As 13 year old Maung Myo speaks to Al Jazeera, he is calm, composed and confident. Maung Myo is but one of many children in Yangon who work in the city’s Teashops. A year ago he dropped out of school with little hope for an education in Myanmar’s broken public education system, but today as part of myME’s mobile schooling program he is excited about the future, and the many possibilities that education offers him.
myME is a unique project led by a small collective of human rights activists, educators, business people, academics, writers and artists in NYC and in Myanmar who believe that true reform for Myanmar starts with education.
Karen and Tim Aye-Hardy, co-founders of myME tell us a little about the story of how it all began, but before that a little introduction to this super innovative start-up that is already making vibes in Myanmar and has the world of education excited!
What was the trigger that inspired you to start MyME ?
Tim: It all began when I returned to Myanmar for the first time after two decades of exile in the US. The main idea of myME is quite simple, it brings a classroom to those who cannot to go to school. Child labor is widespread and culturally tolerated and accepted throughout Myanmar where ordinary people make less than $2.00 a day. Teashops are located all over Myanmar—they are small road- or alley-side restaurants where the local people come regularly for daily sweet tea and snacks. Many of them are “manned” by children who have been forced into servitude. Once in this situation, the children must work for over 16 hours daily, 7 days per week. At night they sleep on the tables or on the floors of the shops. Their meager earnings are sent back to their families and villages in the countryside. In this system the children are sometimes abused by their employers/owners and customers, they are deprived of their childhoods, and they lack any basic educational skills, decent healthcare and adequate, nutritious food.
Our mission is to provide schooling to children working in Yangon’s Tea-shops through used buses that have been converted to mobile classrooms. The buses bring teachers, teaching assistants and school supplies to participating teashops in Yangon. Each child spends a minimum of two hours per day every other day learning English, Math and basic life-skills in a safe learning environment.
How does myME’s approach to education apart from traditional schooling ?
Some of our students at myME in their late 20’s and were forced to drop out of school early on to work at Tea shops and help feed their families, but Teashops which prefer to employ young children stop employing them after they cross 20, leaving these young men and women stranded with no job prospects and very little education.
Through innovative instruction methods we help our students develop critical thinking skills and competence in English and Math. We also aim to empower these learners with vocational skills to prepare them for life and the job market.
In a world where more than 168 million children between the age of 5 and 17 continue to be engaged in work, myME’s project goes to the heart of this issue by integrating the local community into its efforts in Myanmar. Could you tell us more about your approach towards child labor?
Karen: In Myanmar’s Tea Shops, hundreds of children are bound to indentured servitude driven by poverty. The biggest challenge is often is that people look at child labor in isolation, as a rights violation disconnected from underlying social realities. To successfully fight child labor, the poverty that drives families to send their children to work instead of school must be addressed, most parents would rather see their children in school, but the message is clear - if the kids don’t work the family doesn’t eat.
At myME we try to look beyond the child labor issue by recognizing the economic realities and interests that drive the children to work in Tea Shops in Yangon. Having an ear on the ground, has taught us that policy interventions can take years in Myanmar and may not necessarily meet the immediate educational needs of the children. But education for these children can be a win-win for all, even for the Tea shop owners.
The owner of a popular Tea shop chain in Yangon, supports the children he employs in their education at myME. For him, the children learning better English, Math and hospitality skills or computer skills is better for business too. But for the children a few hours every day spent in myME’s mobile education center, the learning will either help them continue their education full time in the long term, or will set them apart in the job market and offer a road out of poverty.
Today myME is expanding to reach more learners than ever before. What can we expect in the near future?
Tim: We now teach over 120 students enrolled in the program and negotiations are in progress for adding more teashops. A second myME bus is almost ready for the upcoming school term in June, 2014 with solar panels to ensure the lights are always on for the 100 new students.
myME plans to enroll around 450 students in full operation and graduates from myME Level IV will be provided with opportunities to either return to full-time formal education system or life-skills trainings to advance their lives. Once in the established state, myME will start providing Computer/Internet and life-skills trainings to the students, teachers and volunteers from partnered organizations and impoverished schools. myME will also start collaborating and assisting with local and rural educational organizations to implement similar mobile education initiatives and share our experiences and resources with them.
Do you foresee any significant challenges in the new future?
Karen: The journey has very been challenging, most of all for our students. While their enthusiasm and desire to learn is inspiring, they often come to class after a long days work at the Tea shop are often tired, it is here that innovation to improve student engagement and creative learning experiences becomes most important.
Given its history of political instability, we have surprisingly met with hardly any government interference in Myanmar. The local government is aware of the project and while it has been smooth sailing for myME so far, our team is conscious about the need to be sensitive to the political realities of the country. The bigger challenge comes with the success of the initiative, as more students join the program we need to pay for salaried teachers, bigger classrooms with more resources to cater to diverse educational different needs. myME is now 3 months into the pilot run, but we need grant money to move ahead.
Finally, I’m sure many young people around the world would like to know more about myME and get involved, are there any opportunities for our readers to engage with your work?
We are looking for teaching and non-teaching volunteers and interns with a passion for education, who are willing to spend three months as part of the team in Yangon. Send us an email at ‘email@example.com’ to know more
You can also support us by telling the world about myME, or just getting in touch with support and ideas. And of course you can visit our website http://www.mymeproject.org/ or like our Facebook page and stay engaged as we move forward on this journey.