Sheffield teaching a class apart

Jessie Macnair and Peter Gilbert in Vietnam
Jessie Macnair and Peter Gilbert in Vietnam

A 15-YEAR-OLD girl stands in front of her peers giggling nervously as she is told off for being late back to class because she was talking to her boyfriend on her mobile phone.

It is a scene which plays out in most secondary schools in the UK.

She takes her lecture in good grace and belatedly returns to her seat.

The drama hasn’t just unfolded in a secondary school in Sheffield, but in a classroom in a town in the mountains of north-west Vietnam.

Giving the telling off was Peter Gilbert, a 28-year-old former High Storrs student, who volunteers at the school along with four other westerners.

Sapa is a key stop-off point along Vietnam’s booming tourism hotspots due to its views of layered rice fields, ragged mountains behind walls of mist and stunning valleys.

The streets of the former French colonial holiday resort are lined with thriving restaurants, bars and gift shops but in local villages members of indigenous tribes live in rudimentary huts and there is brutal poverty.

A day’s work in the fields will begin early, involve back-breaking toil in the hot sun and end late. It will mainly be carried out by women and teenage girls while the men might be found carrying out equally arduous work in the forests.

Shu Tan, aged 26, never had a formal education. She is from the Black H’Mong tribe and two years ago she set up Sapa O’Chau education centre. Sapa O’Chau means “thank you Sapa”.

Sapa O’Chau gets no state or regional funding. The organisation also has a café in the town in which pupils from the school work to help with their English and the profits from the café are ploughed back into the education centre.

The main daily obstacle Sapa O’Chau seems to face is an ongoing battle with the pupils’ parents.

Peter, who used to live in Banner Cross, explains: “It is not that the parents are opposed to their children coming to Sapa O’Chau, they would simply rather, and need, their children to be working and bringing in a wage.”

With a degree in philosophy and as a qualified English teacher, he heard about Sapa O’Chau by chance when he visited the town of Sapa as part of his global travels in August 2010. Sapa O’Chau had only just opened two months previously.

Peter has previously taught in the school, but now works more behind the scenes, either at the school or at the café nearby, which provides a resting place and a range of teas – including Yorkshire – to weary travellers. He is now the associate director of Sapa O’Chau, which is officially a co-operative.

Members of the H’Mong tribe surround tourists when they enter Sapa, trying to sell scarves, bags, purses, hats and other products.

Recently, some of the local tribal women have been buying cheap imitation goods from China and passing them off as genuine handmade goods from the H’Mong tribes.

Shu says: “Our culture is under threat. There is a real danger that people will stop making goods by hand as we have done for generations. Those skills could be lost.”

For that reason, Sapa O’Chau is considering dedicating some time during the day for children to make handcrafted goods.

The centre was opened in June 2010 with 15 pupils, and there are now 70 pupils on the books aged between 13 and 25.

Sapa O’Chau is a social enterprise and receives no state or regional funding. It is supported by the café and by ancillary trekking and tour guide businesses.

Over Christmas pupils at the school performed songs and dances to the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, on Boxing Day. He was staying at a nearby eco-lodge hotel in the valleys with friends.

The teachers took pupils to the hotel where they performed songs including We Wish You A Merry Christmas and local tribal songs and dances.

“Mark Zuckerberg was very friendly and nice and he was very interested in what we are doing at Sapa O’Chau,” says Peter. “The pupils really enjoyed that evening and meeting him.”

Another former High Storrs student, Jess MacNair, aged 28, formerly of Nether Edge, spent a month at the school.

“I went to school in Sheffield with Peter and it was through his mum that I heard about Sapa O’Chau,” says Jess, who has worked for Sheffield Museums, Art in the Park and South Yorkshire Eating Disorder Association.

“I have done some community teaching back in England. I did some teaching in a refugee centre and then I did an intensive teaching course.”

She says teaching at Sapa O’Chau is probably the best decision she has ever made and her confidence has grown from the responsibilities.

As a volunteer there you have to be very flexible, as things change every day. Sometime there are many students, the next day just a handful.

“One week we had no students because there was a drought in Sapa so no water at the school!

“You have to think on your feet and be creative with your teaching. The best thing about it was just being able to teach, day in day out, no red tape or bureaucracy.”