Teaching English in Cambodia. Something that had been on the radar for a while but had never quite eventuated. Until earlier this year. A trip back to New Zealand to reconnect with friends and family let me recharge the mental batteries enough to decide that this was the perfect time.
After dipping my toe in the teaching waters with a 1-month stint in Nepal last year, I'd decided it was time to brush off my dusty TEFL certificate and put it to good use. I'd been to Cambodia several times before and it was a country dear to my heart so it seemed the logical place to find a volunteer position. I originally intended to stay for two months, which I soon extended to four; as I write, I'm waiting for a further month's extension to see me through until the end of the school semester.
I found many options online for teaching positions in Cambodia but one stood out - AKD School on the outskirts of Battambang, Cambodia's second-largest city. The description of the school day and the many positive reviews convinced me that this was the place to go. But the main attraction was the obvious dedication of Kamnat, the school principal and owner. A former monk, he realised that he had a passion for teaching English and set about establishing a school in the area south of Battambang to cater to the local children wanting to develop their English skills.
The school is run on a not-for-profit basis as a free school to local children who could not otherwise afford English tuition. Some classes have Khmer teachers that either run or assist with classes, but the majority of lessons are run by volunteers.
As with all aspects of life, change is the only constant. A rough count would be 40-50 volunteers during my four months thus far. Most only stayed 1-3 weeks but some stayed longer – Lea from France taught for 6 weeks, Maria and Ferran from Spain were here for 2 months, while Olli from Germany has been here 3 months so far.
The majority of volunteers are non-native speakers – I guess all the smart native English speakers are out there in paid positions. But I don't care, I'm getting what I came for – more teaching experience, a great lifestyle in Cambodia's most liveable city and, most important of all, an incredible experience teaching some amazing kids.
Mornings are quiet which makes it a great time for class preparation, along with the occasional cycle into the city for a cafe breakfast or to grab supplies from a supermarket. But when the tuktuk 'school bus” rolls in at 12:30, it all changes. Kids playing football, lots of yelling and laughing.
1-3pm sees the first classes of the day. These are for the students who attend Khmer school in the morning then come to us for English tuition. My class is an Lower Intermediate class of around 10 students, all eager to learn (often too eager – I'll ask them to turn a certain page of the workbook only to find that half of them have already completed it at home!) Word games like Hangman are popular and a great way to improve vocabulary, especially since students have taken to finding words to bring into class, although this can sometimes backfire – one boy regularly stumps the class, only for us to find it's something from left-field like the scientific name for a plant he found in a book at home.
An hour later I then have a 1:1 conversation class with the school's most advanced student. Class topics are varied – we watch short movies and TED talks, increase his knowledge of idioms and phrasal verbs, as well as reading interesting articles on topics he enjoys like tourism, the environment and Cambodia - all of which involving some healthy discussion at the end. The only failure was when I decided we'd watch a short movie then discuss it – my choice was Taika Waititi's breakthrough short “2 Cars 1 Night” - maybe the Kiwi lingo/accent was a little tough to decipher, as I had difficulty explaining 'Choice bro' and 'Ow, you're an egg' and expounding the nuances of the 'Kiwi nod'.
5-6pm sees me teaching an intermediate class. This is a larger class, peaking at around 16 students if they all turn up. Most lessons involve some form of grammar but we like to break things up with games, reading exercises and songs.
The school day finishes with an Intermediate conversation class at 6pm. They range in age from 9 to 22, and love learning. A typical lesson involves a short reading, a follow-up vocabulary check then a class discussion. Gap-fills based on listening to a song are popular, although the aforementioned rain can kill this type of lesson in seconds so I've learned the hard way that I need to bring a back-up reading exercise.
And just like that, the day is over. Well, not quite. Marking worksheets, planning classes, screening short movies for suitability. Except Wednesday, that's pub quiz night :-)
I've already mentioned it but I'll say it again – the students are amazing and are what has kept me here so long. I always walk to class with a smile on my face.
Every day is fun but some are more funny than others. One girl was hovering over my shoulder as I helped another student. The exercise asked students to tick boxes based on how they felt that day - hot, cold, tired etc. One of the boys ticked 'Brave', at which point she piped up, "You're not brave, you're a banana!"
Another time I gave the students pieces of paper with prompts like favourite drink/food/famous person etc., with the team of getting them to write Present Simple/Continuous sentences on the board. One of the girls proceeded to write" I like drinking coffee". I scurried over to the attendance sheet to check details - age 11! I guess they start them younger in Cambodia!
On a occasion I receive gifts from the students – dragonfruit, a packet of marker pens, a traditional krama (scarf), even a windmill made in an origami activity by one of my former students. When this happens, it humbles me greatly and makes me realise that whether I'm making a difference or not, they appreciate my efforts.
But possibly my favourite memory are the greetings and farewells chanted everyday – four months in and I still look forward to them each lesson - "Goodbye teacher, see you tomorrow. Good luck to you and your family". Kinda ironic, given that if I had a family of my own I probably wouldn't be in Cambodia teaching!
Life Outside School Hours
It's not all about the education though. Kamnat, his wife Rath (known to all as Mama) and their 3 awesome kids provide a welcoming environment. Amazing home-style Khmer food for lunch and dinner, the occasional meal out, and always an impromptu game of football in the main yard.
Many laughs have been had around the communal table with the other volunteers, untold beers sunk, card games from all over the world introduced to a new audience. Trips to the weekly pub quiz at Here Be Dragons. The occasional late night session at the Balcony. The teaching keeps us busy but there's always time for fun and bonding.
Those who know me will be aware that I'm not the biggest fan of dogs. So it took a little time to get used to Kamnat owning three dogs. But all that changed around five weeks ago when Malakit had a litter of puppies. One was soon given away to the family of a student but the other three waddled, licked and peed their way into our hearts. We each have of our favourites, mine is Olli – playful and boisterous, with fur as soft as a kitten.
As my time here draws to a close, I'm feeling sad but grateful. A new chapter in my life is around the corner but this particular chapter will never be forgotten.