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Classrooms Around the World: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Written by: Kate John
Last Updated: July 19, 2021
Classrooms around the world are both the same and greatly different. Kids are kids everywhere. They’re always the same in many ways, especially if you stick with a similar age group. That said, culture definitely comes into play in the classroom. Here’s a little bit about what it’s like in my classroom here, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The physical space is really quite nice. I have desks, white boards, and lots of blank wall space to put up student work, or ongoing projects. I make full use of this space, because I know it helps students feel successful to see their work on display. Because Cambodia is a tropical wonderland, my classroom doesn’t have heat, only AC. I am pretty happy it has AC, as teaching without it would be a nightmare. Most schools in Phnom Penh come equipped much the same way. Something unique about my school is the dual program in Khmer National curriculum and the International curriculum. Because of the two different programs, I am required to share my classroom. So I teac h from 8am to 2pm, afterwards from 2 until 5pm Khmer class is held in my room. While it can sometimes be inconvenient to not have access to my room, it is nice to be able to cooperate with other teachers.
The thing that makes teaching interesting is not the classroom, it’s the students. My students are very much the same to the students I had in the States, and yet also very different. I teach grades 9, 11, and 12. They are thinking about their future, while wrapped up in their present, very much like my students in the US. They complain about homework, they reference memes, they eat snacks in class when they aren’t supposed to. Some differences do exist though.
Firstly, every single one of my students speaks English as a secondary language. They are all international students, so they learn from me in English about Social Studies. They do all speak English well, but their reading, writing, or listening skills can vary. So while you may have trouble explaining a concept in the US, there is an added layer of difficulty here. Coupled with the fact that I am not their language teacher, so I don’t get to spend a lot of time correcting their use of English, just the products they make. The students are very driven though, so while they may not initially understand, they work hard to achieve comprehension.
My school is a private, international school. While it is not the most expensive school in town, it isn’t cheap, and the students who go there come from a wealthy background within the country. They are partially driven to succeed because of their parents, and the expectations they have. This is different from the low income public school I worked in stateside.
The parents can really make or break a teacher’s or student’s relationship with the school. The parents of my students are pretty successful, and I have found at the high school level they are somewhat hands-off in terms of school involvement. The elementary parents are much more present, but at high school parent teacher conferences I have very few visitors. That may be connected to the language barrier though, many of the parents do not speak English. The education system in Cambodia was not what it is today a generation back, and often they did not have the opportunity to learn the way their children are today.
Some of the parents have very interesting backgrounds, given Cambodia’s recent history of political instability. Within the classroom that affects our discussions and the topics that are controversial. I generally steer conversation away from politics, as some students have parents who work with the current government, and some who worked for other regimes. While I haven’t had any issues, I try to keep in mind the situation within the country, the homes of my students, and the classroom.
The culture in the classroom, and throughout the school is so important. While working in a low income school, I stayed because the students and the other teachers made it worthwhile and enjoyable. This school is similar. While any teaching position has challenges, it’s good to find a school that you feel comfortable in. This school is very international, with teachers hailing from all over the globe. The other teachers are open-minded, and dedicated educators. That makes it easy for me to make friends among colleagues. The internationality of the curriculums makes for an interesting workplace as well. However, I will admit I have found it frustrating on occasion though, as some of my students are much more engaged with and focused on the Khmer curriculum. It took a while to allow their difference in focuses, instead of viewing it as a constant source of annoyance and insecurity. Learning to pick my battles has helped me be much less stressed at work, and happier in my job. I think it will also carry with me throughout my professional career.
So it’s a mixed bag, as teaching is everywhere. My students are fun, driven, curious, and talented. They make school the place I love to go every day, and they are ultimately my reason for teaching. Cambodia’s culture is present in the classroom, but less than it may be at a public or national school. The students love their country though, and are dedicated to seeing it grow and develop. The parents love their students, and want the best for them. In many Asian cultures that can mean unreasonable pressure on students for good grades, here it is more laid back. The parents aren’t as pushy with their expectations as they might have been had Cambodia not so recently faced the removal of a third of their population. I really love teaching here, and the unique aspects I get to see in the classroom. It makes every single day interesting.
After volunteering for a year in the Denver Public School System, Kate felt like she needed a change. She and her boyfriend both got TEFL certified and set off on an adventure of a lifetime in the Kingdom of Wonder. Since then Kate has written extensively about her life teaching English in Cambodia as one of ITA's Writing & Content Ambassadors.
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