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.

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


The government crackdown on school exam cheats


A fishy pass rate in 2013 – virtually halved after a crackdown on Grade 12 cheating.

It is interesting to consider the extent – rife by any measure – of high school exam cheating in Cambodia. the figures are stark: 2013 the Grade 12 exams were wide open to cheating, and 83% passed. In 2014 following a crackdown on cheating, just 39% passed. Ouch!

How and why should cheating be so widespread in a land where there is a fairly strong religious moral code at work?

  • For one thing, there is a desperate profit motive – and a widespread form of cheating was always made possible by the willingness of some teachers to copy and sell answer sheets for the exams.
  • Second, as in countries like Italy, (or, dare I say, in New Zealand or the USA,) there is a distinction made between personal morality versus one’s stance towards a government which is largely distrusted. You wouldn’t cheat your family, but you might happily ‘beat the system.’
  • Third, the high-stakes for the grade 12 students. Passing those exams is like a gateway to a better future. Failure at this point has huge long-term repercussions. The small act of cheating today has had little downside, while it has potentially massive upsides: the risk is worth it.
  • Fourth – very poor exam supervision. In 2013 newspaper reports quoted students as saying they actively passed notes and answers around to their fellow students. There were an inadequate number of independent monitors, and of course some of the teachers who were doing the monitoring were the same teachers who had previously sold the answers.
  • Fifthly, nobody foresaw the ease with which social media could be employed to share the answers around the exam hall. With the ownership of smart phones being so high, it was easy for students to create Facebook pages dedicated to sharing answers among friends. Phones were allowed in the exam rooms.
  • Finally, and I don’t want to make this sound like an excuse, but the culture of Cambodians is very us oriented, rather than me oriented. In the classroom, students actively help each other. They are not out to succeed at the expense of their classmates. Exams are not a competition so much as a team exercise.

In 2014 the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport staged a well executed national crackdown on school exam cheats. They enacted a strategy designed to prevent teachers and examiners from publishing in advance the exam questions and answers. Given this was never going to be the whole answer, the Ministry also conducted body frisks on students entering the exam rooms. They confiscated cheat sheets and telephones. Lots of them! Finally, the authorities conducted much more rigorous supervision during the exams. Students who were used to whispering answers to friends remained quiet in 2014.

The crackdown in 2014 was a great step forward for a transparent and fair education system. Yes, many students learned that old-fashioned study and hard work are the most certain ways of graduating from grade 12. Ironically, the group who had in the short term had most to lose, were the tertiary institutions. Enrolments were down sharply for 2015, causing an unexpected cash flow problem for several universities.

See also: Exam result show dive in 2014.

See more education facts and figures.

Teacher Training in Cambodia. MOEYS official policy.

I don’t often do this but here – verbatim – is the Ministry of Youth, Education & Sport (MOEYS) official policy towards formal teacher training.

Teacher Training

  1. The primary objective of this program is to ensure an effective supply of teachers for all education levels so as to respond to the education system expansion through upgrading the competencies of TTC managers and education administrators, teacher trainers, school principals and other key staff of the MOEYS.
  2. The second objective is to ensure that the number of new intakes of all TTCs and the NIE and the subsequent deployment of new teachers should favorably respond to the growing demand for teachers in rural/remote and disadvantaged areas through the recruitment and training of teacher trainees from these targeted areas as well as from the areas inhabited by ethnic minority people.
  3. The third objective is to improve the quality of teaching through expansion of in-service teacher training.

Responding to ESP Strategies and Policies

Policy 1: Ensuring Equitable Access to Education Services

  • Ensuring teacher provision in remote and disadvantaged areas.

Policy action:

  • An action plan on multi-grade teaching in border and remote areas and/or areas populated by ethnic minority groups developed annually.

Policy 2: Improving the Quality and Efficiency of Education Services

  • Improve pre-service and in-service teacher development.

