Today was my last official day of school. It was ended my first full year teaching and whilst I am hugely relieved that I get two weeks off, I actually can’t wait to get back in the classroom already. Oh and for those of you who didn’t know, I’m continuing my teaching contract here for another year!
Schools don’t break for long in Cambodia. Childcare solutions are hard to come by for working parents so Sovann Komar stops for just one month. Teachers return after two weeks to prepare their classrooms for the next year. Excitingly, I’ll be getting two new classrooms and I’ve already got lists of creative decorating ideas which I can’t wait to get started on. However, the rooms are currently a pile of bricks although my headteacher assures me they’ll be ready by September. I suppose you could say I was sceptical…
The school year ended much the same way a school would end in England or America. I gave the children back all their work I’d accumulated throughout the year, we watched a film (Toy Story) and had a party. And by party I mean the kids got over-hyped up on sugary snacks and drinks and we played musical chairs and pass the parcel. There was also a ceremony where the top three students of each grade were awarded a certificate, a new school rucksack, and some stationary. I was particularly proud to be asked to present these prizes to my favourite Grade 4 students who were grinning from ear to ear as I handed them over. Below is a picture of the top three students from Grade 3 and Grade 4, the classes I will continue to teach for the next academic year.
The afternoon saw more celebrations. I was in charge of Summer School this year and the theme I chose was World Music. The children had spent the previous three weeks learning about African, Latin American, and Aboriginal music. The final week was dedicated to Cambodia music and the headteacher and I had arranged for a Khmer band to come and perform for the children. It was wonderful to see them engage with the instruments and the music. The performers were great and asked the kids lots of questions, getting them involved and helping them understand the different instruments. There were some discipline problems (namely struggling to get fidgety kids to sit still and listen) but overall it was a great success. I took the opportunity to snap some more candid shots of children too whilst they were listening to the music which are at the bottom of this blog.
Today (Friday) is the teachers’ last day as we had parent-teacher conferences. It was my third time doing this and I’ve established a good rhythm. I meet the parents with a co-teacher, Ravan, who teaches Khmer to my grades. He translates my comments and I hand over a detailed report card that I know the parents can’t read but write all the same. I then write overdue blog posts whilst he rambles in Khmer I’m too lazy to try and understand. This time was slightly different however. I had to inform four children that they would not be moving up to the next grade.
When I was eight, I wanted to be a vet. This career was the definitive plan for my life until my mum pointed out to me I would have to tell people their pets had died. I decided to be a lawyer. Don’t ask what happened to that career path but the point is this: I don’t like being the bearer of bad news. Telling a parent their child flunked a grade is the very definition of bad news.
When I was deciding who to pass and fail, one child proved a particularly heartbreaking case. Uksa had never studied English before when she enrolled in Sovann Komar last September. She was placed with her age group, Grade 3, and struggled immediately with the English class. Even repeating words I said was difficult for her and she hadn’t learnt the alphabet. As I had a syllabus to follow, I was unable to give Uksa the time she needed to help her. Therefore, I began using the first twenty minutes of each morning to go over phonics and letters. This both helped the other children improve their reading and gave Uksa the basics she needed to begin to blend words. For more information on my technique for teaching children to read, see It’s the little things. I agonised about whether to pass Uksa because the improvement she has made this year is remarkable. Her reading is progressing incredibly quickly and she volunteers to answer questions and read in class now. Last September, you had to strain to hear her because she was so shy when speaking, now she is confident and clear, speaking in full sentences. However, I decided she would struggle to understand most of the Grade 4 syllabus and therefore she’ll be repeating Grade 3. I wanted to emphasis to Uksa she should not feel disappointed and that she has made incredible progress and should be proud of herself for this year. Her mother was very sweet, very young and didn’t speak a word of English. She also didn’t bring Uksa with her to the meeting. I managed to get Ravan to explain that despite Uksa’s remarkable progress in her reading, her comprehension levels were not good enough for Grade 4. Ravan himself argued Uksa should move up because she’d made such progress. The problem is that for the first six months of my teaching, she couldn’t understand a word I said nor read a word of the textbook. To move her up now would be counterproductive as she lacks basic language and grammar rules. It was heartbreaking to look into her mother’s eyes and tell her I couldn’t pass her daughter. At least she understood how proud I was of Uksa’s reading improvement. I just hope Uksa keeps up the hard work next year.
I have fourteen children in my Grade 3 class. Four of them failed. Two parents did not show up to the parent-teacher conference today. Both were parents of children who have failed the year. If ever there was proof of the correlation between parental investment (emotional and financial) in their children’s education and their success at school, it is this. Aside from Uksa, the kids I failed were lazy, unmotivated, and reluctant to put the effort in to improve their grades. And why should they when their parents pay no attention to their education.
It saddens me these children lack the support they need at home, but there was nothing more I could do to motivate them to work harder. My ten Grade 3 students who are progressing to Grade 4 worked harder and achieved better results than the four we are leaving behind. I’m incredibly glad my Khmer is not good enough to allow me to call the parents who didn’t show today and tell them their child has failed the year. I’ll leave that job to the headteacher.