and put these at the “service of life”.
The Assumption charism is founded on the Truth that is Jesus Christ, on the love that moves one to serve without limits , without conditions, and especially to serve the less privileged. Teamwork, being a community-person, humble collaboration are very much part of the Assumption spirit. Recognizing, giving opportunities to develop what the other has to offer is just as important as giving what one has to give ; welcoming the other with his/her particular gifts and differences is “ allowing the good in that person to break through the rock … and bringing it to the light where it can shed its radiance.” In the process, we are all transformed.
What transformation has taken place ?
We have become more welcoming of persons as they are, not as we would rather have them be, welcoming what is different as something that we can learn from and enrich us , becoming more appreciative of persons, of another culture, of other traditions, of other ways of doing things, that we can be ONE through our differences . We trust more in the power of THE WORD to touch hearts and lives, we believe in the presence of the Spirit in the hearts of those we speak the WORD to. We are taught to be more humble in relating with others in everyday life, be more positive in language, gestures, actions. Hope is constantly renewed in daily contact with the young – hope that change, transformation is possible if we have a bit more patience, and more love which alone transforms. Experience teaches us that working with others expands our hearts and our minds to the dimensions of the world and beyond our own limits.
From the time we started this educational project, we were consciously building up a culture of peace, of sharing, of respect and dignity, of nurturing what is best in the Thai culture and traditions as well as openness to the dimensions of the world.
On Orientation Day as each school year opens, we introduce all teachers and staff, making everyone sit in front of the students. The first time we did this, some teachers asked “also the cooks and janitors ??” Thai culture is strongly hierarchical. Our response : In the Kingdom of God, everyone sits at the same table.
At the end of each semester and before we go on vacation before New Year holidays, we gather together so all teachers and staff give a blessing to the students. By now, the students look forward to this ritual, not wanting to miss it. The blessing of elders, especially in rural areas, is very meaningful for the Thai people. Mass media bringing in strong western influences has led the younger generation to neglect many of their beautiful cultural traditions. The young have responded positively to our efforts to uphold meaningful cultural practices – Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, Teachers’ Day and others. They express greater appreciation, pride and love for their own traditions, music, art. And as a providential turn of events, the Thai government has strongly advocated the implementation - at all levels, especially in education - of programs re-inculcating “12 Thai Values”.
Since the beginning, we have set aside a time for “WORLD PEACE DAY” activities. Starting off from the 9/ 11 event we have inculcated each one’s share in peace-building. Students and teachers work together to know something about the countries of the world, what ‘peace’ might mean in our own local situation , peace-builders and keepers of peace and how each one can be an instrument of peace. A particular theme is chosen every year and this year being Year of Consecrated Life, students and teachers gathered information about Religious congregations, Secular Institutes and Apostolic Societies and what their role is in peace-building.
This year World Peace Day activities coincided with the U.N. Peace Day on September 21. We invited members of Consecrated Life living and working in our diocese - the Missionaries of Charity, Daughters of Charity, Camillian Sisters, an SVD priest, 2 OMI priests, a diocesan priest. Our school community welcomed them, listened to their sharing and expressed appreciation for their selfless service to society. Our Community also shared a meal with them bonding us in thanksgiving for our own religious vocation.
Where is this experience leading us ?
We are challenged to go deeper into knowing and appreciating and allowing ourselves to be transformed by what is good and beautiful and true in another culture. At the same time, we feel just as challenged to really know and live our own charism of transformative education so that our Thai lay partners and the young will own it and express it in their own Thai way, making our Assumption charism so much the richer and more beautiful and much more effective as a transformative process for persons and communities. It demands of us strong faith and a humble stance at all times.
Sr. Deanna Maria, r.a. with the Assumption Community,