Since I came to Cambodia, I have worked with children, students and teachers (primary, secondary and college). I still remember how frustrated I was with the teachers at the beginning. They didn’t come to school or the weekly teacher meeting because they were busy in the fields or some other business. So the students went home. A day was gone without learning anything. When I met the students hanging around in the village, I asked them why they didn’t go to school, they said their teachers did not come.
Although it is written in black and white that all Cambodian children receive nine years of free education, many children do not go to school because their families cannot afford to pay a small amount of money (about US$0.10) to the teachers every day. Such a practice is a way to supplement the teachers’ salary because the teacher’s salary is so low (about US$20 to US$25). Not just once but many times when I asked some dropouts why they didn’t go to school, they simply said that they were ashamed of not being able to pay the everyday fees to the teachers.
In Cambodia, it is very common, especially in the city that students study with their teachers after school. Of course, they pay for those private classes. So during school hours, the teachers teach “something” but the real teaching is carried out during those private classes. So again, the poor students are excluded and as a result, they fail in the examination.
I have to admit that I was a bit angry to such a practice. Yet, when I learnt about the situation, I felt sorry for them. They receive about US$20 to US$25 a month. However, very often the salary comes late. It can be 3 months late. Thus, they have to find other income to feed their families. The situation is even worse in more remote areas without any NGOs support. I came to see how ignorant I was. I was too task-oriented. Since then, I visited and listened to not only the students but also the teachers. I tried to put myself in their shoe. The frustrating feeling gave way to the feeling of helplessness. Fortunately, my belief helps me to see the silver lining behind the cloud. And I moved on.
Cheating is another very common practice in school. You can bribe a teacher for a good score. I was surprised to find lots of policemen and police cars outside a high school during a public exam. I was told that people from outside just threw the answers in to their friends. It sounded totally absurd to me. Another reason why the policemen are there is to avoid any outbreak of violence. There have been cases that students threatened their teachers with guns if they were forbidden to cheat during the exam. I know it is hard to imagine but it is the reality here.
I volunteered to teach English in a secondary school in 1999. In the first term examination, I was one of the invigilators. There was another Cambodian teacher with me in that class. As soon as the exam began, he left the classroom. He joined the other teachers from the other classes chatting and smoking at the far end of the corridor. Those who remained in the classrooms were busy grading the exam papers. They turned a blind eye to what was going on in the classroom. And I was busy preventing the students from cheating. I was really upset about it. This was my first but also my last time to invigilate the exam in that school.
However, I also found cheating very common among university students when I first started teaching in 1997. I had lots of discussion with the students and I had a hard time preventing them from cheating during exams. Once a student said to me, “Teacher, we have been cheating since we were in primary school.” I appreciated his frankness. He told the reality. My heart fell but I knew it was not the time to ask why or found out whose fault. I felt sorry for them. They didn’t know how to prepare and what to study for their exam. I was sure that if they knew why and what they were doing, they would not cheat. What I needed was to have patience and hope in them and myself. (Of course, it has to be based on my faith in God.)
After all these years, I am happy to see that the gradual change has already taken place. I don’t find students cheat during exams. The credit should go to all the teaching staff (both Cambodian and foreign teachers) of the English Language Support Unit for up holding and reinforcing the practice of a fair and honest exam.
The personal and communal prayers play an important role in my life. They are the sources of support, strength and comfort to face the everyday challenges and the people I encounter every day.
(Last modified: 07-02-2020)