Reflections on Our Time at Wat Chork Pagoda School
by Marion & Bill Gilbertson (Volunteer teachers from NZ)
My first impression of Wat Chork Pagoda school which is situated four kilometres outside Siem Reap town, was of a large, colourful pagoda towering above the surrounding countryside.
Behind this vibrantly painted building was the school, a two-storey building with several large classrooms upstairs and three smaller rooms plus office and library downstairs.
Bill and I had travelled out in a tuktuk with Tola for our first teaching session. Principal monk Venerable Houn Hen was waiting to greet us with a beaming smile and lots of enthusiasm. Houn Hen is the director of ‘Human and Hope Association’ (www.humanandhopeassociation.org/) and he has been instrumental in providing much of the inspiration behind setting up Wat Chork Pagoda school. He believes strongly in giving back to his community so has set up a programme that runs for six days a week from 4pm to 8pm and caters for students who want to improve their English. The school is staffed by a team of capable and keen Khmer teachers who give up their time to help the children in the local community.
On arrival we immediately got the feeling that we were about to become part of an enterprising group of people.
As the students arrived Houn Hen directed us to one of the classrooms where we observed a teacher explaining the finer points of the present continuous verb tense to her students. Within a short time both Bill and I were joining in the lesson and giving suggestions. Over the next two hours we joined separate classes and quickly got into the swing of working alongside the teachers.
The text books used at Wat Chork are called ‘Let’s Go’ and ‘Cutting Edge’. They are graded from beginner to advanced level and each class works at a different level. Teachers were aiming to cover 2 pages a day with their classes, as well as having a weekly review session.
I found the text books were a bit thin on reinforcement of new material so Bill and I worked with the teachers and students to provide a range of ways to explain new language rules. We discovered that ‘visual’ learning works best, so did a lot of drawing on the whiteboard to illustrate new vocab. The teachers appreciated having English speakers in their classes to correct pronunciation, explain grammar etc, and we really appreciated having the teachers on hand to get points across to the kids in Khmer.
On a Saturday afternoon we organised and ran a workshop for the teachers focussed on lesson planning, and tips for classroom management. We also taught them some new games and songs. The teachers said they had found it really helpful.
We worked at Wat Chork four days a week from 4pm to 7pm for 3 weeks and during that time got to know the staff and some of the many students. Class numbers varied depending whether children could make it and an attendance register was kept. The kids were aged between 9 and 18 years old.
Three weeks wasn’t really long enough to make a huge difference but we decided that every little bit helps. With our start time being later in the day it gave us lots of time to explore Siem Reap and the surrounding countryside and get to know our way around (including finding a very cool coffee shop in town) Wat Chork is easily within biking distance from Siem Reap, however as it was dark when we finished teaching we decided to travel to and from school in a tuktuk.
While working at Wat Chork we stayed at a wonderful guest house in Siem Reap just off Wat Bo Street called ‘Sweet Dreams.’ It is owned and run by Nini and his family and we were delighted at how helpful and friendly they were ‘Sweet Dreams’ is where most of the ‘About Asia’ volunteers stay during their time working in Siem Reap. It was really good to be able to talk to other volunteers about their experiences and share highs and lows over a beer at the end of each day.
Overall being in Cambodia was a very revealing experience and certainly never boring. After our teaching we travelled south to Kampot, staying at two wonderful places and really getting a feel for the quieter pace of life in the south of the country compared to Siem Reap, which is very tourist oriented.
I think that being able to help teachers and students in Cambodia learn English is a valuable thing to do as it empowers them in a small way, as well as building positive cross cultural bridges. Volunteering is a good way to become involved with a country and for that reason I’m very glad that I chose to teach in Cambodia.