English classes are a story of two classes. The expensive and supposedly better ones will provide students with all the available modern educational tools and staff while the poorest ones offer a bare bones environment.
Teaching English as a second language has long been a staple of ex-pat livelihood
in Phnom Penh. But with increasing demand by students for good English skills, some
of the schools are raising their standards.
The Cambodian yellow pages online lists 331 language schools, but many other smaller
ones are unlisted. Which schools are the best places to learn? What qualifications
are required to teach?
Interviews with teachers and students at 11 Phnom Penh language schools found that
there is a hierarchy of quality schools that have minimum qualifications for teachers
and the requirements are rising. But there are many other schools that still resist
making experience or other qualifications a requirement. Despite salary complaints,
qualified English teachers do sometimes stay for the long term. Like teachers everywhere,
they cite the good students - the ones who really want to learn as the chief reason.
Australian Marg Froude, who has spent three years teaching English in Phnom Penh,
the latest stop in a 30-year professional teaching career, says despite the difficulties
of teaching in Cambodia the personal satisfaction that she gets from teaching Khmer
students makes it worth the sacrifice.
Despite complaints about the lack of standardization within the Cambodian education
system, Froude reasons, "A satisfactory education system is going to require
patience. Cambodia's only really been at peace for ten years - you can't be too critical
just yet." She teaches at the Australian Centre for Education (ACE).
After coming to Cambodia in 2003 for a holiday, Australian Paul Cameron decided to
stay. Although he had no teaching qualifications he was able to get a job teaching
with a reputable language school on the basis of being a native speaker.
"I was just given the study material and a list of students and told where to
be and when. There was no guidance, no introductions, no orientation and no one observed
my teaching. I must admit I was a bad teacher at first, but no one seemed to notice
and they kept paying me."
After three years, he returned to Australia to upgrade his skills with a Teaching
English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course which will make him more competitive
on the market when he returns to Cambodia. High end schools are raising fees and
paying teachers more, so higher qualifications can pay off.
Long term Phnom Penh resident Ian Woodford says the quality of teaching has improved
since he started teaching English in 1994. He recalls a revolving door for students
and teachers both. "The directors didn't have a clue, the teachers didn't have
a clue - you had to organise everything yourself," he says.
These days the average pay for foreign teachers in Phnom Penh is $10 per hour although
some schools pay up to $20. Hours spent on class prep, writing exams and correcting
papers are unpaid. Full time teachers can teach from 22-30 hours per week, which
generally adds up to just above $1,000 per month for an average teacher. But school
holidays are unpaid, so long Khmer holiday periods can cut mercilessly into the salary.
Interviews with students and teachers from 11 schools found that ACE was regarded
as having the highest standards. New World Institute and Pannasastra University's
English language program were also regarded highly by the students. Many University
English programs, such as Norton and the Royal University of Cambodia, received favorable
comments. At ACE, director Louise FitzGerald says the school, set up in 1992, is
the only internationally accredited English language centre in Cambodia. As a member
of the National English Accreditation Scheme (NEAS) it meets Australian standards
FitzGerald said they keep up standards with regular teacher observation, a teacher
mentor scheme, placement testing for students, appropriate curriculum and zero tolerance
on cheating. "Cambodians do realize when the teaching is good," she said.
"Word of mouth is huge in Cambodia-we always have a [student] waiting list."
ACE has 58 foreign teachers and 10 Khmer teachers teaching 3,800 students in Phnom
Penh and 850 in their Siem Reap branch. Tuition ranges from $110 to $200 for a 45
hour term. Pannasastra's Intensive English Language Program costs $160 per term with
180 contact hours. Many students have sponsors or work for organizations that pay
their fees. There are other less expensive options that also offer volunteer teaching
experience to would be teachers. One is the 15-year-old Foreign Language and Computer
project (FLC) on Street 258. Tuition is $4 to $5 a month for a one-hour daily lesson.
"Our students are mostly from the provinces," said Khoerun Sakheang who
studied at the school himself, then began to teach as a volunteer, and now is project
manager. He says the school offers scholarships to poor students and about a third
of FLC's 300 students study for free.The school employs eight Khmer teachers and
as many as 50 volunteers, who could be backpackers, practice teaching students, or
professionals who want to volunteer. "They can learn from us and we can learn
from them," says Sakheang.
He is putting together a new curriculum. Despite inconsistencies, the flow of students
keeps coming, and if they work hard, they'll learn English, he says.