One of the main roles of the Travelaid team was to help the many scholarship students at JWOC with their free English teaching classes. JWOC helps coordinate 20 English classes throughout the week. Classes of around 25 students are held in 3 separate classrooms (2 at JWOC, 1 at Wat Chork). With an eleven strong team, we were lucky to have both a weekday class (four, one hour classes a week) and a weekend class (2, 2 hour classes) each.
Before arriving at JWOC, we were all really nervous about the English teaching – despite all attending a TEFL course! To our delight, we soon discovered that we wouldn’t actually be teaching on our own, but assisting the permanent teachers here, the Khmer scholarship students. We were encouraged by Andrew and Camilla to help the Khmer teachers make the lessons more student focused. In government schools here, children learn their English largely through copying sentences from the board and repeating set words and phrases. The most genuine English conversation they can share is with tourists who rarely venture out of the centre of Siem Reap or from the Angkor temples. We wanted to make the classes much more interactive with fun games and role plays to help get them using their English in more natural conversations with each other and find new, exciting ways to help them remember vocabulary and sentence structures.
I think the Travelaid team all had different experiences with their classes depending on the confidence of the teacher or the age of the class. Many of us with adult classes found that students were incredibly motivated and would often ask us questions that we struggled to answer. I’d often have to ask other members of the team for ideas on how to explain the many ridiculous rules we have in English! The ‘adult’ students, ranging from 13-25, find four hours (on top of school studies and work) in their week to focus on their English and hopefully improve their job prospects not just in the tourist industry but in finance, law and management. I’d struggle to believe that teenagers in England would voluntarily give up so much time and be as enthusiastic and focused as these guys are. Their enthusiasm to learn made the experience of teaching incredibly rewarding and encouraged us all to dedicate many more hours thinking up new ways to make the most of our lesson time and our teaching much more effective.
I personally found teaching the younger kids a lot harder. They were still very used to being talked at and many seemed to struggle much more when asked direct questions or were encouraged to write on the board or talk in English in front of their peers. They loved the games though especially when divided into teams and made to compete against each other to first discover the correct spelling of a new word or complete gaps in a sentence for example.
The majority of our team found the scholarship student teachers incredibly receptive to these new approaches, many scholarship students had already used games in classes. However there were a few teachers who, perhaps being a bit more shy or stretched for time, took a bit longer to come round to suggestions for their classes. It was tricky sometimes to encourage the teacher to actually conduct the game themselves rather than getting the volunteer to lead the game as one segment of the lesson before they returned to the usual style of teaching for the rest of the lesson. We’ve been working to ensure that our efforts here will not die off the minute we leave Siem Reap. The aim was always to find methods of teaching that the scholarship students themselves believed to be effective and would feel confident to continue after we left. We had neither the experience nor the intention to take over the class, teach for a month and then head home with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Some members of our team have built up an activities ideas folder which we hope students will return to occasionally when planning their classes.
Some of us were also very fortunate to have our very own class at the weekends. This was sadly due to one of the scholarship student teachers being involved in a motorbike accident (apparently a really common occurrence here in Cambodia). At first, we were incredibly nervous to be leading a two hour class, but quickly found our adult students to be very welcoming and helped us along even when we couldn’t answer their questions! We tried to focus on practicing pronunciation and writing since these seemed to be the two areas where students really struggled – punctuation and many of our English sounds are completely new to the Khmer students so take lots of practice. We also took time over areas we thought to be most useful, such as food and drink which we thought would be relevant for those working in restaurants. Stumbling blocks soon arose when trying to explain the concept of toast, jam or pasta! Once we leave, another volunteer will fortunately be here to carry on the classes until the scholarship student teacher recovers fully.
Many members of our team also found it beneficial for the lessons (and really lovely for us!) to spend separate time working with the scholarship student teacher. Many of the scholarship students have had little opportunity to practice their own English outside of the classroom. It was so nice to take time to sit and chat about family, our ambitions and the differences between our lives and cultures. The students are largely of the same age as us and at a similar point at university, making decisions about where they want to work and what they hope to achieve. We started an afternoon drop in session for any students (whether scholarship students or not) to come and chat with us and practice their English. Some of our team started daily, one hour, individual classes with their teacher where we would work on the pronunciation of certain sounds and practiced by reading aloud newspaper articles and stories. We also had lots of opportunities to see the students socially such as at Sunday, movie nights, during our extra curricular activity sessions during the week or whilst working on the well or microfinance projects. As the teachers got to know us as a team outside of the classroom, they seemed a lot less self conscious during their lessons, more relaxed and more confident to enact our ideas for the lessons.
The scholarship students here at JWOC really are incredible. They put so much time and effort into their lessons and improving their own English alongside their degrees which range from English Literature (reading Shakespeare and Austen!) to Law, Finance and Management, it was such a pleasure to work with them and feed off their energy! We were all really relieved and encouraged by how receptive the students were to us. I’m not sure how keen I’d be if someone walked into my classroom and started voicing their opinions! But the students were always so open and warm, allowing us a snapshot into their lives which has made this experience so much more personal. They have given us so much advice about bargaining in the town, which temples to visit and food to try. We were lucky to share a real Cambodian BBQ with some of the teachers and a few of us went out clubbing to a full on Khmer club and drove to watch sunrise at Ta Prohm!
I think we’ve also all been overwhelmed by how hard the Khmer people work here; often putting in 3 hours of work in the field before breakfast, working in hotels and shops to provide an income, studying at university and still turning up at JWOC with the kind of smile and enthusiasm that we volunteers worked to muster over our toast every morning. The atmosphere here is one that encourages strong friendships and devotion to the education of the students that return here day after day. I think we will all struggle to say our goodbyes.