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


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.

Portrait of Savong – October 2004

Svay Savong - October 2004

Svay Savong – October 2004

This photo was taken 10 years ago when Savong was in his early 20s. He is seated in the small temple on the island of West Baray and if I recall correctly, Savong asked me to take this photo, so it was – on those terms – a formal portrait.

The day was a Friday, and on two previous evenings I had taught at the small classroom at his father’s house, and so on this morning I had suggested that Savong and Pin come with me and be tourists for a day: we took a tuk tuk out past the airport and first visited the silk farm, and the we came back via West Baray, catching a small longboat out the island,

It was relaxing, and in my memory we three were the only people on the island, but of course that’s not true because there was a band of blind musicians playing traditional music which set the tone, by turns moving and festive, and Pin, Savong and myself explored the island, and the two young guys also took up fishing off a small jetty. Pin was expert at catching the small pufferfish that would swell up like golfballs which he would line up on the wooden dock, their little gills heaving, and Pin would flick them back into the water where the fish would  jettison away. Swoosh!

While Pin remained fishing, Savong showed me to the small wooden temple, and – taking our shoes off – we entered.

As you can see; incense was burning, and it’s fragrance wafted in the light breeze. We took photos, and as he sat, Savong explained the significance of the cross-legged pose, and showed me how I should hold my hands. There’s a photo of me sitting in the same position as Savong, but it is an awkward facsimile of this photo – me in my black t-shirt, my legs in agony as I try to emulate the lotus position.

But this photo captures the Savong I first met. He is still attending classes at high school, his market-bought jeans are too long and need tailoring – but never mind that. He is devout, determined, and he fixes my camera with a confident stare into the lens.

Soon after this we sat near the musicians and as we watched them play, and listened to their sweet, plaintive music Savong told me about his dream to open a school in the countryside.

“How you think brother?” From everything I had seen in Cambodia to that point, it was a perfect idea.

Pin was still on the jetty with his small bamboo fishing rod. Savong however, had just caught a bigger and more willing fish.

For more about Savong:

Protocols for Cambodian business meetings

I have learned a lot about business protocols by watching Savong in meetings.

I have learned a lot about business protocols by watching Savong in meetings.

When dealing with a business or an NGO, westerners like me sooner or later get involved in a business meeting, and here some of the pronounced cultural differences between western and Khmer approaches are seen. I’m used to business meetings that are positively aggressive – lively interchanges between competing viewpoints where the players are smart, vocal and – despite their differences – good humoured.

Well park that liveliness at the door. In Cambodia meetings are likely to be quite formal with words of greeting from the Chairman, followed by what I’d describe as a fairly solemn discussion of the items in question. There are no interjections, and staff may seem to be avoiding eye-contact. At this point the westerner is wondering: what’s going on here?

In truth, a lot of the meeting may occur in the subtext – in the things not said – and in the silences. In this situation I need to turn on my interpretative radar on full: reading the non-verbal signals. And I need to shut up as well. Let the silence do some of the talking.

By and large there is far less of the snappy exchange and quick decision making – and more deference to authority. The task is not to find which way a quick majority will go for – but rather to interrogate the issue and reach a consensus that everyone can live with.

My advice is to slow down, be gracious and to do as a good friend Steve Burns always advised: “Two ears, one mouth – use them in that proportion.”

These pieces of advice are from the comprehensive visitor guide http://www.angkorvisitor.com

  • Meetings do not stick to any schedule or agenda.
  • Issues may be tackled separately and altogether if need be – once an issue has seemingly been resolved it may later be addressed again.
  • Meetings will continue until the attendees feel everything has been satisfactorily covered.
  • Building a relationship on mutual trust is crucial so initially time should be invested in getting to know your counterparts.
  • Small talk should always be employed at the beginning of meetings.
  • Cambodians are very indirect communicators so some reading between the lines is a necessary skill.
  • They will always consider the implications of making statements or using particular words especially if it involves anything negative as this draws in the issue of face.
  • In fact if Cambodians disagree with someone they would rather remain silent than make any comment.
  • If they disagree with an idea, they generally remain silent.
  • If unsure about statements be sure to double check.
  • Cambodians prefer ideas to be brought forward in a gentle way and to wait for others to respond.
  • Pushy, pressured or boastful communication styles are a real turn-off.
  • Punctuality is important. Arriving late shows a lack of respect for the person with whom you are meeting.
  • Non-verbal behavior is just as important to be aware of. For example, smiling in Cambodia is situational and can have many meanings; it may mean a person does not understand what has been said, they are nervous or even irritated.
  • Showing emotions is considered a negative behaviour. Anger, impatience or frustration should be hidden as it would lead to a loss of face and is considered a sign of weakness as well as poor manners.
  • Modesty and humility are emphasized in the culture, so compliments and praise are generally responded to by a deprecating comment.
  • It is a good idea not to speak with bravado, which may be interpreted as boasting.
  • Avoid prolonged eye contact.
  • Be sure to speak clearly, slowly and to avoid use of slang, adages and colloquial sayings.

