Tossing and turning in the January heat under my mosquito net, drifting off to sleep or some version of it, I hear the sounds of my students’ voices in my ears calling me by my new title. The voices seem to fall on my ears from every angle as I shake myself awake, realizing that my brain is replaying khmer words and cadences even in the dream realm. I never thought I would grow accustomed to being called Cher (short for teacher in English) or Neak Kru (teacher in Khmer), but as usual, I was wrong. Now, in any given situation, I will respond to these titles quicker than my own name (partially because my name sounds similar to the word for banana in Khmer, so I just assume people are usually talking about fruit instead of talking to me…)
Many sleeps in my first few months at site were like this, a nonstop echo of student voices lulling me into more stress dreams about teaching. Despite advice and countless hours of training and formal education, I believe that nothing can truly prepare you to walk into a classroom full of students and feel 100% confident in your ability as a teacher and in particular, in the context of Peace Corps service. During my education, I was consistently told that as an ESL/EFL teacher, I need to become comfortable with ambiguity, as if ambiguity were a new pair of jeans that just needed a few wears to reach desired mobility, uncomfortable but worth the awkward shifting and readjusting.
Similarly, Peace Corps’s main training motto is: It depends.
Will our students have materials? It depends.
Will our students already have experience with English? It depends.
Will we have a curriculum to follow? It depends.
Will our students show up to class? It depends.
How many counterparts will I be teaching with? It depends
Will I embarrass myself in front of my counterparts and students during class? Yes. This might be the only thing you can be sure of, to be honest.
All this to say that, I feel that I was properly warned. I thought I was ready to be flexible, to be open, to be floating on my back through the ocean of ambiguity, calmly throwing up a peace sign to yachts speeding away from me, lined with life preservers I will never see again.
But alas, enter reality: I found that I had so many expectations tucked into my pocket so deeply that I almost forgot they were there. And man, those things are heavy when you’re trying to swim in an ambiguous ocean.
Peace Corps had placed me at one of Cambodia’s Regional Teacher Training Centers. These are two/four year schools that prepare students from the surrounding regions to become Primary or Secondary School teachers. Although our school currently only offers a two year Primary education program, Cambodia’s Ministry of Education Youth and Sport (MOEYS) is in the process of transitioning all its teacher training centers to offer four year programs. I could see evidence of this in Stung Treng on the first day I arrived at my school. I arrived at the school’s address to see what could only be called the skeletons of buildings and the entire campus under construction, so different from the tour of the campus I had taken on Youtube which showed a campus full of beautiful trees and outdoor common areas. The Stung Treng RTTC was and still is undergoing some major changes. They already have a lot of newer resources like glass whiteboards (I have never seen them before this but let’s just say they blow traditional whiteboards out of the water!), new desks, and fans in the classrooms.
Even so, the changes to campus are sometimes hard on the students and teachers. Students struggle to concentrate or hear the lesson over sounds of construction just outside their classroom windows. Areas of campus are often tough to navigate because workers are removing a tree, laying new cement, or debris is falling from the sky as bricks are being laid on a top floor. Despite the difficulties, one thing I have noticed about my students is that they have an immense sense of pride in themselves and their peers and they feel an obligation to improve upon the Cambodia they currently live in so that future generations can flourish. During my students’ experience at the RTTC, some of the conditions are less than ideal, but as we see the changes unfold, we are excited for what it means for future students who will be able to have the opportunity to have resources like: new classrooms, a covered gymnasium, and a soccer field, and better dorm rooms with their own private kitchens and bathrooms attached.
Working with a Counterpart
Not only was the environment of the school much different than I anticipated, but so was pretty much every aspect of my day to day job (shocker, *cough* it depends!). One main focus in Peace Corps’s vision of development is to work together to increase capacity of local partners. This is implemented various ways depending on the sector or the country of service. One way this is done in PC Cambodia is to require all of its education volunteers to co-teach with a Cambodian counterpart. In training, we learn about the possible challenges that accompany working with a counterpart. The list is long. Working alongside another teacher in a familiar American context is challenging in and of itself, so adding in dynamics of culture related to professional communication, gender relations, and other local norms adds many other layers. How can my counterpart and I learn to compromise with each other in a way that is both culturally sensitive and productive? How can we work through language barriers daily as we discuss lesson plans, methodology, and classroom management? Do our priorities align or complement each other, and how can we navigate working together if they don’t? These are things both my counterparts and I have to ponder almost daily. Working with a high-strung, time-obsessed westerner with little local language skills is also difficult for local partners, too. I can also imagine that my sensitivity and tendency to ugly cry at the drop of a hat is similarly bizarre to them.
There are a lot of external factors that can strain the relationship between a volunteer and a counterpart. In general, teachers in Cambodia are not paid a large wage, forcing them to pick up and sustain other jobs on the side. Many teachers offer private classes in the evenings for extra income. Others have their own restaurants and shops which they might run out of their homes.
As a volunteer, my basic needs are covered, which allows me to focus narrowly on my primary and secondary projects here. In contrast, local counterparts have families to support along with other responsibilities. This reality can mean that local counterparts are wearing many different hats, which may lead to absences and energy put into other projects instead.
Although my counterpart and I have encountered many of these challenges that training aimed to prepare me for, I have seen over time that working with both of my counterparts has been invaluable. In the formal classroom, I work with Ratanak, a silly guy who cares deeply about injustice and the underdog. As part of my secondary project, my counterpart has been a very experienced teacher named Chantra. My site mate and I joke that Chantra is an angel walking among us. He is always surprising me with his many talents and his generosity.
