We’re past the half-way mark of the teaching term now so I feel like I have sufficient experience to talk about the classroom side of volunteering here in Cambodia. During the orientation week, we had a brief introduction from some previous volunteers and other local English teachers as to classroom techniques, some practical activities to use, and also a more general idea of what to expect from our students. Everyone in the house was a bit nervous the night before our first day of lessons, but without exception we had generally good first days. After two or three days of teaching I already felt like an old hand. The students themselves help you tremendously. They are as a rule very friendly and very ready to learn. Your students will be curious about you and what you do and where you come from, and will almost invariably call you “teacher”, which they shorten to “cha”. You get so used to it that you’ll be responding to “teacher” when a student spots you on the street and calls out to you. Students will also be keen to tell you about Cambodia and its customs and recommend places to see and foods to eat. Paradoxical as it is, you learn a whole lot more from teaching than you actually teach!  

The average teaching day with eleven volunteers in the house is four one-hour lessons and a back-up lesson. If you are back-up you are “on call” if someone is sick or unable to teach for any reason. We have also just started helping out the school by doing new student testing during our back-up lesson. Testing new students is not at all hard and even good fun. The students are divided into levels 1 – 8, as well as some Advanced Discussion and Advanced Communication classes. The different levels are offered more than once a day and at different times, to be more accommodating for students’ schedules. Many are working or going to school or university, so it is easiest for them to attend English classes early in the morning or at night. As a result there is a four-hour gap from noon to 4pm where nobody is teaching. This is good for us teachers as we all get a chance to write the next day’s lessons or go shopping or sightseeing or grab a delicious frappacino from coffee shop ‘Jars of Clay’ down the road. I really like my schedule – I have two classes in the morning starting at 6.30am. Around 8.30am I’m back home having second breakfast, and then I have a gap until 4pm when I have two more lessons. Teaching four classes a day is completely manageable. The first week it was a little difficult getting into the routine, but you get faster and faster at planning lessons and have more and more time free. It really is a great life and a fantastic opportunity – combining the fun and structure of teaching with the freedom and sightseeing of a person on holiday. That’s another thing – there are many, many holidays in the Khmer calendar. Our longest run of straight Monday to Friday teaching weeks is three in a row. 

The school itself is a short walk from the volunteer house. It’s a three-storey building with reception at the front, staff room out the back, and eight classrooms sprinkled throughout the levels. Most classrooms don’t have air-conditioning, but in my experience this isn’t really a problem. Each classroom has a whiteboard, which is the major teaching tool – a few of the classrooms have a TV, and most have power points if you want to set up speakers and do a music comprehension. If you really desperately want to use a TV and don’t have one in your classroom you could always swap rooms with another teacher for that class. The school and the staff are fairly flexible and always willing to help out with any reasonable request. About four or five weeks into term we were given some feedback on our teaching so far, which I found really helpful, and astonishing to see with how much detail some students had responded. After discussion with the other volunteers it was clear that a common request from all students was “more games!” It’s a good suggestion – games are fun for a start, and get students talking. I’ve noticed the students here in Phnom Penh particularly love team games. They get really into it.

Of course it isn’t all sunshine and daisies. There are the moments of utter incomprehension when you aim too high or haven’t explained properly or led up to something slowly enough or speak too quickly, but to counter these there are those “aha!” moments when they really get something and get excited about it. Overall, I’ve had a great teaching experience so far and I hope the students are learning something and having fun!


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