It’s difficult to gauge how successful a teacher is. In some countries teachers are judged on their ability to prepare students for standardised tests, but even that does not show the impact a teacher has on their students’ character and personality. Everyone agrees that teachers are an integral part of society, but being a teacher is hard, and being a good teacher is even harder. Perhaps the best test of a teacher is to wait and see what his or her students do after they graduate, and if this is the best way to judge a teacher, Kung Nary is one of the finest in Cambodia.
Kung Nary, 60, has been a music, performance arts and literature teacher at Wat Koh High School in Phnom Penh since 1984, and she has helped educate a long list of well-known figures in arts and entertainment. “I loved the arts when I was young,” said Kung Nary, “but my parents didn’t let me pursue it.” Now she is enabling hundreds of students to gain confidence and pursue a life in the arts for themselves.
Yuk Chenda, her former student, is one of Cambodia’s most popular TV presenters at CTN. The multi-talented TV personality hosts a variety of showswith fans across the country, as well as among Cambodians living overseas. Other former students include Mr Tuy from CTN, Pech Sophorn, Sapun Midada, Om Khamarath and many more singers, songwriters and artists.
“I started learning with her when I was a high school student,” said Buth Kaniya, who is a performance artist at the Royal Palace. “She’s very determined and precise, but she is also tough,” explained the former student.
After all this time, she is still the same devoted and driven teacher that she has always been, using her own talents to inspire the people around her. When Kung Nary was in her 20s, she was asked to be a movie star. But due to her parent’s vehement refusal to grant her permission to pursue this career path, she became a teacher, and has been recognised by the King Mother, King Father and Prime Minister Hun Sen for her excellence in that profession.
Kung Nary is not hesitant to say that she is talented. “People like to listen to me sing. I have a beautiful voice,” she said, before singing a few lines from a traditional song to prove it. “And I can write a poem about anything. Give me 15 minutes and I can finish a song or a poem,” she told Lift.
Although Kung Nary does not have kids of her own, it is obvious that she cares deeply about the thousands of students who have gone through her classes. When we ask her about her most memorable students, she pulls out her phone book, which seems to have thousands of numbers, and begins to list dozens of her favourite students. In class she is still firm, but also very engaged and animated with her lessons.
“When you are performing you need to understand the atmosphere around you and act accordingly,” she advised. “And, of course, you need to have confidence.”
Sao Sopheap, who is a 28-year-old teacher at the Cambodia University of Specialities (CUS), spent nearly a decade riding his old bicycle from his house to his school in Prey Veng province – a daily 40-kilometre ride that he says made it possible for him to be a teacher today.
After he graduated from high school, Sao Sopheap decided to leave his homeland and continue his studies in Phnom Penh, where he received his bachelors degree and passed his teaching exam in 2007 after a year of studying methodology.
“To be a teacher has been my wish since I was young, and now my dream is coming true,” he said.
He added that it was not easy to reach this goal because he was born in a poor family and he had to work hard since he was 13 years old. “I attended class every day but I had to get up at 3am to plow my rice fields, go to villagers’ houses to gather batteries to charge, and sometimes I had to bring desserts to sell to earn money to support my study and family,” he said.
Although he has faced a difficult life, Sao Sopheap has never abandoned his dream of being a teacher, and since arriving in Phnom Penh, he has lived at Wat Morha Muntrey.
“I have never spent my time doing something useless, because I always remember the difficult life when I lived at my parents’ home. I have to spend my time doing research and studying hard in order to find a job,” Sao Sopheap said.
Sao Sopheap, now an accounting lecturer at CUS in Kampong Cham province, said he thinks that the next generation is waiting to receive his knowledge, and that the people from this generation will transfer his knowledge to the next generation.
“Sometimes I wanted to abandon my wish and stop going to school, and help my parents earn money,” he said, adding, however, that he knew he needed to keep going if he was going to raise his family’s standard of living. Sao Sopheap said that young people need to be determined to reach their goals, even if they have to struggle along the way.
Photographs of Kung Nary by Uy Nou Sereimony
Photograph of Sao Sopheap by Sovann Philong