This is a story of how watching the film ‘Lion’ and one Facebook message changed one man’s life forever and potentially the education system of an entire country.
My name is Gavin McCormack. I’m a Montessori teacher at Inner Sydney Montessori School, an author of several picture books teaching important life lessons for primary aged children and now the man who is attempting to change the education system in the whole of Nepal. Here’s how it all started.
10 weeks ago I went to the movies to watch the film ‘Lion’. I left in tears wanting to make a change in the world but not knowing how. The next morning as I sat in a cafe in Sydney drinking a flat white and reading the newspaper. My usual Saturday morning. “Ping” a message appeared in my inbox from an unknown recipient! Ananda Devkota’, I remember thinking, oh no I hope this isn’t a scammer. My instinct told me to open it, and it was a man from Kathmandu who was running a Montessori training centre asking for some advice.
I replied, and after several days and some conversations we became friends. We discussed Maria Montessori’s vision for self directed education and her dream for world peace. He invited me to visit his training centre to give some training to his staff on classroom management and producing simple teaching materials. I asked my boss Dr William McKeith (am), and once he approved it, it was time to start planning.
So off I went. In my school holidays I decided to book a flight into the unknown and see what happened. And it was at that point that my whole life changed. One simple message was to change my life forever and I would never look back from this moment. Kathmandu is a magical place where the mountains surround this bustling dusty city.
I arrived at his training centre. A small alleyway in the busy polluted streets of Kathmandu. Dogs sleeping in the road, cows blocking the traffic. Through the dust and the smog lay a small room on the top floor of a semi demolished building where miracles were taking place. Literally miracles were happening. And it was this room that was to open my eyes to the difference between the developed and the undeveloped world.
In this room, no bigger than the average living room, 100 women would gather each day to train to be teachers. They would cram inside the 40 degree room each and every day. Making materials, learning teaching techniques and hoping to qualify as a teacher so they could find a job which would enable them to earn a mere 150 dollars per month.
I embarked on a month’s work in the centre, giving lessons on teaching techniques, material making and classroom management but it was soon apparent that these women had very little. This was their lifeline to freedom, but when I was invited to visit a small village on the Indian border, my eyes couldn’t have been any wider.
After being taken around the village by the children who lived there I was invited on a tour of several schools in the Newalperassi district of Nepal. One hot summers day, I wandered into a preschool that looked like a prison cell. The walls were dirty, the carpet old and dusty and it was no place for any kind of education to take place. Inside, two teachers taught 20 children with only 1 book, 1 pen and nothing else. It broke my heart to see this and as I left, I put my hand on the teacher’s shoulder and said, “In seven weeks in my next school holidays, I’ll be back and I’m going to fix this place up for you!”
The state of the room had a profound effect on me and it caused to me consider the education system in the entire country. I decided to take on the challenge but for two reasons. The first was obviously to help the village and the future generations that would be educated there, but the second was to create the first true Montessori classroom that could act as a beacon for other teachers around the country to visit.
They could see how dynamic a true Montessori classroom is capable of being, and how by using the true Montessori method, the future generations of Nepal could be innovators and developers that would help Nepal improve its educational standards.
So, as soon as I got back to Australia, it was time to start fundraising. I only had seven weeks, so it was time to get my granny dress out and run the Sydney marathon, asking my friends for sponsorship. Having only been home from Nepal a few days, I wasn’t expecting much but the money came flooding in from all over the world.
Even my local cafe vowed to give 20c from each coffee sold. Hans the owner at Qube on Bay, in Glebe donated over 1500 dollars alone, and this was simply amazing. I was getting the money to do the job, but in Kathmandu teaching materials are hard to come by and this was going to be a problem.
Working as a Montessori teacher, I reached out to my school community for help. I was astounded by the feedback and support. Children at my school had soup kitchens to raise money, they made teaching materials in class and teachers donated their old equipment to me. I felt so lucky to be working at Inner Sydney Montessori School.
Maria Montessori always spoke of giving back and promoted a global approach to education targeted especially at the poor, and my school community were clearly in line with this.
