My Second Week Teaching at the Cambodian Children’s Fund


          As dawn broke at 6:24 AM on Monday morning of my second week teaching the 5th and 6th grades at The Rice Academy of the Cambodian Children’s Fund in Phnom Penh, I reflected on what I had learned in my first week.

Dawn over the Tonle Bassac

I focused on how I could apply these lessons to make a meaningful contribution to the classes in the week ahead.  I was really enjoying the children.  They are smart, joyful, obedient, rowdy, and eager to learn.  I also have the greatest respect for the teachers I am assisting.  Both Sophat and Samnang are gifted, gentle teachers who communicate effectively and patiently with the students.  If you do a search for the name “Samnang” on Facebook, you get hundreds of results.  Why?  Samnang means “lucky” in Khmer and many parents choose the birth of a son to wish him well.  I am very excited to be here.


          I thought it would be inappropriate for me to interject myself into the class, so I waited for Sophat or Samnang to invite me.  They both had done so in the previous week, and the format continued on Monday morning.  Sophat asked me to propose a math problem, involving the addition of numbers that included decimals, that I would teach in English and he would teach in Khmer.  I suggested that we use the populations of Cambodia and the United States, with the assignment to add the two numbers together.

          First I explained that there were 235 “countries” in the world, and asked whether the class thought that Cambodia was a big or small country.  They all thought that Cambodia was big, and I confirmed that their homeland was #71 out of 235 countries as measured by the size of the population.  Then I explained that the United States was much bigger, but only #3 in the world.  They easily guessed that China and India were #1 and #2.  Then I created the addition assignment.

          After they had spent some minutes working on the addition problem, I asked who would like to volunteer to come to the white board to complete the addition.  Kim Yong immediately shot her hand into the air and I called on her.  She confidently came to the board and without any hesitation, added the two populations together.

          This is what the whiteboard looked like at the end of the discussion:


          Later in the morning, we held another session of “Word of the Day.”  The word I picked for today was “kind.”  It was a good word to choose because nobody knew what it meant.  I explained that being kind was a desirable goal for me, and that I hoped it would be for them, too.  I next explained that being kind included being friendly, generous, and considerate.  Sophat explained these words in Khmer, and lightbulbs went on all over the room.  I then explained that a smile was a symbol of being kind. 


          At this point the lights went off, a phenomenon that occurred about every fourth day.  The outage never lasted long, and they had a backup generator, but what was interesting was that a power outage was the Cambodian equivalent of a snow day in the northeast of the United States.  As soon as the lights and fans blinked off, plunging the room into (relative) darkness, everybody started clapping their hands and singing “Happy Birthday” in English.  Kids are the same all over the world.


          I had noticed that some of the kids were a little rougher than they should be with their classmates.  I had even intervened once last week when the action became decidedly unfriendly.  I explained that being kind meant “no hitting.”  The class was quieter than usual when I explained this, since they understood that some of them had stepped over the line.  This is what the whiteboard looked like at the end of Monday’s Word of the Day.  I asked them to remember “kind” and “smile.”

          Sophat then resumed the math lesson, although he reported that most of the students expressed a preference for learning another English word. 


          Sophat asked me to present another mathematical word problem.  I chose grocery shopping:  I went to the store to buy food for lunch.  First I bought one fish for $11.43 (the students all said, “too much!” until I explained that these were U.S. prices), then three vegetables for $4.27, and two potatoes for $3.01.  How much did I pay for these three items?  Next, I changed my mind and returned the vegetables.  What was my new total of expenditures?  Next, I decided to purchase $157.00 worth of ice cream (That caused a squeal of approval.  Every kid in the world has a sweet tooth).  What was the new total of expenditures?

          This word problem, created some confusion, so Sophat translated to make sure everybody understood.  Then the bell rang for the end of the period and the start of a 15-minute recess.  Eighteen of the students left to play, but seven of the students were intrigued by the problem and stayed to work on it.  Srey Lin came up to the whiteboard with a quizzical look on her face, but it was clear she wanted help.  I walked her through each of the steps:  she quickly understood and solved the problem by herself.  She was excited to have done so.  Kim Yong also stayed to work on the problem.  Although she got stuck, she was too shy to ask for help.

          When recess ended and the class resumed, those who had stayed were ahead of those who had played.  I was happy that seven of the students had exhibited intellectual curiosity.  I estimated the seven out of 25 would be about average for a classroom of 11-year old sixth graders in the United States, as well.

          The Word of the Day was two words.  I first introduced “funny,” and everybody caught on quickly.  Srey Pov, who giggles at everything, was a perfect set up. 

