May Palé Thwe (Pearl) is Founder and Director of the Smile Education and Development Foundation and Training Executive of the Smile Education Training Institute. She is committed to improving education for all.
I was born in Yangon but brought up in my parents’ hometown of Mawlamyine. I studied physics at the university, but my studies were interrupted by the 1988 uprising. I got married in the long enforced break and have since raised two children.
After my marriage, we moved to Yangon. Even though the universities reopened in 1990 I chose not to enrol but to study computing and accounting. Many years later I got my degree in English through distance learning. I was, in fact, older than most of my classmates but we got along well and it was fun.
The very first course I did at the British Council was a course for English language teachers. I had been teaching kids in my neighbourhood, which I found really rewarding, and I wanted to improve my skills. My first impression of the British Council was the books in the library. I was awestruck! I immediately decided to send my children to English classes.
After that first course, I was offered a scholarship on another course in Teaching Citizenship. This was a real eye-opener for me. It sparked my enthusiasm for citizenship skills, and taught me how to help others understand equality and human rights. I will never forget my wonderful trainers.
We studied distribution of wealth, mediation, negotiation and problem-solving in a range of scenarios. The most significant thing I learnt was how to approach problems from a human rights perspective. Although my lessons at the university had been engaging and challenging in their own way, the citizenship course opened up a whole new world for me.
I began to create lesson plans aimed at developing citizenship skills in my students, and acquired the confidence to conduct teaching training workshops. I can still remember the first session I gave, “How to Motivate Students” at Crane International school. I was really nervous but it was well-received.
My motto is ‘keep trying and one day you will achieve your dreams’.
In 2007 I was fortunate to be offered another scholarship as a Muslim woman to join an interfaith dialogue programme. We were a diverse group. We studied different religious practices and cultures and found things in common as well as differences. Afterwards we founded the Peace Interfaith in Myanmar and began to mediate for diverse communities through social work.
I was one of the very first members of the Civic Society Initiative. We taught English and trained teachers in monastic schools and schools for street children. I have fond memories of that time. Sometimes I even asked my own children, who were teenagers by then, to help me run my workshops. I wanted them to know more about the people around them.
My husband and children have always been supportive of my work for the community. My sons are now studying sound engineering in Malaysia, and my hope is for them to enjoy their life and work. I will not force them to do anything they’re not interested in. They love music, which I think comes from me. I love singing and I’m a big fan of ABBA and the Carpenters.
Another fond memory is my first meeting with our Lady, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I was running the Women’s Empowerment Programme organised by the British Council and ActionAid for women from different states. My trainees, some of whom are now members of parliament, arranged for me to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I was so excited. She asked me so many questions and, to my relief, I think I managed to answer them well.
I met her again in 2013 at her residence. I had the opportunity to present to her what reforms I thought should be made in the education sector. I really think more money should be spent on education, and inclusive education for all should be our goal. We should not leave children with disabilities behind.
That same year I taught the English component of a joint programme between Johns Hopkins and Yangon University. It was a prestigious job for me. Now I am Founder and Training Executive at the Smile Education Training Institute, a social enterprise. We teach English and run teacher training and mentoring nationwide.
I continue to be involved in education reform through the National Network for Education Reform. I also coordinate the Myanmar Council of Persons with Disability, which advocates access and inclusivity for people with disabilities. I still run courses at the British Council. I present and participate at monthly English language teaching workshops, and the annual conferences in Yangon and Mandalay.
I suppose it sounds a lot for one person to handle but my work is my life. I can never say ‘no’ to people who ask for help. My husband and sons came to terms with that a long time ago. I enjoy my work, especially training in remote areas. People there are so different from people in big cities.
I see myself as a life-long learner who values quality education the most. My plan for the future is to continue to learn about education management and do my best in developing and enhancing the capabilities of teachers in diverse communities. My motto is ‘keep trying and one day you will achieve your dreams’.