Policy action:

  • An action plan for the capacity development of teaching staff developed annually.
  • A report on the needs assessment for upgrading trainers’ competencies and an action plan for teacher trainer capacity development to be completed in 2010.
  • Master Plan for Teacher Development finalized in 2010.
  • Report on the needs assessment for facilities in all teacher training centers finalized in 2010
  • A plan for upgrading the competencies of secondary-school teachers with limited teaching capacity developed in 2011.
  • ICT documents in teacher training curriculum revised in 2011.
  • Modules of gender sensitiveness will be officially integrated into the teacher training curriculum in 2011.
  • Teacher training curriculum review to be completed by 2012.
  • Modules for inclusive education in teacher training curriculum revised in 2012.

Indicators and Targets

  • 5,000 new trainees will be recruited annually to enroll in all TTCs, in which priority in which priority will be given to at least 40% of teacher trainees from rural, remote and disadvantaged areas and those with ethnic minority backgrounds.
  • 3,000 primary-school teachers will be trained at the six RTTCs by the SY 2013-2014 with a view to upgrading their competencies to become basic education teachers.
  • 90 primary-school inspectors and 120 secondary-school inspectors will be recruited and trained at the national Institute of Education (NIE) by SY 2013-2014.
  • 1,500 new trainees from disadvantaged areas will be recruited annually and assigned to work in their indigenous areas after completing their education.


Rediscovering a dignified past: An Interview with Mitty Steele


For US-Cambodian Mitty Steele the last ten years have been a discovery process as she traces her family’s stories about growing up in mid 20th century Cambodia.

More than quarter of 1 million Cambodians live in the USA and for the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the refugees who escaped Cambodia during the Pol Pot era there is inevitably a sense of incompleteness; a sense of a stolen personal history. Among the US-based Cambodians to retrace the steps of her family, and to reconnect on a personal level with Cambodia is Mitty Steele, a young writer who began interviewing her father 10 years ago before he died.

Mitty was born in Battambang, Cambodia in 1975, a few months after the Khmer Rouge came into power. Her family managed to make it to the USA and in recent years Mitty has been piecing together the story of her family.

Mitty’s father must have been a remarkable man.  Born in a village where illiteracy was normal, his parents placed their son aged six in a  Buddhist monastery in order that he may receive an education. The tuition he received as a young boy were sufficient for him to gain entry in what was the French style school system of Cambodia of the 1940s and 50s.

Mitty’s father studied to postgraduate level, and when he met the woman who would become Mitty’s mother, her parents insisted that there prospective son-in-law should become a professional teacher in order to have both the dignity of the profession as well is the assured income.

I first met Mitty via her blog in which she wrote, very beautifully and evocatively, about her parents and about her father’s love of teaching. So I contacted Mitty because thanks to her diligence and personal research she could help me understand some of the lost history of the education system in Cambodia prior to Pol Pot.  Mitty graciously agreed to be interviewed by email, and what you read below are her answers to my fumbling questions. Thank you Mitty for your help. By the way, here is a link to her wonderful blog.

Q: What is your current role in Cambodia?

A: My current role in Cambodia is to take this time in my life for personal reflection, to learn about Cambodia and our family’s history. I’ve lived in the U.S. for the last 30+ years and Cambodia was always an afterthought in my mind. That all changed when I first visited the country in 2004 and after that experience, I knew that at some point in my life I wanted to take the time to go back to Cambodia to reconnect with the country. A few months ago, our family received a great opportunity to move back to Cambodia. I’m taking a break from my career at the moment because I know this is a rare opportunity to come back and get reacquainted with a country I left so long ago.

Q: I’m sure there’s a complicated psychology going on for Cambodians such as yourself who have grown up in the west and choose to return. What things have you discovered about yourself since flying in to Cambodia?

A: Growing up I didn’t like nor appreciated the fact that I could navigate between two worlds, American and Cambodian. I saw my Khmer identity more as a burden because I wanted to fit in with my American friends. As I grew older I realized that it is not a burden but a blessing, but these are the lessons one learns with age and maturity. Now as I live here and am caught between the two worlds of being Khmer and American, I realize it is a blessing of which I no longer take for granted. I’ve learned that being able to do this is a priceless gift.

