The clatter of boisterous schoolchildren’s footsteps and the peals of the school bell have stopped chiming for a considerable amount of time.
It is close to dusk, but classrooms are teeming with activity inside Yeang Dankhom High School in Banteay Meanchey province. Many of the teachers who work at the school are eating dinner together in a classroom, like any other night, as they have made the schoolhouse their home in order to cut down on living expenses.
Teacher shortages have plagued education in remote areas since the rebuilding of the country’s public schools began in the late 1970s.
Teacher’s advocates such as Rong Chunn of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association have criticised the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport for failing to engage in measures to increase the flow of teachers to less-developed areas.
“The ministry says they are trying to fix the problem by paying teachers $10 a month to go to rural areas. But these efforts are not enough to really change the mind of teachers who want a decent standard of living,” said Rong Chuun.
However, at rural schools such as Yeang Dankhom high school in Banteay Meanchey, there are measures both formal and informal that have been adopted to keep teachers in the classroom.
Besides allowing them to reside on school premises, the ministry provides teachers with ways of earning extra income in order to tempt them to travel to Cambodia’s most hard-to-reach areas.
Normally the ministry limits teachers to 18 hours a week of teaching; however, at remote secondary schools such as Yeang Dankhom, they are allowed eight extra hours at 5,000 riels an hour. On top of that there is a fixed monthly payment of 40,000 riels.
Along with monthly salaries of $70 to $90 for secondary schools, depending on qualifications and family size, teachers can earn more than $100 a month.
Local education officials in Banteay Meanchey also gave Men Sithol, the principal of Yeang Dankhom high school, a 400-square-metre piece of land to put up a house, though he hasn’t gotten that far yet.
“They gave me land, but I still don’t have enough money to build on it,” said Men Sithol.
For decades, the ministry has been giving extra money to teachers in rural areas; however, the efforts have been largely unsuccessful in getting teachers to stick around.
Teacher training centres are among the few higher education institutions that still award full scholarships to 100 percent of students. In return, the government has the power to send graduates for two-year stints wherever there is a high demand for teachers. After teachers finish their mandatory terms they can apply for transfer elsewhere.
“When I came here in 2004, many teachers were sent with me. Most of them stayed for two or three years and then moved back to Battambang or other cities,” said Pen Sithol, adding that he is still forced to hire unqualified teachers. Some of his staff members went through an accelerated six-week training period out of high school, as opposed to two years as is ministry policy, before they were placed in a classroom.
Perhaps the government is not ignoring the calls of rural teachers for higher standards of living, but they are not convincing teachers to stay put in the provinces.