Doreen Johnstone and Book Reach: How passion drives positive changes ( Interview)


Doreen, can you tell us a bit about your educational/pedagogical journey? You have been involved in the education sector for more than 40 years not only in Nepal but also in Kenya and Singapore and Malaysia, you must have an incredible story to tell.

It would be impossible to whizz through my career in education….I keep forgetting sections! But  I graduated in 1962 from the Froebel college in London. Froebel was a German educationalist whose philosophy of education was based on a child’s need to ‘touch’ i.e. investigate/ feel/ observe / record his own conclusions.  This pro-active approach to education has been indelibly imprinted in my work with children and guidance with teachers. I worked for 30 years as a Primary teacher in Malta, England, Singapore and Kenya. And 20 years in the Management of Education in Kenya, Nepal and Sabah. I obtained my MA (Bath UK) in Education Management by long distance in order to qualify myself better in the job that I had at the time as Senior mistress in an International school in Nairobi. I left Kenya in order to study for my MA dissertation in Nepal. This was a most glorious time – travelling around schools in various districts, interviewing and living with teachers . Putting ‘pen to paper’ was the hard part ! Having acquired my MA I went back to Africa to start up a Community School for 3 years in the Rift Valley. But the lure of Nepal brought me back in2007 to join the DEO office in Hetauda to be a VSO education advisor for Ministry.  I have spent the last 2 yrs helping to set up an International school in Sabah. After 50 yrs in education I thought it would be good to retire….but here I am again..bringing ex-library  books from S’pore and KL to schools that I know in the Hetauda district mainly. Obviously I can’t keep away .

You mentioned that you prepared your Masters in Education in Nepal. Can you tell us more about your research?                                                                                                                                   

The subject of my research was “How can young nepali teachers be encouraged to develop and maintain their professional values’. This was a wide study in which development ran at different rates according to geographical area and caste - among other variants. I restricted my study to the contrast of the Terai and the Annupurna region of Manang. I was focused on what prospective teachers thought ‘good teaching’ was and why they wanted to do it. Without role models the idea of a ‘good teacher’ varied around the practical (punctuality etc) and seldom touched on a creative or innovative approach. For this, confident  teaching ability as well as curriculum interpretation were essential for a step forward in teaching effectiveness. The status of women of course played a large part in the self esteem needed to break away from a stifling, formal teacher-centred classroom.

Visiting teacher training courses in and out of colleges, however, demonstrated how the approach to child-friendly teaching was beginning to be taken seriously. This, alongside a greater responsibility by the Head teachers for quality teaching in their own schools, began to show a more active approach. I observed an enjoyment of classroom learning. I became involved with some NGO s along the way…particularly COPE , which ran some excellent teacher training focused firmly on placing the school at the centre of the village where all the benefits of shareholders could be felt. Isolation is clearly one of the challenges for remote schools in Nepal.

What is your experience with VSO Nepal?

I enjoyed my VSO placement in Hetauda DEO. The isolation was rather daunting to start with as my nepali language was slow in coming to a useful level. Without a pro-active Resource Person I would have wasted some time in getting involved in projects which were not particularly useful or without the potential to develop. There is a hit and miss quality in ‘outsiders’ coming to work in organizations, unless there is a specified person to guide the work. I think my age and experience helped in the acceptance of my in-put. Women in Nepal have a tough task in proving their worth as we all know.  I believe many young volunteers find following their instincts and the subsequent decision-making quite hard, unless they are joining a specific programme within a team.

I received a lot of positive help from other DEO officers and was able to implement projects without too many frustrations. I really enjoyed  the ‘grass roots’ work, which took me out of the office and into schools. The project on HIV/AIDS sensitization in secondary schools alongside UNESCO was particularly satisfying and demonstrated how a small financial input can help activate the project generally.

 You are also involved in an education project in Gorkha. Tell us more about it

 My involvement in a small village school 3hrs bus ride from Gorkha has been a personal commitment for many years. I know the village well and had promised over 10 yrs ago that when I retired I would do some repairs and up-grade the school. As the village has now less children and motivation has slackened somewhat, I cut down on the improvements. I was lucky in obtaining the assistance of Yadu Bhatta – originally from the village himself – who organized the practical work of making some external walls safe , repairing the toilets, putting in a water tank and having made some nursery- friendly furniture. They also received some of my books for the younger classes starting to learn English.

This was a side-line , now all has been completed. I realize that it will be difficult for me to return regularly to the school to assist with the effectiveness of the teaching/learning. Sustainability is so important. But one can get over whelmed with heavy judgements of what one does to help. Benefits, which one will never know about, will be there.

Now explain us about your latest initiative Bookreach? What is it about?

 At some reflective moment I realised  I was in a wonderful position to persuade schools which I knew in Singapore and Malaysia to give me the library books that they throw out after some years.  Having acquired contacts over the years working and studying in Nepal , I would be able to supply some schools which I know with books. I focus on Nursery and Junior library books as well as graded readers.                 I visited S’pore about 18 months ago and approached the school in which my children studied, and I  had taught. It became the first donor school. Last August we received 510 kgs of books from them. Today I have two donor schools in S’pore and two in Kuala Lumpur. The total amount brought in has been 1,130 kgs. I see further opportunities of inviting well-financed schools to join the programme.

In August 2013 I co-incided a trip to Nepal in order to dispatch the books to the awaiting schools. Two were in the Gorkha region and one was in Hetauda. As it was still in the monsoon period I resolved not to return again at that time of year. The village school mentioned earlier was on an extremely tough deeply mudded road. The drop-offs were alarming.  I am not taken to fear easily !

In this second delivery I have supplied 3 schools in KTM, 2 schools in Gorkha region and 3 schools in Hetauda. I don’t want to wider the beneficiary schools quickly. The importance of this programme is to be sure the teachers know how to use the books in their lessons and the class or school libraries are run in an efficient way. One off-shoot of libraries being set up is that children learn respect for materials within the school and become part of the team which care for them. This involvement has many roles in the over-all development of children and of course leads eventually to the skill of self-study.

I will be designing a web-page in order to get some sponsorship for the freight of the boxes. The books are all free and the schools have the task of collecting their own assigned boxes from the storage that I have been kindly allocated in the Dept of Education, Sanothimi by DG Lava Aswathi. But the high cost of the freight is beyond the means of a retired old lady ! I don’t doubt that many well-wishers will shortly contribute to this well-worthwhile venture.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.