My Time as “Teacher” in Cambodia

“Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.”
Joel Brinkley, Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land

Spoiler alert- Cambodia did break my heart, but in the best way possible.

The Beginning

A year ago, I knew only two things about the country named Cambodia. 1- It was the site of Angkor Wat. 2- The Vietnam War also ended up going into Cambodia for some reason.

Reading through study abroad descriptions, I was instantly drawn to a program that would go to Thailand and Vietnam before the three week service period in Cambodia. I signed up and began the countdown until my first time in Asia.

Phnom Penh

Picture taken from the bus to the hotel

Fast-forward to our arrival at the capital of Cambodia-Phnom Penh. This city was busy and filled with many different types of restaurants and shops. It was apparent from the urbanization of the city that this was the capital of Cambodia.

On our first night exploring the city I experienced my first true glimpse at the poverty beneath the surface of the city. As my classmates and I sat down to eat at a restaurant, we were approached by a little girl who looked about ten years old. She sold bracelets, scarves, and other miscellaneous tourist items that we could find in the markets. She spent her time talking with us, asking where we were from, and asking about our plans while in Cambodia. The whole time she talked, I couldn’t help but stare at her thin arms and face wondering how many meals a day she received. I started to realize at this point that while a city can disguise the underlying living conditions for locals, it can’t cure it.

Tuol Sleng — Security Prison 21

The next day, we visited the sites from the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia. To give a brief background, the Khmer Rouge were a communist party that took power in Cambodia from 1975–1979, during which, one-fourth of the population was killed in genocide.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is at the site of a former high school, which was converted to a prison during the Khmer Rouge era. Out of the 20,000 people imprisoned in Tuol Sleng, only twelve survived. It’s important to study and look at this past in order to understand anything about Cambodia in its present state. Tuol Sleng is only one of the many places where war prisoners were tortured and buried in killing fields which truly exemplified to me the strength and bravery of the people.

Siem Reap

Monday morning, we embarked on the bus that would take us to the Provincial Teacher Training College of Siem Reap to meet our class. Our students would be graduating that summer as elementary school teachers. That first day of class, I was a bundle of nerves and waited with bated breath to meet my students.

First picture taken with my class

Once I finished my class, I felt like I was a terrible teacher and not connecting with my students at all. There was no way for me to know what level of English they knew, and even in a single class, everyone had different levels of knowledge. I felt like they did not understand what I was saying and I didn’t know how fix this. I was so discouraged; I wanted to teach my students in a way that would be beneficial to them. Knowing English is such an important skill not only to teach their future students, but also to communicate with the world. If they can understand English articles, read the news, they will be connected to the rest of the world.

After my morning teaching session, I went back to the hotel, and started preparing like crazy for the afternoon session. I created interactive games and activities that way I could actively quiz my students on the lesson. I quickly learned that they loved competition!

My students preparing for a debate: Can money buy happiness?

My classes often followed this pattern: I would teach a lesson and bring in activities for my students to practice on. Some days the lessons went great and I felt like I had accomplished something. Other days went very bad and I had to reevaluate how I was teaching. I realized that I had to simplify the way I talked and use words that my students already knew so that they could understand what I was saying and teaching. The problem was not that my students were not intelligent or lacked knowledge, I had to present the information in a way that they could understand. I learned how to be flexible and adaptable to changing situations.

I saw firsthand their dedication and focus on their schoolwork and understanding what I was teaching. Not only did they excel in class, they were always respectful, addressing me as “Teacher” and waiting for me to dismiss them to leave. In this classroom, I met the most hardworking students, who also knew how to have fun equally.

Dancing and Eating

On June 1st, as part of International Children’s Day, the whole school was on holiday. As part of this holiday, the whole class went to a student’s home to have a meal and visit the surrounding area. At 9 am, we left on tuk-tuks from the school to take us to the home with our students following on their motorbikes.

Class picture on International Children’s Day

Immediately I was shocked by the pure generosity and kindness I received from my students. They made sure I was happy, fed, and did not lack anything. I helped where I could with the cooking, which mostly involved me cutting vegetables, and tasted new foods. Afterwards, someone put on music and they began to teach me popular Cambodian dances.

We then left with their motorbikes to go visit the floating villages in the Battambang district. The whole day was filled with nothing but happiness as I got to talk to my students, take many pictures, and simply have fun.

While on the trip, I would also be celebrating my 19th birthday. I had not told my class, choosing to keep my birthday to myself, but Facebook gave me away…

During our afternoon class, I started to introduce the lesson and felt a strange tension in the air. Suddenly, one of my students entered with a birthday cake and they began to sing happy birthday to me!

It was the best surprise for my birthday. I was again overwhelmed by the kindness and thoughtfulness of my students. They all wished me good health and luck in the future, and I was so happy to be able to share this moment with them all.

At this moment I saw how much I had grown to care about them over the course of three weeks.

Visiting Rural Cambodia

Part of our trip included a fundraising portion, in which during the spring semester we had fundraised money or collected supplies for a service project in Siem Reap.

Giving the laptops away

My team had focused on doing a laptop drive to donate used laptops to one of the schools to use in their classroom. Another team had collected school supplies to make backpacks for the kids in the schools.

We decided on donating the laptops and backpacks to a tutoring center. In Cambodia, kids only go to school for half a day, so the tutoring center was a place for them to attend school the other half. The center focused on teaching English and teaching computer skills, which they are now able to do due to the laptop donation.

Look at those beautiful faces!

We also had money leftover from our fundraising, so we were able to buy a printer for an elementary school. We donated the rest of the funds, along with another team, to the Spitler School Foundation’s bike program. When the students graduate from elementary school, they are given a bike so they can go to the middle school 12 kilometers away.


Much too quickly, it was time to leave Siem Reap and say goodbye to my students. The last day, every class performed a song we had practiced together, and my class sang “Count on Me”’ by Bruno Mars.

Their sign reads: “We ❤ teacher Rebecca”

If I’d learned anything by that point, it was that I should always expect to be surprised by my students. They wrote me beautiful cards and made a sign that I could keep on my return.

It was a great moment to look back at my first class, where I was so nervous and doubted my teaching abilities, to the final day, where I talked and danced with all my students.

I did not cry. As much as I wanted to, I was not going to give a sad ending to this journey. I might not have known if I would ever see them again, but I knew for a fact that I would not forget them.

And in the silence of that final bus ride away from school, you might have heard the small sound of my heart breaking, but this was only to make room for the new people that had entered my life.