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The origin of National Teachers’ Day in Laos – A journey into the past and a celebration in the present

Public holidays! For most people in the Western world, the deeper meaning of such a holiday is no longer present. To be honest, we usually simply enjoy the extra day off. Few holidays are really celebrated with a big party, whereas in Laos one gets the impression that celebrations are welcome on every occasion. One such occasion was the 23rd “National Teachers’ Day“.

A few weeks in advance, the term “Teachers’ Day” came to my attention at school. After lunch, from 3 – 4 p.m., when the so-called “Activity Time” is offered to the children, preparations were in full swing. The pupils memorized poems and rehearsed various dances that were to be performed at the celebration.

When the holiday would finally take place and on which day the regular classes would accordingly be cancelled, we, Jessica and I, were told just two days before – almost unimaginable in Germany but normal here in Laos. With a personal invitation from the director and a big thank you from us, we made our way home and let our curiosity for the first participation in a festivity like this grow.

Celebration at Sikeud Primary School

On the morning of the celebration – holding the doorknob of the front door in our hands – we were surprised by a really heavy rain that can only be experienced in a tropical climate zone. Within a minute the whole yard, the meadow, and the street were under water.

Even if the way to school does not take long, we probably would not have got far with our bicycles. But before we could come up with a plan or ask for help, Mr Viengkham (the driver of the AfC Foundation) appeared in the yard with the AfC van and picked us up at the door with an umbrella. Dry and clean we arrived at the school and the celebration could finally begin.

Benches and tables were already set up in the small “dancing hall” of the school, where there is also a stage. Teachers, guests, and grade 4 and 5 pupils with their parents were waiting to start. At a table on the stage there were five seats for some guests of honour like the director and her predecessor. Across the room the rest of the benches were set up, the first of which was also reserved for special guests, amongst them Jessica and me.

After we had taken our places, the director began with a welcome speech. Following this, several other speakers followed suit. The content of the speeches was unfortunately largely lost on us. We were able to pick up a few words, for example numbers. What they actually were about we could only guess. For the closing speech, Mr Kongphang Phetphouthone, a teacher from our school, stepped forward. His speech was very long, compared to the others, so my interest in finding out more about it was particularly great. In addition to various topics such as “the role of a teacher in school” and “the appreciation of the teacher”, Mr Kongphang talked about his own career and also told the story of “the first teacher in Laos”.

After some effort, I figured out what the speech was about and decided to get more information about Mr Kongphang and the first teacher in Laos, Mr Kham.

About Mr Kongphang

Mr Kongphang was born in 1970 as the son of a soldier. His mother was a housewife und he had two older sisters and one younger sister. At the age of 19 he finished high school. From 1991-1992 Mr Kongphang went to a pedagogical school and became a teacher. For the next 18 years he worked as a primary teacher. To expand his knowledge, he attended a college for another 3 years and finally started working as a teacher at Sikeud Primary School. There he teaches maths, Lao language, sports, art, manners & conduct as well as biology. Mr Kongphang’s wife is a primary teacher, too, and she works in the same district but at another school. They have two daughters who are 20 and 9 years old.

Why has National Teacher’s Day been celebrated here in Laos in the first place and how exactly did it come about?

Schools as we know them have not existed for very long in Laos (see articles on Education in Laos Part I and Part II on this blog). For this reason, trained teachers are a relatively new phenomenon. After France occupied Laos in 1893, not much emphasis was placed on education or a school system. Although the French began to implement their own education system in Laos eventually, it did not answer to the living conditions of the majority of the people, which is why the Pathet Lao implemented a parallel system. Up until then, most of the pupils  and students were taught by the monks in the temple, who were no trained teachers, either, but were well-read and willing and able to share their knowledge.

Mr Kham, who was later to be recognized as the first teacher, was lucky enough to be educated at one of only two existing schools in the country at the time. In 1905, he graduated and enjoyed a two-year teacher training at an educational school. On 7 October 1909 he was finally officially recognized as a teacher. From that moment on, he taught in many different places – mostly in temples. Monks, as well as children and adults came to learn from him. Only a few Laotians could read and write then, which is why almost all age groups were represented in his classes.

Mr Kham’s great commitment and the change he brought about led to the date of his official recognition as a teacher being used as the occasion to mark a national holiday in 1994. October 7th has been celebrated for 23 years now and it offers the opportunity to honour all the teachers in the country and pay them respect for their important work. This was expressed at our school at the end of the celebration with beautiful bouquets, awards, dances, poems, and homemade gifts from the pupils. We also received a bunch of flowers and were – in spite of the fact that we did not understand anything – positively surprised and thought to ourselves: “Such a celebration in honor of teachers should be held in Germany as well!”

Text & photos by H. Glass

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