For a nation as isolated as Myanmar (Burma), information is a precious commodity.

That’s why school principals are excited and eager to learn new things, such as methods for child-centered education. Through visits cosponsored by AFSC to neighboring Asian countries, they get to do just that.

“When I came back [from an exchange visit], I established a student council in my school to help me and the teachers improve the school,” one principal notes. “The children are very proud and happy to serve on the students’ council and have given us very good ideas.”

Until recently, the government of Myanmar spent less than 2 percent of its gross domestic product on health and education, so Buddhist monasteries started schools to provide basic secular education to poor children who could not afford the official schools. In 2009, AFSC began working to support civil society efforts to improve livelihoods and educate children.

To date, AFSC’s program has helped train about 40 school principals (abbots) in school management, including exchange visits. Another 160 teachers from 40 schools have taken part in one of the program’s 10-week teacher training sessions that go beyond basic literacy and numeracy to foster self-awareness, critical thinking, and eco-friendly life skills.

“I learned about healthy eating and healthy living and how this is linked to our environment and our food,” one teacher says. “I am happy to be able to teach this to the children, and together we have made an organic garden in the school so that we can get organic vegetables whenever we need.”

An estimated 1,600 children have benefited indirectly from the trainings.

While recent political reforms have eased some restrictions, the educational needs of the nation’s poorest people remain the same.

“The daily lives of ordinary villagers have changed little,” says Patricia DeBoer, regional director of AFSC’s programs in Asia. “Monasteries will continue to be centers of community activity, and monastic schools will still be needed to educate the poorest children.”

Listen to a recording of Patricia's July 2012 discussion with other Asia staff about their program work across the continent. They shared stories, obstacles, and successes from their on-the-ground perspective.