The next word was “happy,” and I was careful to explain that although if you think something is funny, you are certainly happy, that being happy did not necessarily mean something was funny.  “If you get the math problem correct, you are happy, but you do not think it is funny,” was how I described it.

The subtlety may have been lost on the class, but Sophat insisted that this is what the students needed, namely increased exposure to spoken English from a native speaker.  He and I encouraged all the students to speak English with me, and not to be afraid of making mistakes.  Sophat thought that within a few weeks the students would lose their fear of me and be more interactive.  This Word of the Day exercise was just as fun as yesterday’s (kind and smile) and I am looking forward to Wednesday’s Word of the Day.  I want to use positive words exclusively, and I want to keep the words to three or fewer syllables such as ‘success,’ ‘cure,’ ‘modest,’ ‘accurate,’ ‘adventure,’ ‘honest,’ ‘truth,’ ‘agree,’ ‘applaud, and ‘approve.’


Today, like all days, had new experiences and adventures.  The morning class with Sophat was, as always, exhilarating.  He is so skillful as a teacher and the students are so eager to learn, that each day I feel as if I can actually see their knowledge base expand.  Today was particularly rewarding when a girl, who had been sitting as far away from me and the front of the room as possible, came up to show me her work on the daily math word problem.  She had done it perfectly, and her handwriting was precise and clear.  I praised her, not just for her good work, but also for having the courage to overcome her fear of me… which led into the word of the day, which was “Brave.”!

After explaining what brave meant, I asked if anyone would volunteer to describe a circumstance in which they had been brave.  One boy said that he was afraid of dogs, but he still tries to pet them.  Then Kim Yong, who I had already identified as one of the best students, spent 3 or 4 minutes describing in detail how she had once encountered a group of boys her age on her way home.  They had blocked her path in a menacing way and were saying threatening words.  She said that she wanted to run away, but instead had stood up to them.  Wow!  What a perfect story.  Then another girl, Srey Lin, told her story about how she is afraid of ghosts when she is in her home alone.  She said she does not want to be afraid of ghosts so she deliberately stays home alone to overcome her fear.  Wow, again!  What great kids, revealing deep personal fears but also demonstrating the courage to face their fears.

          Later in the day, Samnang announced to me that he would be transferred to another school starting tomorrow.  This is apparently a promotion to “master teacher,” but I will still be sorry to see him go.  He also invited me to a farewell lunch that the other teachers were planning for him  At the lunch, Samnang introduced me to his replacement, whose name is Phally:

          Very late in the day, another of my favorite students, a girl named Thida, came up to me during a recess and asked me to accompany her back to the classroom, where she told me she wanted to teach me some Khmer!  Which she promptly did!  Totally out of the blue.  What a nice offer to make.  I stumbled over the simplest phrases, of course, but she seemed satisfied with my effort.

          Today was the most satisfying day so far, with the shy girl showing me her work, Kim Yong and Srey Lin describing their fears and courage, and Thida teaching me Khmer.  I feel that I am beginning to reach them on more than a superficial level, and they are responding in the best possible ways.  I cannot wait until tomorrow!


          Thursday, January 19, 2023 dawned positively chilly by Phnom Penh standards.  Many of the students wore sweaters and jackets.  Sophat complained that he had been cold on the drive to work,  It was 75ºF with low humidity and I felt revived after yesterday’s 90ºF and high humidity. 

          Thursday also dawned with more change than I had anticipated.  Apparently today was the actual first official class day of the new school year.  The previous two weeks had been a warm-up exercise, I think partly to evaluate the students so that their placements would be appropriate to their abilities, regardless of age.  It made perfect sense, and although I knew that Phally would replace Samnang, I was a little surprised (and sad) to learn that I would no longer be Sophat’s assistant.  Instead, all my classes would be with Phally and we would be team-teaching five different classes in both the 5th and 6th grades.  I reminded myself that flexibility is the key to success, and adapted accordingly.

          The school day started with the usual assembly of all students and teachers in the covered basketball/soccer/volleyball court.  The school director gave a welcome speech and because there were a number of new students, his remarks included some rules and regulations.  Although they are kind and forgiving, they are also strict.  Later, the director explained that they wanted to avoid expulsion at almost any cost, since any child kicked out of school would revert to the worst possible situation.  However, they had to maintain an orderly environment and if any student was perceived as being immune from enforcement of the rules, it would damage the community.  Next, each of the teachers said some encouraging words, and much to my surprise, I was invited to give a speech, which I did.

