In conversation with Gregg Robins
Walking into Tibet World there is a palpable sense of community, of a mutual existence between volunteer, teacher and student. There is an undoubtable eager willingness to learn presented by the students but equally there is a commitment and dedication from the staff and teachers to nurture this willingness into a flourishing of student potential. Sitting in an office in Tibet World, overlooked by Triund and the hills of Dharamasala I was able to talk to one such dedicated teacher, Gregg Robins. Amongst the noise of beeping horns and chattering students in the hall we were able to discuss the importance of Tibet World and the role language education has towards the students. It was in this discussion that I was able to gain another perspective on the mutual giving that happens between student and teacher. Gregg Robins has taught at Tibet World for the past six years in six months intervals. Coming from Canada with a background in teaching children, Gregg first came to participate in the English conversation classes. He had always felt strongly towards the Tibetan cause, drawn to Mcleod Ganj the beating epicentre of the Tibetan refugee heart. With his background in teaching McLeod Ganj presented an opportunity to preserve and aid the Tibetan community through teaching, an opportunity that seems to have captivated a portion of Gregg’s heart. Sitting in this loving cradle that is Tibet World, Gregg imparted some of his thoughts towards the Tibetan people, why learning English is important, and what the students have equally imparted on him.
“Why did you choose to teach at Tibet World ?”
I felt very strongly about the Tibetan cause and I knew that McLeod Ganj was the epicentre of the cause here in India. One thing led to another and six years ago I arrived here.
“What pulls you back to Tibet World ?”
The students, Tibetans are extraordinary people. Incredibly receptive and committed students. They’re super appreciative, amazing, serious students. Because for many of them the possibility of learning English spells opportunity, it makes learning and teaching English important, rewarding and easy for me.
“Do you see a personal effect on your students from your teaching ?”
I don’t know about my effect, but for the past years I have had ten classes. I have been able to develop a curriculum, specifically speaking to their level and perfect it. The reason why it’s important is that they are refugees here, and for many of them it’s a dead end, there’s not a lot of opportunity or hope. So many are hoping to advance themselves within Indian Tibetan communities or in the west, and English is the vehicle that can do this. So my effect is in facilitating this advancement and creating a curriculum that allows them to do this.
“Do you think learning English is important for the future of Tibet ? In regards to regaining an aspect of Independence, is it fair to say that English is that tool, one that can open a dialogue for Tibet’s future ?”
The future of Tibet as an independent culture is in the balance. So their English in regards to advancing that cause is debatable, it is more focused on the refugees having a possibility to achieve their full potential in other new found places, places outside of being a refugee.
“Are those new found places teaching Tibetan Buddhism to the west or within their own community ?”
If you take a macro view then by learning English if they end up in the west , the future of the lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, the ability to speak English keeps it alive. The situation is that their culture and religion is being eradicated, so the possibility of communicating, metamorphosing their culture with English is equally about their own community and spreading their history and culture to the West.
“What are the main benefits that the students get from you being here ?”
Well, we have a lot of fun. Different students come for different reasons. I have many monks for instance, in all likelihood many are here because it’s a holiday from monastic life. But even a monk on holiday wants to be sharpening his mind, and so taking this language on is, kind of, for those students, a mind training. They’re not doing it because they’re going to pursue it in the West, but because it’s a real mental challenge. Lay students, they’re more thinking ‘if I can master English, then it spells opportunity, I can get better work, I’ll end up in England and not be completely at sea and I can sea and I can integrate’ And so me being here, and other teachers, we can make these personal reasons achievable.
“There’s a big discussion about volunteerism at the moment, the question being do foreign volunteers actually benefit the students? Or is it more a case of they come, they stay a day, take a photo and leave no mark, or make no difference ?”
One of the challenges of foreign teachers is that many tourists don’t stay for any length of time. That doesn’t amount to a strong development of the curriculum, it’s rocky when teachers change and change. But when someone can commit, really for three months, then there’s no problem. Another challenge is there is no well developed curriculum, so a lot of training places take the Cambridge teaching manual. And that doesn’t really fit with Tibetan culture, so a teacher has to adapt to this cultural situation. You can bring a manual that teaches English, in an English way, it doesn’t jive with the people. Everyday after my class is the conversation class, and here tourists come maybe for one day or a month to enter into conversation and Tibetan culture. I applaud and thank volunteers that come even for one day because that practice is so valuable. You’ve got four small circles with one volunteer and three to four Tibetans, as their teacher this is essential. If they’re here for one time to take picture, it’s all good, because it’s still a chance to connect. Overall it’s fantastic, they can practice their grammar and language, it’s one thing to understand, but it doesn’t take root unless they practice.
