The students greet me in the early morning hours with a chorus of little voices and a sea of excited, smiling faces. I wave and say hello in Khmer before they sit down and pull out their pens and notebooks. As a sign of respect, the students always stand and bow whenever one of us enter or leave the room. It makes me feel almost like a real teacher!
I’ve been teaching English for over two weeks in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We are volunteering in a small village at Lolei school, about 20 km outside of town. It is one of the poorer schools in the area and it doesn’t receive as much government funding as some of the other schools in the city area. The students do not wear the typical white and blue attire seen on the majority of young school children, and they have minimal supplies (often going without). Therefore, we teach most of our lessons with just the chalkboard and lots and lots of creativity. Many of the students are quite young, between seven and eleven years old and have had no previous exposure to English. As such, we started with the basics, “Hello, my name is”, and small words such as can, pan, cat, and bat. Personally, I think the kids get more enjoyment out of watching us make up silly songs and dances in the front of the classroom than actually learning the language, but we all have a fun time.
First Days – The first morning of teaching was wonderful. I biked out to the school by myself to meet the English speaking monk and arrange a teaching schedule (yes, we bike the 20 km back and forth every day). All of the classrooms were currently being used so my orange clad helper unlocked the storage closet. It was a small, cluttered room filled with boxes of junk, stacks of broken desks, and many, many homes of little mice families. Narong (the monk) called over his monk friends and I soon had an entourage of helpers sweeping the floors and shooing away the mice. Well, I did the shooing. The monks stood on top of the desks until they were all gone. By the end of the morning we had a semi-clean classroom with five neat rows of desks.
I thought we would have about twenty kids when we started. However, we were greeted the next day by more than twice that many. Everyone wanted to learn English and even the principal was a “student.” The second morning, we were recruited by another school three miles down the road. Rumor had gotten around that there were three American girls teaching English, and we were confronted by two teachers, pleading for us to help them out at their school. Of course, we agreed to help everyone we possibly could and set up a late afternoon English class at the second school.
Sharing the English Language – School number 2 was a bit more difficult to organize. We had about fifty students between the ages of six and twenty-five crammed into a room. They were all on different learning levels as well. Some could hold entire conversations while others were still struggling with the alphabet. We took our time, split up into groups, and did the best that we could. I couldn’t help but think that we were simply training many of the younger kids so that they could sell to the tourists. Many children have “jobs” selling scarves, bracelets, and other odds and ends around Angkok Wat and the other temples. They wanted to learn phrases that would help them interact with the tourists, and we were often asked about American facts (names of popular sports teams and state capitals).
Teaching English isn’t easy. Although Jen, Liz, and I have bachelor degrees and “think” that we understand English grammar basics (we wrote 70 page term papers after all), actually helping a child understand and grasp concepts is another story. We spend hours of our free time and stayed up well into the night creating lesson plans, discussing different teaching methods, and hand-writing worksheets for each student (no copiers here). We decorated our classroom with hand-drawn posters, alphabet signs, and images of body parts, facial expressions, and colors. After spending the morning teaching class, we rode our bikes back to town to shop for supplies, or spent extra time tutoring a child under a shade tree in the school. It was…..exhausting….but oh so rewarding.
The Journey out to Lolei – Our 5 a.m. morning bike ride was entertaining if you could ignore the overwhelming humidity, didn’t get crushed by the crazy moto-drivers, or develop leg cramps from the constant peddling up and down hills. Actually, our daily trek had almost a carnival atmosphere to it. We passed elephants, ponies with jingle-jangle bells, pigs in baskets, oxen, cows, bikes stacked high with bread and coconuts, and hundreds and hundreds of local Cambodians biking into town for work.
Cambodia is a beautiful country – both in terms of countryside and in the simple beauty of it’s people. However, do need to share a few of the funnier observations that keep me smiling. Local women have decided that it is fashionable to wear pajamas – the long pants, button up top kind of p.j.’s that were popular during our pre-teen years. The more teddy bears, rainbows, and pink ribbons that the “outfit” has attached, the better. Sometimes, they top off the ensemble with ultra high heels and wear the outfit during all hours of the day whether it be pumping gas, selling oranges, or chopping grass along the side of the road. Cambodians also like to play the fun circus game of “How Many Can We Fit on My Mo-ped.” Entire families squeeze themselves onto the tiny scooters – sometimes four or five people, including their little kids and the family dog hanging over the handlebars. Always an adventure…..and I absolutely love it!