Working in Cambodia: Reality vs Expectation

Before embarking upon my three week stint working in Cambodia, I had many dubious preconceptions. Not so much about the country itself, or its teachers, or even the schools, but about the role of charities/social enterprises within the education system of developing countries. I felt extremely sceptical about the work multiple charities were conducting in countries just like the one I was about to visit and of the role ‘volunteers’ play within the system. It would be interesting to see whether my fears would become reality or whether I was being overly critical.

It’s necessary to include a disclaimer here: the social enterprise I was working for was just as fearful of the issues stated above as I. In fact, before leaving the country, each programme participant completed several E-learns, including one that focussed on the issues of existing charity work within education. In particular the aims of volunteers and workers when signing up to work in education abroad (something I was equally as concerned about).

Upon arrival, it was clear that the aims of my fellow teachers were similar to mine and many shared my opinions and criticisms of programmes that encourage unqualified individuals to teach English abroad, filling roles that could be undertaken by the locals themselves. There were many discussions based around the purpose of NGOs and charities in Cambodia and how impactful they truly are. We were all looking forward to beginning work within our schools; it was the only way to truly measure the impact we would be having and that of others too.

Working in several schools over the course of three weeks both confirmed and disputed my ideas. I realised that, although the educational outlook is similar within the schools of Siem Reap, the support provided to each (and its effectiveness) was extremely different throughout the region.

One particular example of this relates to the use of volunteers. One school I worked with had clear, defined guidelines for volunteers working within a school. Upon entry into the classroom, each volunteer would be given the day’s lesson plan with instructions to follow. This enabled the volunteers to be as effective as possible, and where some teachers managed to manipulate the system best, they could be used as support assistants aiding learning around the room. However, in contrast to this, another school I worked with did no such thing. The volunteers had no real purpose and only engaged with the children at break time — playing physical games of little value. In fact, they made myself and some of the other participants slightly uncomfortable with the overly casual relationships they shared with the children. This huge disparity highlighted the fact that some schools have been provided with more support than others, but also, that volunteers and charity workers could have a positive impact when used effectively.

Alternatively, in one school we found a volunteer teacher from Australia, whose sole position was to provide ongoing support following on from the teacher training we would be providing. Ignoring the slightly odd elements such as the fact he didn’t know the teachers’ names despite working there for several months, it was pleasing to see a school using a qualified volunteer in a way that could support them in the long-term.

Having now left Cambodia for other ventures, I still maintain a big concern and that is the sustainability of programmes just like the one I was working for. There were many successes over the course of three weeks (both for the Cambodian teachers and for the British/American teachers) but how much can truly be achieved in three weeks? Supporting a novice teacher within the UK takes a minimum of a year and, as teaching professionals know, that is merely the beginning of the development process. Three weeks is only enough to get the ball slightly in motion with development and unfortunately there is rarely anybody left at the school to continue on with this in Cambodia after our deaprture.

One contrasting positive is the introduction by the social enterprise of a programme that is going to enable strong teachers, or those who have worked with them for several years, to begin this kind of training themselves. This would mean that after participants leave, there is someone working at the school to continue the training and reflection process. Again, however, there is only three weeks to provide this training, which leaves the expert perhaps without as much expertise necessary for the role.

It is fantastic to see a shift in international development within education: there is now a mindset focussing on supporting the country to strengthen its own growth and to reduce dependency upon charities and foreign aid. However, in my experience, there is still a long way to go with this. In order for this to be achieved, there needs to be more longevity in the existing programmes and a clear plan of how and when the programme can be removed entirely. It will truly be successful when opportunities similar to the one I have just utilised cease to exist because the support is being provided internally to then be shared with others.

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