In Cambodia, teachers earn $40 per month. An English speaking temple tour guide can get $15 to $25 per day. It does not take an Einstein to quickly realize that speaking good English is THE key to some semblance of financial security in Cambodia. The cost of living, though low by western standards, is very high for local Cambodians. Monthly rent alone can run $20 or more for a basic one room apartment. The high cost of living forces most everyone to have a second or third job so as to earn enough to barely scrape by.
The public schools have two shifts per day... one from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and the second from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Too many students and not enough schools. If a teacher works from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. they will earn a whopping $80 per month! And other than a meager retirement in the distant future, nothing much else for benefits.
Once I'd finished my three exhausting, as well as exhilarating days of visiting the ancient temples of Angkor, I immediately began a search for schools where I might teach. The Cambodians speak such good English, I was really curious to try and find out more about the educational system here. I've found that middle school children in Cambodia most often speak better English than the Thai University graduates with majors in English that I've met! My personal theory is that the higher level of English in Cambodia is due to economics - learn English or live a life in total abject poverty.
After visiting a couple of public schools (Angkor High and 10 January High), I quickly found out that the high schools in Siem Reap, Cambodia were on summer break, waiting to begin the new school year in September.
The tower on the temple grounds.... housing hundreds of human skulls... a memorial to the nearly two million Cambodians who were killed by their own government.
With public high schools out of the picture, I tried a Buddhist school called WatThmei School for Vulnerable Children. The school, which is located on the very grounds that 30 years ago were the "Killing Fields" of Si em Reap, was also closed for the summer recess. The visit to this school was however, my first real introduction to the horrors of recent Cambodian history when over a period of about four years, the Khmer Rouge Government tortured and killed close to two million of its own people - men, women, children. No one was spared. A third of Cambodia's population was executed - sometimes for no other reason than that the person wore glasses.
Throughout Siem Reap, I'd heard there were many NGOs that run private schools, so I continued my search for a school where I might volunteer my time. Interestingly enough, after asking a lot of people, I found a small, all Khmer volunteer run private school, just a short walk from my guest house!
"Jay's School" provides free English classes daily to over 200 very poor students, ages 10 to 25. In addition to Jay, a 26 year old Khmer who works at a British NGO school during the day, four other Khmer volunteer their time to teach these students. For the last three years, Jay has been providing evening classes, free of charge.... 5:30 p.m. to 6;30 p.m; 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The tiny wooden school house, sitting on stilts, is packed with students each period. Because of the sheer number of students seeking an education, Jay has had to turn his own house, located right next to the school, also into a classroom.
Jay asked me to observe his teaching and to provide him with mentoring guidance. Since Jay is not a trained teacher, I was truly amazed as I watched him employ a variety of ELL teaching strategies in his classroom. It did not take me long to realize that this young man is one of those rare "natural" teachers who has a gift for positively connecting with students and understanding how they best learn.
Very self confident in his abilities, Jay would actively engage his students for an hour, then as the next group of students was arriving, he'd ask me for feedback and suggestions. Using the coaching skills I've learned through RUSD's BTSA Program, I'd hold a short reflective conversation with Jay ... sometimes making a suggestion... which he'd quickly grasp AND immediately put into practice.
Observing Jay effectively and enthusiastically teach his eager students, I had flash backs to my Africa International Development experience. My observations of "Jay's School" re-kindled my strong belief in a local, ground up approach as the primary and perhaps most effective way for a developing country to attain sustainable development.
As I watched this young man and his friends, throw their hearts and souls into assisting their young students, I could just stand there in total awe .... inspired by their deep felt desire to help their country and re-energized that even in the midst of so much poverty... the spirit of volunteerism is alive and growing at least in one little part of Cambodia.