Teacher Abroad: Vicky in Cambodia


This week on the teachers abroad series I'm pleased to introduce not only a former BCF teacher in Bhutan, but an educator with a world of experience. Vicky is currently living just over the border in Cambodia where she volunteers teaching at a village school and monastery. Can I just say: goals! I have a bit of an obsession with rural areas so Vicky's work in Cambodia is extra appealing. Vicky does super interesting "photo a day" collections on her blog so you can see more about her life here. Read on to find out more about her experiences. 

KD: Tell us about yourself - who you are, where you are currently living and teaching, and about your teaching experience

VC: I’m Vicky Chartres and I am a passionate teacher with almost forty years of experience in seven different countries. Due to the exceptional and inspiring teachers and the terrible but memorable teachers I was exposed to in the public education system in Australia, I knew I wanted to be a teacher from about the age of 15. I had the good fortune to qualify in the first batch of secondary school trained drama teachers in the exact year that drama was introduced to the curriculum in South Australia. As a young, dedicated and passionate new teacher in a rural location with limited resources and funding, I was immediately able to see how drama had wide appeal and tapped into the hidden talents of those generally disenfranchised in the system. I had the freedom to write the curriculum best suited to my students and delighted in doing so and contributing to the national curriculum writing process as well. Within a short space of time I found myself in one of the most difficult and violent schools in the state, having specifically requested a transfer there. Experiencing a small measure of success and a great deal of satisfaction teaching some of the most disadvantaged urban students in Australia, I though I would never do anything else. I acknowledge that the student cohort was troubled with many socio-economic issues; racism was rampant, teenage pregnancy rife and delinquency the norm. It often felt more like crowd control than teaching but I had found my niche and believed I was making a difference. I thought that I would remain in similar schools for the rest of my career. Little did I know that I would be drawn to China, Japan, Thailand, Tanzania, and Bhutan with jobs and volunteer positions in the public and private sector and in conversation schools, early education, middle schools, high schools, international schools, universities and teachers colleges, and finally here to Cambodia where my partner and I currently reside in pre-retirement still volunteering in a local village school and at a monastery teaching monks a couple of days a week each.

KD: What made you decide to teach abroad?

VC: The illness of both my parents within a very short time and the need to assist my siblings to support and care for them, as well as holding down a fulltime demanding job, led me to make the decision to take a year long break and travel the world, when it was obvious that they would both survive. Eight years into my career in 1986 I headed off to backpack the world, starting in China and soon discovered there were literally masses of students who actually wanted to learn and were motivated and enthusiastic about the English language. In China these students pursued you in the street pleading to be able to practice their English with you, shanghaied you in bus and train stations and aboard, met in public parks and on bridges and streets for “English Corner” and struck up a conversation the moment an opportunity presented itself. I had a Teaching Diploma and a Bachelor of Education with drama as a major and English and Geography as minor subjects and was a registered teacher. Twelve months and 20 countries later, I returned to Australia and started searching for teaching appointments in China. AFS (American Field Service) found me a placement in Taiyuan in Shanxi Province- the coal capital. Then the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred and AFS withdrew their support. My partner and I decided that we had already made contact with the university, in which we would teach so we would brave it alone. It was the best decision of our lives. Taiyuan was a terrible place to visit but a wonderful place to live and working with motivated adult students who had already been teaching several years and were returning to university to complete their degrees, but had never had access to a native English speaker as a teacher, was a privilege and a challenge. I discovered that unlike travelling, living and working in a community for a prolonged period of time, gives you focused and specific insights into the culture and an understanding of the history and context, that passing through cannot.

KD: What’s it like living in your current country?

VC: Living in Cambodia was a conscious decision we made. On a number of different occasions in the past 10 years we have spent several months travelling in South East Asia, searching for somewhere we might make a life for ourselves after we chose not to work fulltime. Cambodia came up with the goods in terms of the friendliness of the people, the hot unending summer weather and beach areas, the affordability of accommodation and goods, the desire to learn and the dire need for English language skills and lets face it, a visa to match our purpose. We love it. It is exactly what we imagined when we took this bold step into the completely unknown six months ago. It certainly helps not working full time! We commit two full days in the Kep Gardens Association NGO, which is a village school with volunteering options. http://kepgardens.com/_ In addition we have started our own project teaching young monks in a monastery near where we live in Kep. This opportunity literally fell into our laps when we put the word out that we wanted to use our considerable experience and knowledge of teaching English as a foreign language and not remain idle whilst not needing a salaried position. The need is great and initiative is all it took to make it happen. Ironically it is unlike any other teaching we have ever done since the monks knew absolutely no English. In fact some had never held a pencil before and none can read or write in Khmer. We also know no Khmer to speak of so we are starting from scratch with no shared language and for me teaching the alphabet, basics phonics and letter writing for the very first time. It seems you can teach an old dog new tricks! It’s hot and since we only ride bicycles not motorcycles, due to our environmental footprint concerns, the biggest challenge is often getting to the school and monastery in the midday heat.

