School Year Wrap up

22 06 2012

The school year has just about ended with semester tests finished for everyone but the 9th and 12th graders. You would assume that semester tests would mark the end of the school year, but the students and teachers are required to be at school for a few more weeks until the official end date. The end result: the students and teachers sit around looking at each other, but no class is held. Call me old fashioned, but if I don’t have to do my job, I’m not going to come to my place of work that day. In my mind, it seems like an awful version of workforce detention (reminds me of this), in which nothing is completed or produced or fixed or….how American of me.

The truth is, the teachers really seem to like hanging out, talking with each other, gambling, and being anywhere but home. One of my coteachers teaches three days a week but is at school at least five, because he’s bored at home. And, although it’s not true for him, for many students and teachers home means work. Home means farming, cleaning, cooking, childcare. Being at school is a reprieve from these activities and many students and teachers admit preferring six hour purgatory to a “free” day at home. The point is, school’s out (basically). One school year down and only one to go. Time is flying. So with a sudden lack of schedule on my hands, I think now is the time for some productive (there it is again!) reflection on the school year.

Surprises (also known as Wait…..What?)

I think most Peace Corps volunteers have these moments when we hear something, nod our head as we always do to appear agreeable, then suddenly our jaw muscles slacken and our heads turn to the side like an inquisitive puppy as the news finally hits us, culminating with a half-stuttered, “Wait…..what?” As we adjusted to the culture the first few months, there were a lot of these moments. Once, in the first few days, as I began to ask students questions, my coteacher would just shake his head, saying, “She’s from the village, she doesn’t know.” As he tried to redirect me toward the 4-5 advanced students in the class, it was clear that once students were left behind, they weren’t given much opportunity to get back on track. Those from the “villages” often were never taught English in 7-9th grade as they should have, but now had to compete with students with three years of English under their belts. Meanwhile, teachers would ignore them because they were “from the villages.”

The other few surprises came from what I thought I was prepared for: corruption. Finding out that all teachers have money deducted from their salary for political party dues was a bit staggering. All teachers are officially card carrying Cambodian People’s Party members. Without it, they can’t be teachers. I had assumed there would be some corruption, but assumed that the students would not be directly affected. However, as I mentioned on an earlier blog, students are not only charged to take exams, but they are overcharged by a factor of ten.

Improvements

There have undoubtedly been some positive changes from the past year. First, my coteachers have improved their speaking and listening ability in English significantly. They are great students, soaking up anything I teach them, and immediately use the word, phrase, or technique so they won’t forget it. They are enthusiastic about being able to practice  their English and seem to see the value in it.

My coteachers have been able to pick up teaching techniques that require very little to no preparation. These are my bread and butter, knowing my coteachers often don’t have the time to prepare much for class. Ideally, some lesson planning would be great, but let’s keep in mind that Cambodian teachers make in a month what American teachers make in a day. Motivation is in short supply when everyone needs second and third jobs. Perhaps more importantly, the coteachers are realizing that a student centered class is a lot more fun than speaking in front of the class for two hours.

One of the things that was really important to me was to be available to students for questions, support, and opportunities to practice English. My formal “office hours” did not work, but through lots of urging, I now have students that are not so afraid of the cultural power difference between us and come sit with me and my coteachers during breaks to ask questions.

Lastly, the coteachers are starting to admit that the curriculum could be stronger. There was a strong need for them to follow the book exactly and make sure we cover everything in each chapter, whether the material is good or not. They’re beginning to be really good at knowing what is important to teach, what is important to teach differently from the book, and what is useless in this context.

Not Going to Budge

Despite the improvements, as meager as they might seem, there are certainly things that just will not change. Issues like taking money from students, allowing cheating, and poor teacher attendance are just not going anywhere. These are the realities that  I can discuss with our coteachers, but I don’t really see changing much during my tenure here. Also, getting my coteachers to sing. It’s just not happening.

Inspirations

There are lots of really positive people around that I would dare say are inspirations. First and foremost, is my counterpart and friend, Vanna. As a first year teacher, he didn’t get paid for seven months of teaching. He borrowed money, lived thriftily, and never missed a class until I took him to a training in Phnom Penh in May (even then, he left exercises for his students to have done when he came back). He lesson plans for hours a day, comes to every class, and is just a great guy to be around. If this is the new wave of young Khmer teachers, Cambodian schools will be vastly different in ten years.

Second, there is an old man who teaches Khmer. He knows English and French, and is overall a brilliant guy. More than any other factor that is inspiring is his consistancy. I think the Cambodian education system could be vastly improved with some very simple consistancy. This teacher comes to every class, arrives on time, teaches the full time, then goes home. I’ve never spotted him around the teachers’ card table, and he avoids the overly social teachers’ lounge. He doesn’t take money from students and always goes to class. For this, he is both revered and ostracized by other teachers. While some teachers invoke the group mentality as a reason not to stop earning money from tests, he shows that one person can change things.

Lastly, there is a particularly strong student in my English club whose family lives 45km from the school. Twice a month, she bikes the 45km to see her family for a day and a half, then bikes back. During the week she stays in a shared house with 26 other girls that are receiving scholarship money to finish high school. She studies hard, and talks often of university, knowing she won’t be able to go without a scholarship.

Focus for next year

What are my next steps? Mostly, I’m going to focus on cementing these improvements into the school. There is no clear indication that the improvements so far will continue after I leave, so next year will look a bit different. I will turn to more of an advising role to the teachers, making sure that they are implementing the changes that I’ve shown them. I taught a lot this year, and want to see my coteachers take the lead next year.

-Tim

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22 10 2013
Our Favorites | TimKat's Travels

[…] Lessons learned from one year in the public schools […]

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