How to Teach English in Cambodia
Notes from an English Teacher
Article and photos by Margaret Ulrich
Even though I have never taught native English speaking children, it seems that the basics of teaching are universal, with the same demands of planning, grading, and banging your head against the wall. Along with these requirements, as a LanguageCorps ESL teacher abroad, you have an entire culture to decipher.
To keep myself organized—and sane—I turn to the ever faithful “to-do” list. These are basics for every teacher, but with a Cambodian twist.
Stay organized. If there is one thing I have learned it is to be one step ahead of the kids. Some days it takes the entire class time to understand the concept of my: other days the lesson lasts 10 minutes because they already know the days of the week.
I like to have a general outline of my week, including:
- vocabulary words
- grammar examples
- an activity i.e. coloring, movie, and puzzles
- learning games, review games, and fun games
- homework assignments
Once I have those in mind, I only have to spend a little time actually sitting down and printing off vocabulary pictures or worksheets. Believe me, you will want as little stress as possible once you have 30 6-year-olds screaming, “Teachaa, teachaa.”
Print Homework Assignments ASAP
"Hurry up and wait" is an expression I recommend you integrate into your daily life while working in a developing country. If you wait until the last minute, the copy machine may break, the person assigned to make the copies might not feel like doing so, and/or there could be a power outage.
Submit your homework copies early, but still be prepared not to have them returned in a timely manner. This applies to getting supplies, books, copies, room changes, information, contracts ... you get the point.
Buy Angry Bird Stickers/Tattoos
In Cambodia there is a crazy obsession with Angry Birds. No, not the popular iPhone app where you slingshot cartoon birds to squish cartoon pigs. Most of them do not even know it is a game.
They are obsessed with the image of the angry bird. That is it. Just the image.
At least one student in each of my classes has an Angry Bird pencil, sharpener, tattoo, or notebook cover. I now have complete sympathy for my teachers during the reign of the Tamagotchi.
My point is, "if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em." Use a reward system with your kids and find out what they love—or in this case, are crazy about—and use that to your advantage. Plan games using such themes or give them themed stickers when they do well in their class work. They will be participating and you will be considered very cool.
Make a Seating Chart for Second Period
In addition to being very cool, you need to be very strict. While it is good to create a fun class because that fosters a positive learning environment, the children also need to know that you are in charge.
As many management skills as you may have, there will still be that one "Dennis the Menace." I do use the school’s methods, which are eerily reminiscent of the 1950’s, which consists in writing lines and making them stand when they speak Khmer, but I also think other methods are worth trying.
Figure out if your kids are learning slower, faster, verbally, visually, or upside down and backwards. Just find a balance between the school’s demands and your students.
Get New Shoes
A foreigner’s appearance is almost as important as his/her resume, so make sure you do not look like you just got off the overnight bus from Bangkok. It sounds strange, but students will complain to their parents and the school if they do not approve of a teacher’s attire.
So buy or bring a pair of nice, closed-toe shoes, a few button downs, and some work pants/skirts. Even if you see other people wearing incense-ready linens, you will have more job security.
Make Plans for Chinese New Year
Yes, you are in a foreign country, but it is still so easy to get bogged down in the typical 9-to-5 job. Take advantage of what the new country has to offer. Make plans for the holidays when you get time off to experience every part of the culture you can.
ESL teaching, although sometimes draining, enables you to enjoy the complete immersion experience so many people strive to achieve. Such work creates opportunities to learn from students, their families, other employees, the city in which you work, and the country in general. Just as you should teach your students, do not fall prey to getting stuck learning only inside the classroom.
See LanguageCorps for more information on one program in Cambodia.
Margaret Ulrich is a freelance writer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.