More on customs and protocols:

If you find my articles at all interesting or useful, feel welcome to press the FOLLOW button.

An unlikely outcome – how praCh Ly’s Khmer rap music opened up and healed old war wounds

praCh Ly didn’t know it, but his limited release rap CD was going to Number 1 in Cambodia, and was bridging two generations.

Rap music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In the early 90s the gangsta rap sound from the meaner suburbs of Los Angeles assaulted the radio waves and split black culture down the middle with old-school R&B on one side, with a younger edgier generation on the other.

For any teenager growing up in LA it would have been impossible to ignore artists such as Run DMC, NWA, Ice Cube – and if the epicentre of rap music was the suburb of Compton, then in neighbouring Long Beach, home of several hundred thousand Cambodians in the USA, rap music provided an outlet for a generation of young migrants who had grown up with a feeling of displacement that came from being war refugees in a fairly unsympathetic foreign land.

praCh is the seventh child of a refugee family. He was born in 1979 near Battambang, and his family came to United States to escape the Khmer Rouge. His family was quite typical in that the adults seldom talked about their experiences of war: the focus was on the new life, though the new life was extremely tough. Out in the streets, the conversations of young people seem to be mostly about gangs, guns and drugs. praCh Ly loved rap music, but he found his lyrical home when one of his older brothers started telling him stories about the Khmer Rouge and about the family’s desperate escape to a refugee camp. Soon he was recording samples of music, using a karaoke machine, and throwing over these beats his hard-hitting lyrics. His album, Dalama, pieced together a song by song his own life story.

This was in the year 2000, and praCh manned booth at the New Year celebrations held by the Khmer community of Long Beach each year. There was to be live music at the event, but he was told that his music was too aggressive, that he was not able to perform. But an artist is an artist – and displaying a precocious confidence – praCh got up on stage before the main acts which were due to play, and he introduced himself. He told the audience that he was going to do a rap piece, once in Khmer, and once in English – and that if they didn’t like it – then they were welcome to boo him off the stage.

He performed his piece called welcome, first in English – just him and the microphone with no beats or accompaniment – and the younger members of the audience loved it. When he then performed it in Khmer he got a standing ovation from old and young. “Do another one,” they yelled. This was his breakthrough.

His CD sold locally in modest numbers, but unbeknownst to him, a Cambodian DJ took a copy back to the Phnom Penh, and played tracks on the radio. They got a huge reaction – partly from the government who wanted to ban these tracks, but after it was argued that the subject of the rap music was history and not the present government, the authorities relented, and the fan reaction was so strong that pirated copies of Dalama sold in huge numbers; making praCh the first Cambodian rap star.

This got him big publicity with mentions in Newsweek and other mainstream media, and it took praCh into circles he never expected. In 2002 he was shoulder tapped to become chief organiser of the Khmer New Year’s festival in Long Beach – a role that put him right into the middle of his own community. In the past 12 years he has continued to be published as a rap musician and as a poet – and he has been in big demand on the speaking circuit, lecturing on human rights.

Rap music may not be your cup of tea – but what is interesting about praCh is that he uses an in-your-face medium to tell honest stories, and expose the history faced by so many families who lived through the 1970s. He was quite surprised at how his music has served to open up conversations with families – with the younger generation, informed by his music, beginning to ask their parents about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. This has been a healing process.

praCh is now probably regarded as the elder statesman of Khmer rap – and there are now several other names of Cambodian rap and hip hop artists both from Long Beach and from the homeland of Cambodia. It is a lively, dynamic genre. In 2004 he went on a 23 States tour across the United States and was a subject for Japan’s documentary film, which won NHK’s Best Documentary of the Year (2004).

He has also become active scoring movie soundtracks including the Khmer baseball documentary ‘Rice Field of Dreams’ (2010) and creating original music for the excellent Sundance Award Winning and *Oscar short-listed movie ‘Enemies of the People’ (2010).

Among his recent activities has been the founding and organising of the Cambodia Town Film Festival which ensures an outlet for Cambodia’s burgeoning film industry. He has been described as Khmer-America’s most influential citizen.

Book review In The Shadow of Angkor

In the shadow of Angkor : contemporary writing from Cambodia / Frank Stewart, editor ; Sharon May, feature editor

The horror of what happened in Pol Pot’s Cambodia really hit me twice when I first visited in 2004. The first moment was in Siem Reap at Wat Thmei; the killing fields monastery on the northern outskirts of town. I had thought this was a regular monastery, with pagoda, and stupa commemorating the dead. But the glass faced stupa filled with human remains – skulls and bones – took my breath away. In the background children were running laughing and sailing their bicycles around the courtyard, oblivious perhaps of the tragedy that this place represented. It was only much later that I learned that Savong’s father had donated the land for this place, and that he himself – along with friends – had gathered the bones of those executed and lost the killing fields. When I first saw the stupa I broke into tears.

