Back to Education – in Cambodia!

Since my retirement from primary education in 2013, I have been eager to become involved in a project or programme that would link the world of education where I had spent a very rewarding career and my interest in development and sustainability. I came to hear about SeeBeyondBorders through networking with my local Educate Together National School in Donabate, North County Dublin, whose staff and school community have established vibrant links with two NGOs in Cambodia: PEPY Empowering Youth and SeeBeyondBorders. I was aware that Colm Byrne, a very committed teacher from the Donabate Portrane ETNS had ventured out to work in Cambodia and was now forging a new life as Director of Development in SeeBeyondBorders. Colm grew up close to where I live and was very willing to meet up and share some of the background, vision and work of the organisation in delivering change in the educational experience of children in rural parts of two areas of Cambodia: Battambang and Siem Reap. Something lit up inside me as I heard more about SeeBeyondBorders, tapped into their website and got to understand the principles behind their work. It was hard to imagine how I could become engaged in a small way, but I looked forward very much to finding out more.
I became a member of Cambodia Ireland Changemakers Network, a new network bringing together people interested in supporting improvement in education for primary school children, both in Ireland and Cambodia. My eagerness to find out more brought me on a short trip to Siem Reap in 2018 and as part of that visit, I was lucky to spend a day visiting a small rural school in Siem Reap. There I watched a young teacher taking her young class through the process of learning about the number 9, using lots of active learning methodologies. I knew no Khmer language, but could recognise lots of best practice happening in the classroom and saw the enthusiasm of teacher and pupils shine together. In the simple basic classroom surroundings, good teaching was happening and these children were gaining so much.
As I followed the SeeBeyondBorders story, I came to understand that, among a number of areas, their main focus is working in improving levels of numeracy and literacy in primary classes one to three. The magic moment for me came when I heard that they also organised a programme called Teach the Teacher for teachers from Australia (and now Ireland!) to share time, a cultural experience and a teacher mentoring/ support programme for two weeks, based in Battambang and Siem Reap. I jumped at the chance to participate in this and started out in early January with a mix of excitement and trepidation.

The information given prior to the trip was very good, but nothing can prepare you for the experience of heading out into the countryside in a new environment, meeting up with bright young local mentor staff, and greeting a teacher and 30-40 curious, eager little faces at 7.00am in the morning. My role was to observe the teaching experience in two different classrooms over two weeks. Each week I worked alongside two SeeBeyondBorders staff, one who worked so hard translating every word of the classroom morning experience- such a linguistic feat without which so much would just go over my head! I was also working with a Khmer learning mentor who offers support and advice to the teachers in the Literacy Programme in ways of improving practice.

Learning and Sharing with Project Manager Nissay Chanleakena

It was an intense, great experience for me. My own years of teaching, of classroom management, tricks and tips of how to keep children engaged came flooding back. The setting was so different and I had much to learn about the programme being taught, yet the experience was real and familiar: teachers taking their class through a programme of shared reading, turning the pages of Big Books, teaching and revising High Frequency Words, blending Khmer sounds, creating and editing their own stories.
In the afternoons the mentor teams came together for reflection and chat on what we had observed that morning, discussing feedback and goals to improve our teachers’ practice. We also had input on other aspects of the SeeBeyondBorders work including supporting girls in education and the possibilities of introducing educational material using ICT.
As can be seen from the above, it was a rich learning experience for me. I enjoyed the collaborative work with local people, trying to pick up a few Khmer phrases for the classroom, being involved again in thinking, discussing and sharing educational ideas and seeing how they would work in a local, developing education setting. It was also great to work with Australian colleagues. It was stimulating to look at educational developments from a Khmer, Australian and Irish perspective and how they might impact on the futures of the next generation.

Lining up for Teacher Sela before the start of the school day

My two week experience in Cambodia brought back memories of time I had spent in the 90s working as a teacher on the APSO teaching programme in Lesotho and the more recent few months I spent in 2016 as a VSO volunteer in Uganda. The remit was different in these assignments and of course the amount of time I spent in Cambodia was minuscule to be able to understand the education story fully, but many parallels come to mind. The challenging ones include the over-reliance on teacher talk and rote learning, very basic classroom environments and resources, poor remuneration of teachers, especially at primary level and lack of quality teacher training. On the positive side, I saw so many children working diligently and enthusiastically and teachers showing great professional care towards their pupils and trying hard to improve their skills, with the goal of giving these young people and their families a better chance in life.

In Ireland our primary teaching union, the INTO, has played a huge role in supporting teachers, increasing awareness of the value and contribution of teachers to society and seeing that the profession of teaching is respected and adequately remunerated. The INTO has contributed hugely to the betterment of the Irish education system over many generations. As a long standing member of the INTO and now as a member of the Retired Teachers Association of Ireland, I am proud of the significant role these organisations play in supporting and enhancing teachers and education in Ireland and also in various projects in developing countries. Both organisations have contributed to worthwhile aspects of the SeeBeyondBorders organisation. From the little glimpse I was privileged to have of the work of SeeBeyondBorders,  I am deeply impressed by its vision, ethos, the conscious link into the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the way it promotes positive educational change.

We had our photos taken before Teachers Inspire Cambodia

I will head home in a week after this enriching time, hoping to find out more about Cambodia and its vibrant peoples and culture, to read up about the terrible effects of Khmer Rouge times and why this dark time happened, to link in again with the Cambodia Ireland Changemaker Network and above all to find time to process a myriad of positive experiences jumbled in my mind.

PHOTO : Khann Phearith and Kan Sikano

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