10 Things I have Learned while Teaching English in Cambodia

I have been living in Cambodia since September. For the first month I was participating in the Language Corps TESOL certification program located in the Stung Mean Chuy district of Phnom Penh. I started teaching in November and since have taught at 2 different schools. In order to make this list more comprehensive, I asked different friends who are also teaching English here what were some of the most important things that they have learned since working here as a teacher. I was not paid to write this and hope that is helpful to whoever is curious about teaching English in Cambodia, or anywhere. Please note that the numbers have no correlation to their importance.

Without further a due, here are the 10 things I have learned while teaching English in Cambodia:

1) Kids are Kids- It doesn’t matter where you are in the world kids are kids. They like to have fun, they have a lot of energy and at times they will not listen to you. Because of this you need to make your lessons fun and engaging. We all remember the boring classes that were filled with only worksheets and listening to the teacher. It was boring for us and it is boring for them. Not every day can be filled with fun and excitement; there will be lessons that are painful for not only your students but you as well, but make sure there is a balance of listening and interaction. Most teachers that I have talked to, including myself, do “Fun-Fridays” where you play educational games with the students on Fridays. It is a nice reward for the students to have fun, take everything they have learned that week and review it. It is also really fun for us teachers, and makes Fridays easy but productive- nice start to the weekend right? Fun-Fridays is a good tool for classroom management. If you have a student or students who consistently don’t behave, you have the option to not include them and instead have them do separate individual assignments.

2) Kids are kids, but there are differences: Cambodian children have very different lives and lifestyles than kids in the US. Just starting at their environment- these kids are growing up in a developing country. While some children do have lives that mirror middle-class America, in regards to luxury items, they still have grown up in Cambodia. One of the most difficult things that I have encountered is their love to talk. I have some students who talk incessantly through class and I must ask them multiple times a day to sit down, or turn around or stop talking, usually it is all three. Despite this, it is important to remember that no matter how frustrated you get with the children you must keep your cool and know that they love being at school and they love to learn. Another huge difference is that most children go to English school for half the day then go to Khmer school the other half. Most likely you are teaching the same things to the students in English that they are learning at Khmer school. On top of that some students practice another language outside of both schools or learn a musical instrument. These kids have their schedules filled for them, so keep that in mind. I have students in my 4th grade class who are trilingual, and some who only have Sundays off from school. It’s mighty impressive but with these full schedules sometimes class is the only time they have to see and hangout with their friends. Which can become disruptive. Remember to not get infuriated with them, they mean well and are just children. This leads me to my next point:

3) Classroom management is #1: you could have the best lesson plan in the history of teaching but it doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t control your class. When you first start, the students are going to test you and see how much they can get away with. They are cute, but they, like all humans, want to test their boundaries. Start strict, not mean, but strict. Make sure you and they understand who is in charge; it’s you, the teacher by the way. Make sure that no matter what, you always remain in control; despite how lost you may feel as a teacher, don’t ever let the students know. Which brings me to my next point:

4) Fake it till you make it: This is for all the people who come here and teach for their first time ever (I’m in that category)- fake it till you make it. Come in everyday prepared, looking professional, and test different styles and methods to see what jives best with your students. I am still faking it, learning new things everyday as I get to know my students, as well as myself better. As stated before, make sure that your classroom is well managed and you will get far, and start to learn how to teach so your students actually learn.

5) Take your teaching job seriously– when you decide to come here make sure you understand that you are coming here to work. Take your job seriously. You came here to teach and that is what you should be doing. You are responsible for your students’ education and them progressing as English speakers. This is a challenging job but it is also extremely rewarding. Most students have 3 plus English teachers a year because there are so many backpackers and travelers floating in and out of Cambodia. Try and add stability into their English education. If the school is horrible to you don’t stay, but just make sure to come here with the mindset that you are going to be working. Don’t go to class hung-over, make sure to prepare for your lessons and just take it seriously. Don’t come here and expect to do nothing and get paid for it. Its not horribly time consuming but you will need to put some time and effort into it.

6) Do your Research– when you decide to move here make sure that you have enough money saved and aren’t put into a situation where you have to take your first job offer. Trust me, jobs are plentiful here. I had about 5-10 interviews/job offers and at least 15 or 20 callbacks before I took a job. Don’t agree on the spot (unless you have already done your research) but ask people who are teachers what they have heard about the school. Here is a personal example: I was offered a job with a school that consisted of 6 lesson plans a day, for 6 different grades (any teacher knows this is suicide) but the pay was a mouth-watering $1,400. I was so tempted to accept on the spot, but I resisted. I called a couple people, and found out that this school had the reputation of hiring teachers on at $800/mo and would tell them that after 3 months they would get the raise to their full salary. Well, at the end of the three months the school would fire the teacher and hire someone else, as to not give the raise. I think this is one of the more vicious stories but still make sure to do your research because the school can really make all the difference.