I also discovered I didn’t know many of the issues Cambodia faces. When I was an outsider looking in and reading the news about Cambodia from the U.S it was always portrayed as black and white. But having lived here for a few months, now understanding that there aren’t simple solutions to the problems facing Cambodians today. There are nuances that have to be understood such as history, cultural context, socio-political environment that can’t be captured in a sound bite or headline. I understand now that many of the problems facing Cambodia are deeply embedded in systemic failures of institutions and not easily fixed overnight. I believe that it will take a generation to overcome the historical traumas of the past and the culture of impunity of the present but only if real and meaningful reforms start happening now.

Q: What things worry you about modern Cambodia?

A: The future of the young people of Cambodia worries me the most. With over 70% of the population being under the age of 30, Cambodia is under tremendous pressure to find jobs for this burgeoning demographic.

Unemployment among young people is high because their levels of education are low. Cambodia has achieved an impressive 97 percent primary net enrollment rate, yet at only 40 percent of students complete secondary school. Many young people drop out during secondary school to find work or their family can’t support them through school. As such there is a huge gap of an uneducated workforce.
In addition, Cambodia’s economy has blossomed at an impressive rate of 7 percent on average, however that has been attributed to areas of low skilled labor (particularly manufacturing), which require limited skill sets. In order for the economy to sustain that growth or achieve even higher growth, it needs to diversify beyond manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism. But that means deep reforms in the education system, starting with educating students with the skills of tomorrow to prepare them for an increasingly competitive environment.

Q: Mitty; In your writing you reflect on your dad. Your dad was a teacher in the 1960s. Did he talk much about those days?

A: Growing up, I don’t remember my father talking about his teaching days in the 1960s. I remembered my parents talked often about how we suffered during the Khmer Rouge time, perhaps as a way to help us appreciate how fortunate we were to come to the United States and the opportunities we were given. It wasn’t until I started interviewing my parents over 10 years ago—in preparation for my first trip back to Cambodia—that my father briefly talked about his time as a teacher before the war. In one particular story, he told me how he met my mother (who was his student) and that her parents would only let him marry her if he became a teacher for the government, which would give him more financial security. Parents wanted their daughters to marry teachers because it was considered a noble profession and would give them a high social status.

It is also in this context, he would always tell me how highly respected teachers were back then. Students respected their teachers as they would their own parents. When I visited Cambodia with him in 2004, I was impressed to see how his students still held him in the highest regard and respect. And it wasn’t necessarily because he was the best teacher, but it was something you could tell was ingrained in the culture and relationship between teachers and students back then that transcended time. As I’m learning about the education system now, I’m not sure if this type of relationship would hold true today among teachers and students.

As I look back, I didn’t appreciate the information he was giving me nor understood what it meant until I came back to here to live and learned about the stark contrast of the quality education and life of teachers back then and now.

Q: You interviewed Mr Rithy Chea who could reflect on teaching in the old days, as well as the post-Pol Pot years. His comments about the earlier times must have been like a window for you, to look through and see something of your father’s life as a teacher. What did Rithy Chea miss from those days?

A: I think Mr. Chea wanted to become a teacher, for many of the reasons my father wanted to become a teacher, because it was considered a noble profession by society and had financial security. Mr. Chea had studied to become a teacher but then the Khmer Rouge came and that sense of nobility and financial security for teachers was gone and was a liability and a target for execution. When the war was over, that sense of nobility and financial security for teachers never came back and even as we speak, teachers are still struggling to gain this back today. I think that’s what he misses most from those days is the cultural value that the government and society placed on teachers, and the investment that was made in education in general.

Q: He has given 30 years since the 1980s to teaching. I sensed in your interview that he feels discouraged – for example about the low rewards and the widespread cheating by students/teachers who choose to buy or sell pass grades. How widespread do you think this is?

A: Cheating is so widespread that the government has made examination reform one of the top priorities in the education reform agenda. Cheating during examinations is so deeply ingrained in the system that it has become a well organized business machine. The government is looking into how it can tackle this problem, including how to take legal measures against those caught cheating, but this will be a difficult issue to tackle because there will be resistance from those who directly benefit from the cheating. There needs to be enforcement mechanisms for those who are caught cheating but there also needs to be incentives in place to reward the honest and hard working students and teachers.

