A few days in the life of Luang Prabang, Laos’ Pencil of Promise – providing access to quality education

BY: Michael Magone

As part of the YSEALI program provided through the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center, I was recently provided the rare opportunity to travel to Luang Prabang, Laos to work with my YSEALI Fellow partner, Jua Yang, at the Pencils of Promise office. Pencils of Promise (PoP) is a U.S. based NGO focused on helping students have access to a quality education, through building new schools, providing teacher training, and implementing clean water/sanitation options for the schools. Jua’s role with the Luang Prabang based program is to help lead program development, especially in the teacher-training area. But it often involves the need to coordinate teams in all three areas. Jua works with over a dozen office and field workers who divvy up their areas of responsibilities in those focus areas, all endeavoring to create access for quality education conditions and opportunities through their respective work areas.

Two of my four days working with Jua and his colleagues consisted of traveling to area rural schools built by PoP to see the facility conditions, classroom instruction, and of course meet the students and staff. Clearly the facilities, bathroom/clean water access, and teacher training is having significant positive impact on kids, their families and communities. As one would guess, I was impressed by how much is accomplished with the minimal resources available, and delighted to see the joy and excitement of children learning – something often taken for granted by students, parents and others in the United States. Further, it was enriching to clearly see the passion and dedication of the various teachers in action during their instructional days. Conversations about teacher training methods, curriculum design building, student assessment flowed freely among us, providing new ideas for effective teaching for all involved. For example, PoP’s use of direct instruction with sign language in early grades similarly has potential in Montana schools as well.

The other two days of my education work and visit pertained to analyzing the PoP mission, the unique working dynamics of the field and office work, the demands and limitations of schedules, and the helping design and implement possible processes which would help to clarify objectives, improve communications, enrich the meaning of their work. Do we have a common understanding of our objectives? Are we clear, consistent and regular in our communications? What brings meaning to our work? How can we help each other? Bottom line – how can we more effectively and meaningfully meet our end goals. For most of a morning, Jua and his colleagues initiated and utilized some collaborative sessions and are planning to adjust and continue such processes as a means to better support each other in their respective areas of work, all with the PoP mission for quality education access in mind. Colleagues shared and encourage others to share. Those who were shy found support for the importance of what they had to say. A blend of purpose and fun became increasingly comfortable and recognizably important as part of their helping each other to overcome obstacles and stresses in their work. Whether agreeing or disagreeing, the value of working as a team through the challenges and building increased respect for each other further emerged. The beginnings of an increasingly collaborative process for meeting their shared mission appears to in motion and contagious!

Though working in a vastly different culture and under extremely more limited resource conditions, strategies successfully utilized for team building in Montana schools seem to have an initial positive impact for the talented PoP office team members in Luang Prabang. It is our hope that such exercises and processes are just a starting point for further enriching their work climate and more effectively achieving their bottom lines. With today’s technology, we hope to continue to collaborate between countries and cultures as we all work to provide quality education opportunities to our respective students and overall education stakeholders – government, communities, parents and students. My sincere thanks and full respect for a job well done, Jua Yang and the PoP staff at Luang Prabang! Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to learn from you and hopefully share helpful information and ideas! Similarly, my sincere thanks to the Mansfield Center YSEALI program for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to better understand, appreciate and respect the similarities and differences in cultures and resources involved in the pursuit of quality education for our children. Not only has it enriched our mutual understandings of resources and providing education, it has now opened the door for networking schools in Montana with schools in Laos for future collaboration among administrators, staff and hopefully students. The world just got a LOT smaller!

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