I just finished my first day of classes as an “assistant teacher” at the Cambodian Children’s Fund in Phnom Penh. Wow! The disconnect between the homelife I saw on the community walk with Scott and the classroom with 21 smart and motivated 11-year olds was absolutely breathtaking. The community I visited had no hope; only misery and multi-generational poverty, disease, unemployment, and drug abuse. The classes I attended were full of hope, dreams, and ambition. Scott is correct; start with the education of the young and eventually this entire community will be transformed.
I was assigned to Classroom #4 at The Rice Academy. My boss is a teacher named Sophat, who at the age of 34 has been teaching for ten years, eight of which have been at CCF. He has two sons, one eight years old and the other five years old. Sophat is an extraordinary teacher: confident, compassionate, funny, and strict. I immediately felt a connection with him, and was grateful that I had been assigned to his classroom.
The class day started at 8:00 AM with an assembly in a large, covered, multipurpose area next to the classrooms. There are about 100 students enrolled at The Rice Academy and they line up from the shortest to the tallest in rows by their classroom assignments. The principal explains some rules (“If you miss a class with no excuse, I will visit your parents to make sure this does not happen again”), and the teachers provide some encouragement. Getting kids off the street, into class, and keeping them there is the absolute top priority for CCF.
Sophat begins his class with the election of the “class monitor.” There were four candidates, two boys and two girls, who had made short presentations about why they wanted to be elected to this post. The rest of the class voted and one of the girls (Srey Laek) won by a narrow margin (9 to 7 votes). One boy received no votes, and I felt sorry for him, but he took his defeat without complaint and with good humor. Sophat explained that the job description of the monitor was to make sure that the students completed their daily tasks, which included cleaning the classroom, erasing the white board, making sure everybody had the proper school supplies, and other essential duties. He then explained and assigned classroom duties to all 21 students.
The classroom was alive with energy, and at times Sophat had to remind his students to restrain their enthusiasm. His technique for bringing order was to launch a “clap.” Everybody clapped once to show they were paying attention; they clapped twice to indicate that they had to stop talking. The technique worked about as well as similar techniques in American 6th classrooms work.
The first class ended after 50 minutes, followed by a fifteen-minute break. During the break, I made friends by asking students to write their names on the white board and then taking photos of them standing next to their names. Everybody giggled but clearly enjoyed being photographed. There wasn’t a frown to be seen, although the newly elected monitor tried to maintain a stern expression (and failed). Here are two of my students, Vanet and Kim Yong, both sharp as tacks and highly motivated:
During the class that started at 9:00 AM, Sophat introduced me. I explained who I was, where I was from, how long I would stay with the class, and what I hoped to accomplish. CCF encourages volunteer teachers to be explicit about how long they will stay, which in my case is three months. The children have lived with uncertainty, abandonment, and a general lack of attention from adults all their lives. CCF wants to introduce certainty, reliability, and predictability into their future lives. Nobody’s English comprehension ability was sufficient to understand me, so Sophat translated.
The next task was for the students to write (in Khmer) their expectations for themselves during the year ahead, as this was the first day of the school year. This took up the rest of the ten o’clock hour class. During the next break I took more photos of students standing next to their names.
The 11 o’clock hour class was the most interesting. Each student stood up in front of the class and read his or her personal expectations for the school year. Here is a sample:
- I want to be the #1 student in the class (multiple students).
- I want to become very proficient at writing and reading Khmer (everybody).
- I want to be a teacher (one student).
- I want to learn how to speak and understand English (most of the students).
- I want to learn languages in addition to Khmer and English (one student).
- I want to get full marks in math/science/Khmer/English (everybody).
- I want to be a flight attendant (one student).
- I want to be a singer (one student).
- I will obey the teacher and work very hard (several students).
Having walked through their home community, which conveys misery, hopelessness, defeat, and surrender, I was bowled over by the optimism and energy of these small children. Following these presentations, I stood up and announced that I was impressed by all their presentations and that, in return, my expectations for myself would be to work with each of them to improve their English.
Chaos ensued at 11:00 when the bell rang and the morning classes ended.
Fast forward to the afternoon class, which started at 2:00 PM after the regular three-hour break for lunch. I was assigned to a different classroom (#3) and a new teacher named Samnang Leab. Samnang’s teaching style was different from Sophat’s, but just as effective. He was also engaged, lively, funny, compassionate, and strict. I also bonded with him right away and we even friended each other on Facebook.
The class was smaller than the morning class (only eight students) but their English was more advanced. Two students in particular impressed me not only with their English but with their maturity and demeanor. I predict that they will go far under the CCF system.
When I write that their English was better than the level of the morning class, I do not suggest that they are fully able to communicate. Most of the time that I spoke, Samnang translated for them. But they are definitely on track. In response to my question about what they wanted to do when they grew up, the answers were telling: “I want to be a lawyer.” “I want to be an astronaut.”
Today’s lesson involved a short story about children in a playground. Samnang led them through exercises that increased in complexity and encouraged them to think about what they learned, instead of simply memorizing and spitting out sentences. It was an excellent lesson and they added to their English speaking and writing abilities.
As with the morning class, I was impressed with the disconnect between what I saw and heard in class, and what I saw and heard on my community walk with Scott Neeson. I have never encountered a community that needed more help. I am now convinced that Scott really understands the community and is focused on the only realistic long-term solution. As the days go by, I will be interested to confirm or reject these early observations, which are based on superficial first impressions. I feel certain that this is a great organization that is making a difference in the search for a better world. I already feel good about being involved with the Cambodian Children’s Fund and all these teachers and students. I feel that I can make a small but meaningful difference in the lives of these children. The distance between my heart and my deed is beginning to shrink.