Q: It seems to run counter to the widespread respect that Cambodians hold for teachers.

A: It does seem counter to the respect that Cambodians in general hold for teachers, but as we know the level of respect that students, parents, and society held for teachers in the past pales in comparison to today, and that is because of the cheating, the bribing, and the low salary that has diminished what was once considered a noble profession.

Q: If you could make three reforms to what you see of the education system in Cambodia – what would you focus on?

A: I would create strong accountability and enforcement mechanisms to deal with cheating and fake diplomas, such as suspending students who are caught engaging in this. I would incrementally increase the pay of teachers based on merit and performance; and improve the quality of education at all levels, especially the secondary level by finding incentives for students stay in school and help students gain the professional or vocational skills they need to find jobs when they graduate.

Q: You’ve probably got mixed views about what you see in modern Cambodia. Are you optimistic for the Kingdom?

A: I believe that change is in the air for Cambodia and I am optimistic for the future of the Kingdom. I believe the Cambodia as we see today will be vastly different in 5-10 years. The country is at a crucial turning point where current leaders are aging and the younger generation (which encompasses over 70% of the population) wants real change and reform.

We saw this as evidence after the results of the elections when it was a narrow victory for the ruling party. In five years time there will only be more young people who will be eligible to vote. To ignore these voices as a wake up call for real change and reform would be a mistake. If the time between now and the next elections aren’t used to make genuine efforts for deep institutional reforms I believe the results will not be as close as it was in July.

I think most Cambodians, including the young people, want Cambodia to choose a path of peace, economic and social progress and stability but they also need to feel hope for a brighter future for themselves and for their families.

Q: Last question. If you could talk to your late father about Cambodia: what would you tell him?

A: I would tell my father that Cambodia is so different. He probably wouldn’t recognize it now. Everyday since I’ve been in Cambodia, I’ve wished that he was here with me to see how much the country has changed. I wish he was here with me so that he can show me the places he went to when he grew up, the schools he studied and taught in, to tell me the stories of his life living in Cambodia, the good and bad times. My father loved telling stories, and loved everything about his country; the food, music, culture, history, and politics. It was always his dream to live back in Cambodia in his old age. I would have loved it if he were here with me right now to hear these stories of the past and compare them to what I see today.

When I started interviewing him 10 years ago the questions I asked were more about our experience during the Khmer Rouge, and a little about before the war—what life was like before then. What he provided to me was a peek into the past. I regret not asking him more questions when he was alive about Cambodia’s past, present and future.

Now that I am here the things I am learning about Cambodia and the places I see mean so much more as I try to understand the country’s struggles and strengths and my own family’s history and journey. But without him here, they are fragmented stories of a window to the past of which I am trying to piece together to help me understand our story and Cambodia’s story.

Thank you Mitty for your depth of insights. I encourage readers to also reflect on her beautiful piece of writing about her father’s experience as a teacher.

For more about that aspect of today’s cheating: Crackdown on Cheats.

Are girls lagging behind in the Cambodian school system?


A long-held concern with the re-emergence of the Cambodian education system has been the worry that girls are being disadvantaged, perhaps for reasons of tradition (is it the girl’s place is to look after younger siblings?) and possibly for systemic reasons: for example more male teachers.

Well, the Ministry’s figures suggest girls are doing virtually as well as boys, overall, though are clearly disadvantaged in at least half a dozen of Cambodia’s provinces.

MOEYS (The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport,) has in its most recent census (2013) of school attendance measured the number of students who have successfully graduated past 3 goal-posts: Grade 6, 9 and 12 (which mark the completion grades for Primary, Lower Secondary and Secondary schools.)

Of those students who pass at each level, what percentage are girls? The answer, 49% for the lower grades, and 48% for Grade 12.

In other words almost exactly half of all students. A great result. More than this; the figures are almost identical when we compare Urban schools with Rural schools. Here are the MOEYS statistics.


In half a dozen provinces, (I’ve indicated these in oranges and red) however, there is room for improvement and the Ministry, to it’s credit, is working to ensure gender equality within the education system.

For more fresh data about Education in Cambodia: