When Ashley Irving worked for the prestigious Rothschild Bank in Sydney, earning a massive salary and enjoying a lot of status in the community, he still wasn’t happy with all the stress that comes naturally with corporate finance.
On vacation at Ayer’s Rock in Australia he met a group of three English teachers from Argentina. They were so happy and fun, he decided to visit them in Argentina and the trip changed his life. He walked away from corporate finance and made his career in the teaching of English.
He absolutely loves it.
Today Irving works as principal at the Australian Center for Education (ACE), a purely English language school and the largest one in Phnom Penh.
“We belong to IDP education based in Melbourne. The main business lines are placing students with universities in most English speaking countries,” Irving said.
Purely an English language school, ACE offers the IELTS test and variations including academic English, general English, English for young learns and programs for kids.
Irving says the communicative method is used.
“We get them talking. To learn language they use the language; the focus on kids is getting them to use language, reading and speaking.”
At ACE, every term is 10 weeks, 45 hour courses and cost about $200 to $230 per term depending on the level.
“We are affordable but not cheap. People who come in are serious. The families spend money and they want something for their money. If it wasn’t working it would not come back.”
One of Irving’s own early teachers had been profoundly influenced by Professor Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and his work in linguistics and language acquisition.
“He wore a T-shirt that said Chomsky is My Hero.”
ACE’s general English course is available to ages 16 and up, with levels from beginner to upper intermediate.
“We test reading and grammar and use that to establish their level and place them in appropriate course, and have courses running from 6:30 in the morning until 8:30 at night.”
Even though he’s now the principal and therefore the administrator, Irving loves teaching English and remains passionate about it.
“If you are giving out positive energy, they enjoy it and you get it back tenfold, from people in the room. Some days you go home dancing. The best teachers are nice people, they talk to you, and you put them in front of a class and they light up.”
ACE is located on Street 214 in Kampuchea Krom. They also have a school in Siem Reap. Irving invites anyone to take a placement test for the $5 fee, which students get back when they enroll.
Irving has been here in Cambodia for the last eight months and loves his job.
“My only regret is not doing it 10 years earlier,” he said.
Between the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap schools, ACE has about 8,500 students.
The ages are 8 to adult, and most of the students are ages 17 to 21 and more than 95 per cent Khmer students.
“English is the mandated language of ASEAN, so from the top down English is important. The Khmer s are all keen from the start. We’ve been here 20 years and we’re well known. They come to us for English and once they are there, they are fun to be around.”
When you smile at somebody here, Irving says, they smile back.
“The levels of cynicism are much lower, which is great fun. The teenagers are open and they’ll come and talk to you. It is a privilege, so the need the break down barriers doesn’t exist, because they already assume you’re worth talking to.”
Irving studied applied mathematics at Australia’s La Trobe University and worked for many years for National Mutual Insurance as an actuary, dealing with statistics and probabilities.
Following his term as a corporate banker, his whole life changed when he met the teachers from Argentina.
Returning to Australia after time teaching English in Argentina and Brazil, Irving went to work at Sydney’s Holmes College teaching international students from around the world.
He later became director of study at Access Language Center at Sydney and managed the teaching center for the Adult Migrant English School Service (AMES) in New South Wales.
“To learn a language is just sheer hard work. Work, review, go to class, be prepared to fail, be embarrassed, it’s hard, for a teen or adult, and for somebody working full time it is really hard.”
ACE employs 120 teachers both expats and Khmer.
To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at [email protected]