How I Came to Teach in Cambodia and Why I’m StayingJune 13, 2012
I have been teaching English here in Phnom Penh for three years and I really enjoy it. I know many other teachers here who enjoy their job and do it well, some much more experienced than me and some less.
However, I have also met many people who teach just for the money. I hear them complain about their job or their students but they never admit that they are actually just not cut out for teaching. Teaching anywhere in the world is a job that involves skill, passion and most of all patience. So I am shocked to see so many people who would never consider being teachers in their own countries doing it out here and wondering why they are having such a nightmare.
I personally think that they owe it to all the Cambodians who are sacrificing so much to receive quality teaching from native speakers to leave the teaching to those who actually respect the job, and enjoy it.
Before I came here I had been working for a few years as a Learning support Assistant, at comprehensive schools in Essex and Rotherham. My job as a LSA’s was to support all the students on the Special Educational Needs register, students with learning and/or behavioral difficulties, as well as those who didn’t always get on too well in a classroom environment.
Often I was rewarded by seeing someone cross a little milestone or discover they could do something that they didn’t think they could before. Other times I would end up in the middle of a year eight chair fight. It definitely was not a boring job. I would also cover lessons during short term absences (a good practice in the art of classroom management is to work as a cover teacher in a school on special measures). Unfortunately in the last month my LSA colleagues have been made redundant due to part of the huge government cutbacks in UK. I am sure they will be sorely missed like so many other youth workers whose jobs have been axed by the government recently.
Some teachers at the school I worked at in Rotherham were encouraging me to take the plunge and do a PGCE. I was not ready to settle so I decided to get TEFL trained and work for a volunteer school in Cambodia. Three years later, I’m still here.
It’s interesting to compare some experiences in schools here and there. Here, the desperation for children to speak English at such a young age, and to work so hard is mind boggling- half days in public school, half in private, tuition in the evening and/or Chinese school .
For many it starts at the age of three and doesn’t stop. These students are aware that they are very lucky to have their education and sometimes I wish these students could have been with me when I was trying to persuade some year tens to hand in just one, just one piece of coursework for their GCSEs. It would have been really interesting (although telling them that they were lucky for their education would have been similar to telling them to finish their peas because there were starving people in Africa-it wouldn’t have gone down too well!) .
At the volunteer school I came here to teach at I enjoyed classes with a mix of people from the Tuol Tumpoung community…. the mother and son that studied together, the man from a jewelers stand in Tuol Tumpoung market, two blind men who worked for World Vision…..young or old what they had in common was their stamina…squeezing in 6am or 7pm classes on top of their never-ending work/study/family life. The answers they all gave when I asked about their daily routine made me tired just listening.
In the UK it is accepted that some people are language people and some aren’t the same way that some people are math people and some aren’t. As native English speakers this is the luxury we are born into. At the school I work at here, most subjects (including math) are taught in English, so not being a language person is pretty much not an option.
Parents put a lot of pressure on their sons and daughters because they are aware of the advantage that being a fluent English speaker will have on their careers. During parent teacher conferences I have had some astounding requests from parents…..
“If he doesn’t know how to spell the word I want you to beat him”…… as their four and a half year old son sits squirming on the chair next to them.
“Please, I want him to know grammar….you must improve him on this” …referring to their five year old son who is currently going through a stage where he is just learning to make it through a whole lesson without ripping open his school shirt to beat his chest or sticking pencils in his classmates’ ears.
Respectfully telling parents that you cannot and will not beat their child is a very different experience compared to some conversations I have had with parents of students that I worked with in the UK.
What refreshed me most when I came to work here was the lack of red tape and paranoid parenting. I have worked in a nursery/ pre-school in the UK where you pretty much have to fill out a form to wipe a child’s nose.
My first paid job here after volunteering was at a small kindergarten. There were of course safety rules in place but in a much more laid back way…cooking with the kids in the UK was rice crispy cakes….at the kindergarten I worked at here I was delighted to watch the Khmer staff setting up a massive wok of boiling oil and letting these two and three year olds make their own tempura vegetables…. that definitely summed it up for me.
In the province I am still training myself to not intervene when I see babies playing with machetes and coconuts. I can’t wait to see what kind of parent I’m going to be myself out here but to be honest I probably will draw the line at machete play.
I have seen some children have accidents here but far more in the UK where there are so many more safety rules. Why is that? Maybe because everyone is so obsessed with the possibility of accidents in the UK that they actually make them happen? Similarly, no-one out here has a peanut allergy whereas at schools in UK have you have the obligatory mug shots of the kids with intolerances to nuts, dairy, jelly, fish-fingers etc…..
On the flip side there is often no recognition of any learning or behavioral problems here which is tough sometimes.
I have taught quite a few kids here with symptoms of autism who are also some of the brightest and most wonderful kids I have ever taught. I will be naming my son after one student, Pagna who holds a place in my heart because he really didn’t have the same social agendas as the others but was extremely intelligent and creative. He didn’t speak much but he would always show me the little dinosaur in his pocket and give me a shy grin. Nobody understood why he was unwilling to join in with class games and I had to urge my Khmer teacher assistant not to force him when she began threatening him by saying “Sing the song with your classmates or you are a bad boy”.
In the UK it would have been my job to build trust with him so that I could help him develop in his own way. I tried my best to do that but as I had another twenty-six hyperactive five year olds to deal with it was difficult. One day Pagna was not in class as usual and the assistant told me that the family had moved. I do often think of him and wonder how that little chap is going to get on with the whirlwind of study that awaits him.
Some of the funniest, sharpest people I know here in Cambodia are the students I teach every day. One boy in my kindergarten class never fails to crack me up. If he is asked to do anything other than draw his amazing monsters and robots he’ll say things like ‘I love you but when I do something like that it makes my brain hurt teacher’… which makes me think that if a five year old can say such amazing things in a second language at the age of five there’s no need for him to practice writing his ABCs.
I’m a teacher because I enjoy it and I can’t imagine being in a job that doesn’t involve exchanging ideas with people, especially young people. I’ll stop when I can hear myself getting like the jaded, craggy teachers I’ve listened to in staffrooms in the UK, and met here. If you don’t like people, you really won’t like teaching. If you don’t like teaching you will be rubbish at it. You will also spend all your time complaining and bore everyone around you. It does bother me sometimes knowing that I can find work so easily here because I have a TEFL a degree and some experience. It bothers me more that I could probably get some sort of teaching job here even without these things because I am a native English speaker and I am female. I wouldn’t even need any enthusiasm for the job in some schools.
The thing is, I respect the families and individuals who are investing so much time and money to their education with me and it would be massively disrespectful to teach here merely as a means to get by. I have been inspired by some wonderful teachers here and in the UK. I hope to see less people in Cambodia who roll in every day stinking of stale fags and beer or those who use the job to preach about their views or even worse those that use the channel of teaching to preach the Bible. It’s a major disrespect as far as I’m concerned and it makes me sad to see it.