Teaching in Cambodia


Cambodia has a proud educational history. When you visit the temples of Angkor you'll note that many had libraries - and for hundreds of years the Kingdom thrived on what today might be called the knowledge economy. It was knowledge of irrigation that gave Cambodia an immense advantage, economically, over its neighbours. Likewise as a blend of distinct religions and cultures, Cambodia was a thriving melting pot of ideas. During the 20th century, mostly under French rule, the schooling system was particularly strong, and teachers were given an esteemed place in society - receiving by the early 1970s, something like 10 times the salary (inflation adjusted) that they are able to receive today. 20th century Cambodia produced a strong legacy of literature also.

All this ended under Pol Pot of course, and by the end of his genocidal years fewer than 100 academics survived, it is believed. Teachers were singled out for execution during the implementation of Pol Pot's miserable experiment in breaking down society's values of education, religion and family.

Today, Cambodia still bears the legacy of those years - and the schools of today are under-equipped, teachers underpaid, and attendance very low. UN figures suggest that while literacy has climbed in the last decade to around 70% (males more than females) the percentage of young people eligible to attend high school who actually do attend and complete Grade 12 is around 30%.

For young children there are strong forces that prevent them from attending school, let alone completing their education. the biggest of these forces is economic - with families needing (often desperately needing) their children to assist the family farm or business. many families simply cannot afford the compulsory school uniforms, or can afford one of two uniforms which are shared, in turn by one child after another. State teachers are paid very poorly, and many resort now to charging a nominal amount to students for additional or even basic tuition. They too are fighting to survive in today's hard economy where inflation sits around 20% per annum.

As for university, while attendance is now booming, less than 1.5% of Cambodians have completed a university degree. You can see how this spirals around: with most teachers in Cambodia trained only to a limited level.

It's into this environment, a burgeoning population (half of Cambodia is aged 20 or less) of young people is unable to receive the education they need to unlock their own future. Complete education is increasingly the domain only of the wealthiest 30%.

In recognition of this situation, many organisations - some local, some overseas-based - have been established to provide an improved education prospect to local children. These organisations invite overseas supporters and volunteers to assist with their programmes.


Local organisations - volunteer schools or supporters of state schools - have a certain advantage over foreign based organisations. Their directors have a closer, more resilient connection with the communities in which they work, and are able to navigate the sometimes complex cultural landscape of rural communities. These organisations include the Ponheary Ly Foundation which is committed to overcoming the hurdles facing young children who wish to go to school - the cost of uniforms, transport (they provide bicycles for children who otherwise cannot walk the substantial distance to local schools) and nutrition. They are supported by overseas people, but Ponheary Ly, who lived through the Pol Pot years steers this organisation wisely with a philosophy of supporting existing schools and focusing on the hurdles. They have achieved remarkable successes in lifting attendance rates - and their programmes are worth emulating.

Other local organisations work more in parallel with the State Schools. These include stand-alone schools which focus on employment related education (offering studies complementary to the State system including computer skills and language: both of which are a passport to employment opportunities as Cambodia modernises and increasingly trades with the rest of the world.)

Examples of these schools include SOCPLSDO  (The Sustainable Organization for Community Peasant Laborer Student Development and Orphans) which is a not-for-profit, non-governmental and non-political organization that was established in 2006 by regional students, labourers and peasants - in a village not far from Siem Reap. The acronym may be unwieldy, but the school is well run and it treats volunteers with open arms and with respect.

Another school is Savong's School, established near Siem Reap but in a rural area, has since 2005 provided language and now computer education to local children aged 8 - 20, and also supplementing its permanent teaching staff with the input of volunteers who have stayed for as few as 2-3 days, and for as long as 3 months. It offers university scholarships to its top students, and sponsors can support these students through university.


Overseas-based organisations have strengths too. What they sometimes lose in terms of cultural subtlety, they make-up for through having good contacts "back home" and thus they tend to be quite strong in terms of providing a pipeline of volunteers to Cambodian schools. They come in three basic types:

1) Many of these organisations charge an up front fee (for example $US1,000) to volunteers in exchange for organising local accommodation and contact. Not all provide the full support that volunteers are led to expect (the Blog-Universe is full of such stories) so potential volunteers are encouraged to do their homework.

2) Some overseas-based organisations run on a somewhat different business model - relying on fund-raising to raise the funds, and relying on volunteers not so much to provide more cash, but to provide real classroom skills. An example of this type of organisation is the British-based SCC (Schools for Children of Cambodia) which has a good track record of building schools mostly in poor rural areas, and providing strong ongoing support.

3) The other type of organisation operating from overseas are those who place volunteers in programmes that they have vetted or made prior arrangements with. These organisations such as Transitions Abroad provide a one-stop shop for a range of programs including those that ask for an up-front fee for volunteers, and those that do not. Because they tend to operate globally they tend to list the larger organisations rather than the locally run projects.


Teaching in Cambodia is, as locals like to joke: "same, same but different" from teaching in the West. Underpinning any classroom are the same dynamics you'll experience anywhere - the bright girls up the front, the mischievous boys down the back - but teachers experience something which has become much less common in the West: an absolute respect by students for teachers, and for education. Lessons are about teaching, and there are few of the management issues (class...be quiet!") that teachers might be used to. What a joy!

Classes will tend to have a wide age range, less so in primary schools - but in secondary schools it is not unusual for a 19 year old to now be studying, even if he or she is sitting alongside 12 year olds. This is no big issue, but for teachers the content of lessons needs to take account of this age range.

Because of the French heritage, local classes are templated on a chalk and talk format - and in language classes the students are used to long vocabulary lists, formal grammar and spelling tests. The challenge, in fact, is to bring some more creative learning styles into the classroom without upsetting or disrupting the formal element.

All teaching involves preparation, and the most successful volunteers in Cambodia don't leave their prep at home and expect to somehow 'wing it' in Cambodia. You may well be working from a Western based English as a Second language series such as Headway or similar.

if you are thinking of volunteering with an organisation, ask them about their syllabus, and ask them also about he resources available. While some schools, not many, have computers, most of these - especially in rural areas - only have generator-driven electricity for one or two hours a day. Forget OHPs, CD players, videos etc. More likely you'll have a whiteboard and some markers that dry out quickly in the tropical heat. Teaching here is hot work.

In many schools you will have a local teacher on-hand to assist with translation, (it never seems to be a massive issue) and because language teaching does involve explanation, translation etc - lessons move more slowly than you may have been trained to move in the USA or UK or Australia etc where teachers are often expected to change activities every 7-8 minutes.

Talk to other teachers who've recently been here and done that, in Cambodia.

But the thing that also creates a successful experience for students and teachers alike is the simple rule of mutual respect. Teachers who prepare their lessons (and show a real interest in these remarkable, open, enthusiastic students) will experience something that all teachers dream about when they enter the profession: that sense that really, truly, you can make a difference.

This article is a start. Each year many hundreds of overseas people volunteer in Cambodia, and many of you will have advice to add to this article.