7) Which brings me to the school System here, or lack there of: There are public schools here, but most likely that is not where you will be teaching as the pay is much lower than private institutions. Seeing as Cambodia is ranked the 17th most corrupt country, there is no surprise that this often includes schools as well. Private school is expensive and parents want their children to succeed. Unfortunately, this means that bribery is common, whether blatant or through gift-giving. At my first school I let one of my TAs input grades into the grade sheet only to realize that she fudged many of the students’ grades and actually changed other grades as well.
Stories like these aren’t uncommon unfortunately, but it’s important to realize where your sphere of impact is. While the system might be frustrating sometimes, where you can make an impact is in your classroom with your students, so focus on helping your students.

8) The job market- Let’s face it, things are less politically correct here than you will likely be used to. You will see ads that specify for women only applicants, falling in a certain age group and even for attractiveness. While some may find this offensive, get over it, it’s just the way things go in Cambodia.

Unfortunately, some schools here only want women teachers. I know a lot of guys who teach here, so don’t let it discourage you; just know that it might take some time. It will be a lot more challenging finding jobs if you are not flexible. For example I got about 10 different offers to teach pre-k/kindergarten. Unfortunately I had no desire to teach that age so I passed, knowing that I would not enjoy my work life here. Make sure that you bring enough money to where you can wait out for that job that you will enjoy! One last thing, if you have any special talents (music, cooking, art, graphic design, computer stuff, multiple languages) look for a job in that niche. It will most likely pay better and you will enjoy it.

9) Money, Money, Money: It is important to know the difference between hourly and salary. In my opinion salary is a better option but there are schools who pay salary and expect a lot out of their teachers, such as standing out front of the school waving to the parents as they drop-off/ pick-up their kids for 30-45 minutes a day. I work on salary and on Fridays I have to help serve food for 15 minutes. I also have two months where I have to make a mural of some sorts depicting the month with another teacher, but it’s well worth it to me. Salary is also beneficial because there are a lot of public (paid) holidays where schools are closed. Also, some schools have anywhere from 1 week to one-month breaks. If you are on hourly you are not getting paid for time you are not teaching, but with salary you will. This is another reason why learning your schools reputation before accepting a job offer is important. Also in the interview ask questions like “With the salary wage, other than teaching, what else are my expected duties as a teacher?” i.e. meetings, lunch duty, waving etc.

10) Last but certainly not least you are teaching in Cambodia: Cambodia is a developing country and it should be treated as such. There is really not a lot of structure here, and like any developing country, it can be dangerous if you’re not careful. Cambodia is also beautiful and an awesome place to live and meet people. It’s Cambodia, it’s complicated, it’s complex and it needs to be respected. Exercise common sense and safety precautions when you are out and about (keep an eye on your belongings, don’t flash your phone or cash around, stay in groups, etc.) and you’ll be just fine.
I love it here and I feel safe, but I never take a purse out, very rarely take my iphone with me anywhere, and if I do it is only during the day never when I am going out at night. You have to have your wits about you and street smarts get you a lot further than book smarts here in Kampuchea. Read all that you want on this country; blogs, history and travel books. While they are all very helpful, reading about Cambodia and stepping out of the airport into a tuk-tuk for your first time are completely different experiences. It is awesome, it is wild, it is scary, it is uncomfortable, it is beautiful and it is personally challenging. But most importantly – it is well-worth the trip.

I hope this list provides better insight and allows you to make a well-informed decision. I am here for a year then back-packing through South East Asia for 4 months before I return home, and I would highly recommend the LanguageCorps Cambodia program. I have met so many people during my training that I have become friends with, which made the transition that much easier. LanguageCorps is really helpful when it is time to apply for work, and it is really comforting knowing that if I need anything I can go to them. Their TESOL training is very comprehensive, and while I was a bit nervous, I felt confident going into my job interviews and first days of work. If you are looking for a personal challenge, in which you will grow significantly as a person, this is it. Good luck with whatever you choice may be, and who knows, maybe I’ll see you around the Marady sometime ;).

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