A week later I was in Phnom Penh, and I paid a visit to S 21, the public school that became home to a Khmer Rouge interrogation and torture centre. The prosaic grey public architecture, and the paintings depicting what occurred at S 21, combined with the rows and rows of photos; portraits of the victims, were both haunting and palpably upsetting.

To better understand what had occurred there, I began reading a lot of material about Cambodia’s past.

Among the most illuminating perspectives was this collection of essays, poems, short stories an scripts gathered by the University of Hawaii and published as an anthology in 2004.Recently I’ve been re-reading this anthology in part because I have more understanding of this complex little nation, and in part because I wanted to see how far Cambodia has travelled in the 10 years since this book was first published.

It is a collection put together to mark 25 years since the Khmer Rouge era ended. Included are an interesting mix of folk stories that predate the 1970s, works of Cambodian fiction, eyewitness accounts of life under the Khmer Rouge, poetry by the renowned poet U Sam Oeur, a documentary film script by Rithy Pan, rap lyrics by Cambodia’s first ever rap star, praCh, and an absorbing essay by academic Sharon May called A search for Cambodian Literature – which is an heroic account of the role of writers and artists who ensured that the threads Cambodian culture were not broken during the Holocaust.

Given the sheer diversity of material here, the book is not always an easy read. Different styles, different perspectives, different stories. Yet together the anthology still provides one of the better, more literary, overviews of life before during and since the harrowing Pol Pot era.

I particularly appreciate the interviews with Soth Polin, an author, (who was taught for a month by a popular, sweet-voiced teacher of French: Pol Pot) and the interview with U Sam Oeur and May’s essay because these pieces provide a narrative that arches over the war years – painting a rich story of the writers, singers and artists who were driven by the creative urge simply because they were born to create. I am moved by the story of the writer who penned a novel on scrap paper – all he could find in the post war years – and sold or lent this novel for a few riel at the markets: loose pages tied with string – but still a novel.

In 2014 Cambodia is becoming a thriving, highly commercialised nation, and the dominant generation is now a full generation away from the war. I think a lot of history is now being packaged, commoditised, sanitised – or simply forgotten.

In The Shadow of Angkor brings us back, face to face: the will to create in the face of terror.

  • In The Shadow of Angkor
  • edited by Frank Stewart and Donna May
  • University of Hawaii Press

Sampeah — Cambodian greeting.

When greeting a child, or someone of equal age – the Sampeah is conducted at chest level. What  I never realised was that there are 5 levels of Sampeah.

Westerners like me are often quite hopeless at picking up local customs, and in Cambodia the first and most obvious custom is the Sampeah or greeting. The Sampeah is a particularly elegant and respectful way of greeting friends and strangers, with palms held together, and a slight bow of the head – it is less brusque than the various western equivalents, which must be collectively confusing to Cambodians. Westerners buy turns shake hands, kiss, or go through various awkward attempts.  The protocols of greeting have, if anything, become more confused in the 21st century.

But in Cambodia Sampeah is universal. However as I found, there are five different Sampeah – different levels of greeting depending on the relative age or importance of the other person.

  1. Usually when you meet a contemporary, or someone younger than yourself the Sampeah you use is conducted at chest height, hands together and a slight bow.
  2. But if somebody is older than you, or is a senior position – your boss for example – then the Sampeah needs to be a little higher, the tops of your index fingers basically at chin height. The nod is also a little deeper and more pronounced.
  3. The third Sampeah takes things up another notch. Here, the tops of your index fingers are level with your mouth. The nod, a little deeper again. the Sampeah marks your respectful greeting of a parent, grandparent or esteemed teacher.
  4. When you greet a monk, then your Sampeah is higher again. This time the index fingers a level with your nose. instead of a nod, this time you bow slightly from the waist.
  5. The highest Sampeah, number five, is reserved for Buddha, or the King. Here, you raise your hands so they draw level with your forehead, and you bow deeply.

Perhaps it’s because I am travelling with a camera, or in notepad or have my hands full with shopping bags, but I never seem quite ready to handle that moment of greeting. A friend gestures with the Sampeah towards me, and I’m busy displacing those bags, or handing someone my camera so I can free up my hands. Then when it comes to the Sampeah itself, instead of giving them a respectful Sampeah among equals – a number one – I end up greeting them as if they were the King himself. The same in the classroom: I like to give a formal greeting to the class, and end up sending them the wrong signal – or perhaps the right one even though it is unexpected. The truth is, I look up to these kids, and while technically I should give them a basic Sampeah, I end up offering something somewhere in between the respect I would show for a parent or perhaps a monk.

I am very fortunate that Cambodians are so polite. While my efforts to be culturally appropriate still need some work, I have never felt anything less than welcome.

For more on Khmer customs: Meetings in Cambodia