          The first class with Phally was with 5th graders.  Of the 25 students, I was acquainted with only one, so I did another round of photographs with each student in front of his or her name written on the whiteboard.  As was the case with previous classes, I learned something about each student as he or she submitted (most eagerly but a few reluctantly) to the photography.  Some were shy, others were not; some hesitated to smile, others could not stop smiling.  Some were tall and some were short.  It seems there is a smarty-pants in every class, and this time she was named Danet.  In addition to being the class Mrs. Smarty-Pants, she was also the best at English, the most engaged with the class, the most focused, and a potential treasure.  Here she is in two different formats:

Danet in her normal pose.    Danet trying to look serious.

          The class was a big success, and I immediately knew that Phally would be another in the established line of gifted teachers for whom I had the privilege of serving as assistant.  Phally’s style was different from Sophat’s and yet again different from Samnang’s.  What they had in common was an obvious love of teaching and of each and every one of the students.

          The afternoon brought yet another class, this one too populous for the size of the room.  Combined with the exuberance of the students, I anticipate that this group will be more difficult to control.  I took my usual photographs and promised everybody that I would learn their names if they would be patient with me.  As the afternoon proceeded, I made my now-expected observation that the personalities and abilities of the students could be found on a wide spectrum.  One tiny girl named Sima was extremely focused.

Another girl named Theavy (pronounced TeeVee) was in only her second day as a CCF student and was quite timid.  I sat next to her and spent time explaining the exercise.  She quickly warmed up and I think she will be an academic star as the semester progresses.  There is a coterie of boisterous boys which has self-assembled at one of the tables, and I suspect that Phally will redistribute the seating plan soon.

During a break, I happened to walk into a room called the “Meanchey Room,” which is an air conditioned computer lab which doubles as a “teacher break room.”  This is when I learned the location to which teachers retreated when they needed to prepare for classes or to meet to discuss something away from the students.  Sophat was there when I arrived, and we had a good talk abut our families.  I showed him photos of Annie’s wedding.  He observed that he was having trouble managing his work-life balance:  during the lunch break every day, he had to shuttle his son to and from school, go grocery shopping (his wife was not able to get away from work to do so), and attend to other family duties.  He lamented that he was tired because he had to work seven days a week in addition to missing lunch every day.  I sympathized with his difficulties as a working parent of two small children attending private schools with significant tuition fees.


          Another beautiful, sunny, warm day in Phnom Penh.  Every day on the way to and from work I am impressed with the vibrancy of the private sector.  It seems every other person in this city has a private shop or stall, selling every imaginable product.  Not surprisingly, there are areas where shops selling similar products are grouped.  For example, there is one stretch of road where there are a dozen or more small storefront shops selling woven baskets.  The products all appear to be the same, and I assume that there is also either price competition or collusion.  But there are also areas, seemingly marketplaces, where a woman might be selling whole plucked chickens, sandals, motor scooter parts, and a cooked breakfast.  In the morning, saffron-robed Buddhist monks carrying yellow umbrellas walk slowly past the shops, stopping in front of many to receive money, although they never ask, but only stand.   I did not see any monk receive food, although I assume that this is another type of offering, from the shopkeepers, who show reverence to the extent of bowing deeply and kneeling in front of the monk, who in turn pauses beatifically for a moment and then moves on.

          This morning I was once again treated to a class with Danet, who I believe will one day be the Cambodian Minister of Education.  Although she is only 13 years old, she is a dynamo and other girls are drawn to her.  It helps that her English skills are better than most of her classmates, but her hand is always raised in class, and she always is respectful of others.  Today she and a group of her acolytes cornered me and started a game of “hangman.” They were all quicker than I was, despite the fact that we were playing the game in English.

          During the last class of the day, which was made up of 23 Fifth Graders, Phally asked me to work individually with a group of girls who were sitting together at one of the tables.  He took the remaining 19 students outside for a game.  He mentioned that all four girls were brand-new to CCF and that today had been only their second day of classes.  I soon realized why he asked me to work with them one-on-one, which was that they had no English whatsoever.  I stumbled a bit until I realized that I needed to start at the very beginning – how do you write the letter “A”?  The class ended just as I was getting started, but I hope he assigns me to work with them in future classes.  They are all bright and motivated, but scared to death of the class (and, probably, me).

          At the end of the day the school director gave me a Cambodian Children’s Fund Tee-shirt.  “If you stay for 3 months, you get no salary but one tee-shirt.  If you stay for 6 months, you get no salary but two tee-shirts.  If you stay for a year, you still get no salary but you get four tee-shirts.”



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