"Every Day I'm Shuffling" at PIO

The last time I posted about teaching, I was only two days on the job. Now, I’ve taught at People Improvement Organization’s school in the Stung MeanChey district of Phnom Penh, next to the former rubbish dump1 outside of the city proper, for over two months.

And a lot has happened in those two months, so I’m not going to do a “typical day” thing, like I did for living with my host family. When I set out to write this post, I thought I would break it into sections based on the four (!) different classes I’ve taught now. But then I realized that to understand that, you’d need a history of why I’ve been shuffled around so much.

So that’s what this post is, and next week or the week after I’ll post about the actual teaching.

I got here a week before the Pchum Ben holiday, which is one of the “big deal” holidays here. Turns it it’s also a divider between school terms, at least at PIO. In my two-day post I said I was teaching Grade 3 and would soon start teaching Grade 4; what actually ended up happening was that most of the current Grade 3 advanced to Grade 4, and I taught the new Grade 3 and the new Grade 4 for maybe a week or less before the head teacher, Ms. Davy, decided that I wasn’t such a great teacher for Grade 3—a Khmer speaker would be better suited to it. So then I taught Grade 4 and Grade 5 for a week or so.

I want to take a moment for Grade 5, even though I only taught them for a brief time. The “classrooms” for Kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 2, and Grade 5 are just rooves over a hard floor, up on the dump site (and rented from the current owner, who kinda wants us gone). Sure, they still have tables and chairs and a whiteboard, but it does not feel like a classroom…and the fifty-sixty kids of Grade 2 are sitting not five meters away. And when Grade 2 learns English, a lot of what they do is repeating as a group…which makes things harder for Grade 5. I don’t envy the actual Grade 5 teacher, or the current English volunteer.

I should probably get a picture, huh.

Anyway, soon after that the organization admins made a decision that PIO should follow the public school curriculum in the morning, then have block English in the afternoon: three periods in a row. There are definite pluses and minuses here, such as how hard it is for kids to concentrate on one subject for three hours (even with breaks), or the fact that this makes it impossible for one volunteer to teach multiple English classes. But the upshot for me was that I had mornings completely off.

Except I didn’t want mornings completely off. I can always find small things to fill the time (like blog posts, writing short stories, reading e-books or physical books), but that’s not really what I came here for. And I know the other volunteers in my house are working maybe five or six hours a day, not counting whatever informal time they spend during lunch; I was working three.

So I talked to Ms. Davy, and to one of the admins, and they came up with an idea: I could teach extra classes in the morning for the high school students in the PIO program, even though they go to public school. And independently of this, Ms. Davy asked if I could maybe teach a bit of casual English to the other teachers during the two-hour lunch break, since they have varying levels of skill…

Both of those sounded awesome to me. The high school class had to be put off until November, since right now the kids were going to the public school in the morning and I was already teaching Grade 4 in the afternoon. But the teacher-class began in mid-October. I was eating lunch with the teachers even before this, even when I only had afternoon classes, so my work day was from 11-4:30.

And then the high school classes started, and my work day was from 8:30-4:30. But the lunch break lasts from 11 to 1, minus 12-1 teaching the teachers, plus 10:40-11 of break for me (since I’m only teaching an hour and a half to two hours for the high school students). So it’s doable, but not easy…and I’m not even teaching full-time. (This is why I can’t say enough that my respect for primary and secondary school teachers has jumped up again since coming here.)

Finally, we came to the next big holiday (and the last long break for a while), the Water Festival, which was also fellow volunteer and housemate Jaclyn’s last week. And so, since I’m now the volunteer with the most native English, I was to take over her Grade 6, and relinquish my Grade 4. (The other two volunteers at PIO right now are Danish, though they’re perfectly comfortable in English, and there’s also a Cambodian part-time teacher who’s studying English at university right now.)

So that’s what my day looks like now: the high school extra-study class for two hours, lunch with the teachers, the teacher-class at noon, and then Grade 6 for three hours. And while I’m not quite as on top of everything as I feel I should be (there were a string of days where I felt like it wasn’t possible for all three of my classes to go well), I’m definitely glad to be doing it all.

It’s not about Making a Difference, it’s about small incremental positives, and the moment when a student gets it. “Oh, I understand!” It’s that moment that makes teaching worthwhile.

  1. The dump is now a methane farm run by a clever and opportunistic Korean company; the piles of trash are covered with large sheets of plastic. ↩︎