VC: What do you love most about teaching where you are?

KD: The students are what I have always loved about teaching. Despite many opportunities to become an administrator and even some brief periods as one, I always knew classroom teaching was my forte. For me it has always been about making a connection with individual students and valuing their differences and strengths. Building relationships that allow students to value themselves and the learning process and are not result driven, is of the utmost importance. With the little monks who bring us the greatest joy as well as posing the greatest challenges, it is about providing them with literacy skills that they would otherwise have no access to. They have lives that are so very different from most children but seeing them light up, smile, giggle and behave like the little boys they really are brings me tremendous joy. In a nutshell I love the satisfaction of doing what I love doing and continuing to feel I am making a difference in the lives of young students. 

KD: What’s the most challenging aspect of teaching in this country?

VC: Not having an actual salaried position, I do not feel qualified to respond to this question. The thing which surprises me about Cambodian students is that although they have extensive exposure to English in the public system they seem to have very limited skills. I am assuming that the reason is that most English teachers are not native speakers and therefore rarely speak English in the classroom. As in both China and Japan the national teachers prefer to explain in their native language and assess mostly via multiple choice answers, which are easy to grade. Students have little confidence about writing or speaking independently and teachers have no confidence or motivation when it comes to grading papers or assessing speaking skills. As a Chinese teacher in Australia with native speakers in my classes, I can certainly relate to how intimidating teaching speaking and writing in that situation can be. As a high school English teacher I can vouch for the terrible work burden of correcting and grading writing.  In Bhutan with classes in excess of forty students I can remember the hours of work and overwhelming stress of marking 130 plus essays at year XI standard during term time and how the examination system discouraged so many students. However without students committing to writing and teachers diligently correcting, fluency is unobtainable; especially in a digital age where so much of the English foreign students are exposed to and required to produce, is in the written form.

KD: What advice do you have for others wanting to teach and travel abroad?

VC: Just do it. The hardest thing is packing up and leaving. Once you are abroad it has a life of its own. You will gravitate from one position to another. Each experience will lead to better decisions and positions better suited to your personal preference. We left Australia for a one-year contract in China in 1989 and spent a total of five years in China and eight in Japan before returning to Australia to work again. The only condition of returning was the promise to each other that this would not be forever. Seven years later we took off again for less than ideal jobs in Thailand but that was the starting point for another long haul, which took us through Tanzania and eventually to Bhutan for a total for five years in both the government and private school sectors. Not all of those jobs have been wonderful but all have been rewarding and the journey is not over yet. We are still in contact with students we taught in Taiyuan almost thirty years ago and at least one of them has a PhD in applied Linguistics!  As a teacher you start a journey with every student and seeing where it takes them is more than enough reward.

KD: How can I teach where you are?

VC: For most young teachers in Cambodia it seems the international schools are the main employers. There are numerous options in Phnom Penh with positions in kindergartens all the way through to universities. Other larger cities also have international schools but do your research. Make sure you can get a living wage and assistance to find accommodation. Ensure you know the contract length and if any conditions apply. If you are interested in a specific field or want to attend the recruitment fairs these better paying institutions engage in, then perhaps a placement agency like Search Associates will serve you well. There are fees but often not payable until you have found a position. If you are financially independent then make your own choices and apply some initiative. There is a lively expat scene in Cambodia and NGO and volunteering options abound. As a tourist I would strongly advise against becoming involved with organisations wanting volunteers in orphanages but there are good volunteering options that will give you a taste of what it would be like to live and work here before leaping into the great unknown. Be aware that voluntourism is alive and well and if you are going to pay for a hands-on experience read the reviews of those who have come before you.