“I have to say, when I participated in the conversations, I was astounded at the depth and complexity of the conversation topics. If I was on the other foot, learning a language I would have been completely out my depth. But the students seem to have a deep intellectuality and impressive readiness to meet these challenges”
This is a challenge too, the topics are conceptually difficult. But there’s a wide range and variety of abilities. But these complex topics are key, because it’s less learning a language and more human connection, discussion. Their reality is that they are strangers in a strange land. The cause of Tibetans politically and culturally, it’s not a hot topic, there are other refugees more desperate. No one touches this situation for fear of rocking the boat with China. So in a way they are forgotten people, so for me the conversations, are so important, so that they feel like they are recognised, they are seen, you came from far away and you spoke to them and cared.
“So it’s as much about preserving and validating a community as education ?”
It’s not about the language it’s about the connection. I feel like the work that is being done here is primarily about human connection and language is the vehicle for that. Basically there’s a lot of love flowing here between student and teacher and volunteer, and that’s the heart of this. So I would never under value the contribution of any of the volunteers, because somewhere it’s heart to heart with the Tibetans.
“You’ve come back quite a few times, what are the main things you have learnt from your students? What have they given you ?”
There’s no doubt that as much as there’s a value in teaching English, I learn way more from them than the English I can give to them. So what do I learn ? I learn, kindness, generosity, love. And there’s the individuals, with each student to some degree, I have a special relationship. So I am rich beyond measure, because the friendships and connections are so fulfilling and rewarding. It’s real. Even the volunteer that comes one time can come even a little bit inside, have a connection with real people, real Tibetans. Real human connection with amazing people.
“I think a lot of people forget that just because our English is superior it doesn’t mean these individuals don’t have a wealth of knowledge with which they can teach us many things. Do you agree ?”
It’s kind of a prejudice that we have as English speakers, it’s bizarre, that because the other doesn’t speak English we inherently underestimate their intelligence. The grammatical difference between Tibetan and English is wildly different, so they’re taking something on that is a massive restructuring of their thinking and mental process. So just because their English is broken it doesn’t mean they’re not bright. Their Buddhist training, sixteen years minimum, another six if they want to get a PHD equivalent, so they have this facility to memorise. I can teach them ten or fifteen new verbs a day and it’s child play, they’ll know it the next day. It’s in their culture to develop the mental faculties so they’re super bright, and this isn’t even their hearts it’s just their minds I am talking about here.
“Do you have any advice for people thinking about coming to volunteer?”
Come and stay a while. In spite of the tragedy of their situation they are the most joyful people I’ve met. Be ready for this heartfelt eagerness. Come and dive in, you are so welcome, and they are so appreciative and grateful. They come of their own volition so they are committed and interested. It’s an experience that is hard to find anywhere else. Tibet World in particular facilitates that in a great way.
“Is it possible to pin down one favourite memory?”
I couldn’t possibly isolate one memory. It’s this on going sequence of rich and full moments. And it’s not just me feeling it, it’s all around in the classroom. The students with me, and amongst themselves. There are so many moments, gems, moments of connection.
At this point I would like to thank Gregg for being so open and ready to talk to me, despite having a busy morning of teaching. As a volunteer at Tibet World myself, being able to hear another voice has added to my own personal understanding of the vital work that is being done here. Tibet World is multi layered, and there are so many pages to turn, so many stories to hear, people to meet. Gregg is an example of how the well oiled machine of Tibet World spins on dedication, passion and love for the Tibetan people. It is clear that if you can come here and teach, you will not only leave you mark in terms of language education, but in terms of love and personal connection. If you are interested in volunteering or teaching Tibet World do not hesitate to get in touch, the arms of Tibet World are ready to embrace you.
Written by Siobhan Bahl, UK