Helen’s experience in writing class at JWOC

August 20, 2011

One of the most heartening aspects of teaching at JWOC has been the
incurable eagerness and enthusiasm of the students. Many of them walk,
cycle, or even push their way in wheelchairs to the JWOC English
classes from their homes which can be 20kms away, and yet still
always arrive with beaming smiles and confident “hello’s”.

As TravelAid volunteers, our first job in the English conversation
classes was simply to sit amidst the students and help them with their
exercises and comprehension throughout the lesson, and to chat with
them before and after class (several would stay after class until we
ourselves had to go, which was hugely different to students at home
who would shoot out the room the minute the bell rang). Most of them
have busy days without JWOC anyway; many of them work, whilst others
must take care of their younger siblings or help with household
chores, and the fact that they still make the time and effort to come
to JWOC is an inspiration to me, and something which I wish I could
say of the teenagers back home.

It was mainly because of this experience that we decided to set up
our own free classes: the students simply yearned to learn and were
meticulous in their improvement, making sure they picked out every
detail they hadn’t understood and patiently waiting for us to find the
simplest explanation we could, and knowing what a struggle basic Khmer
was for us to learn, it’s hard to conceive how they kept themselves so

We arranged for these classes to take place during the hour before
their Conversation Class, so they wouldn’t have to trek half way
across the country to and from school more than once a day. Because
there was such a wide spectrum of English skills within the group (and
almost all of us wanted to teach anyway), we had three volunteers in
each class – one at the board and two sitting among the students to
help any who were struggling. We organized the topics and the
activities before each class, loosely based around what we had
observed in our sit-in lessons.

Standing in front of a semi-circle of expectant students, all
desperate to learn your language, and completely reliant on every word
you say wasn’t exactly the idealistic image I’d pictured of breezing
from one exercise to the next effortlessly, as I now realize my
schoolteachers seemed to be able to do to perfection. Twenty pairs of
big brown eyes gazed up at us, and the pens in their hands seemed
disconcertingly ready to transmit my every word into the awaiting
notebooks. Suddenly instructions on my print-out of the lesson plan
like, “Explain the reasons why various past tenses are used in
different situations” left me utterly clueless, and any grasp of the
English language I might have had made a hasty retreat into the most
remote rabbit-holes of my brain. Fortunately, we found them to be incredibly patient with us – as unqualified teachers we often struggled not only to understand the complications of the English language ourselves, but also to explain
them, yet they encouraged us nevertheless with their own suggestions
and ideas, and kindly smiled though our endless ‘err’s and ‘umm’s.

Talking to them individually, it is clear that for the most part they
don’t view English as a chore to drag their feet through, but rather
as an opportunity to share the intricacies of their lives with us, and
to attempt to understand the rather perplexing facets of our foreign
culture which they simply couldn’t get their heads around – despite
countless drawings and translations, we were never able to make
everyday features such as custard, toasters and pastry be met with
anything more than a sea of raised eyebrows.

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