Teaching quality in Cambodia – its not just local standards that need lifting

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Who are the foreigners who choose to teach these children in Cambodia?

My attention was drawn to an advertisement placed in a Facebook page, the very helpful and convivial Expats and locals living in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which serves as a bulletin-board for the expat community who call Siem Reap home. Here you’ll find furnishing for sale, advice on Visa applications, what’s on at your favourite local bar and commentary and generally warm, realistic conversation about life in this bustling tourist town.

The advertisement was from a back-packer who wondered aloud whether there was an NGO that would provide food and accommodation in exchange for her teaching English. I must admit, I was somewhat taken aback: you want to rock up on your world adventure and get subsidised by local charitable organisations?

The fact is, the Cambodian education system has a very uneasy relationship with western teachers – who are at best a mixed bag of talents, ranging from the truly excellent down to the back-packers who bring zero experience into the Cambodian classroom.

There are two strata of foreign teachers. There are those who come to Cambodia to take up paid employment as teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL). Most of these teachers end up in Phnom Penh, where families are richer and can afford to send their children to Language Schools. These vary in quality – from bucket-shops that pay foreigners $US5.00 per hour, right through to top class schools that offer a salary of $30,000 or more: enormous by local standards.

I read one account of the ESL scene which was quite dispiriting – suggesting that among ESL teachers the good ones (those who are not in Cambodia for sex, drugs, holidays or ‘finding themselves’,) are in the distinct minority, and even among those there is a split between those who have become jaded and those who will become jaded and quit.

The blog struck me as extremely cynical, a little too world-weary in tone, but what surprised me were the comments: that basically said the author was right on the money – that anyone unqualified foreigner could get a teaching job within a few days of arrival because so many ESL places don’t have any standards in place – and that the name of the game is, in fact, money. The blogger describes backpackers as the most despised form of ESL teacher because they are willing to accept really low pay, and make it possible for the language schools to make staggering profits.

The second strand of the conversation revolves around NGOs, institutions that include the one I’m attached to, Savong’s School, but also many dozens of schools offering free education to the poor. Ten years ago we were in-fact active in trying to attract back-packers who might lend even a day or two to share their time and to help the students practice their English. Anyone was better than no-one.

Over time the standards of volunteer teachers has been raised, though not as high as we’d like things to go. For one thing, expectations have risen, and local teachers want to share their classroom with people who inspire – not people who need carrying.

Likewise, the framework for NGO schools has become more demanding. MOEYS expects schools to work to a set syllabus, and there’s no place for a foreigner to stand in front of the classroom just making stuff up.

Finally, there’s a real sense that local teachers are focusing more on lifting their skills in the classroom – to be professional in their approach and become better teachers than they themselves experienced.

For the ESL scene, I think an accreditation scheme is needed, and paid foreigners ought to provide proof of their teacher qualifications. Likewise, the ESL industry needs to become more transparent. The same as in many countries; the ESL sector is the wild-west.

For the NGO scene, (which is far from immune to criticism,) I see a different story emerging because there’s a shift from relying on foreign teachers towards greater reliance on Khmer staff. This is a good thing, but it brings with it a pressing challenge: to attract high calibre trainers of teachers.

Backpackers need not apply.

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