Because of their English language skills and willingness to help, I have turned to my counterparts for emotional support and questions about Khmer culture and language more than any other person at site. They have truly become some of my closest relationships here. When I was initially struggling with transitioning into my host family’s house, my counterpart Chantra was the first person at site that I turned to. The list of ways they have helped me is exhaustive. They have even saved me from wrongly pronouncing words in Khmer so that people in the community don’t think I am cursing at them. Because of my counterparts, I feel that I have learned nuances about teaching in the khmer classroom that I never would have picked up on my own. In the classroom, my counterparts are able to connect and niyay leng (joke around) with the students in ways that I never will be able to as a foreigner. They understand our students motivations and they elicit a certain kind of respect from them that is challenging for me to cultivate. Let’s just put it this way: my students are far more likely to have side conversations and try to share answers on a test when my counterpart is out of the room.
I guess this approach to development that focuses on teaching with counterparts is like, as they say, teaching a man to fish. But the more I reevaluate why I’m here and try to break up my preconceived notions and delusions of grandeur, the more I begin to think that, instead of teaching a man to fish, maybe it’s really about realizing that the man has lived next to a river his whole damn life. He, of course, knows how to fish. It’s more about sharing with each other how our approaches to fishing are similar or different. What can I learn about his local knowledge of the waters and local species that he has known his whole life? What can he understand about a different perspective on fishing that comes from a different context? This is, of course, the goal. And the realization of that goal is a journey. If I can continue to run this fishing metaphor dry, being out on a boat with someone all day trying to figure out the ins and outs of this operation is tough, especially if you’re being thrashed around on an ocean of ambiguity (do you see what I did there?). It leads me to wonder if it’s even possible, and if it should even be attempted. As of now, I believe the pursuit is worth it for all parties.
With a few exceptions, the students at the RTTC usually range between 19-23 years old. The school takes applicants from Stung Treng Province as well as two neighboring provinces to the East: Ratanakiri and Mundulkiri. This part of Cambodia is less developed than other areas near the bigger cities of Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. There is a range of linguistic and ethnic diversity, meaning some students acquired a native language such as Kavet within their communities and homes, and began learning Khmer when they were old enough to go to school. A large portion of the students are from smaller villages, living here in Stung Treng while they attend school. About half of them stay on campus in the dorms while others stay with family or rent a room nearby. Family is of high priority in Cambodia, and my students head home to visit their families and help with rice farming and running the family business as often as they can. Even though they come from different backgrounds, I see them creating their own pieces of family with each other at the school as well, whether it be by celebrating each other’s birthdays with cakes, balloons, and Facebook photo shoots, or escorting a friend to the bathroom when they’re not feeling well. They spend the full two years of study in the same class of about 30 other peers which means they become very close. As is typical in Khmer culture, they are quick to help each other learn and improve and even quicker to make light-hearted jokes at their friends’ expense, ensuring class is never boring.
On the first day that I visited the school, I found a cement table outside covered by an orange and red awning. I settled in, spreading out my notebooks and opening up my Kindle to get some reading done. A group of students left the nearby library, finding their shoes they had left on the doorstep when they entered so as to keep the library spotless. A few of them nervously sat down next to me, eager to practice their English and respond with “I’m fine, thanks. And you?” when asked how they were. I was equally if not more nervous, hoping that I would make a good impression with the ‘youngins (If you could see the one Tik Tok video I ever tried to make, you would understand why I was nervous that I wouldn’t fit in).
From the very beginning, students were warm and welcoming to me. Every morning, after their flag raising ceremony, they make their way to class in droves as I am shoving my face with my favorite sticky rice breakfast, each one telling me “Good morning, Cher!” with a contagious energy that makes me feel so accepted and appreciated. The relationship I have built with them has been such a crucial part of my service. I have heard teachers talk about the magic of being a part of the learning process, about being a facilitator for some kind of growth. But they also say that the lessons students teach us are equally as important. And, surprise, they are right.
Our incredible PC Technical Trainer, Jacob, warned us about falling into the trap of seeing the classroom as a stage and seeing your teaching as a performance. About hoping for the “teacher’s pet” to answer the question correctly so you’re not left hanging, and you can move on to the next thing without a hitch. Even so, I found myself enacting this scene more times than I would like to admit. Things would just be so much easier if everything went the way I planned! (Cue every teacher EVER laughing in the background). After the anxiety that comes with being in front of a class of Khmer-speaking young adults semi-wears off, it became easier to really focus on the students themselves and reflect what I am learning from them back into my own role as a teacher. To be honest, though, I still think I’m getting way more out of his exchange than they are. Their hard work, dedication, and earnestness is commendable and leaves me feeling so thankful that they have put up with my broken Khmer and never-ending stumbles as I have tried to find my footing as a new teacher. They are amazing humans, end of story.
I have been working on this post for weeks now, and it somehow seems to have come together neatly and presentable. But looking back on my work at the Teacher Training Center the last year, it has been anything but. Each day has been simultaneously— boring and unpredictable and frustrating and magnificent and I’m looking forward to sharing more of it with you in the future. So for now, this Cher is off to practice her doggy paddling in the “it depends” ocean. See you on the other side!