On Friday at 8am, Amy and I arrived into Siem Reap International Airport. In the Arrivals Lounge we were greeted by some lovely familiar smiling faces. Saraak (in his Ireland rugby jersey) and Manin were full of smiles and happiness at our arrival. We were also met by Kim Ann who travelled separately to meet us, a sign of her kindness and goodwill that we were all so happy to observe in Ireland last year.
After some time to recuperate we joined the rest of the “Irish Team” in their hotel for lunch. As we pulled up in our Tuk Tuk we were beeped by a careless and inconsiderate driver behind us. This is a rarity in Cambodia. While all drivers do use their horns, it is merely to warn you of their position rather than to cause offence. I turned around to see a dear friend of DPETNS. Colm Byrne was on the scene!
After a week in PEPY, Mary, Deirdre, Maeve and Micheál all seemed in fine spirits and were enthusiastic to share stories of week 1 in PEPY and of acclimatising to the Cambodian heat and humidity.
We got a tuk tuk to the Learning Centre and were we recognised some more familiar faces. Channa, a former visitor to Ireland in 2014 was working downstairs who is now an important member of the PEPY staff highlighting the benefits of the PEPY programme. Sithong, a visitor earlier this year, came specifically to the learning centre to greet us and was full of chat about his football match the night before.
Making our way up the stairs at the Learning Centre, memories of 2013 came flooding back and I recalled our meeting, five years ago with the communications director about our prospective partnership.
We entered the PEPY classroom again met Kim Ann, who is now teaching in PEPY and we were struck by any number of things. The students’ happy and enthusiastic nature, the beautifully decorated classroom with Irish and Cambodian flags and the sweat on Micheál before we had even started! He must have overdone the “Sure” spray at lunchtime though as he still smelled of roses!
The students worked on some English and introduced themselves and told us something about themselves. We reciprocated and it was great to learn a little about every individual person.
The lessons were given by a number of the Irish teachers, who were exceptional in their deliverance. This was superb for me to witness as, while we all teach in the same school, we rarely get a chance to observe another teacher and see them in action. However, the show was stolen by someone else. Kim Ann was incredible. Her performance was one that could easily have been mistaken for someone teaching for years at different levels with numerous degrees. Even more remarkable, she is still continuing her own studies. Surely a job in teaching / lecturing is on the cards for her.
We all participated in some song singing afterwards. Songs such as Fight Song, Top of the World and You are my Sunshine were sung passionately and gave a powerful message. Fight Song was a great reflection on the Dream Classes which assisted the students to make aims and goals and strive to achieve them. Top of the World and You are my Sunshine are songs which can make any individual happy whenever you hear them, particularly if they are sung by PEPY students. The final song was a rendition of Tom Chaplin’s Family Tree. Not only was it sung with gusto but Maeve led the sign language of the chorus as we belted it out. I love observing this in DEPTNS assemblies and was equally impressed here.
Next we partook in a first. PEPY teaching….outside the building! Out we went for the Walls of Limerick. A speaker provided the music and despite noise from building works next door, mopeds flying by and the Cambodian heat, a fantastic occasion was had and one that will last long in the memory. This was followed by some Khmer dancing and one in which Maeve displayed some natural talent (check out the photos).
Back inside to conclude some lessons and the PEPY students spoke of what the partnership with DPETNS and scholarship to PEPY means to them and their families. This was quite emotional for us to hear. We heard of how perception of education in Cambodia is changing. Traditionally education was not considered important. What was vital was children working as soon as they were able in order to assist to the family business or farm. Now getting this opportunity was treated as an exceptional gift and one which the students treat extremely seriously. We heard stories of students being looked up to when they return to their community and becoming role models for the next generation of children in their area. This will result in bring boundless prospects for individuals but also to the country as a whole. The students are embracing their opportunity and are keen to give back to their communities when their studies are over.
As we finished up, it was hard to believe the time had passed so quickly. The students were thankful for the lesson and the opportunity to meet us, you’d think we were celebrities like Micheál! After a short tuk tuk ride, we joined them at local pitches for 5 a side soccer and no red cards were dished out unlike last time……Fiachra! There were lovely little memories I’ll treasure. Their love of selfies, how they taught Mary how to pronounce some Khmer words and laughing when she got them terribly wrong and performing of Khmer dance with pride.
Like other scholarship classes before them, they are a remarkable bunch. In everything they do, they give 110%. They are appreciative of any help or assistance they get. Enthusiasm is a given as they see education as a gift, not a right. They are supportive and look out for each other. They appreciate what they have. They work hard on their weaknesses to make them strengths. They are kind. They will try anything you ask of them. They laugh a lot! They don’t stress on the small things. They try to make themselves better each day. If we can learn one of these things from them, we’ve benefitted more than they have.
As teachers we always strive to be better at what we do. We try to give everything we have and more into our learning and interactions with students. We strive for a holistic learning environment where curriculum and life learning are intertwined. Meeting these students and grasping the energy and aura in the room makes you seek even more within yourself to give. I can only wonder how inspired the rest of the Irish team will be returning after three full weeks of it. It is impossible to put into words how worthwhile and productive our partnership with PEPY is. I’ve tried here….and failed but I hope you get some indication of the difference it is making.