But with Nepal being Nepal, things were not going to be that easy. After 15 hours flight, I arrived in Kathmandu late on a Sunday night only to find my luggage was lost, the luggage containing the teaching materials. What a nightmare! With my luggage lost I was feeling a little disheartened but that was soon replaced with happiness when I walked out of the airport to find Anand Devkota and two of my trainee teachers waiting to greet me. I felt so privileged to have such a group of friends a world away from my home. They told me that they were coming with me to renovate the school and I couldn’t have been happier. We called ourselves “The Dream Team” Myself, Ananda, Zuno, pteety and Sandhya.
After a good night’s sleep, there was no time to hang around, I had shelves to buy, books and teaching materials to source locally, so it was time to go shopping and hope and pray that my luggage was found. After 48 hours of shopping for various goods, paints, shelves, merry-go-rounds, school bags etc, I received a call from the airport that my bags had been found in China and were on their way! Hoorah!
Just as we were about to set off, a landslide blocked all roads and floods were causing havoc. We decided it was best if we hired a jeep, got a local to go broken arrow and deliver the goods while we flew down. His journey would be around 16 hours whilst ours was literally 16 minutes. That’s just Nepali roads for you.
Day 1 was all about primer. The walls were so dirty and filled with dust that we would need to prime them heavily to take any paint. It took all day to prime those walls and ceiling and in 40 degree heat, it’s not easy going. The dirt on the walls was already hidden but this was a world away from what me team and I had in my mind.
Day 2 was to be s real game changer. We decided to go for s countryside theme. Blended blue sky, lush green hills and a variety of images around the room, hot air balloons, forests, UFOs etc This finished off the room nicely.
Day 3. Early in the morning We set off into the markets to buy a carpet. I decided after much haggling to go for a nice red coloured carpet. It would contrast well with the green fields. Whilst I did this, the dream team set to work unpacking the materials from my luggage and it was really starting to come together.
After 3, 15 hour days the room was ready for the grand opening and we had some amazing news. The mayor was en route and he was bringing the national news with him.
The village gathered around the new school, the door closed and the secrets of our renovation only known by ourselves. We couldn’t wait for the big moment. We bought each child a new school bag containing pencils and a toy crocodile. They’d never seen a teddy bear before and certainly hadn’t had a school bag.
Speeches were made, hands were shaken and photos taken and it was time for the grand opening. The door opened and the ribbon was cut. People looked in awe at their new school. A true Montessori school containing real Montessori teaching materials. Walls painted, pencils, books and even a white board to teach from. It was a great success. Suddenly the prison cell style classroom was transformed into a wonderful world of colour.
People danced, laughed, the children immediately engaged with the teaching materials. Building the pink tower, solving puzzles and drawing. I just knew that this school was going to change the future of this village forever and with that it was time for us to go.
As the crowds dispersed, the teacher in the room Padma, stood crying. I put my hand on her shoulder and asked what was wrong. She said she’d been asking for money for 17 years but nothing. Then one day you visited and promised to renovate. She didn’t believe I’d return, and to be quite honest I wasn’t sure I would either. But with the help from my friends, the words of support from my family, the teaching materials donated by Inner Sydney Montessori School and the money donated from people all over the world. We were able to turn a dirty old room into a quality teaching environment that will give hope and a better future to each and every child that passes those 4 walls.
Now the school is functioning beautifully. It’s only been a week but the teachers there send me regular updates. Every picture melts my heart. And each and every person who made this happen should be very proud of themselves.
People all over the country are now talking about this teaching environment and are planning to visit it. We have already been inundated with requests for help from other centres around the country and are currently fundraising and looking for our next project. If you know someone please let me know!
But the real thanks go out to everyone who donated their own money, made and donated resources, put their faith in me and my team and believed in making a change. For those people, your name will hang on the wall of this small Montessori school on the Indian border for all of eternity and tonight you can go to sleep knowing that your donation, no matter how small changed the future of an entire village.
Our new project!