Thursday, November 6, 2008

Slice of Life

Classroom setting

Pagoda Onalum School

Slice of Life

“If you want happiness for a lifetime, help the next generation”
Chinese proverb.

I volunteer teaching English at Pagoda Onalum for Buddhism Education for peace and non-violence foundation. I help the poor and street students learning general English focus on reading, listening, speaking and writing. Those students had nothing, lived in abject poverty, but wanted an education, a future. I use the “Cutting Edge, Pre-Intermediate” textbook by Sarah Cunningham and Peter Moor for instruction. This is one slice of life that defines my personal stance on the current education in Cambodia.

At sundown, the evening school swung in full motion. By 5:30 PM, students were already streaming through the front gate. Some came on foot, others on bicycle. Many carried a small notebook with them to class. They were waiting patiently for my arrival. I was welcomed and greeted politely and respectfully by approximately twenty-five students and three monks. The students joined their hands together under their chin and bowed to my presence. In return, I joined my hands together under my chin to greet them back and paid my respect to the monks. I was so shocked to see the miserable environment of education in my country. The students are suffering from the lack of books and resources. While I was teaching, I observed, listened, studied and learned a lot from the students. I had ample opportunities to examine the actual school and classroom set up. I saw that there were bare walls, empty libraries, no basic school equipment, miniscule supplies, only a white board with no maker and no eraser, and a non-didactic welcoming classroom. There was no dependable electricity. In many instances, I taught in the dark. But anytime, I looked into the students' eye and I saw their thirst and hunger to learn. It was visible that they cherished and valued education. I’ve got so much more out of this class than I expected. Every single day something rewarding happened; it might be just a student smiling at me. I was touched by their presence and their eagerness to learn.

In one instance, I had the opportunity to interact with them by speaking about my own experience of learning and teaching English in the US. I tried to pique their curiosity by bringing up ideas and examples of my practical, academic background and lifestyle. I encouraged them to ask me questions and debate new ideas. I focused on real life conversation, listening comprehension and understanding. When they asked me about America, I turned the question back to them and asked them to compile their own views and expectations before talking and sharing it with the class. I found out they were eager to learn and to know but apprehensive about talking and making mistakes. I reassured them that my class is a safe place for learning, making mistakes, growing and creating memories, but not worrying.

One the most effective teaching methodology I used is: I do, We do, and You do. This hands-on experience helped me better understand how students deal with English language learning. I also advocate a liberating education where knowledge leads to reflection and action. It encourages critical thinking, debate and dialogues on issues, even controversial ones, so that students are encouraged to take stand on issues. Conflicts are resolved not by imposing the majority will upon all people, but by genuine dialogues between groups and individuals. The purpose of such fundamental change in the social order is to achieve justice and peace. I believe “knowledge is power.” The knowledge we impart may result in a new awareness of our social situation with its exploitation and oppression. In this case, knowledge transforms the whole and education is transformation. I believe more and more that education can give hope and faith to all for a better life.

I also had the opportunity to work with local teachers, educators, and scholars. We shared our professionalism and our passion of teaching. Qualified teachers educate our young and provide the foundation for our great democracy using the liberationist educational approach. Earning credential through the student’s heart and mind are very important to solidify skills, knowledge and hands on experiences. Competent teachers teach the business of helping others help themselves. Only through quality education, free of corruption and oppression those students get a sense of being a productive member of the civil society. They can take control and improve their own lives and ultimately find a way to succeed.

In Cambodia, teachers understand the theory of student-centered teaching on paper but deep down they don't believe in it. It is tempting for them to only look at the deficiencies: no materials, little funding, poor salary, etc. and not focus on the resources at hand. The poor salary argument for low work ethic is a valid claim: there are few incentives for teachers to really try and be good teachers except for the goodness of their heart. But at the same time the argument is used to justify their lack of preparation and commitment. So in the end, everybody loses. Many students sit in the classrooms all day since they are obligated to sit through public classes but then must attend private classes to actually learn. That makes public school a non-inviting environment where students either sit in a classroom all day or don't attend at all and become illiterate.

The most basic tool available to a society for reconstruction is the education of its children. I think skilled and capable teachers can help students become independent learners by loosening the strict teacher/student barrier. Good teaching cannot come from force. If you are good, you never force your lessons, or force your directions on others. By actively involving the students on a regular basis I can slowly train them to think and think critically. Ideas should be discussed, and the idea that teachers are masters who should dominate the classroom needs to be abolished. It starts with small steps. Students want to feel that their input is valued and important to the classroom. I acted as the facilitator. I guide and build their self-esteem and confidence through positive feedback and activities that promote student involvement. But, the fact that the classrooms are overcrowded, and materials scarce means that I need to be creative and resourceful. Real teaching for me is integration of morality, literacy and numeric. As my personal reflection and metaphor, Cambodian children are the seeds and I am the soil. No matter how vigorous the seeds are, if the soil does not provide nourishment of the heart and mind, the seeds will not grow to their fullest potential.

Finally, to me the joy of volunteer teaching is not found in a “thank you” or in that feel-good emotion, but rather from the awesome privilege of being able to help diverse and disenfranchised children in their time of need. Quality education is also essential to the future of Cambodia and the key to our national success. More and more, I must be a change agent. I work for the good of others by planting new seeds. I prepare children for liberation and future success. I teach them how to Think. This teaching experience makes me understand, to a greater extent than I have grasped before, the urgent need to educate the youth and to grapple with the endemic problems such as equal opportunity, equitable participation for all groups, leadership, social justice, and development.