I had just graduated from university in Australia and I was interested in travelling and working abroad. I had spoken to a friend who had been a volunteer English teacher in Southeast Asia, and he was very upbeat about his extraordinary experiences. In fact, he had plans to return and continue teaching English in Southeast Asia. This, and my interest in the region, laid the seed for my eventual journey to Asia and teaching there.
I decided to go to Cambodia because of all the countries in that area it was, for me, the most enigmatic. I had also read a lot about Khmer history, both ancient and recent, and I was hooked.
Volunteer English Teacher
Do I Need a CELTA to Become A Volunteer English Teacher?
My first task was to get my CELTA to become a volunteer English teacher or a paid English teacher in Cambodia. This would put me in good stead with most schools as I had noticed that teaching jobs being offered usually wanted a CELTA or equivalent. I should note that CELTA isn’t always a prerequisite for a school. In fact, some schools don’t require a degree. There are many requirement options.
After the one-month CELTA course, I started applying for jobs in Phnom Penh and Battambang. Finding available teaching work or to become a volunteer English teacher is straightforward. All you have to do is search Cambodia work, Cambodia teaching work, Cambodia English teaching work, or volunteer English teacher in Google and 100’s of results appear. Before I knew it, I was made an offer. Then I was on a plane heading to Phnom Penh, Cambodia: the enigmatic “Pearl of the Orient”.
Getting To Cambodia (from Australia)
I flew with JetStar to Cambodia, as it was cheap and had the best connections. Another option was AirAsia, but the connections weren’t great. I looked at Thai and Malaysia, but the price put me off.
Arriving in Phnom Penh presented a real culture shock: noises, smells, traffic and the heat; however, the people were friendly and eager to offer assistance. At first, it was all a bit overwhelming, but after a while I became accustomed to local ways (well most of them).
Volunteer English Teacher or Paid?
I worked for a big school in Phnom Penh but during my time off, I would meet other teachers and we chatted about our experiences. Some had paid work while others were volunteer English teachers. They worked at many different schools all over Cambodia. It was surprising to learn how much work and the type of work available, and the different types of people who had decided to teach English. Interestingly, I never met anybody who was disgruntled with what they were doing. Oh sure, there were gripes about travel, the heat or some other minor upset but never about the work or the people.
At my school, I worked about 20 paid hours a week. Sometimes, I would be asked to cover a class for a teacher who was sick or had another commitment. On top of that there was preparation for the classes. Classes were 90 minutes, but some schools have 45-minute up to two-hour classes and sometimes more.
What I had to prepare for a class would depend on the level and skill that I was teaching. Many of my classes were young learners, 10- to 15-year-old students. I had some older students, mostly university students and a smattering of office workers, police officers, soldiers and monks.
At first, I would probably have had to put in 10 to 15 hours of preparation. The longer I was at the school the bigger my stockpile of resources became, and the amount of preparation time became less. Usually, preparing for the young learners took more time because it was necessary to prepare more activities for them.
Teaching Cambodian Students for IELTS
I also had to prepare students for the IELTS exam because many Cambodian students have plans to study abroad. Some of my students were planning to finance studying abroad themselves, while there was a group of students who were planning to apply for scholarships.
There were four skills I had to teach: speaking, listening, reading and writing. Of these, speaking was the most fun. In fact, speaking flowed into teaching all the other skills. Grammar was involved in all the skills, so it wasn’t specifically a separate skill. For example, a speaking lesson would focus on a particular tense. You would teach the grammar and model sentences using the grammar then students would practice through activities.
Teaching students for the IELTS exam was more about providing tips and tricks on how to increase your IELTS score. For listening, I would show students how to listen for all the tricks the speakers would use to throw you off the answer, or with speaking teach students about what the examiner is looking for.
Cambodian students are great to teach. Of course, you get your ones who are, how should I put it, a little different: they come late to class, talk in class, don’t listen or are a bit cheeky. Generally, it isn’t difficult to pull them into line. The bottom line is that none of the students were problem cases. With Cambodians, there is an eagerness to learn and they respect the teacher.
Cambodian students also love games and activities and the livelier the better.
The Cambodian Teachers
The Cambodian teachers that I worked with were fantastic. In fact, I used to observe their classes and was impressed at the way they managed classes and taught the students. It was an important learning experience. They were also very helpful if I had a problem, in fact, any problem with my classes. There were times when I didn’t understand a student’s reaction, or a problem would arise that I didn’t understand; however, the Khmer teachers were very good at explaining what to do.
Living in Phnom Penh
I found living in Phnom Penh to be fine and exciting. I was fortunate that I found a comfortable apartment near the Oreussey market and not far from the school. It was a single bedroom apartment and the rent was only US$200. My bills were only US$25 to US$30 a month (2017). If I used the air-conditioner then my electricity bill could be more than $US100. Other people in the building had internet, which I was allowed to use for US$5 a month. There were plenty of restaurants, supermarkets and mini-marts in the area and a fantastic breakfast place where I often bought the traditional Cambodian pork and rice breakfast, or bai sach chrouk. It comes with pickled vegetables, an egg and soup and all for only 4,000 Riels, US$1. To get about town I bought a bicycle (take a look at cyclebodia). It only cost me US$30 and was a great way to travel.
If you are a volunteer English teacher, you will need to have funds to cover your first 3-6 months. Paid work will turn up to supplement your living costs.
If I had one complaint about living in Phnom Penh, then it would be the roosters. They must start crowing at 4 am. Luckily, I am an early riser, so it wasn’t that big a problem.
I had planned to be in Cambodia for one term and ended up staying in Cambodia for two years.
Anyway, I’m back in my home country now to further my studies, but I will go back to Cambodia in the next year or two. My time there was an extraordinary experience. I will become a volunteer English teacher and then find paid work quite quickly.