Neang Phalla has been working in education, specialising in teaching blind children, for more than 20 years. She began teaching disabled children in a refugee camp on the Thai border in 1986 before becoming Cambodia’s first Braille teacher in 1993, when she helped open the country’s first school for blind children with NGO Krousar Thmey. She developed a system of Khmer Braille and an education program more suited to the blind that now has 69 teachers and 250 children in four Krousar Thmey schools and 29 integrated classes in public schools. Last month Phalla was nominated for the $1 million Global Teacher Prize and today she will fly to Dubai for the ceremony. Vandy Muong caught up with her before she jetted off.
How is teaching blind students different from teaching students who can see?
The most important thing is to provide orientation and mobility courses. We have to educate them with programs to lead them to help themselves.
How hard is it to teach blind students?
I’ve found it’s only difficult to teach the blind when they first start their classes. As they get more education, they are no different from non-disabled students because, even though they cannot see, they can still hear and understand what we explain to them. Some families kept them alone because they loved them but didn’t give them a chance to try new things, so they could not achieve anything. If we allow them to do it, they can know how to do it and help themselves.
What has motivated you to continue in blind education for all these years?
I’ll never forget when one of my blind students said to me: “Oh, I only just realised there are many blind people in my class. Before, when I was at home, I thought I was the only one who was blind.” Many students have said similar things and that has motivated to me to continue my job, and encouraged me to help more and more. When I taught them, they said to me: “I am so happy; although I cannot see, I can remember well from what my teacher taught me”.
What would you do with the money if you won?
I realise that $1 million is a lot, but I’m going to donate it to the Koursar Thmey organisation. I’m not sure that we will win, because there are many countries that have similar problems, but I’m so proud to be one of the 10 finalists, that they have recognised that our disabled school in Cambodia is not bad. I would like to win so that we can create more schools for the blind and disabled in Cambodia. It is a lot of money for me, but for the organisation it is not much because it costs a lot to help children every year. And whether I win or not, it is my pleasure to go and meet with the other nominees.
The winner of the Global Teacher Prize will be announced on Sunday, March 15. To vote for Neang Phalla in the “People’s Choice” award go to http://bit.ly/1GrhFHF. Voting closes on Tuesday.