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Thursday, 3 December 2009

A lesson in self-reliance and personal motivation

Warning: This entry is a little on the long side of acceptable. Perhaps I should have written a bullet-point summary at the end?

… I’ve been threatening to write about my job for a while – and so at last, here it is:

My official job title is Community Assistant, and as the job description for this role is three pages long, I wont bore you with it (there’s so many other ways to do that). Basically, I have been asked to work in the Province of Banteay Meanchey, in three districts: Mongkal Borei, Preh Netre Preh and Sisophon. I’m working at ‘District Level’, which is somewhere along the lines of the English Local Education Authority. I’m based in three District Offices and one Provincial office, but spend a lot of my time out and about in local primary schools. In short – I’m all over the place.

In a somewhat optimistic plan, the Cambodian Government have recently developed a policy known as 'Child Friendly Schooling'. This policy has 6 dimensions to it, all somewhere along the lines of inclusion, gender, effective teaching and learning etc. The basic idea is that if primary education is more child-focused (i.e. interesting, colourful and fun) then children are more likely to stay in school and actually learn something. Dimension 5 of this policy is ‘Community Involvement’, and this is where I come in. My task, in a nutshell, is to work with a small selection of focus schools in order to develop their understanding of community involvement and, in turn, the community’s understanding of education. If the community understand what is happening in schools and become an active part of school life, then this can have a positive effect on drop-out rates and inclusion (it also helps tick a few governmental boxes). At the moment people have no clue as to what their children are learning or why it’s important. Similarly, the school’s idea of community involvement seems to rotate around the basic notion of banging on doors and asking for money.

So that’s the task in hand. The next obvious question is how on earth I am actually going to do anything, especially when I’m spread across three districts and only have a translator two and a half days a week. Sadly, I don’t think my new found ability to discuss the weather in Khmer is going to get me very far in an office environment (although they do seem to enjoy talking about my boyfriend – maybe that’s a way in…).

The second, third, forth and eternal questions relate to the utter complexity of this whole situation.

Imagine this: The government wants Child Friendly Schools. To pluck at thin air, one example of this might be - group work. How then, asks the teacher, do you facilitate group work in a classroom packed to the gills with 90 children? (That’s a very good question, I said). As far as I’m concerned, it’s an achievement not to have children hanging from the termite ridden ceiling rafters – though I did go to a school where one died from the monsoon flooded school pond.

So then maybe you think about resources. But where does the money come from for these resources? And what’s more, who even knows what to make? Or has the time to make them? Despite numerous training sessions (which people are paid to attend) the whole concept is entirely foreign - and let’s not forget that the entire trained professional population of this country has been wiped out. With 50% of the population under 16, who does the teaching? Or trains the teachers? In Banteay Meanchey alone they are 1000 primary school teachers short. I have seen female teachers, nursing their children in hammocks, in their classrooms, whilst teaching! And of course, if there are no toilets in the school (or toilets, but no water) the women staff wont come to work for one week out of four anyway, because (and as a woman I sympathise) – who would want to do that?

Maybe then you think about lesson planning (PGCE flashback). People don’t like it in England, and in Cambodia, they don’t even have the luxury of not liking it – they simply don’t have the time to do it. To put it into a vague form of perspective, as a volunteer, I earn $354 dollars a month. An experienced teacher will earn $50 a month at best (less, after it’s been skimmed by higher authorities). This is not enough to survive. So when they are not teaching they are planting rice, driving motos, teaching private lessons, working on market stalls and worrying about minor things like, where’s my next meal coming from? On the general scheme of things, that puts lesson planning – and anything else for that matter - fairly low down on the list of priorities.

And yet people train to do it, and some of the teachers I have met are wonderful and do a great job in a difficult situation. But every time you even try to examine one problem and think about how to tackle it, you discover a thousand more.

On a day to day basis, effectively, I have no boss. That is, there’s no-one to tell me what to do. Or, if what I am doing is right. Here, I have got to trust my own instincts and judgment and do what I think is right, but in culture that I am only just getting to know. It would also be very easy to lie in my hammock all day. But then I’m not the sort of person who will let that happen, and I will go to the office without my translator because I like the feeling of at least being there - and you never know when someone might say something I understand. I’ve also started going places armed with props. Photographs are a great source of conversation – I think I might try baked goods next.

Don’t get me wrong, despite the little ball of nerves I have each morning before I begin, I feel like I’m chipping away at things and slowly shaping up my job. People are still speaking to me, smile when they see me and today I had meetings that went really well… I even have a poster on the wall! It’s just that when I step back and try to think about the situation as a whole, I just can’t escape how complex everything is. There is sooo much to know and understand – and I came here with the best of intentions and want so badly to do a good job, but on the otherhand – who am I to know what’s best?

VSO weren’t joking when they said it would take three months for me to get my head round what’s even going on.


  1. Wow Jen, it sounds like you are doing a great job though, so try and stay motivated! Sounds like the siutation is so massive you can only really do what you can do and try not to overwhelmed by it all if that makes sense. I shall be sending a Christmas card your way soon but it'll probably arrive next year ;) Laura xx

  2. Ditto, and how! I think you're doing amazingly well to stay sane, healthy and happy! It makes teaching here seem a breeze by comparison. All you can do is take each day as it comes and give yourself a pat on the back every time:
    a)someone understands you
    b)you understand someone else
    c)you don't leap under the bed clothes when unknown varieties of Cambodian wildlife lurk around your floor
    and d)you do one single little thing that makes a difference to someone's day.
    Love and hugs,
    Mum and Dad XXX

  3. Hi Jen

    Just to to echo what has been said already - keep up the good work and Im sure that with your can do attitude and inviting personality you are already making positive changes out there.

    All the best