Tim LaRocco examines the for-profit private education sector in Cambodia and finds a system not fit for purpose:
“We don’t allow the students to cheat here,” the head teacher of a well-known language school in Phnom Penh explained to me in his office one afternoon last year. “But in this situation, I want you to consider her.”
The her in question was Sreyleak, the 14-year old sitting in the folding chair next to me, and a student of mine in a beginner level English class. I had turned her over the previous day for the transgression of snapping a photo of an exam with her phone, which she would have doubtlessly sent to her friends in the next class. “Consider her” was apparently the head teacher’s way of directing me not to press for any further punitive consequences. I didn’t have to wonder why after witnessing the young girl’s father remonstrating with my boss minutes before my sit down with him.
Despite “no cheating” signs proliferating throughout the classrooms, the deterrence model is undermined when parents can simply threaten to end their child’s matriculation. Less students means less tuition money in the pockets of the school’s owners, and so the decision is a simple one: the short-term goal of running an exceedingly profitable business supersedes the administering of a respectable and structured learning environment. This brief anecdote encapsulates the principal problem with Cambodia’s burgeoning for-profit language schools.
No one should be under any illusions that Cambodia’s educational system would or could be run as a flawless operation in light of the country’s history. However, despite the lack of funding of and rampant corruption in Khmer schools, which allow students to purchase clean attendance records and exam questions and answers, I sensed a growing demand for better quality instruction amongst many students. “English-language learning in Cambodia is the ‘key to prosperity,” journalist Sally McLaren posited nearly a decade and a half ago. “Cambodians can see themselves having a better lifestyle if they have English education.”
Still, Phnom Penh’s language schools – not to be conflated with proper international schools – deserve space for scrutiny and criticism in the discourse here because many expats get their first jobs from these institutions. That is how I got my start.
The first red flag popped up the first day on the job. That was when I was inundated with a class of 33 students squeezed into a room the size of a Khmer-styled apartment. I even had the foresight to ask about the student-to-teacher ratio during my interview the week prior and was assured by the Director of Studies that 20 students was typically the maximum. However, in the eight months working for this particular school, I seldom taught a class that had fewer than 20 students. After all, why pay another teacher $10/hour for an additional class when you can simply cram kids into mine? The individualized attention an educator should be giving to his or her pupils is nigh impossible in such an environment.
And then there was survey day. If you have ever taught at a language school in Cambodia, then you have probably experienced survey day and are aware of its significance. My class was interrupted by a solemn-faced administrator conscious of the fact that the next fifteen minutes would probably determine my future employment prospects with the school. As I left the room, the students were given a questionnaire – a Khmer take on Rate My Professors – about their teacher on everything from how fast I spoke to my personal hygiene. The two most important questions being do you like your teacher?, and do you want to study with your teacher next term?
The empirical data conducted on this rather obscure topic has concluded that there are myriad flaws with the student-based teacher evaluation system in Cambodia in general, to say nothing of the for-profit language school complex. Despite that, negative responses from 25% of the class or more at this particular school could be cause for review and possibly dismissal. At the very least, such an unfavorable response could result in a reduction of teaching hours the next term. Some of my colleagues began focusing most of their lessons around keeping the students entertained with mindless nonsense rather than on more pertinent subject matters. “When survey time comes around, just play games all week,” one Filipino teacher advised me.
It’s worth noting that the curriculum in Cambodian language school is based around learning English as a foreign language (EFL), rather than as a second language (ESL), the former being used in countries where English is not spoken by the majority. This framework leads to motivational problems amongst Cambodian students.
Moreover, there is apprehension on the part of administrators to raise standards due to the belief that students would simply transfer to less demanding schools. It also isn’t exactly inspiring to the nation’s youth when their English school produces advertisement material with enough mistakes to devote an entire hour-long class to correcting them. And yes, that really happened.
This is unfortunately part and parcel of the language school culture and can explain the rueful looks you might get from teachers who truly care when you ask about their job at these places.
It was certainly frustrating for me that many students, the majority coming from well-off families, cared more about the latest IPhone than my lesson. But in the end I learned not to take the classes too seriously myself and, ironically, my students tended to absorb more information that way as a result. In a way, that’s quite the poignant summation of the language school paradigm, but also a sad reflection on it as well.