Tim took a turn writing an article for my hometown paper, The Index. It was printed in this week’s edition, but you can also check it out below.
Education has no doubt been on the minds of many in Homer over the past couple months with the opening of the new Homer High School. The new environment, technology, and facilities are certainly exciting for students and teachers alike. With these changes in mind, it seems relevant to share our experience with schools here in Cambodia.
In Cambodia, the school system is still trying to bounce back from the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge. After the systematic killing of educated Cambodians in the late 1970s, the reestablishment of public schools proved to be difficult. Villagers became teachers with no specialized training and often less than a high school diploma. With a storage closet full of weapons and ammunition, the teachers held classes in the mornings and defended the town from Khmer Rouge raids at night. This continued in our area until approximately 1995 when the remnants of the Khmer Rouge fled further west toward Thailand.
Eighteen years later, the Cambodian school system has improved at a breakneck pace. New high school teachers are required to have completed either a 2 year teaching program or a 4 year bachelor’s degree. Additional schools are being built regularly, school libraries are flourishing thanks to international NGO (non-governmental organization) support, and professional development for teachers is on the rise. It is truly remarkable how far the school system has come considering all the work and money needed to completely rebuild it nationwide.
This fact is often cited at the local high school where I teach 9th, 10th, and 11th grades as a Peace Corps volunteer. My job here is to teach collaboratively with the English language teachers, helping them improve their English and to better develop student-centered techniques. Cambodian culture holds authority figures such as teachers in very high regard so many classes consist of a teacher lecturing for two hours with little student input. In all classes, but especially in English, this isn’t an effective method.
Culturally, teaching in a Cambodian classroom looks very different from Homer High. Uniformed students stand up for teachers as the instructor enters the class, when they are asked questions, and when teachers leave the class. If students need to ask permission from a teacher or if they come to class late, they politely raise their hands to their chin in a praying position and ask for forgiveness. When students walk near teachers outside of class, they will lower their heads to show respect. Showing respect in these ways is hugely important and students never fail to follow these customs.
Overall, students are very motivated to learn. Many financially-able students attend private classes in addition to public school, making for a 12-13 hour school day. Students in our area also travel up to 25 miles to attend high school, since many areas still do not a school available. These students generally stay in a shared house near the school with 25 other people, all sleeping on the floor. Public school is technically free, but families must pay for uniforms, transportation, food, and monthly exams. For this reason, many students from poorer families drop out of school after 9th grade due to financial constraints. Adding that the consensus that public school is largely ineffective due to large class sizes (50:1) or absent teachers, the dropout rate is staggering. It is simply not expected for Khmer teenagers to study beyond the 9th grade in many villages.
The physical environment of the local high school can also prove challenging. There are six classroom buildings for the 1250 students between 7-12 grades. Although there are some newer classrooms with ceiling fans, and a quickly aging computer lab, there is no electricity to run these items. Each classroom is filled with wooden desks for 40-50 students and a large blackboard. The buildings themselves are relatively open in order to make studying tolerable in the Cambodian heat. The open windows and cement walls make noise a constant issue, especially with younger students. In the back of the school there is a small pond and a plot of land for the students to plant corn for their class in agriculture.
As any teacher knows, being in the classroom is both frustrating and inspirational. It has been rewarding over the past year and a half to see my co-teachers become better instructors despite the challenges facing them, and the students have been inspiring models of perseverance through their desire to learn and make a better life for themselves.